History has fostered a notion that all foreign occupations of Afghanistan are ultimately doomed.
There was the catastrophic retreat of a British expeditionary force in 1842. Nearly 150 years later came the Soviet troop withdrawal of 1989. Now, with the Taliban pressing in on Kabul and dominating the countryside, there are fears that this occupation, too, will eventually fail.
But whatever the outcome, Afghans of all ethnic and political stripes, even the Taliban, seem likely to count Alberto Cairo as one foreigner who left the country better than he found it.
Cairo, once a debonair lawyer in his native Turin, Italy, is almost certainly the most celebrated Western relief official in Afghanistan, at least among Afghans. To the generation that has benefited from his relief work for the International Committee of the Red Cross, he is known simply as “Mr Alberto,” a man apart among the 15,000 foreigners who live and work in this city.
That total includes civilians working for embassies or foreign relief agencies, like Cairo, and troops from 41 nations fighting to hold the line against al-Qaeda and the Taliban. In Afghanistan’s turbulent history, there have rarely been as many foreigners living in Kabul, the Afghan capital, nor as much riding on what they achieve.
Cairo, 56, arrived long before the vast majority of them, in 1990, after the Soviet occupation. He had transferred from a Red Cross posting in Africa to run the orthopedic rehabilitation program of the organization — a job dedicated to helping Afghans disabled by war injuries to live normally again, by equipping them with artificial legs and arms.
What the Red Cross centers have accomplished is visible on the streets of almost every Afghan town and village. Since the Red Cross started the program in 1988, the centers have provided prostheses to nearly 90,000 Afghans, between a third and a quarter of all those thought to have suffered disabling injuries from 30 years of warfare, beginning with the Soviet invasion. Many Red Cross patients were victims of the 10 million mines strewn across the landscape during the Soviet period.
Cairo, slim, affable and an energetic enthusiast of tennis, rarely shows the edginess that wears away at the most courtly of foreigners under stress in foreign lands. But a rare impatience shows when the people who know what he has accomplished suggest that he has become a legend here. Rather, Cairo says, it is he, more than his patients, who has been the greatest beneficiary of his years in Kabul.
His passion took root the moment he arrived. Not long before, he had abandoned law and retrained as a physiotherapist, seeing it as a path to a more fulfilling life. Now, he says, he cannot imagine another life.
“When I’m away from Afghanistan, I can’t think of anything but what I have here,” he said during a pasta dinner he cooked at his Kabul home.
Continuing in English, which he speaks fluently and mixes, when among Afghans, with a strong working command of Dari and Pashto, Afghanistan’s two principal languages, he added: “Whenever I go to Europe, I worry that for some reason I won’t be able to come back. What I’m doing here is so rewarding. For me, it’s perfect.”
The Kabul rehabilitation center is a spacious complex built on an old hospital graveyard in northwestern Kabul. It was assigned to the Red Cross by former president Mohammad Najibullah, the Afghan leader during the last years of the Soviet occupation who was lynched by the Taliban in 1996. The center has remained there ever since, despite a break during a period of ethnic warfare in the early 1990s. Unusually, for a highly visible operation involving foreigners, it has never been attacked.