It often appears that “true Afghanistan” is not here in Kabul and not in Jalalabad or Heart either; not in the ancient villages, which anxiously cling to the steep mountainsides.
Many foreigners and even Afghans are now convinced that the “true” Afghanistan is only what is being shown on the television screens, depicted in magazines, or what is buried deep in the archives and libraries somewhere in London, New York or Paris.
It is tempting to think that the country could be only understood from a comfortable distance, from the safety of one’s living room or from those books and publications decorating dusty bookshelves and coffee tables all over the world.
“Afghanistan is dangerous,” they say. “It is too risky to travel there. One needs to be protected, escorted, equipped and insured in order to function in that wild and lawless country even for one single day, or just a few hours.”
When it comes to Afghanistan, conditioned Western ‘rational brains’ of tenure or emeritus professors (or call them the ‘regime’s intellectual gatekeepers’) often get engaged, even intertwined with those pathologically imaginative minds of the upper class ‘refugees’, the ‘elites’, and of course their offspring. After all, crème de la crème ‘refugees’ speak perfect English; they know the rules and nuances of the game. The results of such ‘productive interaction’ are then imprinted into countless books and reports.
Books of that kind become, in turn, what could be easily defined as the ‘official references’, a ‘certified way’ to how our world perceives a country like Afghanistan. Their content is being quoted and recycled.
How often I heard, from the old veteran opinion makers (even those from the ‘left’) – people that I actually used to respect in the past:
“The Soviet era in Afghanistan was of course terrible, but at least many girls there had access to the education…”
It is no secret that ‘many girls had access to education’ in those distant days, but was it really “terrible”, that era? Was it “of course, terrible?” Baseless clichés like this are actually shaping ‘public opinion’, and can be much more destructive than the hardcore propaganda.
There is a small courthouse from the ‘British era’, standing right in the center of Hong Kong. It is neat, well-built, remarkably organized and some would even say – elegant.
Earlier this year I visited there with an Afghan-British lawyer, who had been touring East Asia for several months. Hong Kong was her last destination; afterwards she was planning to return home to London. The Orient clearly confused and overwhelmed her, and no matter how ‘anti-imperialist’ she tried to look, most of her references were clearly going back to the adoptive homeland – the United Kingdom.
“It looks like England,” she exclaimed when standing in the middle of Hong Kong. There was clearly excitement and nostalgia in her voice.
To cheer her up even more, I took her to the courthouse. My good intentions backfired: as we were leaving, she uttered words that I expected but also feared for quite some time:
“You know, there are actually many good things that can be said about the British legal system.”
I thought about that short episode in Hong Kong now, as I drove all around her devastated country of childhood, Afghanistan. As always, I worked without protection, with no bulletproof vests, armored vehicles or military escorts, just with my Afghan driver who doubled as my interpreter and also as my friend. It was Ramadan and to let him rest, I periodically got behind the wheel. We were facing countless detentions, arrests and interrogations by police, military and who knows what security forces, but we were moving forward, always forward, despite all obstacles.
From that great distance, from the heights of the mountains of Afghanistan, the courthouse in Hong Kong kept falling into proportion and meaningful perspective.
It is now winter in Kabul, end of February 2017. At night the temperature gets near zero. The mountains surrounding the city are covered by snow.
It feels much chillier than it really is.
Soon it will be 16 years since the US/UK invasion of the country, and 16 years since the Bonn Conference, during which Hamid Karzai was “selected” to head the Afghan Interim Administration.
Almost everyone I spoke to in Afghanistan agrees that things are rapidly moving from bad to rock bottom.
Afghans, at home and abroad, are deeply pessimistic. With hefty allowances and privileges, at least some foreigners based in Kabul are much more upbeat, but ‘positive thinking’ is what they are paid to demonstrate.
Historically one of the greatest cultures on Earth, Afghanistan is now nearing breaking point, with the lowest Human Development Index (2015, HDI, compiled by the UNDP) of all Asian nations, and the 18th lowest in the entire world (all 17 countries below it are located in Sub-Saharan Africa). Afghanistan has also the lowest life expectancy in Asia (WHO, 2015).
While officially, the literacy rate stands at around 60%, I was told by two prominent educationalists in Kabul that in reality it is well below 50%, while it is stubbornly stuck under 20% for women and girls.
