At the Sorya school for girls in the Afghanistan capital, Kabul, most of the 25 or so students in the senior class want to be lawyers, judges or politicians. “I think women are under represented in the legal and political system in Afghanistan. Women need empowerment,” says 16-year-old Malika, a Class XII student.
Perhaps, no one understands this better than 27-year-old Malele Aminzada, living and working in a woman’s shelter in Kabul after being rescued by the authorities. Aminzada says her husband first subjected her to physical abuse for bringing dishonour to his name when she lost in a local election. And two months ago, when shedecided to remarry after her divorce, she was kidnapped by her ex-husband and six other men, who then gang-raped her. “I am educated and if this can happen to me, what about other women?” she asks, speaking through an interpreter.
Aminzada’s experience illustrates the paradox of the new Afghanistan: you have a right to dream, but not one to live it out in entirety.
9/11 and after
A decade ago, when Afghanistan was under Islamist Taliban rule, girls like Malika would not have been in school and Aminzada would have had no option but to suffer her abusive husband. Girls’ education was banned and women could not work. If they did venture out, women had to wear a burka and be accompanied by a male member of the family. Reports also say the Taliban ordered windows of houses at the street level to be boarded up so that women were not seen by passers-by. Most countries condemned the group’s medieval diktats and imposed a slew of sanctions, but otherwise left the regime and Afghanistan—lying at the crossroads between South and Central Asia—largely alone.
The 9/11 terror attacks in the US, however, changed all of that. Afghanistan reclaimed international mindspace—12 years after the mighty Soviet troops were handed a crushing defeat—when it emerged that the plot to hijack and crash passenger aircraft into New York’s landmark World Trade Centre towers and the Pentagon, was plotted by the terrorist Al Qaeda group’s ideologue, Osama bin Laden, from his hideout in Afghanistan. The US, supported by some countries, launched its war on terror in Afghanistan, and the Taliban fled Kabul in November 2001, a little more than five years after capturing power in September 1996.
“9/11 proved that in the 21st century, globalization had changed the meaning of national security,” says Waliullah Rahmani, an analyst with the Kabul Center for Strategic Studies. “Afghanistan captured the attention of the global community at this point because it was a source of potential and active threats to the world community.”
“The past 10 years have brought many changes. Today, there are laws against domestic violence and women can approach the courts or the human rights commission for justice,” says 34-year-old Shukria Khaliqi, a lawyer who has represented scores of women.
Soraya Sobhrang, a former minister in the Hamid Karzai government and currently a member of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, agrees: not only in women’s rights but in other areas as well, such as the setting up of democratic institutions.
“These (changes) are not very sustainable, they are still very fragile. Our government is very weak. Till 2004, things were going fine; but since then, there has been a slide back,” she says, referring to a resurgent Taliban striking back at the government and the almost 140,000 US-led international troops based in Afghanistan.
The atmosphere in Kabul mirrors the idea of an Afghanistan at the crossroads of history. The scenic city, surrounded by mountains on all sides, bears all the hallmarks of being on the threshold of an economic boom; the basics of an emerging consumer society are clearly visible. A spurt in construction activity has transformed Kabul’s skyline that could previously boast of only three or four-storey buildings. Now multi-storeyed blocks tower over streets, housing offices of international telecom companies including UAE-based Etisalat and South Africa’s MTN. Newly built roads, funded by the billions of dollars in aid that have flowed in since the installation of the Karzai government in December 2001, are clogged with the latest models of Toyota cars and SUVs. Shops selling the latest in digital still cameras and handycams abound—far removed from the days of the Taliban, which had banned photography and filming. Well-known US computer brands, Dell and HP,?have a presence in Kabul,?as does the beverage giant Coca-Cola with a bottling plant in Kabul.
“During Taliban rule, if one had to call a relative outside Afghanistan, he had to go to (neighbouring) Pakistan. Now, everyone has a mobile phone, and one can browse the Net, chat and send messages across the world using a mobile,” says Hunnar Islam, a communications professional. “And all this is because of the presence of foreign troops and the stability they have brought.”
