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Home > English > Alternatives International Journal > 2011 > Ides of March 2011 > LETTER FROM KABUL


Thursday 14 April 2011, by Nipa Banerjee

I board a plane from Frankfurt, bound for Dubai on the way to one of my innumerable trips to Afghanistan. I muse about my journey over the years in the land of the Kabuliwallahs, the fruits and nuts traders I used to watch with immense curiosity in my childhood days in Kolkata (Calcutta) in India. As a child I knew the Kabuliwallahs to be visitors from the distant terrains of a mysterious land, framed by majestic jagged Hindukush mountain ranges. I wonder - is the land any less mysterious to me today?

I am brought back to reality by a friendly voice of an American introducing himself as Bob. He is heading for Iraq - a civilian working in an US supported project. During the course of our conversation I ask him if the security situation has improved in Iraq with the gradual withdrawal of the US troops, secretly hoping that he will say “yes” so that my dreams for betterment of security in Afghanistan would heighten. He crushes my hopes with an instant response - not at all and that it has worsened for foreigners, who are a hated lot but that he keeps returning because the job in Iraq gives him his daily bread. But, he says that he will not go to Afghanistan, even for money. He says that I must be a courageous (and probably thinks rather nutty) woman traveling to Afghanistan with no protection, no security, no insurance. I assure him that bad luck can hit a person anywhere - in the streets of Ottawa, New York or Kabul.

Sitting beside us is a Canadian national swim team member going to Dubai for a championship event. Overhearing our conversation, he intervenes and says that the Canadian government has kept the public in the dark about the situation in Afghanistan - what is Canada doing in a place that is steeped in sky high corruption, where women’s ears and nose are cut off and acid thrown in the faces of girl children going to school? A loud laughter from the American - do you believe our governments care about these issues?

The WikiLeaks revealed the discrepancy between what diplomats really feel or know about Afghanistan and the messages they deliver to their public. No transparent message about the state of affairs in Afghanistan has ever been delivered to the tax-paying public by the governments. A consistently rosy public picture of progress in Afghanistan is deliberately maintained when, in reality, the situation is quite grim and governance extremely weak. Nor has the international community undertaken much transparent dialogue with the Afghan government about the need for better attention to governance and rule of law, which are at the base of any accountable and stable government.

I am not certain how much our government cared. But I know that I did and so did many other colleagues of mine, both Canadian and Afghan. But it is difficult to keep up the caring in the flagrant absence of care in the management of the “engagement” in Afghanistan by the authorities of both the international community and Afghanistan itself. The young, educated Afghans - Pashtuns, Tajiks and Hazaras - those who never saw foreign soil and others of Afghan descent born abroad - who held high hopes and ready to help their leaders to build a nation in 2001, have been ignored and betrayed. I meet them every day - young people caught in a quandary- they just cannot get out. They want a strong self-sustaining nation while the country’s western mentors hype the notion that with its divided tribal loyalties Afghanistan could never be a nation with strong institutions.

A bewildering maze of training programs in Afghanistan has had little results in institution building. As an instance, a civilian police force has not been developed, yet. The recent record of abusive performance of the south Sudanese police trained by Canadians is only one example that raises questions about the wisdom of assigning the task of police training to westerners who appear ineffective in building new civil institutions in war torn countries, where access to justice, and protection of civil rights have not been practised for decades. Afghans have little confidence on the police forces, trained by foreigners. Hearing cars racing with high pitched sirens my Afghan colleagues rush to inspect the commotion from the fourth floor soviet style building of the Afghan Ministry of Finance. They turn back laughing, with the sarcastic comment- oh these are the foreign Afghan police flexing their muscles!

Serious doubts remain whether the Afghan armed forces will be ready to take over full responsibility from the international troops in 2014. Development of a huge army is also considered fiscally unsustainable because Afghanistan will not be able to pay for more than fraction of the costs of its own security forces for years. The World Bank approximates Afghanistan’s GDP as $12 billion when the US alone spends $113 billion annually in Afghanistan.

The plane descends to Kabul. A surprise - a counter for females only - a novelty in Afghanistan! Pushing aside principles of feminism, I dash for the female counter to get the stamp of immigration. Special privilege given to females was short lived, however. This counter disappeared within three weeks presumably based on the argument that gender (male and female) equality demands that women should not be given extra advantages.

