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Mainstream, VOL LI No 25, June 8, 2013

Afghanistan: Questions and Uncertainties

Sunday 9 June 2013, by Apratim Mukarji

From Afghanistan comes the astonishing news that some high government officials are paid monthly salaries in the range of US $ 30,000-50,000 by the national government and foreign organisations.

At the same time there is a majority of lower-ranking government employees who earn as low as 3000 Afghanis a month. The enormity of the discrepancy in government salaries is realised when we remember that 100 afghanis are equivalent to US $ 1.86. The average national monthly income is equal to US $ 40.

The Hamid Karzai Government has just introduced a bill in Parliament to regularise government salaries, mainly to allow much higher salaries to the President, Ministers and senior officials than they receive now. Many MPs have already indicated that they will oppose the bill but there seems to be wide agreement among them that the shocking disparity must be removed as soon as possible.

As 2014, the year that will witness the culmination of the withdrawal of US and NATO forces (the process has already started and foreign forces are going back in batches), draws near, questions and uncertainties over the state of the Afghan nation are becoming starker. For example, while the Taliban mounted an unprecedented attack on the International Committee of the Red Cross compound in Jalalabad south of Kabul and a relatively safe area (for the first time in the 30 years of the ICRC’s involvement in Afghanistan) killing a guard and injuring one of the seven foreign ICRC officials on May 29, Afghan National Army men confidently patrolled and carried out raids in the normally dreaded Kunar province, a veritable stronghold of the Taliban.

The approaching end of the security environment created by the forces of some of the most powerful nations has also brought into sharp focus the plight of the thousands of Afghan translators working for the forces. The Taliban have already declared them to be fair game for them once the foreign forces withdraw.

Although reluctant initially but persuaded by badly frightened Afghan employees, the British Government is already working out a scheme to allow those translators who are presently attached to its forces to migrate to the UK with their families. In fact, every other NATO-member country deploying troops in Afghanistan is being beseeched by translators recruited by it to follow suit and allow them to migrate.

DW, the German news channel, recently reported how the translators employed with the German Army’s Provincial Reconstruction Team felt “abandoned” by the decision to withdraw the NATO forces by the end of 2014. It quoted one of the translators who demonstrated before the German Armed Forces camp in Kunduz saying: “What is going to happen to us once the Bundeswehr withdraws?” Apart from future unemployment, the translators feared for their lives once the Germans would go away. Many of them had already received threats from the Taliban, and the threats were being taken seriously.

The kind of avoidable mess that the International Security Assistance Forces and NATO forces are leaving behind was exposed when a shocked Afghanistan and the inter-national community learned at the end of May that the British forces are also running a Guantanamo Bay-style prison in the country where a large number of Afghans are being held in terrible conditions without charges. It is only after the exposure that the British Government has acknowledged the misdeed and notified that the prisoners will be transferred to the Afghan prison authorities.

As the time for passing on the security of the country to Afghan hands draws closer, Kabul has been witnessing demonstrations by orthodox men and young men against the government’s plans to empower women. On May 18 conservative MPs succeeded in blocking a law to protect women’s freedoms, the Law on Elimination of Violence against Women, on the grounds that it violated Islamic laws in parts and encouraged women to have illicit sex.

Ironically, this law had been in existence since 2009 by presidential decree and it died a sudden death only because a fearless woman activist and MP, Fawzia Kofi, hoped to get it approved by Parliament so that it would gain complete validity. In the event, her effort proved to be no match for the Islamic zealots. What is even more disheartening is that the “zealots” included a number of women MPs as well.

The impact of this retrograde step is better understood when we note that the killed law had provided for criminalising child marriage and banned the traditional practice of buying and selling women as a means to settle disputes. Another “unacceptable” provision was criminalising domestic violence, and yet another redeeming but “un-Islamic” feature was the specification that rape victims should not face criminal charges for fornication or adultery.

Yet at the same time, educated young men and women in Kabul are being increasingly engaged in acting, music, theatre and various other performing arts, and there are public performances as well just as they are increa-singly turning out as doctors, engineers and technicians. If fundamentalist young men hold public demonstrations against empowering women, women too are coming out in the open to demand equality of status and rights for themselves.

