Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

War and Peace

Ten Years After – or: My Former Cleaner’s Beard

Thomas Ruttig 8 min

Ten years ago today, the first bombs were dropped over Afghanistan. Most Kabulis welcomed them and even applauded when houses of certain Taleban ‘guests’ were hit. They were really tired of living as international pariahs and under a leader who’s face was unknown and who only recommended prayer to overcome social problems, leaving the real work to the few NGOs and UN agencies which were under constant threat to be kicked out of the country for employing Afghan women in the same room as men or proselytising, real and imagined. The bombs were the prelude to the US-led international intervention that soon run into problems which were not admitted and therefore finally led into a real quagmire. Thomas Ruttig, a Senior AAN Analyst, has a few thoughts on the balance of this intervention, brought to mind by numerous media enquiries yesterday. He apologizes that this only can be a rough tour de force (too much area to cover) and partly has been written before, like in his 24 June blog, titled ‘Leaving Afghanistan: Where’s The Progress?’

An Afghan colleague who cleaned our office in Kabul during the Taleban time one day told me that, when their regime would be gone (and it started looking then as if that day wasn’t too far away, even before 9/11), he would shave his beard, collect what he called his ‘wool of shame’, put it in a little pouch and hang it on his wall at home as a memento to the bad times passed.

I met him again earlier this year. He was still wearing his beard.

What I want to say by this episode? I want so say that the expectations of many Afghans, in particular with regard to security and reconstruction of their country, were not fulfilled. To the contrary: the summary result of the West’s intervention scares the living daylight out of them. Whether ‘we’ are failing in Afghanistan? Do we need any other yardstick than my former colleague’s beard and the fear about his future it stands for, the fear about the Taleban coming back, putting clean-shaven men in containers again and asking them to grow their fleece before they are let out? He is not the only one who is frightened. Just go and ask around in Afghanistan.

I think Afghans’ expectations have not been excessive, given the promises of billions of  dollars of aid beginning with the Tokyo conference which, since then, have only increased to amounts unimaginable since the years of the Marshall Plan. Nevertheless, exaggerated expectations – after a Thirty Years’ War! – are now often given as a reason by Western politicians for the failure they produced, stumbling into the Good Afghan War full of optimism and loyalty to the US, while ignorant (or uninterested) in a country’s realities they had abandoned just 12 years, as soon as the last Soviet soldier had crossed the Amu Darya on 16 February 1989 and after having done their share in turning Afghanistan into the hottest battlefield of the Cold War. Or, when reading US Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski’s famous interview with the Nouvel Observateur (‘How Jimmy Carter and I Started the Mujahideen’, issue of 15-21 January 1998, online available here), they even lured the Soviets into this trap. But that’s pre-history for most of them, and so they are simply looking for a justification to run to the exit door of this unhappy country and dump all the blame for the mistakes committed over the past ten years, and particularly in the first years, on its unfortunate inhabitants. (Not that a number of Afghan leaders do not deserve a hefty dose of this blame.)

The list is of mistakes that led into this situation is long. It starts from concentrating on the military side of things, a result of the Bush/Cheney ‘war on terror’ folly (still defended in their memoirs), a ‘concept’ most allied governments acquiesced to. And it does not end with dropping (or never really doing) institution-building and handing over the ‘new Afghan democracy’ and its institutions to people some of whom, if they had a Serbian or Croatian passport, would be in The Hague now.

The aid billions have not much improved the lives of the average Ahmad, Mahmud & Jamila but made a neo-oligarchy fat and created a social gap unknown in recent Afghan history. On social inequality, just ask for the rise of basic foodstuff or fuel prices or rents in the lower segments. Visit the ‘dusty villages’ a few kilometres off the ringroad or talk to Kabul’s garbage collectors, just off the main Wazir Akbar Khan road. And have a look at Sherpur, in comparison, or ‘Churpur’, as they call it more to the point. (Ask your ‘terp’ what that means.).

There is still no census, no ID cards for everyone and, therefore, no reliable voters’ register. Elections are unreliable, too. Diplomats and UN staff have overslept the deadlines twice for helping (or pushing Karzai) to make a better electoral law in time. Parties, parliament and provincial councils have been disempowered under their democratic eyes, students discouraged from being involved in political life. Okay, granted, their number had only increased after the political post-Bonn train had sustainably been put on the wrong track by the Khalilzad/Brahimi duo, with some help of the President and his warlord coalition, which Karzai had promised to end in his 2004 presidential election platform – and for which he received by far the biggest number of votes, most of them honest ones (although it remains unclear whether he ever had 50 per cent plus even then).

The disbandment of illegal armed groups has been replaced by the establishment of a new wave of militias, under the euphemistic term of ‘ALP’. Conscription has been scrapped as has the prime minister’s post that had existed from 1964 to 1992. (I am not talking about the ANSF again.)

Yes, there are many more rights and freedoms than under the Taleban, but often they are only existent on paper (an Afghan voice about this here). Moreover, that neo-oligarchy has put itself above the law and lives in full impunity. Just count the people brought before court following the Sherpur evictions by bulldozer or the Kabul Bank scheme. Not to mention the self-amnesty of the entente cordial of war criminals and gross human rights abusers of all factions.

Yes, there is – or has been – progress in the health and education sectors. But the talk about seven or eight or six-point-some million children in school or 90 per cent health service coverage is highly superficial.

At a closer look, 2.4 million girls attend a school today indeed, 480 times more than during the Taleban regime. (I am not sure whether this includes all the illegal girls’ school funded by NGOs and sometimes protected by local Taleban officials.) But 2.4 million are only one third, not half, of all children. According to a report by a group of NGOs, 22 per cent of those girls are counted as ‘permanently absent’. ‘It is not said how many children do not attend school’, a former Deputy Minister for Women Affairs said in the recent AAN blog mentioned above. And how many children finish school? Most of them only make it to grade 4.’

