Editor in Chief: Moh. Reza Huwaida Saturday, July 21st, 2018

A Decade in Afghanistan – a Tale of Lost Opportunities

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A Decade in Afghanistan –  a Tale of Lost Opportunities

Ten years is a long time in the lives of nations and nation-states. Chinese Cultural Revolution happened over ten years, African-American civil rights movement changed America in a little over ten years, Marshall Plan for reconstruction of Western Europe was in operation for a little over four years; after their near-total destruction in the Second World War, Japan and Germany were back on their feet in under a decade, India's economic transformation took place in a little over a decade. In Afghanistan, however, each passing decade has been an experiment in new ways of failure; each decade brings about pile of problems but offers few solutions.

7 October marked the tenth anniversary of the US invasion of Afghanistan. The invasion brought to a sudden end one of the darkest chapters in the country's recent history. On this day in 2001, I left behind a street soccer match to sneak through a large crowd of people gathered at the door of local bookshop in one of Quetta's suburbs, in order to get a glimpse of the CNN coverage of the bombing of Kabul and Taliban targets around Afghanistan on a small screen. Plumes of smoke would rise in the air and men and children would watch on with glitter on their faces, visibly delighted that the enemy was going down and content that the reign of terror was over.

The monolith had fallen, the Taliban regime, having achieved unprecedented control over Afghanistan and taken barbarism to new heights, was crumbling live in front of hundreds of millions of television viewers around the world.

Taliban foot-soldiers, crammed on top of their trade-mark Toyota Pickups, would be shown surrendering to armed soldiers of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance. Crowds of hundreds paraded through the streets of Kabul shouting death to Taliban, death to Pakistan and Allah-o Akbar.

Middle-aged women were on the streets of Kabul with veils half-lifted, their faces showing and glowing with a sense of accomplishment, the heavy burden of the chadari was perhaps no more. Teenagers and the young rushed to barbershops to get rid of cavemen like looks, perhaps never in the history of mankind had the shaving of beards been a cause of celebration.

A sense of freedom was in the air, songs and music had returned. Overnight dozens of families had packed up and were eager to return to their towns and villages abandoned in the civil war or at the onslaught of the Taliban.

Middle-class, semi-educated men and women in their 20s and 30s were debating the possibility of sending a youth representative to Bonn, whereas tribal, religious and ethnic parties and representatives were more concerned about occupying seats of power and influence than about building at least a moderate, if not modern, society.

There was talk of aid, truckloads of food, schools, roads, free medication by khariji doctors and amongst the broader population of Afghans, a hope for a future in Afghanistan, for themselves and their children. Having already left behind decades of war, the old would often say 'Afghanistan aali bakhair jor mosha (this time Afghanistan will be built'. Today many of us are left wondering whether that hope of those old men has been fulfilled.

A decade and more than 20 billion dollars later, there's extensive analysis in major capitals of the world about what went wrong in Afghanistan, why Afghanistan doesn't have a stable and properly functioning government, why its institutions are weak and why the state hasn't been able to offer the people with security and certainty, whether the current state of affairs will last, what will happen over the next decade and so on – these are questions under heavy international debate and for the most part beyond the scope of this piece.

International and local media have carried news of doom and gloom as a reflection of international and domestic opinion about the country's present and future. General McChrystal, President Karzai and the head of the German military among others have openly admitted to their failures in meeting the expectations of Afghans, in the understanding of the country and the history of its people.

The results for the decade are self-evident in the form of Afghanistan's ranking amongst the world nations:
The second most corrupt country in the world based on 2010 Corruption Perception Index, the worst country in Asia in terms of life expectancy, literacy, education and standards of living, one of the worst offenders of human rights according to Amnesty International, the worst country in the world for women and children according to June 2011 survey, third most illiterate country in the world, the worst country for harassment of women and self-immolation and the list of shame goes on and on.

Afghanistan's decade of booming war economy is faced with an uncertain future amid fear international aid and investment will be drastically cut and the US cash splash will end. The agriculture sector, long deemed to be the future of Afghanistan's economy faces dire and recurring threats from drought and lack of investment.

While the potential for a large commodities sector is huge, there is uncertainty over how relevant security and policy measures will play out and whether geo-political situations will allow for investors' trust and confidence in the Afghan economy. Markets are fragile and their fundamentals are relatively primitive. Foreign trade remains firstly at the mercy of domestic insecurity and uncertainty and secondly at the mercy of transit partners such as Pakistan.

Fraudulent presidential and parliamentary elections and the ensuing parliamentary crisis have damaged the credibility and the perceived legitimacy of the political system almost to the point beyond repair. General uncertainty with respect to political stability and security further weaken public trust in the capacity of the state as they are left with no choice but the hedge their bets on who will be left in charge. There's deep public mistrust in the executive, the legislature and especially the judiciary.

In 2011 Afghans are disappointed and angry, angry from frustrated expectations, expectations of provision food, shelter, clothing, security, safety, justice, independence etcetera outlined within a war economy, delicately woven social relationships and a yet to stabilize political system. The nature of these expectations, like most things in the country, has been diverse, intricate and often contradicting.

There is a huge economic disparity between Afghanistan's urban and rural populations, between the city centers and the outlying suburbs, between those affiliated with powerful political factions and those unaffiliated, between the warlords-druglords nexus and the general population, between returned expatriates and resident Afghans, between those employed by the NGOs and those in public service and between the very few in power and the majority powerless.

The depth and scale of corruption is almost unmatched anywhere in the world, much to the credit of those who support and are supported by the state, including regional power-brokers, venture capitalists, self-appointed ethnic representatives, local and foreign private contractors and those responsible for provision of justice and conflict resolution.

Insecurity haunts those beyond the boundaries of major cities; people remain at the mercy of insurgents as well as government-backed militias. As for the question of reconciling with armed opposition groups, the Afghan government and NATO are yet to figure out the right person to talk to and the channel through which to engage them.

What has taken place in the decade since is a matter of historical record. A simple cost to benefit analysis would rate the decade of Afghanistan mission as a big failure. There's no comparing of the investment in terms of money, time and life against the political, economic and security gains or lack thereof. 

 Yes, if you consider a benchmark low enough, like life under the Taliban, things are great for the majority of the people but even that cannot justify continued complacency of the Afghan government and the international community in dealing with important issues beyond security.

Warlords and Jihadi groups continue to dominate both sides of the conflict, bearded men continue to have the final say on how women, men and children should choose to live their lives – the same men who had little in 2001 but are large land-owners in 2011 and live in majestic mansions, women still find it hard to find a place in the society where they would considered human beings; religious, ethnic and sectarian hatred continue to be a feature of most segments of the society, tribal and archaic systems of injustice remain prevalent and a million other problems that arise from within rather than without the Afghan society.

For Afghans, it's never too late. Afghanistan isn't placed any worse than where it has been in the last three decades and certainly has come a long way since 2001. The country has been and will continue to be a bone of contention in international politics.

There are three years to go before the planned withdrawal of international troops and many more before substantial international disengagement. Amongst the millions of Afghans, there are those who haven't given up the hope they had held so high in 2001.

One can only overlook the historical trend and hope that the international community, Afghanistan's neighbors, the Afghan government and most importantly all segments of the Afghan population will get their act together in order to build and sustain a better functioning system, a better country and society that would bring Afghanistan forward to the twentieth, if not the twenty first century.

Hadi Zaher is an Afghan-Australian socio-political commentator and aspiring photographer. He can be reached at mh592@uow.edu.au

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