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Fighting for the Future of Afghanistan
After Five Years of Occupation, Many Afghans Have Lost Hope that the U.S. Can Make Things Better
Interview with Fariba Nawa
By Liam O’Donoghue
The covers of the European, Asian and Latin American the October 2 editions of Newsweek are nearly identical. On all of them, a Jihadist shouldering an RPG-launcher glares angrily above the headline "Losing Afghanistan." The cover of the US edition features Annie Leibovitz, a celebrity photographer with the headline "My Life in Pictures". Smaller text in the upper-corner reads "Al Qaeda & 'Jihadistan'." This incident provides one of many obvious clues into the deterioration of Afghanistan's US-led reconstruction.
In the wake of 9/11, all eyes were on Afghanistan. Boosted by international support and a hastily assembled coalition of Muhajadeen and Afghan warlords, the US wasted no time in avenging its losses by orchestrating the fall of the Taliban regime. As military focus quickly shifted to Iraq, so did America's attention.
Judging by the lack of media coverage, the failure to demand accountability for the reconstruction and dwindling troop numbers, the US was simply too busy to worry about post-Taliban Afghanistan. Jim Dobbins, Bush's former special envoy to Kabul called Afghanistan the "most under-resourced nation-building effort in history."
In recent months, the escalating violence in Afghanistan has begun creeping back into the headlines. Most of the stories have focused on the resurgence of the Taliban and the accompanying suicide bombings, assassinations of Afghan politicians, and deaths of US and NATO soldiers. Much of the blame has been placed on insufficient coalition troop levels, the under-paid and under-trained Afghan National Army, and anger in the Muslim world regarding Iraq. Unfortunately, the gross mismanagement, epidemic corruption, and massive failures of the US-led reconstruction of Afghanistan have been mostly ignored.
In her recent 30-page Corpwatch investigative report, "Afghanistan Inc.", Fariba Nawa proves that "war profiteering" is an accurate term to describe the behavior of many of the corporations contracted with rebuilding her home country. Fariba's family fled Afghanistan to settle in Fremont, CA's "Little Kabul" neighborhood in 1980's, but she moved back to the real Kabul in 2004 to report on the reconstruction and Afghanistan's booming opium trade. Although "Afghanistan Inc." details the facts and figures of corporate corruption, it also tells the Afghan people's hope and eventual disappointment.
According to Fariba, the vast majority of the Afghans were overjoyed with the prospects of peace and prosperity following the US's ouster of the violent, repressive Taliban. In the five years since, the continuing lack of power and water, crumbling roads and buildings, and lack of new schools and health facilities has transformed much of this gratitude into aggravated cynicism and even hostility. A few days after 9/11 (2006), I spoke with Fariba about life in Kabul, the Taliban, and her predictions for the future of her war-torn homeland . . .
Liam O'Donoghue: What inspired you to return to your homeland and what have been the biggest challenges of living there?
Fariba Nawa: I enjoy living there because of the way I like to live life, which is unpredictable. But the biggest challenges have been normal aspects of daily life: not having power, not having enough water. If you're not living like a contractor, with 24-hour generator, and guards and cooks, then you realize how people are living. For example, in Kabul, there's probably three hours of power a day, and that's only for limited people. So imagine your life in the States without electricity and how difficult that would be.
LO: Many of the recent stories about Afghanistan in the mainstream media have spoken of a Taliban resurgence. What's your perspective on how strong they are and what conditions allowed them to regain strength?
FN: Frankly, I'm surprised at how quickly they came back and how forcefully they were able to maximize their strength. I was expecting a guerilla movement, but I wasn't expecting it to be so quick and powerful. I think they've been able to gather local support, especially in the south, where reconstruction failed miserably and the local government had very little support to begin with. I did a cross country trip across Afghanistan right after the Taliban fell and people were happy they were gone, even the Pashtuns [ethno-linguistic group of Eastern and Southern Afghanistan]. They were looking forward to jobs, water, power . . . and they didn't get ANY of those things.
