The FINANCIAL -- On a beautiful sunny, but somber morning in September 2009, I packed my
suitcase full of books on Afghanistan, some clothes, hugged my Afghan
friends and left my somewhat dilapidated “rest house” in the United
Nations compound in Kabul for the Airport .
I had finished my assignment with the UNDP as senior advisor, policy and development – a title which weighed heavy on my mind and soul in a country which was torn apart by several years of conflict, war, insurgencies, tribal warlords, the poppy mafia and the myriad of other revolutionaries, freedom fighters, liberators, and without doubt, the total oppression of women by the Taliban.
I have travelled and worked in several countries across all continents, but Afghanistan left an indelible mark in my psyche. It’s history of defiance against invaders, its tortuous history of war lords and raped villages, its traditional and oppressive adherence to keeping women ignorant, obedient to men and out of all forms of public life, the invasions starting from the Alexander the Great to the deployment of International Security Assistant Force to rout the Talibans out of power in Afghanistan, has made Afghanistan a unique hot spot in the world of pressure politics.
But like all wars down the centuries, the people in Afghanistan, the simple farmer, the nomad, the trader, the school teacher and the artisan have been given no breathing space to rebuild their lives.
Wedged uncomfortably at the cross roads of uncertainty between freedom and slavery, the ordinary Afghan lives in an eternal hope of someday finding peace, of drinking clean water from the wells, walking their children to school, reaping a bountiful harvest of corn and maize, tendering their sheep and celebrating the little joys of birth, marriage and success in little ventures.
In Afghanistan, I had a broad assignment which looked at various support systems and assistance for the implementation of the Afghanistan National Development Strategy, painfully crafted by some of the best strategists and adopted by the Afghanistan government, although the riding premise that development in a war-torn country should be driven by private sector investments was fatally flawed. ANDS was the main platform for much of the plans, activities and projects in which thousands of men and women form multilateral, bilateral agencies worked in addition to hundreds of non-government agencies and other donors.
There was almost an unquestioned belief among those who worked in Afghanistan that “winning the hearts and minds of Afghan people” was very much on track, that the peace and security would be in place and that the statistics churned out by much-funded agencies would dictate the return of the nation to democracy, civil liberties, private sector investment and growth. Projects for “gender mainstreaming”, again heavily funded from all directions, were said to bring Afghan women into the mainstream of public life.
Although there was a blanket ban on UN officials not traveling on their own and unescorted in Kabul, I did find the space and time to walk the Chicken street and other lanes to feel the pulse of a cramped and dusty city where thousands walked and filled the streets with little shops, vendors and money changers. Kabul, I felt, like the people of Afghanistan, has entered a time warp and a plateau of existence where life was no more a thing of joy, but a minefield filled with obstacles at every corner, physical, bureaucratic, religious and political. Navigating this minefield was perhaps the only focus of life. For many people, mainly in the rural areas of Afghanistan, eking out an existence of an average ten dollars a month was even more difficult.
Afghans, through the years, have been hardened through wars, conflicts and destabilization. Traditionally, they are both warriors and nomads. They are a very proud people with very long years of culture and tradition. They are, mentally and physically a very strong race, able to endure extreme hardships of a rugged mountain life and the dry plains. The last several generations carry the wounds of war and conflict, and of poverty, although, while visiting a University campus in Kabul, I noticed that they are like all youth anywhere in the world, wanting to go up in life and have a better future. One does not see a sense of dejection and despair. The will to survive the terrible ordeal of wars and displacement and take life as it comes seems a proven strength among most.
The Australian Government has decided to pull out of the theatre of war in Afghanistan one year ahead of schedule. Julie Gillard, the Australian Prime Minister is of the view that the mission is accomplished and that Australian troops are no more required in Afghanistan. This is the beginning. The ISAF contingent is scheduled to pull out by mid 2014, almost 11 years after the invasion of Afghanistan. The Afghan Security forces are expected to defend the regime and its people from any and all attacks. The recent coordinated offensive either by the Talibans or the Haqqani group on several key targets in Kabul and elsewhere have been reportedly repulsed by the Afghan Security forces. There is confidence that the security forces, once on their own with some continuing support from NATO and its allies, will mature and grow into a formidable defense force.
The future of Afghanistan, its return to democracy and civil liberty, to a status where women will enjoy some semblance of freedom, where illiteracy will be vastly diminished or eliminated, where poppy cultivation will be replaced by equally profitable farms and agro industry, where hunger and malnutrition will be a thing of the past, will be shaped and determined by only one critical and decisive factor: the Afghans themselves. There will be no tyrant, no dominant political philosophy or religious group which can keep the Afghans down for too long. If the current trend toward greater freedom and democracy in the Middle East takes root, and if freedom and democracy becomes an accepted norm among much of the Middle East, the domino theory will work with Afghanistan. Year 2020 may not be too far way.
When I left Kabul, I brought with me pictures of some of the most magnificent roses which grow in that land. Someday, I hope the land will be full of roses and not guns, bombs and suicide bombers.