As I ride through the dusty streets of Kabul, children run up to the side of the road - amazingly beautiful children but malnourished, with unwashed clothing and faces and shocking vacant looks - their glazed eyes tell tales of poverty stealing their childhood. At that moment flashes in my mind, the ostensibly expensive restaurants of Kabul where the exclusive crowd of expatriates dine on French croissants, fried brie cheese and foie de gras…

My car passes with the spiraling dust covering the little faces of the children. I think again – I’ve made this journey several times over the last seven years, why am I so disconcerted this time? Superficially, conditions have hardly changed since the first time I arrived, wide eyed and hopeful, in 2003! But there must have been a decline over the years, perhaps imperceptible slides downward, until the hard realities have hit harder this time to let my dreams disappear. The reality is that any visible progress is absent. It is documented by research that livelihoods of dozens of households across rural Afghanistan surveyed in 2003/04 deteriorated by 2008/09 with the research teams revisiting the same families finding the majority worse off than before, with many struggling to meet even the most basic of day to day needs.

Accountability is lacking for billions invested in the country. The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) and other evaluations discovered that hundreds of structures across the country have been poorly constructed or never completed at all. While billions of dollars are flowing into the country, lives of the poor have not improved. Over 36 percent of the people live below the poverty line, earning less than a dollar a day. A Kabul University professor’s research apparently brings the figure of absolute poverty to above 80 percent, which has not yet been vetted by the Afghan government. Strangely enough, in a country where the unemployment rate is close to 40%, hundreds of men (with no knowledge of any local language) are imported from Nepal, for guarding the compounds of the international organizations. The little kids I left on the roadside, representing children who have the good fortune of not dying before the age of five, will never see a class room. Many of the girls will be illegally married by the time they are 12, and die at labor, their yet undeveloped wombs struggling to deliver babies. The boys will be without jobs and give in to the Taliban enticement, perhaps finish their lives as suicide bombers while in their teens.

How much of the shares of the billions of dollars of aid are benefiting these street children or their parents? The government officials deny corruption to be real because Transparency International’s ranking is based on “perception” and no real “evidence” of corruption exists. The evidence of waste and mismanagement, on which corruption grows is glaring when a Canadian tax payer cannot get a clear answer to the question of how much income has been generated by the micro credit dispensed to the poor.

In Kabul, I visited a micro credit client - a woman. By her own account, she had sent the credit received to her son who was jobless in Iran. How was she to pay back the loan? She said that her family income was good enough to re-pay the loan. I let my readers to conjecture how the “poor” benefit from such micro credits? Admittedly, this was a random interview arranged by the microfinance institution of the client I saw. One may say this is anecdotal. But collation of how many anecdotes of this nature would count as “evidence”?

Developmentally, microfinance is an instrument of poverty reduction. But does it serve the purpose in practice? Several queries to determine the value for money for billions disbursed as micro credit produced no response as no record of income generated (if any) from micro credit is available. The mismanagement of the micro-finance institutions and the complacency of the donors are both to be blamed for such failures.

Similar problems are noted in the education sector. With hundreds of schools built, little information is available on sustained enrolment, as even Canada’s Afghanistan Task Force admits. In its report to the US Congress, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) said it was increasingly concerned that the reconstruction effort in Afghanistan was impeded by lack of accountability and oversight, inadequate metrics and attention paid to sustainability of projects, and insufficient Afghan institution-building.

As I arrive in Kabul city center, the city is buzzing with WikiLeaks - some Afghan civil servant find the leaks about their own ministers amusing while some high ranking officials accused of making unseemly comments about the Afghan president are busy calling press conferences issuing denials, while the rumor mill runs hundred miles an hour. The rumors wane, as in Canada, with time and new rumors take over. The most recent and devastating news released by journalist Dexter Filkins on the Kabul Bank collapse, involving some highest level Afghan officials, has gripped the city.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has painted a grim picture of the Afghan government’s handling of the Kabul bank crisis, an assessment that could lead to the Fund ending its Afghan support program. Aid from many donor countries and agencies depends on an IMF program being in place. In fact, a panic has set in the government because the donors have issued a warning that without an IMF program, development funds will stop. The Afghan officials agree that the Kabul Bank crisis was caused by poor management but exacerbated by an "erroneous" audit by accounting firm (Price Water House Coopers) and "ineffective" international technical support, the latter not an unusual or erroneous assessment for most Technical Assistance Programs, which have resulted in failure of institution building, the most important ingredient for transition to the assumption of full leadership by Afghans as foreigners withdraw.

