December Issue 2008
Living in Denial
Like the feel-good statements of obseqious leaders, first impressions in Afghanistan can be deceptive, especially if you happen to be in the bazaars of Kabul or Kandahar. Life seems to be moving apace. Buying and selling is near feverish. The hustle and bustle resembles the pedestrian zones of European cities, albeit without the order and variety of faces so notable in that great rush of humanity. Even security arrangements are not frighteningly overbearing. The Afghan National Police, helped occasionally by the Afghan National Army, shows its presence every now and then, but they don’t get in people’s hair. All in all, the markets of Afghanistan’s troubled provinces carry the hum of normality. In reality, however, nothing can be further from the truth. Danger lurks behind every tree. Idle bystanders can turn out to be deadly kidnappers and innocent-looking car-drivers can explode at high security zones. Guns for hire are cheaper than the cost of two meals.
Those who fall for the patina of normality that death is wrapped in, pay dearly for the mistake. Three weeks ago, the day I arrived in Kabul for a 10-day assignment, that also took me to Kandahar, a Canadian journalist drifted a few kilometers out of the main city. Kidnappers plucked her out of her jeep after beating her driver and a local guide. She was recovered after 40 days of negotiations and a considerable amount of money in ransom. But she was lucky. She stayed alive. Dozens of local politicians and tribal elders have been knocked off. Diplomats and NGO workers all live in a constant fear of being kidnapped. Foreigners dine in the fully secured premises of their embassy compounds or in hotels which from the outside do not carry even the faintest hint of being a place where people meet to spend a few tension-free hours.
Part of the problem is that Afghanistan, despite all the international help and claims of making progress, is not coming together as a functioning country. It has no money or economy. Without the foreign assistance, they would not be able to pay the salaries of the police. But the larger problem is that those running the affairs of the country, members of Hamid Karzai’s government and their international backers, are in a state of denial: they refuse to believe that the country they are trying to help get back on its feet is imploding. The insurgency in the south of Afghanistan is slowly spreading into towns, feeding on the resentment against collateral damage (the military’s euphemism for killing innocent civilians) and a continual movement on the land by foreign troops. As the International Security Assistance Force (IASF), under the command of NATO, gets its mandate extended to the end of the next year and as the US-led Operation Enduring Freedom sees the push of more soldiers, frustration and fear of extended occupation is becoming more and more palpable in the resistant-hit areas. It is not lost on the exceedingly worldly-wise Pashtoons that the bases that are being built in Bagram, Kandahar, Shindand and Jalalabad are not exactly temporary arrangements that are to be dismantled in the next couple of years. The word on the streets of Afghanistan is that these bases are built to last a hundred years.
This neutralises the efforts of well-meaning international donors, who are pouring money into the Afghan development pit to win the hearts and minds of the local population. Development work is painfully slow and the projects that are being undertaken need the protective shield of the army to inch their way towards completion. In Kandahar, a province under the command of the Canadians for development and security purposes, there are any number of sites that can be visited to get a feel of the reality of the much mentioned change in Afghanistan. While training of the police, the showcase project of the international community and one on which a lot of hopes have been pinned for ensuring security for the ordinary citizens, is being done by veteran officers, the results are not exactly outstanding. The police force that is supposed to take on the Taliban and become the first line of defence, as the international community lowers the profile of its presence in the towns and villages, is hopelessly under-resourced. The glamour of new uniforms and the sheen of new two-door cars mounted with gun-displaying sepoys, while impressive, does not add up to an organised force. Most of its members at the mid-and lower-level have been drawn from here, there and everywhere. They have not joined the force to pursue a career seriously, but to make money. For some, even that is not exactly the entire motive. They are in this job for lack of options. Six thousand Afghanis is not a great incentive to lay themselves open to suicide attacks or beheadings at the hands of unsparing Taliban, who are forever on the hunt for soft and vulnerable targets. With high dropout and desertion rates, the police force has a very long way to traverse before it begins to stand on its own two feet.
Other areas, too, are not shiny examples of success. Take education or the eradication of poppy fields, for instance — the numbers showing progress do not fool anyone about the ground-reality. Afghanistan is not on its way to becoming a drug-free or universally educated nation. In fact, it is not even becoming a partially drug-free or educated nation. The list of failures and of expensive development projects, without actual development, is embarrassingly long. There is no escaping these statistics, which surprisingly do not form part of an open and honest debate on the state of affairs in Afghanistan. The result of this neglect of facts is that punches are landed on the soft underbelly of Pakistan for being the cause of all of Afghanistan’s troubles. It is an easy scapegoat — everyone likes to pretend that if it were not for Pakistan, Afghanistan would have been moving much faster up the ladder of a hopeful future. But as a local journalist put it, we have hope in Afghanistan but we want to keep our families in Pakistan. This is practical wisdom and truthfulness — two qualities completely missing from the present global debate on Afghanistan
The writer is former executive editor of The News and a senior journalist with Geo TV hosting a prime time current affairs program.