[Another factor is that] the Afghan national army gives soldiers $70 per month. The Taliban are giving their fighters $200 per month. I think a lot of the fighters are mercenaries. Of course there are ideological fighters as well—you don't blow yourself up unless you believe in something—but I do believe that it's not just Afghans. You have Arabs, Chechnyans, and other groups of people who are bitter and tired of imperialism. They find their niche, they find their voice in the Afghan cause.
Unfortunately, we're seeing the same patterns that we saw under the Soviet invasion. These are very different times and I don't want to make the mistake of making that comparison without context. But it was always a possibility that if the Taliban were removed that they might come back with a full-force guerilla insurgency just like the Muhajadeen did during the Soviet era and there would be issues just like there are now.
But I want to clarify that it's very important to distinguish between Iraq and Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, there is not widespread support for the Taliban coming back. People don't want to go back to that kind of medieval rule and the psychological fear that they were living under. There's a fear in Afghanistan that they're being encroached on by Pakistan. I think Pakistan is the big problem and I don't think it's (Pakistani President) Pervez Musharraf that's the problem—it's overall. I think most Afghans look to Pakistan to blame them for the success of the insurgency.
LO: Where is the Taliban getting money?
FN: Largely, the drug trade in Afghanistan. It's a tremendous resource for them. Also, I think you have wealthy supporters . . . whether they're oil sheiks or Americans. They send money underground. And there's not a lack of weapons in Afghanistan. You have a stockpile from the Soviet time.
LO: Do you think Islamic fundamentalism is increasing across the Middle East and in other Muslim countries?
FN: I think it's been around for a long time. There was the Muslim Brotherhood in the early 1900s and the ideology of what the militants believe has been around a long time, in different ways and forms, depending on political movements in different countries. But I think it is a response to what we would call imperialism. If the US is going to support Israel's policies and they're going to attack the Muslim world . . . that feeds this bitterness or whatever Americans want to call it. Many Muslims see this as a legitimate resistance movement—it's a response to US aggression. A lot of people see 9/11 as a direct response to years and years of mistreatment by the US, which directly intervened (in Middle East geopolitics) to install dictators who mistreated their people or indirectly in many ways. When you do things like that you need to be prepared ... I think it's been brewing for a long time.
LO: Do you have a theory on why US hasn't found Osama bin Laden?
FN: It's not that simple. There are a lot of conspiracy theories, saying if they wanted to find him, they could. He definitely provides the boogey man they need, so they can justify their decisions based on that one-man enemy they've got out there. But the problem is a lot bigger, obviously. I've been on the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan. It's about 1500 miles long and very mountainous—not something you can comb through easily. Plus, he obviously has a lot of supporters in that area, which is a tribal area that's not really controlled by the Pakistani government.
LO: Regarding the reconstruction, can you tell me about the new mall that's opened in Kabul recently?
FN: The new mall is the only place with elevators, escalators, all-day electricity and air conditioning. Locals are allowed there, but they need to go through a metal detector. However, it's one of the only places where locals and foreigners will mingle. Only a very small percentage of Afghans can afford to shop there. So the locals can come and see what they can't afford.
LO: So is there much segregation that has developed between locals and foreigners?
FN: In Kabul, there are places, restaurants mostly, where you have to show your passport and only foreigners are allowed in, for cultural and security reasons. Sometimes Afghan women might be allowed in, but men are barred or harassed when trying to enter. So it's a very divided culture that's emerging, between rich and poor, local and foreign. That, of course, builds resentment.
LO: What's your prediction for the near future in Afghanistan?
FN: It's not good. I'm very depressed with what's going on in my country. With each new bomb, with each new suicide attack, you have more Afghans who came back from Iran or Pakistan going back to wherever they came from. People are leaving. Regarding world interest, there's what you call "donor fatigue," people who were donating are saying "Why should we donate if there's no security." In the end, the poorest people, the least able are the ones who suffer. It's a very sad situation and after 23 years of war, I think we were hoping for change and I don't think we're going to see one soon. That being said I hope I'm wrong.
(This article originally appeared in the October/November edition of Fault Lines