By Richard Feakes, Australia’s Ambassador to Afghanistan
My day starts in the same way as any other Australian office worker — I reach for my suit, tie and shoes. Only in Afghanistan, I have to add another layer — heavy body armour.
All officers working in Australia’s Embassy in Afghanistan need to think about security all the time. In an environment like this, it is critical. Every day, our staff live and work with possible threats, such as direct and indirect fire attacks, improvised explosive device attacks and kidnapping.
My car to work is an up-armoured vehicle. It takes me several hundred metres from the gated and guarded place that is my home to the Embassy, where I work.
Despite this security reality, I enjoy the drives in Afghanistan. It is a time to take a moment: to look out the window, beyond the concrete walls of the Semi Secure Zone, to watch locals going about their lives – selling nuts or pomegranates, drinking tea, slicing up mutton on hooks, and going to school.
I try to get out for meetings each day. That is quite an enterprise in Kabul given the security required to travel anywhere in Afghanistan. In my company are large, bearded security and close personal protection men who have swept the area for explosives.
I meet with local officials, who like all Afghans, are exceptionally gracious hosts. There is tea (always), cakes, biscuits, kebabs (sometimes) and inevitably indirect conversation prefaced by flowery introductions. It’s quite a dynamic political environment, overlaid by traditional family, tribal and ethnic connections. The best way to understand the complexity of Afghanistan is to speak to as many people as possible.
Afghan society is slowly recovering from decades of conflict. Under the Taliban, the position of women in Afghanistan was among the worst in the world. Changing this situation is a long-term task, in which improving girls’ education, increasing economic opportunities and women’s representation are key.
There has been good progress over the last twelve years: over two million girls now attend school, compared to almost zero under the Taliban, 15% of university lecturers are female, and there are proportionally more women in parliament in Afghanistan (27% of seats). This is largely due to international assistance working in partnership with the Afghan Government. It makes me proud, to see Australia playing a part in helping Afghanistan through this critical transition.
Occasionally, I’ll climb into a Blackhawk for a quick and exhilarating ride to meet with Australia’s impressive military personnel at one or other location around Kabul. Maintaining a strong connection with Australia’s Defence Force is an important part of the job, and I get a fantastic view of the city and the stunning mountains surrounding it.
When I can, I face-time with my eight-year-old son, Alexander, and wife, Kate, in the middle of the day (lunchtime here, dinner there). It keeps us connected for the eight weeks I’m away. Going to a hardship post like Kabul meant they could not come here with me. It’s not easy for them, I know. Especially for Kate, who has a very busy job in DFAT and does an extraordinary job juggling everything on the home front, so I can be here, making a difference.
My evening might be spent at an earnest working-dinner with EU counterparts, a reception at the Embassy for the media or something at the Palace. It’s a large diplomatic community and, while my preference is always to see Afghans, staying networked is important.
Despite its challenges, and the absence from my family, Afghanistan is a fantastic place to work. It’s a place where you never know what the day will hold.
Richard Feakes is Australia’s current Ambassador to Afghanistan and a senior career officer of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. He was most recently Assistant Secretary in DFAT’s Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia Branch. He has previously served overseas as Deputy Head of Mission in Baghdad, with an earlier posting to Port Moresby. In Canberra, Mr Feakes also worked in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet’s International Division. Mr Feakes holds a Bachelor of Arts (Hons) from the University of New South Wales, a Bachelor of Laws from the University of Sydney and a Masters of Arts (Foreign Affairs) from Monash University.