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Afghan in Wonderland

This week the European Union and Afghan government with up to 70 countries and 30 international agencies and organisations in attendance co-host the Brussels Conference on Afghanistan. It is still hoped that winning the war can be changed by winning the peace. It is also hoped that regional players will now accept greater responsibility. The more rueful observer may equate the conference to Lewis Carroll’s Mad Hatter’s Tea Party.

Anticipating its unanswerable riddles, I caught a rattling train to London’s Overseas Development Institute (ODI), close to Waterloo in central London. I had in mind Kurt Vonnegut’s line about how we are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be. In other words, the theatre of reconstruction falls apart when we forget our lines and much of Afghanistan today is fallen apart.

I was therefore interested in an unofficial heads-up on the lessons learned or spurned in Afghanistan. Besides, my own fading knowledge needed serious refreshment. This was shortly after the commencement of Eid and what should have been I imagined a time of celebration for many Afghans, though even the non-Afghans on the train, still dazed by Brexit, were struggling — it was London’s hottest day in September for 50 years.

Not always convinced by august think tanks or their ability to effect change, I knew some important research was to be aired that day. (The event was called ‘Afghanistan on the brink’.) As many know, governance in Afghanistan depends on fractious networks and dangerous political webbings and one good academic on the ground is worth several politicians in the hand. Even the already blanching optimism I witnessed in Afghanistan during four trips there several years ago seemed positively euphoric compared to the present circumstances I had been hearing about.

One Afghan I met in Greece a number of months ago, fresh from a busted Chinese-made rubber dinghy and fleeing from Kunduz, said the situation there was irremediable. A friend making a film about the sudden rise of Islamic State (IS) in Afghanistan — whose presence is confirmed in Zabul; and of course in Nangarhar where the recent US airstrike on IS took place — said he was shocked by what was happening. And when an acquaintance only last week asked that I met an Afghan orphan in London she wanted to help, I wasn’t in the least surprised. In a hitherto struggling world made heavier by the increasing problems over Syria, this blighted land-locked country is squeezed out of sight — but not out of mind.

Despite the Indian summer, my train arrived early and I pored over formal details plucked from my rucksack on a film job being offered in Afghanistan. Normally I would have jumped at something like this. For once I was finding the risks hard to justify. And there maybe we have it. The oxygen supply of information is snuffed out. The brain starts to go fuzzy with a lack of good air. And eventually we become pig-ignorant.

Closer now, I passed a five-storey edifice in the midst of demolition. Taunting the street, it looked more like a bomb site — more Aleppo or Kunduz — than Waterloo. Conversely, a few hundred yards later was the ODI. I entered the registered charity with a present annual income of just under $50m and stood in the spotless foyer admiringly. In the cool of the room where the discussion was to take place, a live-streaming film crew was setting up and people continued arriving. The camera — a good one — pointed at four empty chairs as three high quality TV screens hung on the walls ready for incoming PowerPoints.

I mused on how Afghanistan enters your bloodstream. I was a part-timer: I knew that. But I also knew it played tricks with your hope and never quite goes away. (My family has no idea what I am going on about when I mention Afghanistan at the dining table.) Everyone shut their laptops, their faces no longer illuminated by the flicker of their coloured screens, and the four seats were filled with expertise.

Charing it was researcher, consultant and aid worker Paul Harvey, of Secure Livelihoods Research Consortium (SLRC) Afghanistan and Humanitarian Outcomes, his tan, half-beard and black shirt an airy reminder of an intrepid job. First up was Ashley Jackson, a cultured and independently minded researcher. Jackson has worked in Afghanistan for seven years — as recently as two or so months ago, she was in Kunduz and Jalalabad — yet appeared to carry none of the war-weary baggage I have seen among one or two consultants, including in Washington DC, who have since left Afghanistan.

Though keen to locate optimism, Jackson talked of the self-defeating idealism of the international community when it began its reconstruction in Afghanistan and made special reference to the Bonn conference 15 years ago. (The Bonn conference, I was thinking, was like a fellow bookend to the coming one in Brussels, and Afghanistan a kind of collapsing bookshelf of knowledge.) One of Jackson’s themes is that governance in Afghanistan depends on ‘personality-based and regional elite networks’ and I may have detected frustration as well as compassion in her voice as she reflected on the more cavalier attitudes among those who arrived on day one to ‘fix’ the country. A brand new chapter at the time, they thought they could start at the beginning as though nothing existed. ‘What we find is that a lot of things existed,’ explained Jackson, ‘and this neglect of context in favour of thinking of the country as a blank slate was incredibly detrimental to governance efforts.’

