I have borrowed the title of this piece from V S Naipaul : somehow this seemed like an apt title.
I am just back from the Badakshan province of Afghanistan. It is one of the remotest provinces in the north east of the country, a province that was never held by the Taliban even in their heydays. In fact it was the seat of the ‘official’ Afghanistan government when the Taliban were in power in the late 1990s and early 2000s. I had the opportunity to spend 6 days in the field interacting with development workers and communities. It was an eye opening experience and one I felt I must write about.
In the last few years Afghanistan has been in the news mainly due to the gory events that seem to be happening here. Mention Afghanistan and one thinks ONLY of terror and war. Somewhat like Ethiopia and famine in the mid 1980s. Few people seem to realise that just a few decades back Afghanistan was a developing country sufficient in food grain with healthy exports of dry fruit, gemstones and carpets.
The downward slide started in the 1970s. First came the communist coup and then the Russian ‘advisers’ in December 1979. It was at the height of the cold war and the Americans quickly got involved – well not so quickly if one believes the story told in Charlie Wilson’s War which is worth watching. The CIA started by helping the Mujahideen groups operating in various parts of the country – all with the intention of ousting the Russians and overthrowing the puppet government. By that time though millions had been displaced. Thousands killed or maimed. Refugees poured into Pakistan, Iran by the millions and in Europe and USA in the hundreds. I have not yet met a single person who does not have large number of family members still out of Afghanistan.
It was at this time that all infrastructure in Afghanistan started crumbling – any group that took a place would ransack and what better than a government installation? Things rapidly went from bad to worse as roads, bridges, telecommunications, homes and government installations went down. Things have never improved after that. The whole country is practically in shambles. Each ‘saviour’ group has been worse than the ones immediately preceding them. A few glimpses of what I have seen / heard would be good I guess..
The Mujahideen rid the country of the Russians but introduced religious intolerance in this country which had been fairly liberal, at least in the urban areas, till then. Also they comprised numerous warlike factions – once their common enemy was gone, they happily turned their fighting instincts on each other. He who had more guns, money and men ruled and different warlords took control of different areas.
Poppy cultivation started in a big way to finance this war. Wheat fields and fruit orchards were destroyed to grow more poppy. Today some of the richest men in the country are drug lords or war lords. This wealth can be seen in the mansions that have been built in posh areas of Kabul – their grandeur giving rise to a new term – narcotecture.
In the mid 1990s the Taliban came from nowhere and in a few months had control over most part of the country. We have heard about the Taliban rule (for those who want to know more I would recommend Khalid Husseini’s ‘Kite Runner’ and ‘Thousand Splendid Suns’) and I really don’t need to repeat anything here. What is not known outside Afghanistan is that the Taliban period was one of tremendous security for common people – there were NO CRIMES (except those committed by the Taliban themselves). The punishment was too severe. People tell me that in those years you could walk anywhere with a million dollars in your pocket without fear – problem was that there was no way for people to earn those dollars since the economy was in complete shambles. An engineer colleague of mine survived the time by spending 13 months in a Pakistan refugee camp and the rest of the time hawking bread (naan) on a push cart.
After 2001 the fight continued and this time the Mujahideen were fighting the Taliban. That war is by no means over yet. The US might have moved on to Iraq and may go elsewhere as well but the daily skirmishes one sees in South Afghanistan are a reminder that there is a lot to be done – unfortunately there is no one to do it.
Government presence and control does not exist outside Kabul. Various factions are still in control across the country. The cabinet is like a loose federation of warring tribes.
Thousands are still stranded in refugee camps and now Iran is seeking to push back, by force if necessary, 100,000 refugees who are in camps there.
Hunger is endemic – food is sufficient only for 5-7 months for over 80% of the families. The rise in food grain prices across the world is not helping. Now the floods is the US will do more damage by increasing prices even more.
Infrastructure is in shambles – if an NGO wants to work in the remote provinces, it has to actually build the roads first so that it and material can reach. NGOs are forced to do the work that the government is supposed to do. Last year in a meeting in a district lots of NGOs presented their action plans to the district governor. When he was requested to talk about the government plans the only thing he had to say was, “Me and my staff shall be constantly praying for the well being of all of you NGOs. There is nothing else that is planned” I am not joking. It actually happened. I have met the man who made that request to the Governor.
Civil society is in complete disarray – the war has decimated over 2 generations. The intelligentsia has fled the country a long time ago, those left are too few to make a difference. There is serious paucity of skills and learning – education took a complete back seat in the Taliban years. Skilled teachers are at a premium making the education situation even messier. Infant and maternal mortality rates are amongst the highest in the world. Naturally there is too much dependence on expatriate personnel in all fields. Most of the local NGOs have emerged from a need to have an NGO front – most started off as construction companies which were (are) in demand in the rebuilding process.
One sees little evidence of Afghan culture – as far as performing arts are concerned. There are no patrons left. Most of the entertainment is driven by television with dubbed movies and soaps from India. I was told by a driver, who was aghast that I did not watch the saas-bahu serials, “Tulsi (Smriti Irani) would win any election she contested in Afghanistan”.
This land is seriously wounded. There is no succour in sight. These wounds, if not healed, could be fatal not only to this country but also the region and the world. The question is whether the world powers have the vision to do it and sustain their focus in the long term or will they again mess up in the endgame? Only time will tell.