During his tenth trip to Afghanistan since 2003 dedicated to research on micro-social development and general political perceptions, after an interval of two and a half years, our guest blogger Michael Daxner(*) was ‘little surprised at the first glance – but at a closer look, much has changed’. Glimpses on social stratification, discussions about federalism, the absorption problem in the higher education sector and the Egyptian sign on the wall.
Kabul looks more like a city under the stress of rapid modernisation without a concept. You can see the glittering palaces of shopping malls and banking headquarters, symbols of new wealth and, at the same time, targets for attacks. Residential areas show bizarre palaces of the very rich (and very corrupt) and, even more significant, many homes for a new middle class. The business area in the north-west of the city shows an impressive boom in construction; advertising is blooming, especially for expensive private higher education in trivial subjects such as English, business administration and communications. All these signs are typical for post-war economies. At the same time, there are still hundreds of thousands of displaced people living in the poor outskirts, their situation barely better than in the places where they come from – rural areas or refugee camps or countries of exile.
All in all, Kabul, and other cities, shows an inevitable process of differentiation into diverse classes and social strata. There is some economic growth, but only for a certain segment in society – the new middle classes, permanently under the threat of deprivation, and under the yoke of corruption and taxation from above. ‘The rich do not pay taxes’, that is what ordinary people say.
Of course, the gap between the growing fortunes of the rich and stagnant income of lower strata – while commodity prices are rising – creates frustration and potential for social and political unrest. In my discussions with intellectuals and members of the civil society, there was one word vibrant in this context: ‘Egypt’. The revolution there is also seen as one of the young people against an elderly establishment that has little to defend on their records.
There is a threat of a radicalizing youth in Afghanistan, too, and no one can predict today whether it will be radical because of its hope for true democracy – or for an order that will be authoritarian and ideologised. Hundreds of thousands of high-school graduates will want to enter universities during the next years, but no higher education is ready to admit them, and there is no sufficient teacher training and vocational education as to absorb these masses that are very susceptible to radicalization. Education reform will be the key issue for a sustainable development of the country, and it lags behind.
Security seems to be better, apart from the concrete fortresses in Wazir Akbar Khan where you don’t want to walk just for fun. But it is fragile. One day, there was rumor that two suicide attackers were in town, just looking for a good place for their bombing. Everybody was nervous, many police and road blocks signaled high alert. I was warned not to go downtown for a meeting. The next day, early in the morning, the blue lights rotated on a police car’s roof in front of my place, covered with snow, the guardians asleep…
In many discussions we raised the topic of increasing ethnic tensions. The big question is whether these tensions have just aggravated by the course of conflict with the insurgents, or if the international intruders into Afghan politics bear a special responsibility for them. I got many answers, but it is clear to me that the future of the Pashtuns in the North of country is at stake. In Mazar, active members of the civil society were very outspoken on this issue. The agitation by extremist clerics in the countryside has increased, and they would play the ethnic card together with a general anti-western agitation.
This brings me back to education, because it is not easy to define from an Afghan point of view what it means not to be ‘western’, but ‘authentic’ – authentic meaning that people want to be recognized and acknowledged ‘like all those who belong to their community or tribe’. They blame ‘western ideology’ for having destroyed this authenticity, while not being aware that many old traditions and patterns of behavior have become dysfunctional and shallow. Only deep-rooted community education could combine an authentic lifestyle with all elements of deserved and needed modernization. (The idea of building community colleges throughout the country has faded away after 2005. The original concept foresaw at least one such college in every province, in the countryside, where teacher training and professional education would open alternative options for those who do not want to migrate to the cities and further impoverish the remote rural areas).
I am still deeply impressed by the level of information and thoughtfulness in this civil society. But I have also seen a kind of tiredness of democratic rhetoric, when democracy has not yet arrived. Many people in provinces with strong governors or leaders are just happy with the relative stability under these overlords, irrespective of the authoritarian frame of their rule. This applies mainly to Balkh and Nangrahar provinces, governed by Atta and Sherzai, and to region around Herat under the distant influence by Ismail Khan.
The unanimous opinion of all intellectuals and considerate people I have spoken to is that the centralistic government will never accept ideas of federalism with a sufficient portion of legal pluralism and regional authenticity. Of course, corruption is the issue. I have the impression that this discourse changes from simply the perception of economic corruption towards an understanding what the consequences of political corruptibility would be – a lowering of the threshold of violence, for example.
The events in the Parliament during the last weeks are proving this observation. The games between Sayyaf and Qanuni about who will take over the position of Speaker were heated by the President’s interference into the process of establishing a functional parliament. This adds to a growing aversion against shallow formal procedures which are empty of true democratic foundations.
Not many Afghans understand the western urge to pull out their military forces. Despite President Karzai’s recent ‘humble’ demand to leave the country, there is a certain uneasiness about the preparedness of ANA and ANP to take over responsibility for security in only three or four years without another massive change in the governance of security and without a political stabilization of the country. On the other side, the issue of foreign troops permanently based on Afghan territory is opening a new field of controversy. It is by no means decided whether the only option is really to maintain a few US bases in Afghanistan in order to ‘reduce the interest of other neighbors to interfere with Afghan policies’, as President Karzai said.
I do not think that terms like optimistic or pessimistic are adequate characterizations for the current situation that is all but clear. Maybe, there are lessons to be learned from ‘Egypt’ as a symbolic sign looming on the horizon. But it is also clear that the West cannot simply hope for an easy transition into a secure and sustainable development without coordinated efforts to keep the promises so easily delivered since the Bonn conference in 2001. I am afraid that Afghanistan will be left as so many ‘forgotten’ areas of conflict as soon as more urgent items come to the agenda of global players, such as Japan and Libya at the moment. Afghanistan is much too precious – and too central to world affairs – as to be forgotten. There are still many good ideas about what realistically can be achieved under the current circumstances – not least in the education sector – and so many hopes that should that we should connect to. It is far too early to declare ‘mission accomplished’ – because it isn’t yet.
(*) Michael Daxner is a sociologist and researcher on conflict and conflict resolution and contributes frequently to the AAn blog. From 2003 to 2005 when he worked with the Ministry of Higher Education on university legislation. His special interest is the transformation of law under the influence of foreign intervention.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020