In other words, Afghanistan has changed and keeps changing not for the worse but for the better. The Guardian recently interviewed an Afghan soldier-translator attached to the British forces who was brutally attacked in his bedroom in his native province of Paktia, a Taliban stronghold, and survived miraculously. He told the British newspaper that he was not afraid to go back to his job once he had recovered, for he hated the Taliban for what they had done to the country and were trying to do again. As the newspaper rightly pointed out, this was the new spirit which was still quite rare but discernible in many ways, and this was indicative of the changed Afghanistan.

The contradictions of simultaneous progress and regress also encompass the media scene. While there was not a single independent newspaper or radio in the Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, there are today over 200 print publications, 44 TV broadcasters, nearly 140 radio stations and eight news agencies. The media sector is simply flourishing.

Typically of the country, however, the scene is far from an unmixed blessing. There are increasing threats to journalists, and in fact there has been a sharp increase in attacks against them. What is even more alarming is that not one of these incidents has been investigated and the guilty found and punished. Reporters without Borders says that the disturbing aspect of these attacks is that it is not just the Taliban but also the government, the local authorities, the police or even individual government officials who are involved in these attacks. In the first five months of 2013, RwB has recorded as many as thirty violent attacks on journalists.

It is but natural that governance or the lack of it and how it can be improved dominates a country that has but suffered from one of the most gruesome periods in its history and has emerged almost completely devastated and is reconstructing itself only during the last twelve years or so. Compared to the task in hand, the period travelled so far is nothing but minimal.

Unfortunately, it is not just a case of reconstructing a ruined country. Right from its very initiation, the process of foreign-controlled reconstruction and development has been mired in the cancer of corruption. Any discussion on Afghanistan automatically brings up the issue of the rejuvenation of the Taliban but seldom of the signal failure of the international community to help the new dispensation to ferret out the overriding menace of opium cultivation, production of heroin and cocaine, and smuggling of these drugs through Central Asia to Russia onward to the Western countries.

Yet, it has been known through all these years that the Central Intelligence Agency of the US Government has been the chief promoter of the drug cartel and smuggling and that it was the patron of President Karzai’s brother, Ahmed Wali, who probably flourished into the biggest drug-lord in the country until his detection and downfall.

A fearsome truth about today’s Afghanistan is that while a mammoth reconstruction and development programme has been undertaken under international auspices, the lure of opium cultivation and drug smuggling has rapidly engulfed the population and, significantly, its upper echelons.

There is yet another dark side to the role of the international community in the post-Taliban period. While the US Government has been castigating President Karzai personally and his government for being corrupt, the New York Times reported recently that Washington D.C. is probably one of the biggest contributors to that corruption. The CIA has been reportedly “dropping off suitcases stuffed full of American dollars” at the office of the Afghan President for years in order to buy influence in Kabul. The Guardian reported that MI6 of the UK may have made cash payments to President Karzai’s office to promote meetings between the Taliban and Afghan Government.

On his part, President Karzai came only partially clean on the issue, saying on May 13 in Helsinki that his National Security Council had regularly received CIA money during the last ten years, adding that this was used for “operation objectives, helping wounded and sick, and for house rents and other objectives”.

But there are few to buy this line of argument. Afghanistan Watch, a Kabul-based non-govern-mental organisation, commented that “It is very difficult under the circumstances of Afghanistan to draw a line between what can be described as official aid money from a donor government to the Afghan Government, and the kind of ghost money which is distributed by certain governments outside of Afghanistan to ensure influence on certain levels of the Afghan Government.” A plainer statement came from a former Chief of Staff of President Karzai, Khalil Roman, who told the New York Times that the payments were “ghost money, the cash came in secret and left in secret”.

As Afghan responsibility to rule the country as a modern nation-state evolves incrementally with the scheduled withdrawal of foreign forces and consequent drying up of foreign funds, the vast stretch of the grey areas of governance with unanswered questions and uncertainties appears to be nothing short of intimidating.

Apratim Mukarji is an analyst of South and Central Asian affairs.

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