Transition of security and the possibility of a process of peace talks with the Taleban are a concern to most Afghans. According to reports, house prices are falling, investors are getting more careful and more and more people are contemplating to leave the country because of concerns that the situation may get worse. However, the situation is not the same in all of the country; provincial differences are many. AAN’s Hamisha Bahar looks at what is happening, and what these processes mean to the people of Herat, the capital of one of the biggest and most affluent provinces of Afghanistan.
In a recent interview with AAN, the Afghan Chamber of Commerce (ACCI) in Kabul expressed deep concern about investors who are transferring their money to Dubai out of fear of a worsened situation in Afghanistan after 2014. Mr. Dawari, the head of policy in ACCI said that around 10 million USD is transferred outside of Afghanistan every day. He further added that recently there had been a decrease of ten to fifteen percent in house prices, as well as in the value of dollars (which, in Afghanistan, is the real indicator of the state of the economy). Even if the signing of the Strategic Agreement with the US on 1 May did have some positive effects on people’s attitude, it is evident that recent attacks and political turmoil have made Afghans in the capital increasingly concerned.
During her recent visit to Herat, Hamisha noticed that the people there seemed more confident of both their future economy and their security. Herat’s geographical location, its culture and people’s priorities and lifestyles are all factors influencing the economic situation of the city and that can be considered important reasons behind why the outlook in Herat is so different.
Herat’s location on the border with both Iran and Turkmenistan makes the city one of the economic hubs of Afghanistan. Huge volumes of imported and exported products transit through the city, and the income generated by border revenues has long constituted an asset for the province, allowing for it to stand on its own financially in times of crises, and often constituting a major bone of contention between those in power at the local level and Kabul.
The Herati people’s attitude to savings is another major reason that affects the city’s economic situation. In Herat, very few people are used to the same level of luxury expenditures that the better-off parts of Kabul’s population indulges in. Some examples of extravagancies common in Kabul – like expensive wedding halls, luxurious shopping malls and very expensive households – are not frequently seen in Herat. Women in Herat also play a very significant role in ensuring these savings. When buying expensive jewelry, for example, Herati women think of it as both as a deposit and a luxury item, while in Kabul it is mostly conceived as luxury. So, when buying gold, Herati women pay attention to its future value, more than to considerations of fashion and style, and therefore, they usually buy pure gold that can be sold approximately at the same value it was bought. In Kabul, on the other hand, most women do not have this attitude, and you can hardly find a shop which sells jewelry that will maintain its price through the years.
The favorable geographic location, coupled with this saving attitude, contributed to make Herat’s people one of the richest, and therefore most self-assured, countrywide. Furthermore, over the last ten years the economy of Kabul has depended to a great extent on international aid. Inhabitants of Kabul whose source of income has been dependent, more or less directly, on international aid, have strong worries about what will happen after 2014. The situation is not the same in Herat. Although the generous aid of the international community has had a significant impact on Herat’s economy as well, it has not represented the only source of income for the city. There is a broadly shared perception that it was more the Heratis themselves who gave the largest input to the reconstruction by building roads, creating industrial parks and job opportunities for their people. (Currently, there are 250 factories in activity and 50 out of activity inside Herat’s industrial parks).
Economy is not the only concern for Afghans for the post 2014 period; anxiety about the sustainability of security is another major trend among Afghans. For many in Kabul, the withdrawal of foreign troops after 2014 means the beginning of a civil war. Since Kabul was the hotspot of the Civil War between 1992-1996, its inhabitants are left with many bad memories of those years, and therefore are more worried of possible explosions of urban violence after 2014 compared to people in provinces which did not witness the same level of conflict during that period. Herat was fairly safe during the Civil War; it was not the capital and thus not the prized objective of all warring factions. The social structure of Herat is also very different. Whereas the population of today’s Kabul is largely made up by people who moved to the city from different areas and at different times, most people in Herat are indigenous. The city’s structure is largely like that of a village. Most of the members of a family live in the same area, everyone knows everybody, and consequently there is a strong trust among the inhabitants of a neighborhood. That provides a bigger sense of security even during times of crises, and prevents creating the perception that the situation could precipitate to something close to a civil war.
Khalil Ahmad Yarmal the CEO of the local Chamber of Commerce pointed out to AAN that security has got better after the transition of the city to the Afghan forces last summer. (1) He claims that ‘Altogether, security is very good now. The situation is good in the city; schools are open, governmental agencies work. There might be some security problems outside the city. The only problem we have in the city is kidnappingss, but this was a major issue before the transition too’. One of the reasons why some people are more optimistic about their future in Herat is that many people, although worried about Iranian interference, share a positive opinion about the strategic agreement with the US. Before the latter was signed, Massuda Karokhi, a member of parliament from Herat, was commenting: ‘There is a big military base in Shindand district of Herat. The international community leaves but the US has agreements with us. The only worry we have is Iran, and we are happy with the US presence in Afghanistan’.
Differences are perceivable not only regarding transition, Herat residents have different views on the issue of peace talks with the Taleban as well. They are more concerned about the crimes that the Taleban would commit if they re-entered the city than by women’s rights issues that worry Kabul people. Socially, women are more conservative in Herat than in Kabul. For instance, most of the women wear Chador Namaz (the Iranian-style long veil covering the body) without Taleban pressure. The same may be true for other provincial towns in Afghanistan were women wear burqa as a rule, but in Herat the social pressure to conform originates not only inside their families but in the city’s society as a whole. The Herati women that AAN talked to argued that unlike a common stereotyped portrayal of Herat as a ‘liberal and cultivated’ city, Herati people are ‘narrow minded and conservative’ in certain issues related to women. This was apparent in the type of problems mentioned by a dozen of women activists that AAN interviewed. These were things that would no longer be considered as obstacles at all in Kabul, like the opportunity for women to appear on TV. In Herat, those who do it often receive threats. As Suraya Pakzad, Executive Director of the Voice of Women Organization, recalled ‘When I came to Herat in 2004, you could hardly see a difference in women’s life from the time of the Taleban. The only difference was that girls could go to school’.
’After the Taleban collapse, Iran and Herat’s Ulema Council did enough to build barriers for women in the society’ said Massuda Karokhi.’ According to her, the women of Herat are not only more conservative, they are also seldom interested in politics and not really aware of what is going on around them. ‘They are too much revolving around their family’ she added. To sum it up, in the last ten years, women in Herat have not managed the same achievements in terms of gender opportunities that women in Kabul have. This reduces the scope of their concerns for an eventual peace deal with the Taleban which could lead to a compromise over certain women related issues, as arguably Herati women do not risk losing as much as Kabuli women would.
Many Heratis hold true and claim that neither the Afghan government nor the international community helped them significantly, during the last ten years, in developing the economy of their city, guaranteeing its security or improving women’s rights. Herat people’s optimism is a product of the self-confidence gained by standing on their own feet for the last decades, and hopefully it will help the city keep its stability in the future, whatever the trend of politics surrounding it may be.
(1) Transition in Herat started with the very first batch of areas in July 2011, when the city’s security changed hands (see our previous blog). the process has been almost completed in the second phase last winter, when all of the province but Shindand, Obeh and Chisht-e Sharif districts followed suit (the latter two districts will be transitioned in the next six months).
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020