Back in Kabul, I am struck by the sense underlying most conversations that things are happening above people’s heads, out of their reach and largely unseen. The London conference seems to have confused more than it has clarified and the questions that are always latently present are becoming more pronounced: What are the foreigners doing? What are they planning? What is it good for?
Conspiracy theories seem increasingly appropriate to people I talk to, including the educated and usually moderate, to explain what is going on. Old affiliations shape new suspicions and reaffirm weakened loyalties. And although our policy makers may have forgotten about corruption and appointment practices for the moment, Afghans have not.
Some recent conversation fragments.
“This talk about reconciliation, it is a game. Those Taliban who were delisted, they are all friends of the British and they left the Taliban a long time ago. But if we really reconcile with the Taliban, then we should also reconcile with Dostum and Fahim and the others and stop calling them warlords. You cannot just reconcile with one side.” – Tajik politician from northern Afghanistan
“There is now amnesty for the other warlords, so there should be amnesty for Hekmatyar and Mullah Omar as well. Hekmatyar even has an office here in Kabul for his party, even though his party has never disowned him. The government should give an office to Mullah Omar as well.” – Pashtun elder from Northern Afghanistan
“About talks with the Taliban? Listen, the Taliban consists of two parts; one part that gets its salary from the US, the UK and the EU, and one part that is really with Mullah Omar. Maybe you don’t agree, but so many people in my province have seen the military helicopters come and bring them supplies. One of the very cruel commanders in the area was arrested twice by the Americans and he was released both times. And when they go out, they are never attacked. They can drive all the way through the dasht (plains) with only two armoured vehicles and nobody will touch them.” –Medical doctor from southern Afghanistan
“It is clear that the US and the EU have lied to us. I also say it everywhere in the media. They say that they came here for democracy and human rights and freedom of expression, but 40% of the people are living under the poverty line, how can that be democracy? Bombing houses in Pakistan without permission, is that democracy? Killing people, the attack in Marjah, is that not terrorism? The torturing in Guantanamo and Bagram, is that human rights? The US has made a joke of democracy. (…) But if I who was an ally of the internationals am now say that the US is lying, what do you think other people are saying? They are going hungry and say that the foreigners are thieves. In the first years people were happy and you foreigners could travel everywhere safely. That was because at that time your words had value. Now the people say that you lie and if you go to their areas they will not protect you. They would rather take you hostage and at least get some money out of you.” – Leader of a democratic party in Kabul
“They are making the operation in Marjah sound so grand, but it is not really that important at all. Marjah didn’t even have a [Taliban] prison or a [Taliban] court. And all the important commanders have left. They have taken their heavy weapons. It is not such a big deal.” – Elder from Helmand
“I left my province because of Taliban threats and moved to Kandahar. There I ran into problems with a local commander. I have a construction company and was given a road contract. The man whom I gave the subcontract to hired this local commander for the security. Now he is bothering me, he says he is still owed money even though that is not my business. I told the police, but this commander is linked to the head of the border police so nobody can do much against him. Maybe I will move my family to Kabul, once my sons have finished their exams.” – Head of a construction company in southern Afghanistan
“It is easy to take an area like Marjah – the Taliban are not in a position to stop the international forces – but you have to be able to hold it. You can bring a district governor back, but you have to equip him as well. He cannot do it alone. And even then… Just look at Musa Qala and all the resources that were poured into that area. The government officials still cannot move more than one kilometer outside their offices. I think it is more important to secure the roads, so that people can reach their government and the government can reach them.” – Inhabitant of northern Helmand
“Karzai said that he will get rid of corruption, but how? Look at how he is selecting his governors now, it is still based on deals and relations, just like before. If you come to an agreement with the people around Karzai you can be a governor. If not, then even your father cannot be governor. There is a first circle of trusted advisers; that is the circle of deals and of money, and then there is a second, wider circle of the jehadi leaders. You have to be able to break through both circles to have a chance. I was a candidate to become a governor, but in the last few weeks I have been passed by other candidates who have stronger links. (…) Once I was talking to one of Karzai’s advisers. We were discussing the current governor, who is a good friend of his. I said carefully that there were some complaints against him. He replied that he knew him very well: that he used to be a clean man, but that after many difficult years he now takes whatever he can get. They are aware of these things, but if you are their friend it doesn’t matter.” – Civil society actor
“A while ago I was offered a Minister’s post. Karzai told me that the foreigners had nothing against me, but that I should go and talk to the Vice Presidents and the jehadi leaders. I told him: “I will not go and talk to them, because then I will owe them something once I am confirmed as a Minister. You are the President, if you want to appoint me, you should appoint me.” It didn’t happen. Even though I campaigned for him.” – Political actor in Kabul
“I am still in touch with the Taliban from the area that I worked in when I was head of the peace office. One of them, he is a member of the Quetta shura, called me and asked me: “Who is Karzai talking to about peace? We don’t know anything about this.” None of us know who will be invited to the Loya Jirga that Karzai has announced or who will be invited to the peace process or who will be the people who will decide this. But we say, whoever you include, if you do not include the tribal leaders in the process there will be no peace.(…) There was a conference organised by foreigners a few days ago on how to reach peace in Afghanistan. We participated and our conclusion was very clear: Karzai counts on the warlords, but he should count on the tribes and their leaders. And the foreigners count on their translators, but they should listen to the other Afghans instead.” – Former head of a provincial PTS office
“Afghanistan is in a constant state of half-war. It makes people exhausted. Look at all the security barriers everywhere, even here in Kabul. It makes people feel unsafe, every minute of the day they can feel the threat. If someone leaves we say: please call when you arrive. If someone is an hour late, we start calling around to see if everything is alright. In other countries peace is the norm and war is the exception. Here it is the other way around.” – Kabul inhabitant
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020