I pulled at an intricately woven, pale-blue burkha – on a handmade doll. It was a gift Shuhada gave me at my going away party, replete with Afghan pastries and far too generous of thank yous. My time in Afghanistan had come to a close.
In coming to Afghanistan to work for/research women’s development initiatives, I hoped also to gain clarity on the conflict. To move past the halls of academia, to get a better sense of what we should do.
In learning more, I’ve gained little clarity.
Bamyan is breathtaking. And if there’s a part of Afghanistan that’s idyllic for development, progress, modernity, etc. it’s Bamyan. Unlike neighboring provinces in Hazarajat, Bamyan doesn’t have any Pashtun-dominated districts, and thus is both anti-Taliban and Taliban-free. Although its many fields are ripe for opium cultivation – opium is not produced because of the associations opium has with the Taliban. While abuses of women/girls do persist in this region, the Hazara/Ismaili communities in Bamyan do – on a relative spectrum – afford women the opportunity for greater rights than many other parts of Afghanistan. The changes in the social fabric of this region, which would result from the full realization of these opportunities, would take a generation at least. But the underlying conditions for change are certainly in place.
Despite the many protestations of villagers, government officials, aid workers, and advocates in the international community – there’s quite a bit of development ongoing in Bamyan. Aid per capita figures are very hard to come by, and are incomplete at best. The most recent figures I was able to find from the Ministry of Finance were for 2007 – 2008, which only captured approximately 80% of all reconstruction and development. These figures put Bamyan before Helmand province in terms of NATO’s spending per capita. Again – there’s a considerable amount of opacity in how these numbers are determined, and they’ve changed since 2007 – 2008 with our increased investment in this war. But the argument that the international community ignores secure regions of the country in terms of assistance, focusing all its energy on the insecure regions, and thereby creating perverse incentives for secure regions to become insecure – doesn’t necessarily hold – at least if you look at aid per capita figures (vs. aid per province).
This is, of course, a war of perceptions and ideas. People have argued that even the perception of being ignored in terms of assistance could create incentives for insecurity. While the perception that Bamyan is ignored is widespread amongst its population, the Hazara will not invite or foment insecurity as a result of it. Their memories of massacre are too immediate and run too deep.
I sense that I’m speaking too specifically. The Hazara account for only 9% of Afghanistan’s total population, and the province that I’m speaking of is certainly an anomaly in a violent and impoverished nation. It’s impossible to generalize based off of what I saw there, in Kabul, or elsewhere. But while many criticisms of Afghanistan are legitimate, I reject the increasingly held notion that Afghanistan is a backward, immalleable, wasteland, and that our efforts there are futile. Progress has been made in many areas – particularly in health and with the community development councils. The questions are whether the high costs, which include American lives, are worth it.
And to that end, I remain conflicted. I could go on a diatribe about the many ways COIN is likely to fail. I could similarly expound on the potentially explosive ramifications of a dramatic drawdown/withdrawal of resources. But you’ve heard this all before from people with far greater expertise, and I don’t subscribe to either of these absolutes. Nor do I yet feel equipped to calculate and weigh the risks involved with a drawdown, and the level of instability (nationally or regionally) that might foment. I believe our many questionable compromises: propping up corrupt politicians and a farcical President, empowering warlords and local militias, paying off the Taliban to get development projects going, (now) choosing to forgo opium eradication to win “hearts and minds,” (and on) – may in turn, lead to our failure. And yet all of these actions can be rationalized, albeit perhaps not justified, in the short-term. It’s certainly easiest, and most popular, to throw one’s hands up in the air and declare the mission impossible, our values compromised, our decisions irreparably flawed.
Yet, as time wears on, and as we recognize our limitations – our vision for Afghanistan continues to evolve. We started out with a desire to create a stable, legitimate, transparent, centralized, democratic state. We’ve since mitigated our aspirations rhetorically, and are planning an ambiguous drawdown beginning July 2011, with a handover to Afghan security forces in 2014. The ambiguous drawdown, while (rightfully) decried on many sides as providing fuel for the insurgency, is meaningful in that it’s a pledge to not commit more troops to the effort. Both that deadline, and the hoped-for 2014 handover, are ambitious and necessary – for domestic political will, if nothing else. These deadlines will, in due time and with hopefully strengthened institutions, force Afghan ownership of this conflict for better or worse.
As you can tell, I can’t offer any grand solutions, or vehement support for a particular side. I aspired, in this blog, to relay versions of Afghanistan that are generally ignored by the media. The beauty untold, the progress unseen – without pouring whitewash over the incredible complexities and difficulties involved. I’m not sure if I succeeded, but I thank you for joining me.