Bush Jnr's Afghanistan: Kabul‘s luxury malls vs widows in voluminous blue burqas & ethnic divides Print E-mail

Sunday Magazine June 18, 2006

Rediscovering hope


Following the fall of the Taliban regime, Afghanistan is going through what is perhaps its most crucial transformation yet.

Internal conflicts: Afghanistan remains politically fragmented with local warlords exercising control over pockets of territory [PHOTO: REUTERS]

A LUXURY mall is not the kind of place you expect to find in a war torn city. Yet the Kabul City Centre, with its polished marble interiors and capsule lift, is an apt if unusual symbol of the processes unfolding in Afghanistan today. The shops are full of imported cosmetics, electronics and DVDs of Bollywood blockbusters. Chic young Afghans come here to drink coffee and hang out. Outside, widows in voluminous blue burqas and children hawk spearmint gum for a dollar a pack. After four years of reconstruction, Afghanistan is changing in unexpected ways.

The years following the entry of the U.S. and coalition troops into Afghanistan have been marked by deep contradiction and conflict. The country has since seen the largest international reconstruction effort of our times, with aid and investments pouring in from governments and NGOs of every kind. Ironically, this has been accompanied by a sharp rise in inequality and crime. The security situation has also seen a steady worsening. A resurgent Taliban and al-Qaeda elements have been striking at military and civilian targets at regular intervals across the country, including the capital. Caught in the middle of these contradictory forces, Afghanistan is living through perhaps its most crucial transformation yet.

After four years of "liberation", Afghanistan remains politically fragmented, with local warlords and leaders exercising control over pockets of territory. Despite the existence of a central administration, there is no single authority that actually and effectively extends across the country. So, even as a recently established Parliament goes through the motions in Kabul, the hold of the U.S.-supported Karzai administration becomes progressively weaker towards the Pashtun-dominated south.

This region has seen a regrouping of Taliban forces, particularly in provinces along the long border Afghanistan shares with Pakistan. The stretch of country from Kunar in the east to Khost, Paktika, Zabul, Kandahar and Hilmand is thick with Taliban forces and sympathisers. Further north, Uruzgan is a hotbed for insurgent activities. Of these, Khost and Paktika border the Waziristan province of Pakistan, where the Taliban and al-Qaeda recently declared an "Islamic republic" after taking virtual control in February 2006. Afghan authorities also consider these to be the entry point from training camps across the border.

For outsiders and even for Afghans, this makes travel towards these regions fraught with tension. The road between Kabul and Kandahar traverses some dangerous flashpoints like Shahjui, Pukhanda and Naurak. It was on this route that Indian engineer Suryanarayan was abducted, near Hasan Karez village in Zabul province. Kandahar itself has seen pitched battles between the coalition forces and the Taliban, killing hundreds of civilians in the most recent phase of the battle. This has been the bloodiest summer in Afghanistan since the arrival of the coalition forces in 2001.

It is interesting that for the mass of people in these provinces the ousting of the Taliban government has not made much difference to their way of life. They continue to abide by the social norms that have been part of their culture for centuries. Indeed, certain observers are of the opinion that the entire phase of Taliban rule was nothing more than an attempt to impose this Pashtun culture on the rest of the county. The coming and going of the Taliban has not in any real way changed things for people in these largely orthodox areas.

The creation of a dollar-driven economy has left most ordinary Afghans behind... causing resentment and an unprecedented level of inequality in Afghan society.

Images of change
International intervention has however changed the face of Kabul dramatically. NGOs of every conceivable variety have set up shop in the city. Land cruisers emblazoned with different logos stand bumper to bumper in the Kabul traffic, sandwiched between local buses and the military convoys that zip past.

Four years of international aid has led to an improvement in the facilities available to Afghans in the city and nearby areas. Across the Panjshir valley, for instance, there are new schools being built, and hospitals and roads are coming up. However, an unfortunate side effect of the large cash handouts and NGO driven development has been to create a syndrome of dependence amongst Afghans. It has become a common tactic to cruise between trainings held by various organisations, gleaning the daily spending allowance and meals most of them supply.

A more serious development has been the creation of a dollar-driven economy, which has left most ordinary Afghans behind. The cost of basic necessities has increased several times over the past few years, making Kabul more expensive than most European cities. While Afghans working for foreign NGOs can make up to $300 a month, government employees make do with a salary of $40. This dual economy is causing resentment and an unprecedented level of inequality in Afghan society.

Besides aid, Afghanistan is flush with foreign investments in the most crucial sectors of its economy. According to the Afghanistan Investment Support Agency (AISA), nearly 5,000 national and international investors have been licensed to operate in the country since 2003, investing a total of $1.3 billion. The influx of funds has changed the very face of the city, which is growing in a rapid, haphazard way. Apartment blocks, shopping malls, business centres and wedding halls are being built across the city, often on the ruins of old neighbourhoods, their glass and tile exteriors rising up from behind bullet ridden mud walls.

