Au’voir Afghanistan: A debriefing

It caught me by surprise. After almost three years, my friend Mingo, who I believed to have gone native in his adopted Afghanistan, has now returned to Europe. A sabbatical from journalism awaits him in 2006… and perhaps the authorship of a book, or two, while engaged in a well-deserved Mediterranean R&R.

A good friend is always expected to be loyal… but a better friend is one who allows you to enter his mind and borrow from some of his ideas, only holding back his right of imprimatur. And Mingo is a better friend… consenting to a second, and final, debriefing after four months: an extract of the critical issues affecting the economy, security, culture and tradition… and democracy’s future in Afghanistan.

Of late, Hamid Karzai has been making public his willingness to seek reconciliation with Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader… and there is a hint, or at least an interpretation by some, of perhaps some “sharing” in the political future of the country. But, according to Mingo, most Afghans feel that Karzai’s political tent is too small for him, incapable of housing any invitee as big and influential as Omar.

Omar, and the yet to be seriously heard from Taliban – probably in military hibernation until late Spring – is not a likely candidate to share political fortunes with His Sartorial Excellence, no matter what anyone reads in Karzai’s overtures.

Reconstruction in Afghanistan is too slow for anyone’s likings. And the infrastructure, after four years, is only building up at a snail’s pace. True that expectations were initially too high – it’s always that way – but the results measure, at best, only half of what they should reasonably be, and a quarter of the expectations. A Pashtun proverb, one that Mingo heard dozens of times during his last three months there, underlines what most Afghans think of America, its government, and the taxing and unreasonable patience that is asked of them: Don’t show me the palm tree, they say, show me the dates.

Almost entirely energy-dependent on its neighbors, the exorbitant increase in the price of fuel has for many people wiped out, or exceeded, any economic improvements that might have been encountered in other areas. Things will be critical for eighty percent or more of the population this winter… and that will affect the resurgence of the Taliban.

As unpopular as the Russians were, you get to hear more and more how the free market and American-style democracy are far worse. American democracy, many contend, works fine for a cunning few, while the rest of the people suffer. For the first time in his three years there, Mingo listened to the yearning for the good old socialist times, when the regime at least seemed to care for people, not just some people.

Price-gouging runs rampant, and there seems to be total lack of government control against overly greedy people. Again, the public cry is for the not so distant past when the Taliban would use a firm hand with the heartless businessmen.

And make no mistake about it, Mingo states, that for Afghans, and other people in the Third World, democracy is equated with some reasonable sharing of wealth. If there is unfairness, or the perception of unfairness in wealth distribution, it’s democracy’s fault.

As for security… what the Afghan government officials say about the existing level of security is loudly counterclaimed by the fear people experience throughout the country, from Kabul to Kandahar to Herat… or any point inside or outside that triangle. It was in Herat, Mingo’s base of operations, where he personally witnessed last mid-October a clash between Afghan soldiers and local police which left two dead less than two blocks from where he was staying.

Whether the 1,500+ Afghan civilian deaths in 2005 is a high, low or acceptable number of victims caught in the political turmoil may not be relevant. Relevant, however, is the indisputable fact that people, most if not all, are frightened and feel more and more insecure each day. A much different picture from that provided by the governments in Kabul and Washington, one would say.

Dick Cheney’s assertion last June that, “We will succeed in Iraq, just like we did in Afghanistan,” has the tail waggling the dog… as the strategies and tactics used by the Insurgency in Iraq are finding their way to Afghanistan, not just with the Taliban but with foreign elements slowly infiltrating the country- including suicide bombers.

The government in Kabul may claim a high level of security in the nation, but for the Afghans walking the streets, it’s all about insecurity.

If there is a bright light against the darkness that surrounds security and the economy, it does come in an important area: education; and not just for boys, but also for girls. True those girls still have to fight tradition and the jeering that accompanies them to school; but some of them are braving it… bringing forth a courageous example. Still, despite the overblown statistics given by the government on female attendance, Mingo believes that there could be one girl attending school for every four boys, perhaps the ratio somewhat higher in areas closer to the Iranian and Pakistani borders, where a number of Afghans have returned from exile in the more enlightened Pakistani and Iranian societies where women command a greater voice.

Afghanistan is certainly an example, but not in the context Cheney had intended. Democracy is not just a political system that you can shove down a nation’s cultural throat, but something that needs careful preparation, seeding… and then weeding before it takes on firm roots. And America has yet to learn much in that process… particularly when its brand of democracy is widely viewed, at least in the developing world, as lacking a social conscience.