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Some Kabul themes

December 20, 2012


APART from the negotiations with the Taliban and the US troops’ withdrawal plans, much of what is happening in Afghanistan, especially the impact of the state’s reconstruction on society, should be of great interest to policymakers and moulders of public opinion in Pakistan.

The most striking feature of Afghan society today is the reappearance of the professional class that had been driven out of the country in the 1980s. A large crop of young men and women is preparing to join this class. It is too early to say whether these professionals will be able to throw up a middle class strong enough to modernise Afghan society or even to challenge the conservative feudal hierarchy in the manner their predecessors did 50 years ago.

The main problem is that the fruits of the donors’ massive investment that one sees in Kabul have not reached the countryside. The gap between the rich and poor, urbanites and the rural population, has increased dangerously. As an economist who has been watching Afghanistan for two decades put it, some parts of the country have been pushed back by several hundred years.

The direction Afghanistan may take in future will depend on the terms of agreement the Afghanistan delivered by Western midwives can negotiate with the Afghanistan that is still mired in the past and held back by an alliance between tribal lords and clerics.

At the moment, however, Pakistani visitors to Kabul cannot avoid the disconcerting question whether the Afghans are going to leave them behind in the way the other South Asian countries have already done. The most commonly used indicator is the decline in the value of the Pakistani rupee — now the weakest currency in South Asia in relation to the US dollar. For a hundred Pakistani rupees you get no more than 50 Afghanis.

That security is still the dominant concern in Kabul becomes clear the moment you land at the vastly expanded, modern-looking and busy (serving 17 or so airlines) airport. Private cars cannot be driven up to the terminal building, passengers cover the distance to the car parking area by bus, and they are frisked at several points not only on arrival but also while departing. Even those who have not read the latest Pentagon report refer to the Taliban’s change of tactics and their ability to carry out “high-profile attacks”. They are as pessimistic about the security forces’ capacity to defend the country as the US military high command.

While the US is being advised by many (including the New York Times) to pull out its troops from Afghanistan even earlier than 2014, the predominant view in Kabul, except for some politicians, seems to be that the US forces should stay on beyond 2014. A great deal of importance is also being given to the proposed US-Afghanistan defence agreement. For instance, the Afghan parliament staff has declared that a security accord with the US is necessary for guaranteeing long-term stability in Afghanistan.

Islamabad should seriously ponder as to how it will deal with the post-2014 Afghanistan. It seems anti-Pakistan feelings are not limited to the official circles. Complaints against Pakistan, especially of maltreatment of the Afghan refugees by the police in different parts of Pakistan, have entered the bazaar gossip. A police officer in Kabul does not hesitate to tell a Pakhtun visitor from Peshawar, “while we are servants of the community, your police only knows how to kill people”.

If you wish to discuss human rights in the Afghan capital you may find quite a sizeable group of academics, professionals and human rights activists who will frankly describe the challenges they face. Afghanistan boasts of perhaps the largest national human rights institution in the region, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) — about 600 staff members operate from four premises in the capital, including a full-fledged printing press. The commission can be quite critical of the government.

For instance, in its fifth report on respect for economic, social and cultural rights, the commission protested against non-availability of clean drinking water. A survey conducted by it had shown that 43 per cent of the people interviewed did not have access to safe drinking water and 19.3 per cent said they shared the sources of water with animals.

Usually the government treats the AIHRC and its chairperson, Dr Sima Samar, with respect but sometimes painful differences can arise between them. An issue being debated these days is the reported disinclination of President Karzai to allow the release of the commission’s report on the war crimes committed in Afghanistan during the past several decades.

Those responsible for these crimes are said to include Afghan Mujahideen leaders of different inclinations. It is possible Karzai does not want to turn the followers of these leaders against himself. Quite a few citizens’ groups do not approve of the presidential cautiousness, like the students of the Education (Taleem-o-Tarbiat) University who successfully opposed the renaming of their institution after a former Mujahideen stalwart.

That the human rights activists include a sizeable number of women, some of them extremely articulate, should not cause any surprise. What does come as a surprise is the extent of the compromises the regime has made with the conservative religious lobby at the cost of women’s freedoms. The plight of women suspected of merely going out with male friends, especially the practice of subjecting them to a virginity test, is one of the most painful realities of life in the new Afghanistan.

Chances are that, even if you stay in Kabul for no more than a couple of days, you will run into a Hazara Shia who will ask you to explain why members of his community are being killed in Quetta.

Ms F, in her early twenties, wears a very serious expression on her innocent-looking face. An erstwhile resident of Quetta, she is now a refugee in Australia and is in Kabul these days for one of those international conferences on Afghanistan’s affairs that seem to be taking place all the time and getting nowhere. She cannot take her mind off the wave of violence against the Hazara Shia in Balochistan that has not only claimed hundreds of lives in the past few years but has also paralysed the whole community.

Mr Asim is a young professional engaged in humanitarian work and, judging from his confident manner and the model of his car, quite well-off. After a couple of questions about the overall situation in Pakistan he wants to know why its government cannot adopt an effective plan to stop the targeted killing of the Hazara Shia.

Both he and Ms F do not blame the authorities alone; they also criticise civil society’s failure to defend Balochistan’s Hazara Shia. They do not think the Hazaras in Afghanistan have much influence with their government but Pakistani policymakers should not dismiss the possibility that the killing of Hazara Shia in Balochistan and the near closure of educational and economic opportunities on them could also contribute to strains on Islamabad-Kabul relations in the days to come.