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The real people of Afghanistan

Local children in Afghanistan, Flickr image by The U.S. ArmyJune has been a deadly month for Australian (five dead) and international (70 dead) forces in Afghanistan. At a precarious moment for the US in Afghanistan, and with a major military operation against the Taliban underway in the south, the loose lips of NATO commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, have made him a political casualty back in Washington.

Meanwhile in Australia an Essential Research poll shows 61 per cent of respondents say Australia should pull its troops out of Afghanistan.

Returning to Australia from Kabul for a few weeks and catching up on the poll I am struck by lurid online comment, which these days passes for discussion, on whether Aussie troops should go or stay in Afghanistan.

Commentary tracks through a weird miasma of old-left versus new-right trench exchanges, armchair military strategists and conspiracy theorists, including a piece of fabulist psychosis in which Israelis wired explosives to the Twin Towers as they were being constructed.

Back in the real Afghanistan the majority of the country's 28 million people scratch a living each day. Six million refugees (two million each in Iran and Pakistan) have returned to tents, and in some cases land or, if they are really lucky, housing.

During their absence the property of many people was occupied or bought and sold. It is one aspect of a land and resource rights crisis in Afghanistan that fuels ongoing conflict and instability among communities and between ethnic groups. Since Kabul's power is weak outside city limits, according to US Aid 'local elites, warlords and political factions control land and natural resources with intimidation'.

The refugees returning from Pakistan have brought back skills, and a love of cricket: an Afghan team played its first Twenty20 series in the Caribbean in May. They were knocked out pretty early. We didn't care: we cheered.

Unemployment figures whirl between 25 and 40 per cent. In relation to what? I wonder, as there are so few full-time jobs as we know them. Reliable data is scratchy in Afghanistan: the last census in 1979 was only partial and not completed.

I ask a young Afghan man during a job interview why he wants this position. 'To feed my family,' he shoots back. 'We don't have careers here.'

An Afghan colleague gives me an insight into what happens when the breadwinner dies. His friend, a municipal officer who'd recently married, was killed in a suicide bomb attack a few hundred metres from our office in the southern Kabul neighbourhood of Kart-e-Se. At the funeral the other members of the family were so terrorised by the destitution they now faced, they could not properly mourn the young man. In Afghanistan there is no welfare safety net. This is why my driver colleagues give a few afghanis to the older widows on the streets.

Agriculture was once the foundation of Afghanistan's economy, with a flourishing horticultural export market. I've seen paintings of melons and pomegranate gardens in Kandahar in the late 19th century, the same fruits that magically appear in Kabul markets today. Before the Soviet invasion in 1978 there were over a million farming families in the provinces. As local communities resisted communist land reform their food was destroyed. Half the farming workforce disappeared into Pakistan. Skills died along with the resisting farmers. Civil war and enforced neglect did the rest.

Today an Iraqi mate runs projects in the provinces to repair centuries-old irrigation systems and educates communities on how independently to maintain them. As in Australia, water is critical; drought is dreaded. And in Afghanistan famine is familiar.

My exposure to the hopes of young Afghans stops me in my tracks. Some are interested in forms of democratic decision-making, the kinds that might be in early formation in the Afghan Parliament.

Other young Afghans want to bring back the loya jirga, the grand council which was used to elect a new king, discuss changes to the constitution or resolve other significant issues.

At the same time they question how warlords with blood on their hands were not, as in the Balkans, called to account by the international community and hauled off to the International Criminal Court. Instead they are sitting in Parliament, legitimised.

I met a young woman from an area still referred to as Little Moscow. She spoke with regret about the strength of ethnic and tribal allegiances. 'It makes it so easy for us to be manipulated by countries around us', she said, referring to Iran and Pakistan. 'I don't know why we did not learn from the Russians to think of the nation.'

Meanwhile, Pentagon surveys track the nebulous game of winning civilian hearts and minds in the south. President Obama reiterates that the US is in Afghanistan to keep their country secure from terror. Australia buys that too. As in the national game of Buzkashi, Afghanistan is playing the role of the goat carcass fought over by a gaggle of teams.

Jan ForresterJan Forrester works periodically in Afghanistan as a media trainer with a US-based media development NGO. She is a member of the Council of the Australian Film Television and Radio School.


Topic tags: Jan Forrester, Afghanistan, Buzkashi, goat carcass



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Existing comments

How good it is to get a story about the real people. Why can't we get more of this sort of writing so that we can have a better understanding of what is clearly a complex situation. What is happening in the schools, are there any universities and training centres other than police training etc? Can Eureka Street commission or invite some other writers to flesh out the picture for us? I for one am hungry to find out more from a human perspective from unaligned people.

tony london | 28 June 2010  

Thank you Eureka Street for publishing Jan 's article.
I agree wholeheartedly with Tony London's comments.
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade knows that what Jan has written is the actual situation in Afghanistan but for political reasons it will not be disseminated.

Trying to clean up that mess rates higher than a Labor of Hercules. It makes it sound fatuous to say "We will stay there till the job is done". Defeating the Taliban - if that is possible militarily - is only a first step. Nation building and consolidation will take at least another two generations.

But then the Australian government may be right. Your average Aussie punter doesn't really want to know. It would distract him from the World Cup or some other circus that keeps popping up to stop us taking the welfare of suffering humanity seriously.

Even Eureka Street readers seem reticent about commenting on a bad news article.

Uncle Pat | 28 June 2010  

There is no reason whatsoever for Australian troops to be in Afghanistan being used as cannon fodder in the US's neocolonial wars.

And don't invoke the War on Terror nonsense. It's a propaganda notion, a real con meant to fool people into supporting the "liberation" of energy-rich Third World Countries in the interest of American Big Oil and other corporate elements.

It's time for Australia to grow up and develop a foreign policy of its own, instead of being always the US's taken-for-granted subservient puppet.

Leander Gonzaga | 28 June 2010  

Thank you Jan; how very true in a land, Australia, where political point scoring is more important than concern about our citizens.

I refer to those who voluntarily enlisted in the Defence Forces; who accept that their service was important !
We are there in Afghanistan to help that country, not achieve a territorial, political or patriotic dream.

John McQualter | 28 June 2010  

A small note to say that as far as I can tell very few Americans consider the endless war in Afghanistan 'neocolonial' -- believe me, the US hasn't the slightest interest in a colony there. For most Americans the Afghan war was a legitimate strike at criminals being housed and aided by a government, and what a lovely government it was too, stoning girls and beheading its citizens; and now, Vietnamlike, we all seem to be stuck together in the effort to help many brave Afghan citizens create a country that the Taliban does not run. That Bin Laden and his fellow murderous thugs have moved their campsites to Pakistan would seem to give tbe avengers of September 11 and their friends like Australia full reason to depart the graveyard of empires; but then what? I can also attest, as an American, that Australia is widely admired here for standing with a friend.

Brian Doyle | 29 June 2010  

a most valuable insight into the real lives led by real people.

peter roebuck | 05 July 2010  

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