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The wheel of fortune turns and Afghanistan’s longest-serving prime minister of recent times sits in a modest flat on a council estate near Clapham Junction. Unfortunately, the open-mindedness with which John Major’s government gave refuge to Sultan Ali Keshtmand and his wife Karima (who used to run the country’s kindergarten programme) is not so evident […]

Kabul’s Loss

by Jonathan Steele

The wheel of fortune turns and Afghanistan’s longest-serving prime minister of recent times sits in a modest flat on a council estate near Clapham Junction.

Unfortunately, the open-mindedness with which John Major’s government gave refuge to Sultan Ali Keshtmand and his wife Karima (who used to run the country’s kindergarten programme) is not so evident when it comes to inviting skilled Afghans to go home now that peace is in the air.

The Keshtmands are two among hundreds of thousands of Afghan men and women who served their country or graduated from medical, teacher training and engineering faculties in the 1980s. Spread around Europe and, to a lesser extent, the US, they represent a vast reservoir of talent which ought to be tapped by the new government of Hamid Karzai.

So far progress is scant, though everyone pays lip service to the idea of getting trained Afghans back. In Britain, a Home Office working group will soon hold its first meeting with Afghan refugee organisations. The EU is also on the case. A key issue will be whether Afghans are offered short-term contracts to “try things out”, with a salary upgrade subsidised by foreign aid. Lack of security is the main deterrent. Few will give up their residency rights in Europe or European-level incomes until they are sure Afghanistan is safe.

But there is another obstacle, which makes the Afghan diaspora different. Most professionals, particularly those in the vigorous “middle generation” now in their 30s and 40s, were members of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan, the Soviet-backed communists, or they lived in Kabul and other cities in the PDPA time.

Many complain they are being penalised by the Karzai government, which is dominated by royalists from the pre-communist period and rightwing mojahedin factions who took up arms to resist communist rule. The Kabul government’s prejudice is shared by many western columnists and officials, either consciously or through ignorance.

In spite of the recent attention given to Afghanistan, basic facts about its history remain unknown. Writing from Kabul, Thomas Friedman, the New York Times’s main commentator on international affairs, compared the city to the World Trade Centre site in New York. Half the Afghan capital was in ruins, he wrote, “thanks to 22 years of civil war”. With a little homework, he could have discovered that until 1992, when the communist regime imploded, Kabul was virtually untouched.

Soviet troops seized the capital overnight in December 1979 with scarcely a shot fired and for the next 13 years the mojahedin could do no more than launch occasional long-range rockets. Their attacks were untargeted. They sometimes killed civilians but the city’s housing, hospitals, and other public buildings were barely scratched. Kabul’s destruction took place between 1992 and 1995 after the mojahedin entered the city and fought among themselves.

Mark Malloch Brown, the administrator of the United Nations development programme, will be a key figure in Afghanistan’s reconstruction. Yet, at the donors’ con ference in Tokyo, he revealed similar gaps in knowledge. Afghanistan, he said, had not had a police force “for 20 years”. During the PDPA period, most Afghan cities from Kabul to Mazar-i-Sharif and Kunduz to Jalalabad were not prey to local commanders, warlords or bandits, and people lived securely with normal urban police.

The Afghan war of the 1980s was ruthless, but the Russians fought it in the countryside. Far from being paralysed, Afghan cities enjoyed a huge surge in education and healthcare. Kabul had a one-party system but, with numerous functioning mosques and a thriving market economy, it was more liberal than anywhere in Soviet central Asia. Had they not been allied to Moscow, the PDPA would be praised today as the most competent modernisers in Afghan history.

Hamid Karzai, the current Afghan leader, seems to be an intelligent moderniser himself, a devout Muslim but not an Islamist. He deserves support. The weakness is that he is also an admirer of Zahir Shah, the ex-king whose reign is trumpeted as a golden age when women could dress freely. So they did, but what the king started, the PDPA multiplied. “People think the 1980s didn’t exist,” says Keshtmand. Yet one thousand male and female doctors were graduating annually, equal to the number in the entire 50 years of Zahir Shah and his cousin, Mohammed Daoud, who followed. In their time there were five kindergartens in Kabul and none elsewhere. We built 400.”

He may be too old to return, but others who fled fundamentalist rule say Karzai and his western supporters are not making them feel wanted. The PDPA no longer exists. The two original factions, the Parcham and the Khalq which jockeyed for control over it, have split and shrunk. A younger group condemns the leadership of both wings. Most of the old members, if they seek a political role at all, believe Afghanistan must make a fresh start. The bitterness of the civil war has to be set aside. But the country needs a modern, secular leftwing party which can compete with the monarchists and the former mojahedin.

The Bonn conference which chose Afghanistan’s interim government failed to represent this broad current of thinking adequately. The government has only one minister who is ex-PDPA. The commission which will prepare the loya jirga is similarly narrow. Karzai, western donors and UN mandarins must correct the bias.

They need to promote a climate of national reconciliation, welcome back the “PDPA generation”, and prove there is no blacklist. Otherwise Afghanistan will repeat the sad pattern of Bosnia, Kosovo and other international protectorates. Billions of dollars of “aid” will go to western consultants for interminable feasibility studies or to mafia businessmen looking for a quick buck. The doctors, engineers, and teachers who know the country because it is their own will stay away.

Jonathan Steele writes for the London Guardian.