My flight from Dubai to Kabul was full of non-Afghans returning from their R&R, and before even getting back to work they were chatting about their next trip out of Kabul to escape all the hardships and more (not reflecting what I know to be their tremendous commitment to their work in Afghanistan!).

When I enter the overcrowded baggage claim area of the Kabul airport, I delight in the familiar faces of the young porters with welcoming smiles and the greeting “Hallo madam! How are you?” — they are my lifelines at the airport. I missed them when I was a member of the staff at the Canadian embassy in Kabul, because I entered and exited through the VIP room, avoiding the commoners and missing the chaos, confusion, people falling over each other to extract their luggage from the belts, the anxiety of not knowing exactly which belt your luggage would appear on, children crying with burqa-clad women consoling them while frantically looking for their luggage…and the vain efforts of uniformed officers to bring some order. Such chaos is part and parcel of Afghanistan, the abode of a large percentage of the bottom billion of the world’s poor.

The grounds in Kabul are snow covered — it looks like Toronto in mid-winter, light snow starts to sprinkle. It is a bitterly cold morning for Kabul, with a temperature of minus 5 Celsius — not very cold for an Ottawa veteran like myself, used to minus 30 degrees on occasion. Below-zero temperatures are loathed by ordinary Afghans, who live in substandard conditions with no heating facilities and scant clothing.

Despite the hardship that cold weather ushers in, winter and snow bring the promise of a better harvest as the melting snow seeps through the earth, providing the much required moisture for cultivation. The heavy snow is expected to produce a bumper harvest of legal crops after two years of drought. The harvest also includes a bumper crop of illegal opium — a boon to the opium traders. Afghanistan grows an estimated 90 percent of the world’s opium. Export earnings last year from Afghanistan opiates are valued at $2.4 billion, making up 15 percent of the country’s GDP.

Another boon that winter brings is the hope of a decrease in insurgent activities. But the much-desired respite failed to materialize this year, and there is little slowdown in the violence. The elite and foreigners, hundreds of them, enjoy the season. With heaters in place in well-lit rooms, inside fortified buildings and plates of delicacies of meat, vegetables and Kabuli pulao (Kabuli fried rice) spread out, they have armchair discussions on how well Afghanistan is doing and compliment themselves on their hard work, which has earned Afghanistan the security and advancement that is helping the country progress toward the benchmark of “good enough” governance and security.

The harvest also includes a bumper crop of illegal opium — a boon to the opium traders. Afghanistan grows an estimated 90 percent of the world’s opium. Export earnings last year from Afghanistan opiates are valued at $2.4 billion, making up 15 percent of the country’s GDP.

“Good enough” is a new term that is frequently used, but for which there are no indicators set. No one yet knows what is a “good enough” standard for reducing poverty, protecting women and children from violence and people from hunger and want, or providing the poor respite from the cold. Shivering, poorly clad old men, women in burqas and children (who should be in school instead) are begging in the traffic-jammed streets, inhaling life-threatening pollution, in the hope that a “good enough” government will save them, some day.

My vehicle exits the airport and makes its way through the hustle and bustle of the overcrowded streets. I miss the familiar sight of the Afghan children running up to the cars; probably their parents have had the wisdom to keep them inside to avoid the cold. As we drive, the fortress-like appearance of the city comes as a shock. In the three months since my last visit, the physical appearance of the city has changed. The concrete walls are taller, and they are now on both sides of the streets, guarding compounds and houses of foreigners and rich Afghans. Heavier and more numerous sandbags guard the walls, a horrendous number of ugly concrete blocks and checkpoints with guards and sniffing dogs adorn the city. Many once-public thoroughfares are now blocked off entirely to provide security to embassy buildings and foreigners’ residences, totally disrupting transport and communications for the Afghan public, who have to travel additional miles of detours to reach the market or their workplaces. I wondered whether the ever higher walls help the peace process or do they deter it? I ask those who say security is enhanced in Afghanistan whether these security arrangements that are suffocating the capital city are an indicator of increased or decreased security.

