three Afghani women in brightly coloured dresses
Afghan staff celebrating the country’s diversity on National Day. Photo ©

Rohullah Sadat, adapted from the original

February 2020

As Afghanistan struggles to emerge from conflict, Eric Lawrie, our outgoing Country Director, describes a dangerous but fascinating nation to work in, and signs that may point to a brighter future.

In 2011 our Afghanistan office was stormed by the Taliban and tragically several people were killed. What has it been like working in the country over the last four years, and what is the current situation?

There’s no getting away from the fact that it’s a very challenging environment to work in. It can be hard to advance friendship and understanding when to a certain extent we’re limited to a compound, and UK staff can only travel to and from the airport via helicopter. Sometimes we’ve had to listen to bullets and bombs going off outside and take cover in an underground bunker for as long as four to six hours. 

In my time as Country Director we’ve experienced the largest ever truck bomb in Kabul going off. It blew the 50 kg axle of the vehicle 300 metres into the garden behind our office and took out every window and door in the building.

All staff were blown onto the floor (with remarkably not a single injury, though we were well shaken).

More than 150 people were killed by the blast and all our UK staff had to be evacuated from the Embassy compound, because of the destruction to buildings and infrastructure. So there have been real horror stories. But there are also moments where we see real glimmers of hope.  

Can you give us some examples?

In recent years we’ve been involved in very interesting joint initiatives such as opening the National Archive to the public, helping the Afghan Film Institute to digitise its film archive, and sharing British expertise to help Afghans repair artworks damaged by the Taliban at the National Gallery and the National Museum.

We have also helped Afghan Universities to reform their curriculum, quality assurance, and assessment standards and bring them into line with international norms.

Activities like these have really helped the UK to be seen as a friend. The organisations involved are often the only friendly faces the UK has in Afghanistan, where so much of our engagement is about hard power, repatriation of migrants, counter-insurgency, military training, and so on.

We think it’s really important to show that the UK isn’t just here for security reasons, but also to help the country develop. We believe this makes a real difference to how Afghans view us, and we have seen plenty of hopeful signs. 

But all it takes is one or two things happening in the external environment to knock those hopes down again. Last September’s Presidential elections had a record low turnout, and have not yet resulted in an agreed government, amidst mutual accusations of unfairness.

There is a peace process in Qatar, but it often seems to be stalled. The key question is whether the US will pull out their remaining 14,000 troops (the UK has 1,000). If they do, there’s no umbrella for us or any of the NGO’s to be able to operate safely.  

If there’s an American pull-out, will that limit what international organisations can achieve?

Yes, I think that risk is very real. A lot of international organisations are scenario planning for an American draw-down, and its implications on their ability to continue here. It will be very difficult for civilian organisations (including us and DfID) to operate if security can’t be guaranteed. The effect would be significant.  

At present we try to find ways of getting around the issue of significant travel restrictions. One solution is a cascade model where we ‘train trainers’, who can then travel across the country and in turn train others. We have also had some notable success through our digital channels.  

Tell us more about your digital activities.

In 2016 we only had 10,000 Facebook followers. Now we’re over 1.5 million. That’s out of 3.4 million Facebook users across the country (according to the Afghan Government). We wanted to get outside Kabul and across the country.

So we decided to create live, non-static content that was genuinely interactive, collaborative and mutually curated – i.e. that had both British and Afghan voices interacting together. We therefore made an online programme called ‘English Doctors.’  

This isn’t a product we’re peddling. Instead we’re acting – as if we were really doctors – to help people who come to us with questions about speaking English, for free. The ensuing conversations are in English, Pashtu and Dari.

The appeal of this digital English activity has been massive and truly off the scale. It’s suddenly got to the point where everyone in the street knows about us.

It’s made us a household name and become a spotlight for the UK. 

This then sets the context for everything else we do. We’ve had conversations with ministers who have said that they use it themselves. It can really open doors.  

This is nothing new. Incumbent President Ghani himself told us that learning English with the us in 1964 was fundamental to his future career. We can’t open a physical teaching centre because of the security issues. But through digital initiatives like English Doctors we can now reach huge numbers of people - and hopefully encourage them all to have a more positive view of the UK.  

Do you think this approach could actually prove successful in other, less challenging, contexts where we might want to reach out to much larger numbers of people?

Yes. Indeed we’re looking at rolling this out across South Asia. It doesn’t cost much. We put in £5,000. The impact we had through digital English from that small initial investment was massive.

Recently we commissioned research on the condition of English in multi-lingual Afghanistan by Hywel Coleman. This went down well because it set out the full context of languages in Afghanistan and how English fits into that linguistic ecosystem, rather than simply proselytising about the need for everyone to speak English. 

English will be important to Afghanistan engaging with the world. People want to become better engineers, doctors, politicians, etc, and English can help. But taking a sympathetic and nuanced approach to how it fits in with the rich fabric of Afghanistan’s languages has helped to build trust.  

Afghans are savvy people. Of course, if donors want to give them millions of pounds they’re happy to receive it. But they’re also responsive to organisations whose approach is more about dialogue and mutual trust and respect. Research like this really helps.  

A well-known inscription in the National Museum says that ‘a nation stays alive when its culture stays alive’. How is Afghanistan’s culture surviving? Is there hope?

I think there is hope. How fast it will move depends on the external context. It wasn’t long ago that people weren’t allowed to listen to music on the radio, which was only for religious programming. Now people can listen to what they want, and there’s even an Afghan X-factor on TV. 

All the institutions which showcase Afghan culture were decimated during the war. I don’t think the Taliban looted them just for religious reasons – they flogged what they stole on the black market to make money.  

One example is artefacts like the Begram ivories: finely carved artworks worth millions, which were stolen and later turned up in the UK. They were recovered. The British Museum hosted a famous exhibition of many of these treasures in 2014, and we have since been involved in repatriating them and a range of historical artefacts to Afghan control.

Stories like this are really positive for Afghanistan and also show the positive ways in which our countries can work together. These are the sorts of things that make me hopeful. As my time here comes to an end I remain cautiously optimistic about the future.

The above is an edited write-up of a conversation between Senior Insight Editor Alasdair Donaldson and Eric Lawrie, British Council Country Director Afghanistan.  Eric is shortly moving to be Country Director, Kazakhstan.

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