These words were uttered to me in the Afghan city of Ghazni by a Polish soldier who was accompanying, or to put it more correctly “protecting,” a group of us on a US government-sponsored cultural heritage tour in Afghanistan.
Maybe the children had a point in teasing people like us as we walked past in groups in very strange outfits. But given valid security concerns, the Polish soldier had a point, too.
I only got to stay in Afghanistan for one week. Our trip had a specific aim and when someone is working as an embedded journalist there is not that much chance of moving around. I got the feeling that everything flows in a cycle that looks like there is no way out: Don’t get close to children because they might be dangerous. But if you don’t try getting closer to them then they go on believing the real dangerous people are the outsiders with the big guns towering over them. And the children throw stones not as a way of attack but as a way of defense. Who is supposed to break this cycle?
Well, the big commanders are always talking about winning the hearts of the Afghan people, but most of these big generals, with their drones killing so many civilians, don’t even have the courage to take off their helmets and show themselves to be human.
Just taking a short walk in Afghanistan makes one think if all this money being spent on the war machine were to be spent on this country, its people, education and infrastructure, what would this country really look like?
Well, to read about something and to listen to experts compared to being there are two different experiences. I don’t know which one gives the right picture and under what conditions but the most overarching thing for me is the importance of “Afghan ownership.”
I have been told by different experts, including Hikmet Çetin, the first civilian representative of NATO to Afghanistan, that there are funds and foreign aid available for Afghanistan but those getting the benefits are not always the Afghan people.
He told me that if there is a project in Afghanistan then there is tender or there are sponsors of the project but these projects are usually completed by foreigners with very little involvement by the Afghan people. Such an attitude results in two things: First, the income generated by the project usually goes to foreigners undertaking the project, and second, since the Afghans are not asked and do not participate in the projects they do not care about them or benefit from them.
Well, it is true that one of the reasons for this is corruption in Afghanistan; but as long as poverty remains, corruption will be there. Second, such a system is creating corruption.
Here again it is obvious: Who has to break this cycle?
Just one day before my trip, an academic told me that for the occupation forces (yes, let’s name it correctly, there is no “good occupation” or “bad occupation” since occupation is occupation), Afghanistan is a social laboratory for testing many things, starting from testing the war machine and international war cooperation. He also added, just like in every project, at the start you have an aim but in time no one remembers this aim -- a true case for Afghanistan.
I was waiting for this Afghanistan trip to read a book that I had gotten some time ago, “Raising My Voice,” by Malalai Joya. It is a wonderful book because it is so sincere. I have to admit I admire her and her struggle and I strongly recommend this book to everyone. Joya, in her book talks about her struggle for the education of girls during the Taliban era at underground schools for girls. She was elected to Parliament when she was just 27 but was thrown out for her outspoken criticisms of the country’s warlords. She talks about the crimes of the warlords and the foreign support for them because they pretend to be against the Taliban, but in fact, they are no different from the Taliban, especially when it comes to harming people at all levels.
Now she has been forced into hiding because of her outspoken manner. According to her book, she has survived four assassination attempts. She talks about many issues, such as opium cultivation, the huge repression of women, the lack of education and the suffering of the people at the hands of the war lords. She invites readers not to believe lies that the Taliban regime has been ousted and has been replaced by a free, democratic society. “You may have been led to believe that when the Taliban was driven from power justice returned to my country,” she writes. Instead, “we remain caged in our country without access to justice and are still ruled by women-hating criminals.” She also talks about how the foreign occupation is helping this to continue happening.
Several years ago in another book, “The Fragmentation of Afghanistan: State Formation and Collapse in the International System,” by Barnett R. Rubin, which is written before 9/11, I encountered an idea that I was not totally able to understand. The book claimed that the awful situation in Afghanistan was created by the West and the West’s pressure for unity in Afghanistan has caused more fragmentation. It claimed that Afghanistan is a reflection of the West in the mirror.
The book quoted a Persian proverb, “If you are not happy about the reflection of yourself in the mirror, don’t break the mirror but your own face.” I understand the meaning of this only after being in Afghanistan.