During my visit in December 2011, Kabul was buzzing with talks of the Bonn 2 Conference (the 11th international conference in 10 years) and the OECD’s High Level Forum in Busan (South Korea) on how effectively donors can deliver aid. The communiqués coming out of these international meetings are pages of repeat talks without specific guidance for “walk the talk.” The declarations are nothing but a rewording of the past and oft-repeated, decade-long series of promises and agreements.

The talks of Bonn 2 and the Kabul Process have made little progress. The central promise of measures to prevent corruption has not been met. Afghans opposed to the government acknowledge that the international community’s development programs are not free of corruption, nor are they necessarily cost effective. As an instance, the latest Law and Order Trust Fund (LOTFA), for strengthening of the police, allocates $57 million for three years to cover management costs only! One wonders, how does the international community calculate value for money for taxpayers’ dollars? Does a taxpayer in Canada or other donor nations understand how their tax dollars are spent? But common Afghans want their government to clean its own shop. Corruption scandals and impunity cost Afghans a lot — of their own money, of aid money and also confidence in the state.

Critics inside Afghanistan are also convinced there needs to be a 10-year assessment of the cost effectiveness of the billions spent in promoting security, the rule of law and governance, and social and economic development. During this visit I spoke to a few eminent Afghans who had once served in high positions in the post-Taliban government and are now searching for ways to stem the sharp deterioration of Afghanistan on all fronts. I was fortunate to gain insights on the current situation and a prognosis for the future from a few such formidable and knowledgeable leaders as Abdullah Abdullah (former foreign minister and the closest rival of President Hamid Karzai in the election of 2009), Haneef Atmar (former minister of the interior) and Amrullah Saleh (former national security adviser).

Elections, an indicator of progress toward democracy (which the West considers a better governance instrument), have been held. But the elections of 2009 and 2010 were marred by fraud and corruption. Power struggles and disputes over the parliamentary elections of 2010 left the government with its legitimacy bruised. According to Abdullah, the Afghan government and its international allies failed to root democracy firmly in the soil of Afghanistan. Afghans welcomed the election of 2004, they were proud to have elected their own government and believed the constitution would protect their basic rights. But, in fact, the opposite occurred. Democratic institutions were never established to protect the democratic rights of the people. Instead, the people’s rights were crushed. It is therefore not a surprise that Afghans regard democracy as an imposition of the West, an attempt to push Western “values” in influencing the world culture. The majority of Afghans are thus rejecting democracy. According to Abdullah, the much lower voter turnout in the election of 2009 reflected the people’s lack of belief in and mistrust of democracy as a foreign element that can never take root in Afghanistan.

The opposition leaders and other educated Afghans I met say the priority is electoral reforms, along with reforms of the legal system and its implementation, which can ensure justice and equal rights for the people. The eminent Afghans who gave their best years to the service of their country but were thrown out of their positions for opposing the chaotic governance all agree that in Afghanistan democratic institutions are not operational, the police are unable to protect the civil rights of the people and access to justice is impossible because the justice institutions are nonoperational.

With respect to rights of protection of civilians, while men are threatened and attacked often in the Taliban-controlled areas, women across the country encounter additional abuse as a result of interpretation of sharia law justifying harsh punishments. The story of Gul Naz, the rape victim who was imprisoned for complaining, made world press headlines. Hundreds of Gul Nazes are rotting in Afghan prisons or are killed, accused of “immoral activities.” A University of Ottawa law professor, Amir Attaran, says that rape has been quasi-legalized in Afghanistan.

There is rarely strong objection to the repression of women from the international community, which bought the support of the public for the war against the Taliban on the pretext of protecting “little girls” from abuse! A recent indication that the suppression of women is increasing, as ridiculous as it may sound, is the proclamation that women appearing in Afghan TV must cover their heads better and wear no makeup. No objection to this was heard from the international diplomatic community. Since 2007, the international community has been quoting the same figure for the number of girls attending schools. Yet there is no confirmation that all these schools are still operational or how many girls still attend. The insurgent groups target and close down schools, especially those for girls over 10. According to the Ministry of Education, in a six-month period in 2010, 20 schools were the targets of explosives or arson, and 126 students were killed. The most horrifying news of this week is published in the edicts of Afghan clerics’ guidelines, which serve as a green light for reTalibanization. The clerics have issued repressive rules for women who, it is declared, are subordinate to men. The statement detailing the edicts was published by the president’s office with no further comment, a move that has been taken as a tacit seal of approval.

