by Wazhmah Osman
– Afghanistan/USA –
Today Afghanistan finds itself in a state of collapse and at the center of a powerful network of global terrorism. Kabul is a city filled with anxiety, insecurity, instability, trauma, and uncertainty; lost souls at the mercy of warlords turned government officials and disillusioned by development aid that has only reached and made a small sector of society obscenely rich. Suicide bombs, corruption, military planes, armored vehicles, and convoys of tanks are a regular part of everybody else’s lives.
On February 14th, while most Americans were buying flowers, chocolates, teddy bears, and jewelry for their beloveds, two American rockets were delivered to the home of an Afghan family, killing 12 people including 6 children. In the small village of Marjah, in the Southern province of Helmand, near my grandfather’s village of Margheer, precision guided rockets indiscriminately struck a large household, proving once again that “smart bombs” and “precision weapons” are neither smart nor precise. The exact number of civilian deaths from the Afghan/American military campaign against the Taliban is still increasing as the dead are recovered from the rubble.
After years of sectarian intolerance that manifested into ethnic/tribal violence, religious violence, and of course gender violence, how does a wounded people rebuild as a nation? Whether Afghanistan is brought into the global dialogue or spins further out of control is not solely dependent on military might. The fate of Afghanistan and therefore the key to stabilizing a volatile region rests in the power of public opinion.
One woman from Helmand shared with me a commonly felt sentiment among the locals: “The Americans use methods to lower deaths on their side but in the process are raising Afghan deaths.”
Violence breeds more violence. As the sun was rising on Friday, February 26th, a series of bombs rocked the heart of Kabul’s busy Sharnow neighborhood. The suicide bombers targeted Afghanistan’s first shopping mall, Kabul City Center, the Safi Landmark Hotel, and another foreign guesthouse – all places catering to Westerners and well-to-do Afghans. But Kabul City Center is also popular with the general public (including my friends and I) since it’s one of the only places to go to escape the realities of Kabul life. At least a dozen people were killed, including the attackers, and countless more injured. I received word that a good friend of mine, Severin Blanchet, an amazing French filmmaker who helped start Ateliers Varan (an incredible NGO that trains Afghans in filmmaking – some of whom have gone on to gain international attention) was killed in the blasts. I mourn his death and the many that have come before him and those who will surely follow. And so the cycle of indiscriminate violence continues, touching strangers and loved ones alike.
The Afghan and American people must demand a radical shift away from the way the business of war and peace has been conducted thus far. The Afghan people who have experienced the worst that humanity has to offer for three decades deserve better. The American people who are suffering economically and footing the bill for the Afghan war deserve better. Both are understandably tired of not seeing any results in the development sector and too many fatal results in the military campaigns and by the insurgents. It’s time for real leadership and real changes.
Even though Afghans realize that there are many Americans working in Afghanistan who are dil souz (sympathetic-hearted), the West has so far exported the dark side of free market capitalism and democracy to Afghanistan. In order to restore the faith of both the Afghan and American people in the legitimacy of the Afghan government and America’s foreign policy, we need to see partnerships that yield visible results, reach local communities, improve people’s daily lives, and minimize causalities on all sides, regardless of nationality.
This is a critical juncture in the tangled history of Afghan-U.S. relations. Afghans have not forgotten the chaos and civil war that ensued following America’s abandonment after the Soviet withdrawal, or more recently with the temporary withdrawal of the Taliban – the consequences of which are still reverberating. Karzai and Obama have to break with the same old approach. There can be no more maintaining of the status quo of conservatism, lawlessness, and corruption, born out of the fires of three decades of war.
Obama needs to stop the Cheneyesque contracting practices and distance himself from the short-sighted Bush administration policy of funding and empowering rogue militants at the expense of long-term regional stability and security. He also needs to put an end to the insidious culture of war profiteering.
Why is the US expanding detention centers around Afghanistan and imprisoning over one thousand Afghans without charges? Why are aerial bombings, unmanned drones, and “precision” rockets still the choice weapons of war? This month’s civilian deaths have only served to reinforce the bitterness felt by an already traumatized people and should be proof that increased American troop presence and guns alone will not yield stability. From a purely humanitarian perspective, 2009’s 2,412 civilian deaths should be a good indicator to the international community that not only is the current strategy not working, but is a tragedy of incredible proportions. The Obama administration needs to rethink its dependence on military strategy and reprioritize nation building.