What other news is buzzing? Afghans and their leadership are wary of US General David Petraeus’ support for Afghan Local Police program (ALP), which could fuel conflicts and empower the type of militia commanders who ravaged Afghanistan during the civil war period of 1990.

Immediately following the US troop surge, a sense of better security in Kabul city had emerged. But the short lived sense of security broke with several incidents with attacks in the center of security steel fenced city, with high casualty rates. Afghans do not believe US President Barack Obama’s assurance that that there are fewer areas under Taliban control and that more Afghans have the chance to build hopeful futures.

2010 is the bloodiest year of the decade, says Robert Watkins, the outgoing Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary General at the UNAMA in Kabul. More than 2,700 civilians were killed in 2010 - up 15% from the year before. The UN blames the Taliban and other insurgents (and less NATO) for the rise in civilian deaths. But loss of family members, whether inflicted by NATO or the Taliban, does not lessen the pain of the grieving families although the reaction to the recent accidental killing of nine boys by American forces show that the deaths of Afghans at foreign hands resonate deeply, and provoke even greater outrage than killings by the Taliban.

Afghan people believe that due to the international community’s strategy of aid focused in the provinces where their troops are located, insecurity has spread to the more secure provinces, especially in the north, and created political fissures. The recent optimistic assessment of advances in the war from General Petraeus is not widely shared among Afghans who know that violence rose to its highest levels last year, and predictions are that 2011 will be even worse. To the coalition, the Afghan government remains dangerously ineffective, and the Pakistan sanctuary for the Taliban’s leadership is still secure. No wonder that in the absence of no signal of abatement in insecurity, Afghans are frustrated. Afghans believe that aid allocated to Afghanistan is spent with little local inputs.

Based on my own experience, of living and working in Afghanistan from 2003-06, I can confirm that some of the southern states, the Pashtun heartlands, were accessible to foreigners like me, who could travel in these areas without armored cars and guards and without head covers, all of which are unthinkable today. Some of the northern provinces, almost completely free of Taliban violence up to 2005-06 are currently under serious Taliban threats. On January 23 of this year, Reuters described the insurgent violence at its worst since 2001

President Karzai’s recent call for phase out of the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) has grabbed Afghans’ attention. The PRTs were to serve as the civil military coordination mechanism. However, PRT operations have never been well coordinated Educated Afghans believe that PRTs’ have subordinated humanitarian and development programming interests to political interests of foreigners, with the reconstruction programs undertaken mainly for winning the hearts and minds of the Afghans for the foreign troops.

Research shows that Afghans perceive that there is little evidence of aid projects reducing conflict and violence or having other significant counterinsurgency benefits. The PRTs wrongfully over-estimated the value of reconstruction programming for hearts and minds win instead of defending security of the Afghans, leading Afghan people to conclude that PRTs are largely irrelevant for Afghan security. PRTs’ impacts on both security and reconstruction are rather disappointing to them without accruing benefits to the Afghans. PRTs’ main utilitarian value has been to sustain international political engagement

Development investment concentration in the PRT provinces has had little impact on institution building or legitimacy building of the Afghan state, even at the provincial level, because the PRTs have created parallel structures for development delivery, by-passing the Afghan government and undermining their programs. Strengthening of governance in the provinces has been neglected. The Afghans feel that even if the right number of army and the police are trained, and made fit to fight the insurgency within the next four years (which they doubt), Afghanistan’s poor governance capacity will make peace and security unsustainable.

For development, the Afghanistan National Development Strategy (ANDS-2008) written by foreign experts, never quite took off. The strategies were not based on broad consultations and have yet to be translated, into any Afghan language. The sector results strategies developed belatedly, were never translated into action, never monitored and continues reporting on mundane activities, without results focus. The international community hardly demanded delivery on ANDS as they kept themselves busy designing mechanisms and delivering programs parallel to those of the ANDS, virtually undermining the Afghan government programs.