And look at the quality of schools. Half of the Afghan schools do not have a building. In many villages, classes still are held under trees or in provisional tents. Pupils have to bribe teachers to pass exams, student have to bribe commissions to be admitted to university. The entry ‘konkur’ is a mess of political influence-mongering. Many teachers have second jobs and absent themselves from their classes regularly because they cannot feed their families from the meagre 120 dollars all of them made up to the end of 2009 when, finally, merit-based salaries were introduced. Top salary: 428 dollars. Often, they are not paid for months anyway. Corrupt officials pocket the money, or even make up schools that do not exist – but no one is able to check because going there is too dangerous. (We know this practice from earlier years in the ANA and ANP, too.)

At the schools and even at university, there is dikte: the teacher dictates, the students write down, learn by heart, repeat without understanding and forget. Questions or critical thought is not part of the plan. ‘Schoolbooks teach the students little of value or relevance’ (Nushin Arbabzadah in theGuardian, 27 November 2010, full text here). Good, or let’s say better, education is available for money most Afghans do not have, in private schools and tutoring courses or at the American University that drain away the best lecturers from the government-run universities with its incomparably higher salaries. ‘Education remains only for privileged Afghans’, wrote the young activist Noorjahan Akbar in a blog for al-Jazeerarecently (in full here).

After school or university, jobs are scarce. They are acquired by money or relations, not by qualification. On the contrary, government bureaucrats see properly educated people as a threat to their jobs, that they often had taken over with their Kalashnikov, backed by their factional elders, and legitimised by their participation in the muqawwamat (resistance against the Soviets and the Taleban). This reality is known from Mid-Eastern countries where it contributed to spark the Arab spring. Similar reactions have not occurred in Afghanistan (yet?), the political landscape is too segmented and there is no single enemy. Karzai is no Mubarak, and warlords are sometimes with, sometimes against him. And if the going gets tough, you can always go to them for protection. After all, they have entrenched themselves in positions in government, the economy and the armed forces, have arms, money and unbroken influence.

Not least, the military escalation caused by the early 2009 troop surge has undermined some of this progress in health and education. More and more families keep their children out of school, or their women away from clinics. Often, it is simply too dangerous to get there. And often there is neither medication available nor personnel, which is afraid to live in constant danger between the Taleban and the Special Forces, both of whom demand absolute loyalty to their own side only.

And what about the – in the region – almost unprecedented freedom of media? Harassment and repression against journalists are their daily bread. If you name names in your reports, warlords who are now ministers send their goons to your homes, or the government tries your for ‘blasphemy’ if you criticise the Jihadi leaders. This is punishable by death, and you can’t defend yourself well when the mullas dominate the courts. Western countries have to stand in and talk people out of court and into exile, to the hissing of the clergy. Kambakhsh from Mazar was only the last prominent case. Remember Aftab newspaper, accusing some former mujahedin leaders as misusing religion to safeguard personal power, under the headline of ‘Religious fascism’? Or Mohaqqeq-Nasab? The results are wide taboo areas for reporters and result in self-censorship. This makes media less significant, the only exception being the mushrooming call-in programmes where people from all over the country, urban and rural, talkspeene khabare (in plain words) under the cover an anonymity. But more and more newspapers, radio and TV stations are owned by well-off warlords who only broadcast their parties’ lines while independent media struggle for their financial survival.

So, forget about the Afghans and their aspirations and let’s come to what really is interesting for ‘us’: Have the West’s aims in Afghanistan been achieved? Well, that doesn’t look much better either. I am not really sure what they have been and have become of today. One thing is clear, expectations have been ‘managed’ since, some aims been ‘scaled down’ and others ‘de-emphasised’. ‘Peace’ became ‘stability’‚ a democratic Afghanistan became ‘Afghan good enough governance’, to simplify a bit. It took ten years to find OBL. This was done in a way that he wasn’t able to give his version any more (or even throw in the towel). There must have been some sighs of relief amongst those perceived US allies who had let him and his people slip over the Tora Bora mountains into Pakistan in late 2001. Some involved in this stunt (and in getting him into Afghanistan in the first place) sit in parliament today.

Despite all the NATO spin, the security situation has deteriorated year by year after 2001, give and take some ups and downs and a number of Taleban ‘facilitators’ and Haqqani ‘leaders’ killed. The insurgency has developed from ‘Taleban remnants’ just to be swept up, to full-blown insurgency, and its shadow lies over the whole country, from ‘liberated’ Sangin to the Serena Hotel.

What’s the conclusion from all this? The West is not good enough to intervene in countries like Afghanistan and take all the decisions by itself. We simply do not have the means and mechanisms for this, not within the UN and not within NATO. We need to upgrade our – political! – intervention mechanisms and leave behind our hubris. In Afghanistan, it would require pulling all relevant social and political forces together, let them decide what went wrong over the past ten years and what needs to be changed, on a level playing field, not with those in power and arms (whose legitimacy is in question anyway) having the say alone, and the international community acting as guarantors. The West should not simply walk away from this mess it helped to create.

But is there the political will do this? I can’t see it. We are already distracted by greater things: the US budget and the Euro crisis, Greece’s bailout and maybe Italy’s and Spain’s (not that this isn’t partially of our making, too), Japan’s Chernobyl and the Arab spring.


* And many Afghans outside Kabul, too. Just remember the villagers in rural Kandahar who kicked out Taleban recruiters or villagers in rural Khost who kicked out Taleban officials because they were sick and tired by their bans of suddenly ‘un-Islamic’ tradition.


Kabul Taleban