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Why Afghan Intellectuals Live in National Despair


Afghanistan’s  president, Mr Hamid Karzai has many faces, like the colors of his billowing chapan.  One shines in his antipathy towards Afghan intelligentsia and another in his indissoluble bond with the Afghan warlords.  His election campaign exposes this rancor more explicitly nowadays when he is using his usual tactics— intimidation, bribery and back door dealings—to secure himself a second term in the upcoming election and help warlords and his siblings hold on to ill-gotten wealth and power.  The security situation in the south, east and west of the country is worsening on a daily basis where a surging war is going on between the US-led Western forces and the Taliban insurgents. These are the Pashtun dominated areas, where Karzai is becoming increasingly unpopular.

In these areas, most Afghan intellectuals are living at the interface between a corrupt regime and anachronistic religious extremism. Many independent intellectuals and Western educated specialists and scholars find it very difficult serving their war-torn country, because of increasing insecurity and the fear of being kidnapped for ransom.  For some who, like me, dare to go to their ancestral country to serve it, an atmosphere of constant psychological pressure from invisible criminals force them to leave the country within weeks or months.   During my six months stay in Kabul last year, I noted disillusionment, feelings of frustration and anxiety taking hold of the Afghan intelligentsia. I found many intellectuals disgruntled and worn down.

Most Afghan expatriates live without the protection of the rule of law.  Most well-educated Afghanis still flee the country, yearning resettlement in the West. Most of the kidnappings go unreported and criminal gangs terrorize intellectuals and businessmen with impunity.  The plague afflicts much of Afghanistan, especially Kabul and other major cities.  The criminal gangs, like drug lords, are linked to the high-ranking officials of Karzai’s government. Overall erosion of security, a floundering economy, high levels of unemployment and corruption-riddled officials in the government are offered as the main reasons for the wave of kidnapping for ransom.  For some ex-pats, however, Kabul has been a California gold rush during the past eight years. The enfants terribles have been mostly linked to Karzai’s upper echelon or powerful warlords. They have the jobs of their dreams, enjoying extra security and receiving special protection.  The Afghan community of expatriates can be divided into two categories.  The first is a large number of Afghan experts in different fields of science, communication and humanities who are working as executives of the NGOs, high-ranking government officials and advisers to the cabinet members and the President and Vice presidents. Most of them are aging retirees with academic qualifications as old as twenty to forty years. Karzai has turned their lives around.

The second category has more genuine experts who held positions on the basis of their merit but their numbers are shrinking due to increasing insecurity.  A large number of Afghan intellectuals are working in the booming media industry, which is regrettably more divisive than uniting.  There are more than a dozen TV stations with 24-hour broadcasting, hundreds of radio stations, hundreds of newspapers and journals across the country.  But the media are owned and controlled by political and religious parties, warlords, and the new political elite who are roundly committed to their sectarian agendas.  Most of the TV programs have very dull and banal productions.  This leaves foreign productions to fill the gap.  Indian soap operas and movies are the staple of Afghan TV networks.  Most of them have hypnotizing themes of false hope versus utter despair with forceful melodramatic endings.  Hollywood productions with veiled romances also have a large share of the TV shows.

Iran’s close ties with Karzai have made way for Iranian penetration, as well as Shiite politics in Afghanistan, which manipulates Dari speaking and Shia-Afghan ethnic minorities.  To this end, Iran sends millions of dollars to fund sectarian programs in the Afghanistan which is directed against the Pashtun majority of the country and the West. Karzai has just endorsed barbaric marriage legislation that allow a Shia husband to deny food to his wife if she refuses his sexual demands.  The new laws also save a rapist from persecution, by paying so called “blood money”.  Such a law is passed at a time that Westerners and Afghans are being killed on the daily basis in the country.  In addition, Iran is also pushing to install Mr Abdullah Abdullah as an alternative to Karzai.  Abdullah, a GP, was Karzai’s ex-foreign minister.  He has an open anti-Pashtun sectarian agenda.  He is representing the Northern Alliance militia.