Statistics are awful, but what is behind the numbers? What has been done to this ancient and distinct civilization, once standing proudly at the crossroad of major trade routes, influencing culturally a great chunk of Asia, connecting East and West, North and South?
How deep, how permanent is the damage?
During my visit, I was offered but I refused to travel in an armored, bulletproof vehicle. My ageing “horse” became a beat-up Corolla, my driver and translator a brave, decent family man in possession of a wonderful sense of humor. Although we became good friends, I never asked him to what ethnic group he belonged. He never told me. I simply didn’t want to know, and he didn’t find it important to address the topic. Everyone knows that Afghanistan is deeply divided ‘along its ethnic lines’. As an internationalist, I refuse to pay attention to anything related to ‘blood’, finding all such divisions, anywhere in the world, unnatural and thoroughly unfortunate. Call it my little stubbornness; both my driver and me were stubbornly refusing to acknowledge ethnic divisions in Afghanistan, at least inside the car, while driving through this marvelous but scarred, stunning but endlessly sad land.
One day you and your driver, who is by then your dear friend, are driving slowly over the bridge. Your car stops. You get out in the middle of the bridge, and begin photographing the clogged river below, with garbage floating and covering its banks. Children are begging, and you soon notice that they are operating in a compact pack, almost resembling some small military unit. In Kabul, as in so many places on earth, there is a rigid structure to begging.
After a while, you continue driving on, towards the Softa Bridge, which is located in District 6.
Where you are appears to be all messed up, endlessly fucked up.
You were told to come to this neighborhood, to witness a warzone inside the city, to see ‘what the West has done to the country’. There are no bullets flying here, and no loud explosions. In fact, you hear almost nothing. You actually don’t see any war near the Softa Bridge; you only see Death, her horrid gangrenous face, her scythe cutting all that is still standing around her, cutting and cutting, working in extremely slow motion.
Again, as so many times before, you are scared. You were scared like this several times before: in Haiti, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kashmir, Sri Lanka, Timor Leste, Iraq, and Peru, to name just a few countries. In those places, as well as here in Kabul, you are not frightened because you could easily lose your life any moment, or because your safety might be in danger. What dismays you, what you really cannot stomach, are the images of despair, those of ‘no way out’, of absolute hopelessness. Lack of hope is killing you, it horrifies you; everything else can always be dealt with.
People you see all around can hardly stand on their feet. Many cannot stand at all. Most of them are stoned, laying around in rags, sitting in embryonic positions, or moving aimlessly back and forth, staring emptily into the distance. Some are urinating publicly. Syringes are everywhere.
There are holes, deep and wide, filled with motionless human bodies.
First you drive around, photographing through the cracked glass, then you roll down the window, and at the end, you get out and begin working, totally exposed. You have no idea what may happen in the next few seconds. Someone begins shouting at you, others are throwing stones, but they are too weak and the stones just hit your shoulder and legs, softly, without causing any harm.
Then a bomb goes off, not far from where you are. There is an explosion in the 6th District, right in front of a police station. You cannot see it, but you can clearly hear the blast. It is a muffled yet powerful bang. You look at your phone.
It is March 1st, 2017, Kabul. Later you learn that several people died just a few hundred meters from where you were working, while several others perished in the 12th District, another few kilometers away.
The smoke begins rising towards the sky. Sirens are howling and several ambulances are rushing towards the site. Then countless military Humvees begin shooting one after another in the same direction, followed by heavier and much clumsier armored vehicles. You are taking all this in, slowly; photographing the scene, and then snapping from some distance a monumental but still semi-destroyed Darul Aman Palace.
Just like Lazarus, there were reasons to believe the Afghan peace process might have stood a chance of being resurrected this past Monday in Islamabad, as four major players – Afghanistan, Pakistan, the US and China – sat together at the same table.
The final communiqué though was not exactly ground breaking: “The participants emphasized the immediate need for direct talks between representatives of the Government of Afghanistan and representatives from Taliban groups in a peace process that aims to preserve Afghanistan’s unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
A week before the Islamabad meeting, while in the Persian Gulf, I had an extremely enlightening conversation with a group of Afghan Pashtuns. After the ice was broken, and it was established I was not some Sean Penn-style shadowy asset with a dodgy agenda, my Pashtun interlocutors did deliver the goods. I felt I was back in Peshawar in 2001, only a few days before 9/11.