Crimes of all kinds increasingly go unpunished in Afghanistan. A law has been passed by the Afghan Parliament providing amnesty to perpetrators of war crimes and crimes against humanity. The major failing of the legal system is the nonapplication of due legal process. Afghans face arbitrary detention and are often denied access to a lawyer and the right to challenge the evidence against them. Abuse of power corrupts court proceedings. Human rights reports consistently detail torture and ill treatment of detainees.

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Intimidation of journalists, civil society organization leaders and human rights activists is commonplace. The latest incident making headlines in Afghan news is “the contract of one of the best and most vocal Human Rights Commissioners in Afghanistan was not renewed” because of a report he released exposing atrocities committed over the decade-long war and the wealth accumulated by the Afghan elite. Afghan media interprets this action as a crackdown on democracy. Young Afghans see this as democracy going awry: “We have a demo-crazy — democracy gone crazy,” said my young Afghan friend.

The international community’s own record in adhering to due legal procedures is also not exactly positive. The 2011 Human Rights Watch World Report speaks of the lack of timely and transparent inquiries for abusive actions against civilians by the international and Afghan forces they train. In addition, the international community’s combat operations, air strikes and night raids displace, injure and kill hundreds of civilians. The international community calls such loss of civilians’ lives “collateral damage.” A bombing recently killed several innocent children herding goats in a field in broad daylight, of course “by mistake,” which Afghans consider a gross excuse. An Afghan man asked me whether, if the children of the presidents and prime ministers of the Western nations were killed “by mistake” by a common hunter or by a police officer, a simple apology would mend the damage?

Culturally unacceptable behaviour is not uncommon in the international community. Some examples are the US soldier who urinated on the dead body of a Taliban, the soldiers who removed the fingers and teeth of the dead as a souvenir of victory, and the most recent case of the burning of the Quran, of course, “by mistake,” which caused a succession of violent reactions that brought several cities to a standstill, disrupted government operations and poor roadside traders’ businesses and killed 40 Afghans. Meanwhile, the foreigners were locked down in their residences, well protected by steel gates and heavily armed guards.

It’s amusing that recently a Canadian newspaper published a column on the cultural training provided to the Canadian soldiers departing for Kabul. The brief on culture forbids Canadian soldiers from putting used tissue papers in their coat pockets because it is culturally unacceptable to Afghans. Do the US cultural briefings accord a higher priority to training soldiers on how a holy book of Muslims should be treated? The column I read on the Canadian cultural brief had no reference to such important issues.

The best way for expatriate civilian officials to learn of the host country’s culture is to mingle with ordinary Afghans. I was amused to note the comments of a veteran Canadian journalist who was embedded for years with the Canadian army and lived all the while inside the wire in the army camps, but who is now on his own without the protection of the Canadian Kandahar camp. He felt insecure as he was stuck in a lightly guarded house during the period of disturbances in Afghanistan following the Quran burning and was pleased to leave the country. His clearly expressed feelings made me wonder how effective the foreign civilian officials living inside the wires could be, if they have to go outside of their cocoons. Can we trust them to establish cordial relations with the Afghan community or win the hearts and minds of the people, which is a part of the counterinsurgency strategy?

According to Amrullah Saleh, the number of incidents of Afghan soldier trainees shooting international armed forces and the murder of two high-level foreign officers in the most secure and protected area of the Ministry of Interior clearly indicate an invasion of Afghan government security institutions by the Taliban. The international community’s costly intelligence services failed to stop such incursions.