Little lessons were learnt from the ANDS episode. For the London and Kabul Conferences of 2010, the Afghan government identified 22 National Priority Programs (NPPs). Planning, development and implementation of twenty two national programs for a government with low capacity are unrealistic, at best. In the absence of adequate capacity in the government, one would expect the donors, who endorsed the Kabul plans, to provide help in program development. But no firm commitments have yet been procured. Half a year after the Kabul Conference, the potential of timely design and planning of the NPPs remain unclear.

At the Kabul Conference, the Afghan government picked up the American notion of a “hundred days actions”, a benchmark normally used for evaluating the early success of an American president. But could the ensuing hundred days after the Kabul Conference be compared with the hundred days after a President’s entry into the White House? Are the development situations and demands the same? Afghanistan requires basic service delivery (concrete results) to the people, stricken with poverty, ill health, ignorance and violence. Therefore, if anything, concrete delivery of services to address such deficiencies, after the Kabul Conference, should have been the benchmarks for reporting on 100 days or a year after. Actions taken with snail-paced movements towards the start of planning for the NPPs, without a concrete results oriented approach, do not count.

Following the US symbol, reams of papers are being produced to narrate 100 days and 300 days actions after the Kabul Conference; the narratives providing little confidence that any bankable and fundable programs will be developed soon. Currently, there is nothing concrete except broad concepts. Forgotten is the fact that even if security is perfect, people need minimum service delivery - how and through whom such delivery will take place is not known yet.

But there are no dearth of discussions in various groups, the so-called coordination groups- Working Groups, Standing Committees, Cluster Committees, Joint Coordination and Monitoring Boards. An Afghan friend of deputy minister (DM) rank, describing in satirical tones the discussions and decisions taken in various committees, made me roar with laughter.

The project the DM related is one that impacts on lives of people— men, women and children in a poor area, where an unfinished irrigation canal left a ditch in the middle of the road. With melted snow, rain and mud, the ditch, about six feet deep, was dangerous in the unlighted street. Men, women and children were accidentally falling into the ditch, dying. A working group was formed to find a solution. The working group suggested that an ambulance be placed on the side of the ditch for 24 hours so that any one falling into the ditch could be lifted and taken to a hospital 50 kilometers away. The proposal was not palatable to the technical committee, which considered the full time placement of an ambulance with a driver to be not cost-beneficial.

A better proposal would be to build a hospital right beside the ditch so that people falling into the ditch could be immediately treated at the hospital. However, the highest level project approval committee considered the cost of the land and hospital construction to be exorbitant and offered a better proposal - digging a new ditch by the side of the hospital 50 kilometers away. A large donor member of this committee, with a lot of undisbursed funds, had an innovative proposal - to buy a large tract of fallow land around the existing ditch and turn it into a grave yard with tomb stones. When people fell in the ditch and die, they could be buried right away with tomb stones placed on their graves. The proposal was accepted by the majority. That was three years ago. The ditch is still there, deepening and people continue to fall into it and die. Bargaining continues for the cost of the land for the grave yard.

As the DM was relating this symbolic story sitting in his office, I was freezing. The wall was adorned with a fancy air conditioner, with heating and cooling facility. But it was turned off. Being a spoilt Canadian, used to central heating, I requested if it could be turned on. The DM said that the unit was in reality a Technical Assistant. Curious, I asked about the significance of the simile. The DM explained that the “machine is visible and fixed on the wall but it does not produce like most of our Technical Assistants”. To date, over $2 billion has been invested in Technical Assistance programs.

What has been of most concern to me during this trip, however, is the lack of common goals and interests that Afghans should share with their leaders and the international community. The feel of unity and trust has broken over the decade. The young educated Afghans, including the middle and rank and file civil servants, who wanted to embrace democracy feel betrayed and disenfranchised by the flawed elections; the minority groups and women feel left behind with an exclusive reconciliation process; and the spirit of national unity is reaping apart in the seams.

Nipa Banerjee served as head of Canada’s aid program in Kabul from 2003-06 and now teaches international development at the University of Ottawa. She frequently visits Afghanistan.