Karzai’s government remains impotent to stem the country’s hyper-corruption. Many of his cabinet members and odious warlords have built up staggering personal fortunes, including luxury homes in Kabul and multimillion businesses.  Karzai’s brothers turned the government into their own playground.  Millions in state revenue, foreign aid and drug money goes directly into their coffers. Their obsession is very much like leading characters in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, with the exception that the Karamazovs had tried to destroy each other, but Karzais are in close collaboration.  On  August 9,  2009, The New York Times Magazine  published a fifteen-page story on the Karzais and their hands in corruption, extortion and drug dealing.  During the past eight years, Western money in the billions that Afghanistan had never seen has gone down the drain.  As recently reported by The Time, Karzai pays a notorious warlord, Rashid Dostum, accused of gross human right crimes, $80,000, a month, while the average salary for a state employee is $50 to $100. He was recently reinstated as the Afghan army chief of staff.

In the World Bank’s 2008 ‘Doing Business’ report, the efficiency of the Afghanistan justice system was the lowest in the world, below Iraq and Pakistan.  Despite spending billions of dollars the Afghan national army and police force are far from beating the growing insurgency.  During my stay in Kabul I noticed a growing unwillingness among the Afghan national army and police to fight.  Many told me openly that they will be looking at deserting the minute they find themselves outside Kabul.   As Karzai’s government grows more and more corrupt, the insurgency fills the void, operating in more places than ever.  In recent months, the insurgency began to expand well beyond its traditional stronghold in the south and east towards a growing penetration of the north of the country, where its presence was until last year, minimal.  The President is locked up in his heavily fortified presidential palace and we have seen more of his junkets to the Western capitals than Afghan cities.

In the south and east of the country, which have borne the brunt of the war and chaos, Karzai is growing increasingly unpopular, and the country’s long-suffering Pashtuns see him as nothing but a puppet in the hands of the warlords of the Northern-Alliance—a hodge-podge mix of ex-communists and militia of Afghan ethnic minorities. This has alienated the Pashtuns making them an endless recruitment source and a unifying factor for the Taliban insurgents who are predominantly Pashtuns.  In addition, thousands have been streaming into the country from Pakistan to lend a hand to their cousins.  More than 40 million Pashtuns are divided by an imaginary and disputed border, Durand Line—drawn by the British East India Company on November 12th, 1893.

Historically, Pashtun or Afghans were known as genetically coded with war since Herodotus.  ‘With the Afghans,’ Friedrich Engels wrote in 1857, ‘war is an excitement and relief from the monotonous occupation of industrial pursuits.’  The recent Anglo-American air and ground operations (Panther’s Claw and Strike of the Sword) in the volatile south of Afghanistan have done little to break the current military stalemate in the country.  Instead, these military operations, the biggest since the ousting of the Taliban regime from power in 2001, have increased insurgent’s steady stream of guerilla attacks, leaving heavy losses on both sides.

Karzai is certainly a problem not a solution anymore.  His re-election will likely strengthen the Taliban politically and ideologically and harden their hold over the south and east of the country sooner than many imagine.  But all signs, however, indicates his re-election.  In the eyes of the Afghans, this would mean that the result of the election is preordained.  Powerful and opportunistic warlords are all backing Karzai for they know very well that under Karzai they will be able to continue to loot the country unimpeded.

Despite mounting evidence of Karzai’s warlord problem, there are speculations in Kabul that the Obama administration, unsure of an alternative, is backing his re-election, or making a power-sharing arrangement between Karzai and two other leading contenders.  This would mean that a known devil is better than an angel unknown.  The imperative of the moment for the Obama administration is to devise a new policy towards Afghanistan and look beyond Karzai and a warlord-sponsored government. Karzai’s re-election or his inclusion in any settlement will destabilize Afghanistan further and blocks Western efforts to bring a lasting peace in this country.

Ehsan Azari is based in Sydney, Austraia. He can be reached at



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