The first ground breaker was that two Taliban officials, currently based in Qatar, are about to meet top Chinese and Pakistani envoys face to face, without interference from the US. This fits into the strategy laid out by the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), led by China and Russia, according to which the Afghan puzzle must be solved as an Asian matter. And Beijing definitely wants a solution, fast; think Afghan chapter of the New Silk Roads.
The post 9/11 Afghan War has been going on for an interminable 14 years; taking a cue from Pentagonese, talk about Enduring Freedom forever. No one is winning – and the Taliban are more divided than ever after the previous peace process collapsed when the Taliban announced Mullah Omar had been dead for two years.
The nature of the war in Afghanistan has shifted dramatically in recent months. While the US and NATO continue to be actively involved in the country – their strategic objectives having changed very little since the Bush administration launched the war nearly a decade and a half ago – the complexion of the battlefield, and the parties actively engaged in the war, has changed significantly.
The emergence ofISIS in Afghanistan, along with the impending withdrawal of US-NATO troops from the country, has driven the Taliban into a marriage of convenience, if not an outright alliance, with Iran. What seemed like an unfathomable scenario just a few years ago, Shia Iran’s support for the hardline Sunni Taliban has become a reality due to the changing circumstances of the war. Though it may be hard to believe, such an alliance is now a critical element of the situation on the ground in Afghanistan. But its significance is far larger than just shifting the balance of power within the country.
Instead, Afghanistan is now in many ways a proxy conflict between the US and its western and Gulf allies on the one hand, and Iran and certain non-western countries, most notably China, on the other. If the contours of the conflict might not be immediately apparent, that is only because the western media, and all the alleged brainiacs of the corporate think tanks, have failed to present the conflict in its true context. The narrative of Afghanistan, to the extent that it’s discussed at all, continues to be about terrorism and stability, nation-building and “support.” But this is a fundamental misunderstanding and mischaracterization of the current war, and the agenda driving it.
Pipelineistan – the prime Eurasian energy chessboard — never sleeps. Recently, it’s Russia that has scored big on all fronts; two monster gas deals sealed with China last year; the launch of Turk Stream replacing South Stream; and the doubling of Nord Stream to Germany.
Now, with the possibility of sanctions on Iran finally vanishing by late 2015/early 2016, all elements will be in place for the revival of one of Pipelineistan’s most spectacular soap operas, which I have beenfollowingfor years; the competition between the IP (Iran-Pakistan) and TAPI (Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India) gas pipelines.
The $7.5-billion IP had hit a wall for years now – a casualty of hardcore geopolitical power play. IP was initially IPI – connected to India; both India and Pakistan badly need Iranian energy. And yet relentless pressure from successive Bush and Obama administrations scared India out of the project. And then sanctions stalled it for good.
Now, Pakistan’s Minister of Petroleum and Natural Resources Shahid Khaqan Abbasi swears IP is a go. The Iranian stretch of the 1,800-kilometer pipeline has already been built. IP originates in the massive South Pars gas fields – the largest in the world – and ends in the Pakistani city of Nawabshah, close to Karachi. The geopolitical significance of this steel umbilical cord linking Iran and Pakistan couldn’t be more graphic.
The recent 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz was a reminder of the great crime of fascism, whose Nazi iconography is embedded in our consciousness. Fascism is preserved as history, as flickering footage of goose-stepping blackshirts, their criminality terrible and clear. Yet in the same liberal societies, whose war-making elites urge us never to forget, the accelerating danger of a modern kind of fascism is suppressed; for it is their fascism.
To initiate a war of aggression…,” said the Nuremberg Tribunal judges in 1946, “is not only an international crime, it is the supreme international crime, differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.”
Had the Nazis not invaded Europe, Auschwitz and the Holocaust would not have happened. Had the United States and its satellites not initiated their war of aggression in Iraq in 2003, almost a million people would be alive today; and Islamic State, or ISIS, would not have us in thrall to its savagery. They are the progeny of modern fascism, weaned by the bombs, bloodbaths and lies that are the surreal theatre known as news.