A Thousand Terrible Twilights
Seven-and-a-half years after the removal of the Taliban, the feeling is of a city increasingly under siege
Aunohita Mojumdar Kabul
In capital Kabul, every week sees new cement bollards in front of buildings, fresh barbed wire concertinas strung across roads, new check points and road blocks. Each successive bomb blast in front of an important building, that is, buildings housing important people, sees yet another road being blocked to the Afghan public. The international community and elite Afghans barricade themselves behind more sandbags as ordinary Afghans get squeezed more and more into the remaining open areas of the capital.
Seven-and-a-half years after the removal of the Taliban, the feeling is of a city increasingly under siege. This fact made it all the more curious when the Director General of Afghanistan's National Security Directorate, Amrullah Saleh, claimed this week. "We are victorious." Making a speech at a security seminar, he asked: "What more victory do you want?"
Saleh explained his contention: the world had finally come around to accepting the Afghan government's claim that the source of insecurity lay beyond Afghanistan's borders. Finally, he said, the battle had been taken to the place where those centres existed.Saleh was referring to the recent formulation of an 'Af-Pak' policy by the Barack Obama administration and its attention on Pakistan as a source of terror.
It is an approach that has gone down well with the governments of both Afghanistan as well as India, both of whom view it as a triumph of their diplomatic efforts. Officials of both countries are, however, less clear on how the Obama administration intends to act upon this understanding and how this will play into their strategies.
Within Afghanistan the mood is a somber one - of waiting. Opinion across the spectrum is agreed only on one thing: that the fresh influx of US troops will mean intensified fighting as the winter snows melt allowing for easier access across the rugged terrain.
For Afghan citizens the war against terror being waged in their territory in their name is not the only source of violence. While there is intense fighting between pro and anti-government elements in many of the southern and south eastern provinces, violence against citizens comes from multiple sources.
In Balkh province, governor Mohammad Atta, a former northern alliance commander, overlooks a province that has eradicated poppy and has been free of insurgency. However, he knows he sits on a powder keg. Balkh was hit by a severe drought last year and its dry brown fields point to the failure of crop. Economic deprivation could upset the fragile balance pushing people to re-enter poppy cultivation and destabilise the modicum of law and order that has been achieved.
In capital Kabul, its elite live in fear of kidnappings. While kidnappings in the city are usually followed by reports of the approaching spectre of the Taliban, the reality is that they are carried out by criminal networks looking for ransom - a get rich quick scheme that is made lucrative by the absence of an effective law and order machinery. Part of the problem of policing Afghanistan has been the use of police in counter insurgency duties for which they are ill-equipped. Between 2007 and 2009, 568 Afghan National Army soliders were killed compared to 1,504 policemen in the same period.
In the central province of Bamiyan, one of the most peaceful areas of the country, a hotelier explains why they never advertise widely. "It is better to get to know by word of mouth. Going to public could invite the wrong kind of attention." There are many armed militia or even gunmen who have no compunction shaking down businessmen and rich Afghans knowing that in all likelihood they will escape the criminal justice system.
In the Shind and district of the western province of Herat, an estimated 90 civilians were killed in bombing by international military forces. The international forces initially claimed they had bombed a Taliban camp but later conceded they had been misled by misinformation. Warring groups or tribes see the use of US air power as an easy and cost effective way to settle feuds.
The combination of poor intelligence on the ground, and heavy reliance on air strikes, has caused an escalation in civilian casualties. In the year 2008, the use of aerial munitions went up by 40 per cent. In the same period the number of civilian deaths from air strikes shot up by 72 per cent. Almost 60 per cent of the deaths were attributable to the approximately 10-20,000 (numbers are constantly changing) US- Operation Enduring Freedom (number of American forces stationed in Afghanistan under the command of the US Operation Enduring Freedom); rather than the 50-62,000 by International Security Assistance Force (number of forces stationed in Afghanistan under NATO command and control).
In the southern provinces where heavy fighting and civilian casualties are frequent, villagers in many areas no longer care who is in charge, just wanting peace at any cost. While outside Afghanistan the battle is seen as one between Al Qaeda and Taliban and the government and international forces, the character of the anti government armed battle is more complex. While there is a core of the Taliban regime which remains under the command and control of Mullah Omar, the homogeneous picture of the 'enemy' is more of a convenient construct of the war against terror.
The anti-government fighters comprise a mix of ideologically motivated Taliban, the Taliban merely fighting for a share of the pie, small time commanders who have been divested of their 'territory', criminals and drug traders. Their links with each other and with the Al Qaeda are fluid and changing, making this nexus much more dangerous than it would have been had it been a clear-cut homogeneous group with a clear command and control structure.
Parallel movements such as that led by Jalaluddin Haqqani and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar are also active and coordinate with the Taliban on a needs-based basis. Each of these groups has been able to hold small areas for short bursts of time but do not have staying power. Rather, their real impact lies in their ability to disrupt governance, instill fear and erode public trust in the mechanisms of governance both in terms of security forces and administration.
Popular perception outside Afghanistan puts the Taliban at the doorstep of Kabul. Indeed, the Taliban has been able to carry out some audacious strikes inside the capital with increasing degrees of coordination. However, their support base within the capital remains extremely limited, restricting their ability to plan and coordinate operations.
While it is more convenient to countries like the US to project the perception of an 'evil' movement that can be annihilated, neither the numbers nor the ideology can be eliminated quite so easily. While the body count has been replaced with growing numbers, the intolerant ideology is not limited to those who call themselves the Taliban. Within Afghanistan's 'legitimate' polity, there are politicians, commanders and power brokers who are much more comfortable with the social and cultural practices of the Taliban than they are with the more modern political paradigm Afghanistan is currently under.
For Afghanistan's single biggest minority, its women, the greatest threat comes from the growing power of cultural conservatives and the rising intolerance. Though its Constitution promises equality, and initial steps with the urging of the international community reserved more than 20 per cent of seats in Afghanistan's Parliament for women, women in public space face increasing threats, and Constitutional guarantees appear to be only as good as its implementers want it to be.
The recent controversy over the Shia personal family law, portions of which are discriminatory towards women, brought this into sharp focus. While this particular law received considerable international focus, in part because of the sensationalised reporting on complex issues of conjugal rights, there has been far less attention on the increasing intolerance for women's participation in public space and the general growth of violence against women.
While several women have been killed by Taliban in the southern provinces such as the killings of Malalai Kakar, a senior and well- known policewoman, and recently Sitara Achakzai, a woman activist (both were killed in Kandahar), there have been several murders in non-Taliban areas as well, such as that of Zakia Zaki who ran a radio station in Jabbal Seraj in Parwan province close to Kabul. In Kabul city, the head of a woman's organisation says the staff, mainly women, have become more nervous about their role as advocate of women's rights, preferring to stay low key.
The increasing violence against women is taking place in a milieu where aspects of human rights, media freedoms and democratic principles are increasingly being attacked from powerful sections of Afghanistan's polity as being 'alien' to Afghanistan. Many women fear that it is their rights which may be the first to be sacrificed. They point out that in the 'negotiations' with the Taliban, half of Afghanistan's population remains unrepresented. Women's groups feel that their rights may be the easiest compromise their leaders and the international community may be willing to make, pushing them into a renewed cycle of violence and oppressions.