Afghanistan on the edge

Vanessa Baird on why it’s crucial that the West listens to Afghans.

Adaptability is plentiful, as this family in Herat Province demonstrates. But after seven years of occupation, where is Afghanistan heading?

Living on the edge is nothing new to Afghanistan. The country and its people are familiar with extremes of most kinds – geographic, political, religious. But today they are well and truly on the brink.

During 2008 the conflict in Afghanistan has escalated dramatically, claiming some 3,000 lives, almost half of them civilians. This is worse than at any time since the US-led invasion seven years ago. The monthly death toll of international servicemen and -women in Afghanistan has topped that of Iraq. The Afghan police force has lost no fewer than 700 personnel this year, while the targeting of aid agencies by militants has led to a doubling of charity workers killed.

The Taliban is resurgent; its fighters determined to get foreigners off Afghan soil, to topple the Western-backed Government of Hamid Karzai and to impose sharia law. ‘No negotiations with invaders’ is their line – reiterated recently as US and British military top brass were saying: ‘We need to talk to the Taliban.’

The fundamentalists aren’t behaving quite as before, however. As well as engaging in conventional fire-fights with international and Afghan troops, they are also planting IEDs – improvised explosive devices – by roadsides. And they have resorted to a tactic that was previously taboo in Afghanistan – suicide bombing. It’s beginning to look and sound like… Iraq.

But Afghanistan isn’t Iraq. This, remember, was meant to be the ‘good’ invasion; or at least the ‘not so bad’ one. It had the tacit support of most of the country’s people. After all, it was Afghans who did most of the fighting to oust the hated Taliban.

Increasingly insurgents are using Iraq-style tactics such as suicide and roadside bombings.

So what’s gone so badly wrong?

The Afghan Government has been quick to blame its neighbour Pakistan. Since its defeat in 2001 the Afghan Taliban has been able to launch sporadic attacks from safe havens in the tribal areas across the border in Pakistan. Under the watch of former President Pervez Musharraf, Taliban militants enjoyed the support of their Pakistani equivalents and, it is said, Pakistan’s Interservices Intelligence (ISI).

But militant and meddling neighbours are not the sole reason for Afghanistan’s woes, as the contributors to this magazine show. The fact that the despised Taliban are regaining a measure of popular support, to the extent that in some regions they are operating parallel administrations, is indicative. It tells us what Afghans think about the performance of their own Government and of the US and NATO occupation forces.

At the time of writing, a bloody battle is raging across the border in Pakistan’s tribal area of Banjaur. Pakistan’s new President Asif Ali Zardari has launched an offensive against Taliban militants in one of their strongholds. For the moment, the Pakistani army has the support of local tribal groups who also want to see the back of the Taliban. However, their greater hatred is reserved for the US forces which have been conducting ground and air attacks against militants in their area, killing and displacing many civilians in the process. The situation is delicate and explosive. Al-Qaeda and the various groups associated with them are clearly dangerous. But so is the US, whether by design or blunder.

A new US Administration takes charge of the White House this month. Will it do any better? The arrogance of power, displayed so nakedly during the Bush years, led to the deaths of thousands as the advice of regional experts was repeatedly ignored in favour of simplistic, vote-winning, sound-bite solutions. If the new US Administration is deaf to the voices of those it carelessly tramples underfoot or sweeps to one side in the ‘war on terror’ then hatred of the US and its allies will only grow.

So far, American and British politicians have responded to the escalating conflict in Afghanistan by proposing that more international troops be sent to the region. But what do Afghans want? Is anyone asking? Defence journalist Khabaryal (see page 6) has a rather different view on what a foreign troop ‘surge’ would achieve in his country – and his analysis is shared by many Afghans and Afghanistan experts. While the ‘surge’ that journalist Horia Mosadiq wants to see in her country is one of democracy, justice and accountability (see page 16).

In a world of instant-access global news it’s easy to imagine we know exactly what’s happening in distant parts. We may, for example, interpret images of girls in school and women presenters on Afghan TV as indicators of liberation. But it takes an Afghan writer, Zuhra Bahman, to unpick the far more complex and intriguing daily lives of her compatriots, and enable us actually to understand what life is like for women in Afghanistan today (see page 11).

The contributors to this magazine – who are all Afghans – are outspoken and critical. But they are also practical and ready to suggest alternative ways forward. Their frustration is palpable at times, but they have not given up hope. ‘All is not yet lost,’ as Abdul Basir, writing about the scandal of official aid to Afghanistan, says.

But it might be if we don’t pay attention. History has taught us that the capacity of outsiders to mess up in Afghanistan is formidable – not for nothing has the region been dubbed ‘the graveyard of empires’. And if we can’t even listen to the voices of the country’s thoughtful journalists and commentators, disaster is more-or-less guaranteed.