This piece by journalist and author Edward Girardet was published by The Essential Edge 20 August, 2009.
The sad reality of the Afghan elections is that the results really do not matter. Seventeen million Afghans were registered to vote – and many did, including women determined to have an impact on the future of their country – but the extraordinary optimism that existed during the first presidential polls in 2004 is lacking. People have become disillusioned and are losing confidence. And many feel that no matter who comes to power there will be no real change. Edward Girardet reports from the Afghan capital.
Kabul — This morning, I strolled around to check out some of the heavily protected polling stations. It was all very quiet, the weather very hot. Most shops are closed and there are very few people in the streets. The BBC, Al Jazeera and some of the Afghan television stations have been reporting modest voter turnout (I don’t bother any more with CNN), which is perhaps more than some expected, given the security threats and three bombs as well as other attacks earlier this week. Street security is tight with armoured vehicles on each corner. Flak-jacketed police and soldiers with Kalashnikovs linger along the main roads and outside banks, government offices and other key points.
The polls have now closed as I write – extended by one hour – but I am not here to cover the elections. The city electrical power has just gone, so I can no longer use the internet. The big event this evening is the election party at Gandamak where aid workers, journalists and other expats intend to watch the returns on widescreen TVs (including CNN). There is nothing else to do so I’ll head over there. At least they have a generator.
My principal purpose for being in Afghanistan, however, is to do final research for a book with a perspective of what has happened since I first began reporting this country’s wars in October, 1979, nearly 30 years ago. As a result, I am focusing on background interviews with Afghans and expatriates with operational experience in the country dating back to the Soviet occupation of the 80s and beyond.
What I am seeking is to see what they think has gone wrong, but also what they think can still be done to remedy what has become a disastrous situation. Their optimism is not great.
For them, too many internationals, whether in military or in aid, act as if the world only began with the US-led intervention in October, 2001. Even more shocking is the utter lack of cultural or historic understanding among so many of those now involved in developing initiatives that will supposedly benefit the future of Afghanistan.
A lot of crucial lessons of the past have been ignored. These include advice proferred back in 2002 and 2003 to the UN, Bush administration and others by pragmatic old hands, among them well-informed American and European diplomats, academics and journalists, that the international community proceed slowly with a long-term perspective over several decades. This advise also stressed the need to focus on rural areas and involve ordinary Afghans as much as possible in the process.
Crucial, too, they warned, was not to overwhelm Afghanistan with aid and money. What Afghanistan did not need was another foreign occupation.
Yet the failure to heed such warnings is one reason why the internationally-backed recovery effort is currently faltering and why so many, both Afghan and foreign, are dying.
The main problem, perhaps, is that the long-term international commitment is simply not there. And just like during the 1980s and 1990s, the outsiders all have their own agendas. Many feel that no one is really here for the sake of the Afghans, neither the Americans, nor the British, nor most of the other foreign countries involved with the military counter-insurgency and the recovery process.
No one, except – as some suggest – Denmark and two or three other members of the “international community” – the loose term used for foreign military, aid agencies, consultants, mercenaries and entrepreneurs, people and journalists. Despite all the propaganda put out about by the internationals on how they are here to help promote democracy and recovery, ordinary Afghans are no longer buying it. Afghanistan, as one observer told me, has become one big “pretend game.”
Many feel that the country is no longer theirs. Afghans, and not just the Pushtuns in the south where most of the fighting is, increasingly regard the international presence as a foreign occupation force, both military and aid operators alike.
“The foreign soldiers treat us like dogs. They stop or even shoot at us on the roads if we come too close to their vehicles. They pull women out of cars. They shout and scream at us,” said one Afghan construction engineer, a Tajik, from Gulbahar to the north of Kabul, whom I have known for years and who was initially enthusiastic about the US-led intervention in Afghanistan.
Security and corruption are worse than they have even been. And the way international aid has been dispensed has proven blatantly ineffective, wasteful and without transparency. According to some sources, including a just published Oxfam Report on aid in Afghanistan, as much as 60 percent of the billions poured in over the past eight years has gone back out of the country in the form of administrative overheads, salaries for international aid workers and consultants, and imported goods. Hundreds of millions have disappeared into the pockets of Afghan government officials, warlords and other players.
“Apart from perhaps health and education, there has been little effective impact on Afghanistan’s rural areas where 78 percent of the population live despite the billions poured in,” maintains Anders Fange, director of the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan, one of the few really effective international aid agencies focusing on both rural and urban areas, which he helped co-found in the early 1980s.
Impunity and the lack of justice are also severe problems. These are another reason why so many Afghans are attracted to the traditional court systems advocated by the Taliban and other anti-western insurgents, including conservative elements within the government.
A common complaint is that the only way to obtain “justice” is to pay off the right judges and government officials, a process is costly and often drawn out over months, even years. Most ordinary Afghans simply cannot afford this. Traditional systems are quick, a day perhaps, and often fair. Corrupt judges of the government have been killed or publicly paraded through towns and villages with faces blackened to shame them.
This is why the law and order of the Taliban was so popular in many rural areas during the post-Jihad period of the 1990s and one reason why it is increasingly popular today.
As one senior United Nations official, who had previously worked with Afghanistan during the pre-2001 period, put it: “While the Taliban and others are responsible for horrific acts of violence, the perpetrators of impunity are also those who are in power. So how do you expect ordinary Afghans to have any confidence in what is going on? The Americans talk about the importance of rule and law and justice, and yet they undermine this by the way they treat prisoners at Bagram with no due-process.”
According to experts such as Jolyon Leslie, now with the Aga Khan Foundation, but previously during the 1990s with the UN’s Habitat agency in Kabul, the failure not only to provide quality aid but also to communicate more effectively with local populations has become highly pernicious. “The Afghans have good reason to be skeptical,” he notes. “This translates into quite a dangerous situation. A lot of people are doing some very good work, but many NGOs are perceived to be greedy and in it for themselves. The result is a viscerally negative attitude among many Afghans.”
Looking back to 1998, when Habitat sought to develop an effective plan for the development of Kabul and other cities as part of post-war recovery, Leslie sees the situation as being completely out of control. Urban planning and historic preservation have gone out the window as huge public spaces have been sold by corrupt government officials to property entrepreneurs who have destroyed many of the old sites.
“What we are now officiating is the dismemberment of Kabul, Herat and other cities with people deliberately turning a blind eye and getting away with it. It is terrifying,” he explains at his office on the southern outskirts of Kabul near the Russian embassy and the old Darulalam Palace. “We are now attuned to this loss of historic property. The irony is that many of those in power, whether President Karzai, Ashraf Ghani and others, are the very ones who presided over the destruction of Afghanistan’s historic cities. Nationally, they may recognize this in a decade, but it will be too late.”
Geneva-based Edward Girardet is the author of Killing the Cranes – A Reporter’s Journey Through Three Decades of War in Afghanistan published in September, 2011. The French version Il me parait que vous voulez me tuer was published by Editions Les Arenes in February, 2014.