There must be new measures of accountability for development and defense spending which actually monitor project success and consider the needs of Afghanistan’s people. Only then can desperately needed governance projects – such as judicial reform and army/police training – become functional enough to challenge the warlords, prosecute war criminals, and force them to abide by the rule of law. Maybe then the highly publicized but completely ineffectual programs like DDR (disarmament) and DFID Alternative Livelihoods (anti-poppy) will actually make a difference. A number of people I’ve spoken to say that the disarmament program failed to reduce the number of functioning guns and rifles in circulation and inadvertently actually created a bigger arms market. Destitute Afghans figured out that they could buy broken weapons for cheap and then resell them for more money at the disarmament centers. With input from local communities, some of these mistakes could have been avoided.
Unlike top-heavy coalition development programs, grassroots organizations that have close relationships with local communities offer alternative models that actually work. There are a handful of smaller international donors and NGOs – such as the Aga Khan Development Network, the German Society for Technical Cooperation, and the Danish Committee for Aid to Afghan Refugees – that are making a visible difference. They work on a local level building schools, universities, and health clinics. They renovate historical sites and monuments, dig wells and bring solar technology to towns and villages. Even the British who are generally distrusted by most Afghans due to the three Anglo-Afghan Wars (Afghans never forget their history and hold grudges) are scoring public opinion points with their Turquoise Mountain Foundation which is rebuilding and renovating centers of artistry like the Old City of Kabul and also promoting traditional Afghan arts and designs by providing training and creating markets. These organizations also hire more local staff who may not have the job experience or education of foreign workers but who also do not require the additional expense of a translator and constant security.
The Obama administration must renew its commitment to nation building efforts and recognize its responsibilities to the Afghan people. We were all promised and are still waiting for change. Pressuring the Afghan government to clean up its corruption and threatening to withhold civilian aid as Hillary Clinton has done is a good first step – this is the American and the international community’s trump card and main source of leverage. But without cleaning up their own act, it’s akin to throwing stones when you live in a glass house.
We cannot continue to drink our lattes while pretending that we’re all not interconnected. With the ever-expanding reach of new technologies including those of violence, globalization theory reminds us that borders between and within nations are soft and permeable; economic, political, and cultural manifestations are trans-nationally intertwined.
During his inauguration Afghans chanted on the street “O ba ma, Ma ba O” which in Persian translates to “He’s for Us, We’re for him”. With the adoption and implementation of new methods for capacity development, Afghanistan can become a successful model of democracy and demonstrate the achievements of nation building, thereby not only remedying the mistakes of the past but curtailing the Taliban insurgency as well.
Looking at Karzai during his recent address to the parliament, surrounded by prominent warlords and his new ministers who are mostly the same old ministers, the change we seek does not seem likely. Yet another Afghanistan without bombs and burqas is possible.
When I partially close my eyes and look out on the beauty of the Kabul night skyline – majestic mountains backlit by the setting sun, lights of homes twinkling as the few remaining trees sway in the dust storm, high flying kites that seem to collide with low flying Chinook helicopters – I can almost see the Kabul of my past; a peaceful functioning society with a class of educated professionals who believe in a modern Afghanistan that is a thriving part of the world community.
In her series, Wazhmah addresses the modern day reality facing Afghans,
the pervasive corruption and numerous obstacles to rebuilding, and her recommendations for the US’ future engagement in Afghanistan. – Ed.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Wazhmah Osman is a Social Science Research Council Fellow, currently completing her dissertation fieldwork in Afghanistan. She is a PhD candidate at New York University’s Media, Culture, and Communication program. Wazhmah earned a Masters degree in Near Eastern Studies from New York University and completed the innovative Graduate Program in Culture and Media through NYU Anthropology.
Wazhmah’s critically acclaimed documentary Postcards from Tora Bora, co-directed with Kelly Dolak, has screened in film festivals internationally. For more information please visit www.postcardsfromtorabora.com. She travels frequently between Kabul and NYC.