These images indicate the deepening of a skewed pattern of economic development, which is leaving poor and war-affected Afghans out in the cold. Kabul itself is perhaps best understood as a city of complex distinctions, marked into different zones that rarely intersect. There is the Kabul of ordinary Afghans and the official Kabul of ministries. Then there is the walled and guarded city of the international community, with chic French eateries and all night revelries. Sometime these zones collide, as happened last week when an American military van ran over motorists in the city. The rough and ready methods of the coalition forces, which form a virtual parallel administration, have created deep resentment amongst the local population. This particular incident sparked off spontaneous demonstrations in the city, with angry mobs attacking the five-star Serena Hotel and guesthouses housing foreign aid workers. This indicates the frustration of most Afghans at the transformation of their city and their life by outsiders.

Ethnic divides
Besides these external pressures, the country is torn by internal conflicts that threaten its fragile peace. After years of sectarian violence and civil war, Afghans find it hard to trust anyone other than kinsmen. The concept of a cohesive national identity is still fluid here, with primary loyalties being to tribe rather than to the idea of an Afghan nation. Deep historical divides exist between Hazaras, Tajiks, Uzbeks and Pashtuns, the latter being the largest in terms of numbers. These have been carried forward into contemporary politics and social relations, such as the current resentment amongst the minority groups at the Pashtun dominance over the government. This is perhaps the biggest challenge facing Afghanistan ­ finding a way of coming to terms with its past and creating dialogue and reconciliation across ethnic and tribal divides.

Admittedly, the past, marked by decades of violence, can be persistent. It is visible in the army jeeps dismantled to make bridges and the mine warnings in the middle of crowded neighbourhoods. Yet, for the first time in nearly thirty years, there is also a future. This is the biggest achievement of the past four years ­ the creation of a tentative foundation that Afghans can build plans and dreams on. Despite the contradictions and threat of future conflicts, for the moment, Afghans seem content to soak in the small joys of life, which have so long been denied to them. On Nauroz day, which marks the start of the Afghan new year, hundreds of Kabulis gathered on top of Nadir Shah Hill to celebrate. Women gossiped in the spring sunshine and spread out lavish picnic lunches. Multicoloured kites fought in the brilliant blue sky to cheers from a crowd of turbaned old men and boys alike. On the edge of the cliff, a group danced the attan, their swirling figures silhouetted against the glistening snow on the surrounding mountains. Slowly and tentatively, in the most ordinary ways, Afghanistan seems to be rediscovering hope.

* * *
The Indian presence

Popular: Fascination for Bollywood now extends to Hindi soaps.

INDIANS are arguably the most popular foreigners in Kabul. This is largely due to the prominent role of the Indian government in the reconstruction of Afghanistan's infrastructure. But this is only part of the picture.

Nearly 2000 Indians live and work in Afghanistan today, from labourers to CEOs. They work in private companies from across the world, providing much of the energy that hums through the Afghan economy.

This visible contribution to the rebuilding of their nation, coupled with the long-standing Afghan fascination for Bollywood and now Hindi soaps, has earned Indians tremendous goodwill here. The arrangement is mutually beneficial, with Indians making salaries and profits they would be hard put to match elsewhere. The price they and other foreigners pay is in terms of security.

The Suryanarayan murder has exposed the fissures in this apparently cordial relationship. The visible condemnation and concern of ordinary Afghans notwithstanding, there has been greater caution shown by the expatriate Indian community since the incident.

Fed by the media at home, there is a growing vein of resentment amongst them against the brutal targeting of an Indian despite all the assistance they are giving. This opinion tends to be rooted in stereotypes of Afghans being addicted to war and weapons and ignores the benefits accruing to India from its current presence in the country.

If Afghanistan is the new heart of darkness in the post-9/11 world, Indians see themselves as the civilisers, manfully shouldering their share of the burden along with the U.S. and the coalition forces.

The murder also thrust to the foreground the covert tussle between India and Pakistan for ascendancy in the region. India's contribution to Afghanistan's public resources and proximity to its government is detrimental to Pakistan's ambitions in the region.

The Taliban, considered by some to be influenced by the Pakistani intelligence, allegedly target Indians to frustrate this trajectory. Television channels in Afghanistan carried reports a few days after the incident quoting a Taliban commander, who claimed that the engineer's execution was carried out on the orders of the ISI.

Historically the location for power tussles between imperial giants, these reports would indicate that the country is once again the terrain where regional powers are clashing in a proxy war of sorts.