Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Political Landscape

Afghanistan’s Most Under-Reported Stories in 2009

Joanna Nathan 3 min

Read a compilation of stories that did not really make it into a lot of international headlines in the year 2009 that’s just ending – but surely would have deserved it – by our member JOANNA NATHAN*. AAN welcome contributions adding to this shortlist.

Afghanistan was the forgotten war no more in 2009 with the mass media descending often fresh from Baghdad. However unversed in the complex history of the conflict and international engagement and based in Kabul often with little more than embeds out, remarkably little new light has been thrown on events for a global audience. It’s noticeable that the really interesting stories tend to come from the old hands and/or freelancers. Indeed what has tended to emerge is an oddly sanitized version of reality driven by the concerns of Western newsdesks (and even military press officers) rather than the streets of Kandahar. A few stories from 2009 that deserved a whole lot more attention than they got – and which are unlikely to go away:

The killing of the Kandahar police chief in the middle of town in broad daylight by a group of armed men apparently with ties to both the president’s brother Ahmed Wali Karzai and the CIA received little western media coverage despite being seismic in terms of perceptions in the south. If such assassinations can occur and no one is punished then western talk of the rule of law means little. It has been vividly demonstrated to Kandaharis that no one is safe, there no redress – and the Taliban grows ever more appealing.

The turbine made front-page attention in 2008 – touted as the largest land route clearance operation since the Second World War. There was however scant coverage of the apparent indefinite postponement by USAID of a flagship project, despite all the lives lost to date attempting to secure it. Far larger questions need to be raised about attempting grand infrastructure projects in the midst of the most violent areas of Afghanistan – in this case Helmand which if a stand-alone country would be not only the world’s largest producer of opium but the fifth largest recipient of USAID funding. Is this really the best use of military resources and financial aid? Is this not creating the perception in the rest of a very poor country that the greater the violence and more poppy grown the more money will be thrown at your province? What proportion of such “development” funding is spent merely on attempting to secure the sites? – and who exactly is it paid to? And, at the end of the day, for what result? Andrew Wilder is in the midst of somethought-provoking work on the presumed “development-security nexus”.

The preparations for mass fraud with an inflated voter registry and booth placement in areas all realistic security assessments would declare impossible were largely overlooked prior to the 2009 elections. And afterwards as the sheer scale of shenanigans became apparent the foreign focus remained squarely on the presidential race with scant attention to the local body polls which many Afghans showed far greater interest in. Bizarrely distorted results in many areas have done enormous damage to aspirations and expectations of equitable representation at local level.
Looking forward, few questions have yet been raised over the parliamentarypolls set for 2010. There is now apparently an election date but exactly the same issues that hung over 2009 remain: impossible deadlines given delayed technical preparations, a swollen voter registry, insecurity at the polling stations, a non-independent election commission. And that is quite apart from continued lack of boundary demarcations required for Constitutionally-mandated district council elections. Rather than approaching such governance questions and the electoral calendar strategically it continues to be about lurching from event to event.

Considering the amount of column space given to ‘corruption in Afghanistan’ there has been little insight on true causes and effects. Indeed coverage has bordered on the racist suggesting this is some sort of traditional local habit that needs to be fixed because western donors say so, rather than a logical systemic outcome of the very set-up of the international intervention and its choice of “favoured allies”.
There have been some interesting pieces on individual figures and the international support they receive such as commander Abdul Razaq in Spin Boldak. A story by Graeme Smith produced unusually detailed accusations against a top official in the Afghan Ministry of Interior including interviews and written documentation – particularly rare – but the piece was barely picked up and downplayed by foreign embassies.
Bits and pieces appeared in the Australian and German media on Uruzgan and Badakhshan while the Italians apparently paying off the Taliban was highlighted in the UK. Mother Jones shone a spotlight on private security contractors. But generally too little is being done to join the dots and focus on the system – and how to tackle it if we are being serious.

* Joanna Nathan was the senior analyst for the International Crisis Group in Afghanistan from May 2005 to July 2009.


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