In Afghanistan, professor feels at home

Community, whether a neighborhood, church or even Wheaton College, serves a vital purpose in the lives of its members. Different communities can be formed not just based on geographic location, but also on people who are parts of similar cultures, interests or desires. This makes it hard to conceptualize a cohesive community in a place where there is daily tension, violence, and strife, such as Afghanistan.

Yet, Anni Baker, a Professor of Modern European history at Wheaton, found a community overseas when working from May 2011 to August 2013 as a civilian contractor. Baker traveled solo to the capital of Afghanistan, Kabul, while working for the U.S. Department of Defense.

Baker’s daily routine consisted of getting up at 8 a.m. for office hours, running various programs throughout the day, teaching three-hour classes in the evenings and ending at 10 p.m. She did this for 12 hours a day, seven days a week. This work did not leave her much free time, though there was not much to do when she had some; going to the gym was the primary form of entertainment during extra hours.

The classes she taught were under a program from the University of Maryland that benefits active-duty soldiers all over the world. The soldiers were provided with tuition assistance, and were generally extremely grateful to be given the opportunity of higher education. Due to frequent deployment, soldiers who took classes were often interrupted in their studies, sometimes to the extent that a two-year Associate’s Degree could end up taking ten years instead.

Baker primarily lived in a Forward Operating Base (FOB) on the outskirts of the city, although at certain times she also lived in a conax (shipping container), a beehive (a plywood shack) and a tent, the latter two shared with seven other people. Food was given in chow halls and female latrines were just down the road from camp. The hardest part to get used to? “The really slow Internet,” Baker said.

There was also a mosque directly outside the camp that would have a call to prayer five times a day, including late at night and at 4 a.m. When attacks came, Baker noted that the worshippers in the mosque could be heard chanting prayers. During the period of Ramadan, during which many Afghans fasted, the days slowed down. Additionally, Baker and her co-workers tried to be sensitive and not eat in front of the Islamic people.

Baker reflects, “It’s very difficult to talk about the experience, because it’s so different here from what people can imagine. Even using words like ‘street’ or ‘house’ or ‘office’. When I use those words and what image is in your mind, it’s not the same thing. Everything is so difficult to describe. I think that’s true of any war experience. Any combat, working over there, any job, it’s so different.”

The Kabul camp, which was inhabited by 3,200 people, was safer than most. However, despite this safety, the camp was still occasionally attacked. Luckily, it was difficult to shoot mortars over the high glass, wire-topped walls surrounding the camp. The camp’s location was also helpful in dissuading attacks.

During times when there were Quran burnings, huge demonstrations forced the camp to lockdown. Another worry was Vehicle Born Improvised Explosive Devices (VBIEDs), or car bombs. Nearby towns like Bagram and Kandahar were much more dangerous, being hit with mortars on a nightly basis.

Amidst obvious political tension, Baker said that the Afghans never seemed unfriendly. Social interactions were scarce, but Afghans were okay with Americans, at least to a certain extent.

“My impression is that the Afghans, generally speaking, seemed to prefer not to have anyone occupying their country with military forces. But as it gets closer to the drawdown, when the forces are going to be leaving, more Afghans are nervous about the security situation when the Americans leave. It’s not a matter of them loving us, or thinking we’re so great, or wanting to be like us. They feel like the only thing keeping them from a civil war or takeover is the American forces,” she said.

Baker remains relatively neutral as to whether or not America should withdraw its troops. Though the presence of Al Qaeda is primarily gone, the Taliban still poses a threat, especially to women. The position of women was very different in comparison to the U.S., as women traveled in escorted groups, not mingling with any other civilians. Those who had worked in high political positions had been killed, and the rest were in great danger.

The U.S. agenda had shifted to the difficult task of training the Afghan civilians and police force to better protect their people against the Taliban, but it is difficult to tell  if they are ready to replace American security.

“People over there are not constantly thinking, [Americans] are over there because of 9/11… I mean, it’s been 12 years. Things are kind of moving on. But there’s still a sense of many people in the Islamic world who don’t like the West, and don’t like the United States,” Baker said.

Despite attacks and politics, Baker never felt that Kabul was anything but a home for her; her daily interactions with the environment there never ceased to amaze her. The soldiers, despite their comings and goings, were good-hearted acquaintances who helped her pass the time. She worked with five others in her office, with whom she remains close, and got to know other people in her coalition force from France, Bulgaria, Canada, and many more countries.

Everyone there had ties to the military. Prior service, work or family who were in the military were common. Within that group, there was a subculture of educators. Baker spent years working for the Army and Air Force before coming to Wheaton. She was always part of the military community.

“Wheaton is more of a different world for me. Obviously Afghanistan is a deployment environment, but still, being around the military… I like the military community. I like the army, working with soldiers, being part of that community. It was nice to have those ties to that aspect of my life back.”