There is a general consensus that security across the country has deteriorated. The hope and anticipation that the post-9/11 expulsion of the Taliban and Bonn Conference 1 ushered in are lost. The Afghan government and the international community failed to establish a safe and secure Afghan society. In the 10 years of the international community’s operations, the law and order situation has deteriorated. High-level Afghans consider inadequate leadership throughout the country to be a serious deficiency that is contributing to insecurity and weak governance. With weak leadership institutional capacity cannot be developed easily and, even if such capacity is developed, it is difficult to maintain it. Therefore, there is little prospect of sustained institutional development in any area, including security.

Elections, an indicator of progress toward democracy (which the West considers a better governance instrument), have been held. But the elections of 2009 and 2010 were marred by fraud and corruption. Power struggles and disputes over the parliamentary elections of 2010 left the government with its legitimacy bruised.

I found a summary security assessment provided by Haneef Atmar valuable. Violence remains critically high in various areas of the country. The Asia Foundation’s most recent survey found 50 percent of those surveyed marking insecurity as the greatest problem in the country. Progress in counterinsurgency is uneven and reversible. With the majority of the US surge of 30,000 troops placed in the south, the security situation has improved, although not dramatically. The Taliban still has total reign over the Panjwaii district. Some reversal of the insurgents’ momentum in the south and north is detectable; consequentially, some expansion of government influence in these areas is visible.

But movements are rather negative in the east and the southeast, and even in the west the most distressing is the spread of violence into the province of Herat. Mediation with insurgents is hardly progressing. Only 8 percent of over 31,000 insurgents reconciled, and most of these are lower-level foot soldiers with little power. The building up of the Afghanistan National Security Force (ANSF) appears positive, despite attrition and politicization.

A consensus exists on Pakistan’s critical role in influencing Afghanistan’s security. Non-Afghan terrorists play a role in providing sanctuary and promoting terrorism. The Tahrik-e-Taliban-Pakistan and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan are specifically mentioned as being allegedly supported by the Pakistan Inter Services Intelligence. Denial of safe haven to al-Qaeda can be interpreted as positive so far, but the trend could be reversed. Recently, international forces have captured a few Arab terrorists in eastern Afghanistan.

Too quick a pace in the transition of security responsibility and a premature and aggressive drawdown of troops would risky from both the military and political points of view. Rapid progress in reconciliation is unlikely. It will not be possible within a short time span to prevent sanctuary. The growth of the ANSF as well as of its operations, capability and sustainability would be suffer if there were a rapid drawdown of troops. If the ANSF were to deteriorate, the Afghan government would disintegrate and collapse, allowing regional powers to fill the vacuum, led by Pakistan and Iran. Haneef Atmar’s verdict is that a regional conflict will mutate into a proxy-led civil war, with disastrous consequences, making the return of al-Qaeda inevitable.

A significant conclusion I drew from my consultations with opposition Afghan leaders is that they do not favour security at the cost of breaking up the country by ethnicity or regional diversity. They want a unified Afghan nation, one that profiles unity in diversity. This will be possible if certain reforms are prioritized — electoral, justice and legal reforms — with the support of the international community. In order to make this dream come true, the international community’s assistance must be an integral part of its transition strategy.

While there is insecurity and governance chaos, an economic slowdown is predicted by the international financial institutions. The high level of aid (estimated at $15.7 billion in 2010), which almost equals the country’s GDP, cannot be sustained. However, the impact of declining aid on the economic growth might not be as high as anticipated because most international assistance is not spent in Afghanistan. Even a large percentage of what is spent in Afghanistan leaves the economy through imports, expatriate profits and outward remittances. Yet, with the drawdown of the military forces and the inevitable increase in insecurity and likely reduction in development assistance, real GDP growth may decrease to 5 to 6 percent from 2011 to 2018. The revival of growth and sustaining the development process will require concerted reform efforts on the part of the Afghan government and the international community. Such reforms will be integral to Afghanistan’s “transition” beyond 2014.

Photo: Shutterstock

Nipa Banerjee
Nipa Banerjee is a senior fellow at the School of International Development and Global Studies (University of Ottawa). She served 33 years in the former Canadian International Development Agency. She was the head of the Canadian government’s aid program in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2006.

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