‘Happy Xmas (War is over)’ – this was John Lennon’s wish in his beautiful 1971 holiday’s single already. The ex-Beatle (killed already 29 years ago) wasn’t referring to Afghanistan, obviously, then.
In that year, Afghanistan was experiencing another of a series of drought years which would seriously undermine the country’s apparently so stable monarchy. Kabul reported only 150 mm precipitation in 1970 while it was still 520 mm during the 1960s on average. Ornithologists monitoring the flamingo breeding-places on Ab-e Istada and Ab-e Nawor, both in Ghazni province, observed that ‘an extreme drought evaporated both lakes in 1971’.
Reports were coming in from an area which aid groups and the UN today call the Afghan hunger belt – mainly but not exclusively in the Hazarajat – of people so desperate that they had to eat grass while wheat coming into country piled up because the corrupt and unable bureaucracy was unable to deliver it into the crisis areas.
What followed is well known: When Sardar Daud toppled the King while the latter one was curing on the Italian island of Ischia, no one would stand up in his defence. While the coup itself was relatively bloodless, it set in motion a chain reaction leading into catastrophe: Daud proved that – after almost half a century of stability – violent regime change was possible again. Leftists and Islamists took up the lesson quickly and started infiltrating the army. Amongst different groups of coup plotters, the Khalqis pulled first in April 1978 and declared Afghanistan the country a model revolutionary one for the Third World (as a large poster at Kabul Airport read in the time of the ephemeral Hafizullah Amin regime in 1979).
Factional regime in-fighting, a quickly growing resistance monopolized by Islamists with ISI help and re-interpreted as jihad (instead of national resistance), civil war, first Western support for the mujahedin to lure in the Soviets (as Brzezinski admitted in his famous 1998 Nouvel Observateurinterview), the Soviet invasion, escalating and internationalised civil war, the mujahedin takeover and subsequent failure, the Taliban regime failing as well and finally the US-led international intervention, promising peace & reconstruction but soon running into a Vietnam-like quagmire – due to a whole chain of mistakes by the international community, underpinned by Afghanistan’s fragmented society drained of all internal trust by a war that already is lasting longer than the European 30 Years War.
Through 2009, discussions about Afghanistan were dominated by two events: the massively manipulated August presidential elections and the US debate about a new strategy for Afghanistan (‘How many more troops?’) and Pakistan. AAN has extensively reported both developments.
But one of their main features was an almost unbelievable amount of self-deception (or worse) on the part of the still US-led international community – on the part of the non-US actors mainly for the lack of viable strategies of their own and clearly faltering interest in Afghanistan. Worst of all, the United Nations which could have – if they had been led properly in Afghanistan from the start –together with able Afghans taken the lead in sound, population-oriented policy development if it wouldn’t have been busy toeing the line of its most-equal member-state itself.
The remark of a friend who had worked for UNAMA for a year and then quit (not quite an anti-American leftist) is still ringing in my ears: ‘We (the UN) have become an front-organisation for the US.’ No wonder that some Afghans I talked to had difficulties distinguishing between mellal-e muttahedand ayalat-e muttahed…
It is going on still, with all the remarks that ‘we can work with the new government’ despite Karzai publicly claiming that he is ‘immune to that [criticism of Obama, Brown and Eide with regard to corruption and has] heard so much of that, you know, it doesn’t bother me’ (see his striking 9 November interview with PBS here) and sticking to most of his old cabinet to the utter bewilderment of Afghans; the UN General Assembly unanimously validating the Afghan elections; Kai Eide claiming that he quits just as matter of routine etc pp.
As the German journalist Britta Petersen wrote in my favourite Berlin newspaper on 21 December (‘Haphazard in Kabul’, see original here): ‘Now it becomes apparent that the new Afghanistan strategy which had been announced in such a full-throated manner is none but just a wish list.’
And again, the blame is to share: The West concentrated on maintaining their darling-ministers (Wardak, Atmar, Fatemi and others) giving a free hand to the President to do what we wants in other ministries – instead of insisting on principles only and avoiding to keep what less well-meaning Afghans call ministers that are ‘agents of Western governments’.
The elections and the strategy debate, however, have overshadowed a lot of other things happening in the country (although not so much on our website). AAN will soon start a review on 2009’s most underreported Afghan issues: the provincial council election overlooked by a tired UN and Embassy personnel; the militia (sorry, community defence) issue, the assassination of the Kandahar police chief, the dropping of the Kajaki dam ‘beacon project’…
[Amongst my favourite largely over-looked stories were the following two:
Number one: According to reports by the Mercy Corps and the UN, the poorest Afghan families suffer an acute shortage of bread forcing them to drop meals and to take out children from school to use them as additional labourers. (So much about the rising number of school children, another myth not covered by reality anymore.) An average family has to spend 77 per cent of its income for foodstuff – in contrast to 56 per cent in 2005 – due to rising food prices in the world markets. 35 per cent of Afghan families were not able to meet their minimal nourishment requirements (5 per cent more than in 2005). 40,000 Afghans die from hunger and poverty per year, 25 times more than through direct violence. See ‘hunger belt’ above…
Number two: At the end of a Washington Post report (Joshua Partlow: ‘Afghan minister accused of taking bribe’, 18 Nov 2009, see here) about alleged corruption of the Minister for Mines and Industry (not included in the new cabinet list anymore), an American geologist working as an advisor for the minister complained about a ‘”murky and insufficient tender process” […] led by a “strong-willed minister unrelenting in his preference to see this award through with Asian partners” which led to the decision that a Chinese company got the lucrative contract to develop the Aynak copper mine in Logar province – although, as the newspaper added, ‘the bids […] included proposals from American and Canadian firms’. What does that mean? Do American or Canadian firms have an exclusive right on such business, as they were given in Iraq? For me this strongly smells as if at least a part of the anti-corruption fight is for US business dominance.]
And we’re desperately looking for really good news.
Meanwhile, as Martine’s last blog (‘Thought and worries’, see here) – and many media stories from Afghanistan – show Afghans are not very optimistic at all, and perhaps much closer to reality. We all have friends asking us whether it was time to pack their luggage (again) and head out of the country, people working with us shifting their families out of the provinces into Kabul and others even contemplating buying Indonesian visas and embarking one of these boats where you have the choice to die of thirst or be eaten by the sharks on the high seas or, at least alive (but what a life!) ending up on Christmas Island or Nauru. Or in one of the makeshift camps on the Calais end of the Channel Tunnel, if you’re heading into the other direction.
Time magazine, in its portrait of the ‘soft-spoken but passionately intense’ special ops guy General Stanley McChrystal whom it had chosen as the runner-up in its person-of-the year contest 2009 (behind Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke, and not the Nobel Peace Price winner; read the portrait here), concludes with the remarkable sentence that ‘[h]is troops might not succeed in this near impossible [Afghan] mission, […] they will be well led [at least].’
It looks as if John Lennon’s verses
A very merry Christmas
And a happy New Year
Let’s hope it’s a good one
Without any fear
might not come true for Afghanistan again in 2010.
UK poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy, in the first stanza of her ‘12 Days of Christmas’ just published by the Guardian (see it here) might be closer to reality:
On the first day of Christmas,
a buzzard on a branch.
no partridge, pear tree;
but my true love sent to me
a card from home.
I sat alone,
crouched in yellow dust,
and traced the grins of my kids
with my thumb.
Somewhere down the line,
for another father, husband,
brother, son, a bullet
with his name on.
AAN wishes all its friends and supporters, Afghan or otherwise, an as merry as possible Christmas with their families and a healthy and safe New Year 2010 anyway.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020