Today in Afghanistan if you want a job in the civil service, or a university place, you often have to access ‘personalities’ or ‘networks’ outside the system. Networks heavily supported — wittingly or unwittingly — by the international community, an approach Jackson said was deeply contradictory. It made me think of Abdul Haq — in 1983, my first important Afghan contact. He would pick me up on his motorbike after fleeing his bodyguards and drive me to a place of shelter to discuss anything from Walt Disney to world peace. Haq was a walking — till he lost his foot — personality network. Never a blank slate, he bristled with power and hope. He was not detrimental to his country. Some of us who knew Haq — before he was killed by the Taliban in 2001, two months after 9/11 — wish he was alive today. He ran contrary to this model of the former mujahideen commander made into governor. Ethnicity and tribe, as well as geography, as Jackson pointed out, may help form many of the institutions we have today. Haq, while Pushtun, crossed all ethnic lines.

‘This networked state was how the Karzai regime governed,’ continued Jackson as sunlight burned through the windows and Jackson ran through the many failures since Bonn, some of them even recycled. As a result, the state today is mistrusted and Afghans simply do not expect it to be open to all. Also, security is worse and civilian casualties higher than ever. What was fresh about this panel’s studies, I felt, was its concentration on issues as experienced by Afghans rather than how the international community wished them to be.

As Brussels will doubtlessly be reminded, the image of democracy in Afghanistan is floundering and on the ropes again. Many still believe it to mean women in mini-skirts — drinking, smoking — and furthermore they mistrust weakness in general. Jackson quoted from her research a former provincial council member in Kandahar shortly before recent provincial elections there:

‘If I vote for [an] honest person, I am sure he will not be able to resolve my problems. If the police take a member of my family, he will not be able to get them released … Why would I vote for a person who will not be able to resolve my problems?’

In short, the Afghans were presented in 2001 with great hope but what has happened is that playing by the rules has been unrewarded. ‘What we found in talking to hundreds of Afghans throughout the course of this research is that they’re deeply frustrated with this system. They have to play by these unwritten rules. But it’s an incredible disappointment to them and it’s a source of anger and pessimism.’ Instead, according to Jackson, the present national unity government has been built on divisions: ‘They haven’t governed effectively.’

No one can really speculate on what happens next but I have since read Jackson’s well constructed paper ‘Seeing like the Networked State’ and it seems to me the over-riding ambition for the international community should be to stop empowering individuals who abuse human rights, though I must admit I was struggling to take everything in.

Researcher Adam Pain from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences in Uppsala spoke next. A compassionate man with an evidence-based mind, he reminded me of an intellectual priest with a penchant for geography — a sort of altruistic ruralist. The village was his thing. ‘And those cross-scaler dimensions that move from household to field to village and beyond.’ After an impressive 15 years of research, he reflected on the significance of ‘landlessness’ in the country, in addition to a market economy lubricated by informal credit and the inevitable exploitation of labour that comes with that. He presented a valuable insight into what was going on below the state-centric view, beneath upper-level governance — out of sight, so to say. ‘Protest is not an option,’ he added. ‘It’s either loyalty or you get out.’

In Afghanistan you may have only one or two landlords who own as much as 80% or 90% of the land. It is therefore not difficult to imagine in whose interest a village operates. Even agriculturally rich land around the likes of Herat and Kandahar — where there is potential for agricultural growth, but where the poverty rate is increasing steadily — is witnessing considerable ‘out-migration’. In fact, the very Afghans shunned as they arrive in Europe right now — Afghanistan’s ‘surplus population’ — are unwittingly lessening the burden back home by avoiding enlistment with the Taliban — for some, the only option — or IS, heaven forbid.

This is why the recent memo leaked in advance of the Brussels conference revealing EU plans to make any aid deal for Afghanistan a kind of ‘accept 80,000 deportees or lose aid’ so deplorable. As former pastor Scott Arbeiter of World Relief recently pointed out in the New York Times, since 9/11 more than 800,000 refugees have been resettled in the US and none of these have been convicted of domestic terrorism.

‘With the retreat of funding, times are extremely difficult,’ admitted Pain. However, in one area things are less difficult. Why? Because of opium. ’It has actually pushed the rural wages up by about four times. So people now are gaining food security.’ I was remembering the UN figure I met in Afghanistan — ‘drugs and crime,’ he said when I asked what he did — telling me one Salsa Night at a since-bombed UN hostel that opium production during the Taliban days was much lower than it was then.