But reports of the US and other international troops withdrawing from Afghanistan by 2014 have unsettled many in Kabul. Weary from their decade-long stay in Afghanistan, fighting a resurgent Taliban and taking increasing casualties, many countries are planning a withdrawal. They will hand over security operations to the fledgling Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police by 2014.
“There was a lot of hope when the Karzai government came in. Now, there is a lot of corruption, the security situation is bad and, I think, many people are looking at the option of leaving by the time the international forces leave in 2014,” says Nafeesa Bekzai, a former Kabul University professor.
In the past few years, the Taliban has made a remarkable comeback, many believe with help from Pakistan, which had originally supported the group in the mid 1990s. The Taliban now has the support of the Haqqani network (an insurgent group) and controls large swathes of Afghanistan. An attack on the British Council offices in Kabul on 19 August left at least eight people dead; this is in spite of the fact that it is considered one of the safest cities in the country and the overwhelming security presence.
“Security is a major concern” affecting business and investments, says Rajeev Wadhawan, of the joint venture between Hyderabad-based B. Seenaiah and Co. (Projects) Ltd and C&C Constructions—another Indian company—which is building Afghanistan’s parliament on Kabul’s Darulaman Road.
Officials in Afghanistan’s revenue department agree that the security concerns related to the departure of foreign troops could upset the government’s plans to stabilize the economy by attracting foreign investment. “If security is not in place, economic activities will go down,” says Ahmad Shah Zamanzai, spokesman for Afghanistan’s revenue department in Kabul. Internal tax collections have risen from $6 billion (Rs 27,600 crore) in 2002 to an expected $100 billion in 2011-12, he says.
“We are simplifying the procedures, like tax laws for example, to attract more investment,” Zamanzai says. “We are hopeful our people will be able to handle and take care of the security concerns. Afghanistan’s prosperity is linked to the prosperity of the region. If we are able to develop our mining sector, for example, we can export resources to countries like China and India.”
Also worrying are reports of ongoing peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban.
“We are not against reconciliation and negotiations. No country can achieve sustainable peace without this. But the thing is— when the government sits at the table, it should negotiate from a position of strength. It is the Taliban which is more powerful than the government right now,” says Sobhrang.
With some troops having left the country, and more on their way out, aid workers are worried that a return of the Taliban to power could adversely impact welfare work.
“There has been significant improvement in enrolment of children in basic education in the past few years—the numbers are seven to eight million,” says Peter Crowley, head of United Nations Children’s Fund in Afghanistan. “But that still leaves four to five million out of school... We are at a turning point. It is difficult to say which way things will go.”
According to Sediq Seddiqui, spokesman for the Afghan interior ministry, fears that Afghanistan will not be able to manage its own security by 2014 are misplaced. “We have a target of recruiting 157,000 police for internal security duties by 2014 and we have already recruited 149,000—that means we are already ahead in our recruiting schedules,” Seddiqui says. The Afghan National Army was better armed and trained than the police, he said. Improving this for the police was an imperative, he added.
Seddiqui dismissed concerns the withdrawal of international troops would result in a corresponding spike in Taliban attacks.
“I don’t think the international community has sent out the right message. The international community is committed to Afghanistan. There will be a phased withdrawal; not everyone leaving at once,” he said. “Even after 2014, there will be international troops present in Afghanistan. There will be a new relationship between Afghanistan and the international community, with Afghanistan taking more responsibility for security. We are trying to communicate this to our people.”
Reassuring as this might be to ordinary Afghans, these comments are likely to stoke anxiety among the nation’s immediate neighbours. Pakistan, for one, has been keen on having a friendly government in Kabul, one that it can fall back on in the case of a conflict with India.
It has been banking on the withdrawal of foreign troops to increase its influence in Afghanistan by undermining the Kabul government through the Taliban. India, for its part, is worried that a Pakistan-friendly government will impinge on its security.
Russia and Iran are reportedly concerned the US is working on a status of forces agreement that would mean the continued presence of many thousands of American troops in Afghanistan engaged in counter-insurgency operations.
But Afghans are hopeful of scripting something different this time. “Neighbouring countries have always interfered in Afghanistan,” says an Afghan official who did not want to be named. “This has been the tragedy of Afghanistan. They have done so in the past but this time we will not let them,” he says.
Photographs by Pradeep Gaur/Mint