Memories of ACBAR
I congratulate ACBAR on reaching its 30th birthday, now actually based in Kabul and still being extremely relevant. I believe that it does play an important role for Afghanistan – a country and people that have suffered so much. A significant achievement and I am very pleased to have been part of its history. I landed in Islamabad in September 1992. My base was Peshawar in Pakistan; a city then home to millions of Afghan refugees. Whilst my predecessor Jon Bennett had briefed me in the United Kingdom, this was a new experience in a part of the world that I knew less about and a conflict that I only really knew about from the press.
My Steering Committee Chairman was Dr. Azam Gul, a well-respected agriculturalist with the Swedish Committee. It was a well-balanced and supportive Committee. It proved a little unnerving to attend my first Steering Committee meeting and also my first General Assembly at the PC Hotel! Azam Gul, Shakir (Programmes) and Aneela (Finance) guided me through my early days; as did the other ACBAR staff and Nancy Dupree and Fahim (ARIC). I had to learn fast, especially as I became more aware of ACBAR's role and particularly how it impacted the aid community and Afghanistan. I remember being given an official welcome at the PC Hotel by Rustam Shah, Commissioner for Afghan Refugees – I liked working with him.
ACBAR's reputation seemed very good and accepted by, inter alia, the Pakistani authorities, the national and international NGOs, the Afghan community, the donors and the UN agencies. And when I made various visits into Afghanistan we were always given great respect. Everywhere there was always a green tea and very generous hospitality.
As I saw it ACBAR membership had to have a value - and that would be by ensuring agencies had a forum that encouraged - strong participation in regional and sectoral coordination; the development of standard modus operandi; and dissemination of up to date information. It was also extremely important to develop and maintain advocacy with the various authorities and to seek to ensure strong accountability and transparency within the aid community. Funding ACBAR's activities was an issue every year but generally the main sources of funding proved secure and generous. The membership seemed quite well-balanced with a reasonable number of both international and Afghan agencies. An important issue was that of ACBAR representing, in general terms, the NGO community in various forums as a whole.
During my time ACBAR expanded its activities and staff numbers. ACBAR took over the SCA Agricultural Survey Unit (1994), later the IRC Printing Press and HERC (screen printing). As to the Survey Unit I remember an interesting discussion with the Taliban in Kandahar about their providing the team (or not) with AK 47s for their security in Helmand Province for a survey. The Printing Press produced large quantities of text books for the SCA education programme. Screen printing was largely for developing training materials for various programmes. And on top of that there were offices in Afghanistan: Kabul (1996), Herat, and Jalalabad. Working with the various units was always different but interesting.
Throughout my time I found that meeting the various directors and senior agency staff and discussing the key issues proved very interesting even if views often conflicted and were confusing. I also often met the other Coordinating bodies – ANCB, ICC in Peshawar and SWABAC in Quetta. We clearly needed to develop a good relationship and work towards more effective coordination.
My early visit to Afghanistan was for a meeting in Jalalabad and to meet the Governor. I was somewhat overawed by the welcome from everyone and the lunch, and learnt quickly the importance of food and particularly that meat was a basic necessity!! As a vegetarian there would always be Nan and vegetables. Later in 1993 I went by road to Kabul with Shakir – and met Ministry officials, the ICRC, NGOs and others to see the situation first hand. We even planned an ACBAR office in Kabul. However, 1994 proved a bad year with a massive increase in hostilities between the various factions particularly in Kabul. There was a large increase in numbers of displaced in Nangarhar and refugees to Pakistan.
The killing of UN staff at Hisar Shahi (1993) – between Jalalabad and the Pakistani border – had a massive impact on the aid community. A General Assembly meeting to discuss 'what to do' made it clear there was no easy answer. There was a significant difference of opinions between agencies and it was apparent that any decisions made in this environment in the future would need to be very carefully thought through, a useful lesson.
The sad untimely death of Shakir (PM), drowned in the Indus at Attock shook us all badly – he was a friend and when in ACBAR had been someone who always gave serious and sensible advice. He had joined the UN by that time but we always thought that he might re-join ACBAR. In Kabul he had taken me on very early morning walks through the fruit and meat bazaars as well as going to the underground bazaar at Landi Kotal on one of our crossings of the tribal territory.
The arrival on the scene of the Taliban in late 1994 – when an 'unknown' group seized Kandahar city – caused serious concern. Then in September 1996 first the fall of Jalalabad followed by the taking of Kabul a few weeks later changed everything in Afghanistan and, also has impacted on the future of the whole world! Initially the various edicts issued caused much concern and there were numerous meetings to discuss how the aid community and donors would work with the Taliban and so on. Over the next three years these discussions became more and more important as the Taliban varied their rules and regulations for the people and the aid community – particularly in relation to Afghan girls and women with regard to education and health. Days were spent on 'Principled Common Programming'. Many international meetings also took place – in New York, Ashkabad, Stockholm and Tokyo. There was further disruption when the Taliban decided in July 1998 that the NGOs should all be rehoused into the Kabul Polytechnic University building. One sunny morning the Taliban arrived and asked me to leave the compound. They then closed and sealed ACBAR Kabul and also tried to close WFP at the same time considering it as an international NGO.
It was a quite extraordinary position to hold; it proved quite tough but I now look back and feel very privileged to have had such an opportunity and the opportunity to meet many of the Afghans, Pakistanis and others that I met with over the years; and the chance to see so much of both countries. Overall there were good times – and not so good times – such as when a bomb was dropped close to the Shahre Naw office – taking out most of the windows. I was a member of the team that first met Mullah Ghayas, the Taliban Foreign Minister on the Kabul takeover and I had a fascinating unplanned meeting with Hekmatyar in Laghman. I made two visits to Iran to meet with Government officials there; I drove by myself from Peshawar to Kabul, and back, arriving at night when there was no electricity. Life was easier in that I was able also to regularly use the UN and ICRC flights and had first-hand view of the damage sadly caused by a major earthquake in Badakhshan.
Peshawar provided a good environment for us as a family to live in, and the American Club proved a good place to relax and to catch up with the latest news or to have informal meetings and for lunch during Ramazan!
It was really nice that when in Peshawar in 2010 with the Danish Refugee Council for six months there were many who remembered me and I had much help from Eng. Jawed (HAFO). I have also met others from this time in other countries. One can only hope that there is a better future for the country and its people.
Charles Mac Fadden
Executive Director ACBAR
September 1992 – November 1999