Perhaps the saddest indictment of the international community’s record is that in many cases Afghan households are worse off today than when the so-called reconstruction began. And when Pain mentioned continuing hope and aspiration among Afghans today, the audience remained pragmatically quiet, as though they knew the reason people were leaving was not just conflict but also because the opportunity for work in the rural areas simply does not exist any more, and will not in the future. ’I would say the intervention into Afghanistan has been built on development models that are outdated and irrelevant in the context of which we find ourselves now,’ said Pain.

And what of the women of Afghanistan? Can they not be at the forefront of change? Are they, perhaps, one solution? ‘We don’t have too many women with blood on their hands,’ said the next speaker: Afghan women’s activist and businesswoman Rangina Hamidi. This was her first visit to London and her disquieting Afghan-American tones filled the room with interest. Hamidi’s family fled to the US during the Soviet occupation — as indeed did many refugee children I saw in clusters in Pakistan on my way back from Afghanistan the first time. (Some would return — via Terrimangal and Landi Khotal — as Taliban.) Hamidi wanted everyone to remember how welcomed the international community had been initially and also recalled US involvement in Afghanistan in the 60’s and 70’s. ‘They did not know what was to come in 2016 . . . fifteen years later,’ she added.

Hamidi returned to Afghanistan in 2003 and now runs Kandahar Treasure, a business set up to empower women as well as celebrate Afghan artisanship. Without taking any prisoners — or depending on donors, apart from the one government grant which as a result allows her to travel from Afghanistan to the US freely — she refuted the Afghan stereotype of women as powerless. Hamidi’s father was killed in Kandahar. One sensed that he would have been proud of her. ‘The picture of Afghan women has always been painted as the immobile, voiceless, poor . . . you know, a helpless woman that needs to be helped because she cannot think for herself.’ Defiantly Hamidi gives work to up to 250 Afghan women and every year Kandahar Treasure and its hand-embroidered products sells up to $300,000 of work: ’An accomplishment that should not be overlooked,’ she added. I thought back to watching western forces fire practice rounds outside Kandahar and felt an awkward shiver as Hamidi spoke. What is also interesting to learn about Kandahar Treasure is the feeling that if the Taliban were to seize control again, the business would likely be able to continue.

‘One of the main issues that effects me and my people in Afghanistan is that while we appreciate the assistance that the international community has brought in, we also realise and recognise that a lot of our infrastructure, of who we were as Afghan people . . . the proud, the hard-working, the independent . . . has been broken.’ As for backing the wrong people, she explained that the Afghan beggar in the past would never extend his or her hand. She felt it was the international community that helped create the nation of beggars she said existed today. ‘Some very rich beggars,’ she added. ‘And we all know who they are.’ An international community relying on destructive warlords to rebuild did I suspect strike many in the room as bizarre. ’After fifteen years of involvement on the ground in Afghanistan, it seems . . . and it’s obvious now . . . the great powers have still not learned who’s who.’

I suppose if Afghanistan’s future depends on anything, it is rule of law. I was thinking of the young Afghan National Police (ANP) cadets I met at a police academy on the outskirts of Kabul. How and where were they that day — those lucky enough to be alive and not killed by ISAF or competing private militias such as the ones created in Hamidi’s hometown of Kandahar? I also wondered if any of their idealisms were still alive. That would be interesting.

The subject was opened to the floor and the upcoming conference in Brussels was described by one of the panel as a piece of performance art. There was discussion on alternative industries to counter the opium trade — one person mentioned cocoa — though I heard nothing for example on legalising the sale of opium for the pharmaceutical industry. (In places such as Australia, the industry grows its own.) Or, like many legitimate businesses in Afghanistan, would this also fall prey to layers and layers of sub-contracting? ‘And it’s not just the Afghans who are corrupt . . . the West who pays for the warlords . . . too,’ braved Hamidi.

In the end it was with a feeling of grievance and impossible sadness that I left the building. You want to sell life. You want to make it look good. But with Afghanistan all one can muster is a pathetic shake of the head and far too little self-criticism. I guess we should have spent all that money on listening to the Afghan people.

So what does all this tell us about the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party in Brussels? ‘If you don’t know where you are going, any road can take you there,’ wrote Lewis Carroll. But I am thinking more along the lines of Kurt Vonnegut:

‘So it goes.’

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Peter Bach lives in London.

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