Monday, 11 September 2017

QK archives: Afghanistan under the Taliban must make us shudder

Published by The NEWS on sunday' August 2000

LEARNING FROM AFGHANISTAN: lessons that pakistan can't easily ignore

Afghanistan must make us shudder!

The lessons for Pakistan from the Afghan experience are profound. Afghanistan was a dual society. The elite lived comfortably and even luxuriously. The mass of the people merely eked out a living without any of the trappings of modern civilization. The pressures of duality fractured the society, leading to political upheavals and war, and the consequential deaths and destruction on such a vast scale. The internal conditions for such a situation were provided by the Afghan ruling classes themselvesÉ Political Economy draws lessons from the tragedy of Afghanistan -- for our ruling elites' skeletons in the closet

Kaiser Bengali

Landing at Kabul or any airport in Afghanistan conveys the message, loud and clear, that one has arrived in a war zone. Off the runway, the grounds are littered with debris of anti-aircraft guns and planes, some burnt and charred, some partly blown off, and others lying in various angles. Airport buildings are pock-marked, interior furniture and furnishings have apparently been looted, and the few international passengers are dealt with at improvised immigration desks by officers wearing crumpled shalwar kameez and slippers, who make entries in registers bought in Peshawar book shops.

The drive to the city shows more signs of war damage. Charred and twisted tanks, armoured cars, trucks etc., litter both sides of the highway. Entering Kabul reveals the full horror of the war. About two-thirds of the city is completely destroyed, with about a dozen or at most two dozen buildings standing in the centre. One can drive for miles in the city and all one can see is rubble.

Imagine driving in Rawalpindi along Murree Road and onwards to Raja Bazaar, or in Lahore around the Assembly area along Mall Road, or in Karachi along M.A. Jinnah Road or University Road, or in Quetta along Jinnah Road, or in Peshawar through Chowk Yadgar or Hayatabad and every building on either side as far as the eyes can see is a pile of rubble. That is Kabul today.

Public utilities are rudimentary. The only vehicles on the streets are taxis and UN jeeps. The few private cars are mostly owned by government officials. Ninety percent of shops are either boarded up or empty, apparently looted. The Palace built by King Amanullah is also in ruins. Standing there, one can make out where fountains and other garden adornments must have been. Otherwise too, one can make out that Kabul was once a beautiful city, with broad two-way roads lined by trees and green belts and with several gardens and parks. But that is the Kabul that was.

Standing amidst the physical destruction leaves one numb and speechless. Most painful, however, is the human destruction; so plainly visible. The number of deaths and missing run into hundreds of thousands. But those who have survived are paying a continuing price. The war has shattered families and destroyed lives. More than once, I encountered old women who asked me to find sons who had been taken away by armed men and had never returned. More than once, I had to deal with old men who held my hand and wept because their sons had died. Standing on a corner of the city, I lost count of the number of disabled adults and children; some without arms, others without legs, some blind in one eye, others blind altogether. The sight of children without both legs crawling before you or children with one arm asking for alms is most heart breaking.

One family of five consists of a man and four minor children. The man is crippled on account of war wounds and cannot work. His wife was killed. The four minor children are the bread earners of the family. In the words of the man, sometimes they eat and sometimes they don't. Hunger is endemic. A survey in a northern city revealed that one fifth of households subsist largely on bread, onion soup and tea.

Over three fourths of households do not consume any meat, milk or fruits. During the survey, enumerators reported that respondents wept when asked how much of mutton, chicken, eggs, milk or fruit they consumed. Several said that their children did not know what these items tasted like.

It is also common to come across mentally disturbed people. One relatively well dressed man blocked the way of our vehicle and began to make a speech, as if in a public meeting. The driver had to get out and gently nudge him out of the way. Another man was found sitting motionless, face cradled in his right palm and legs crossed, on a pile of rubble on a street where houses on both sides had been bombed out. On inquiry, I was told that the house besides which he was sitting was where he used to live with his family. While he was away, the house had received a direct hit and the entire family had been killed. He arrived there every morning and left at sunset.

One teenager works as a tea boy in a donor office. His father is a professor at Kabul University, but has not been paid the meagre salary for months. His elder brother is an engineer, but sells old things on the street. His sister was a final year student at the University, but could not complete her education because of the Taliban edict. She just sits at home, doing nothing. He himself is the major bread earner of the family and cannot afford to go to school. He knows that without education his future is bleak, but surviving the present has to take precedence over the future.

The irony of the two decades of conflict in Afghanistan is that the city of Kabul was largely intact by the time the Russians left in 1989. The destruction was wrought on the Afghan people by the Mujahedeen commanders, the blue-eyed boys of the CIA and the ISI. Driving along a road in Kabul, one is told of Hikmatyar's control on the left side and Masood's control on the right. Further along, one is pointed out the area under Hizb-e-Wahdat control and so on. Different commanders controlled different areas of Kabul, shelled each other with the heaviest weapons available, and turned Kabul into rubble; murdering families and destroying lives. The Mujahedeen period from 1989 to 1996 is remembered by Afghans for its anarchy and lawlessness. Groups of armed men barging into homes, taking away any young men or older boys with them, looting whatever took their fancy, and raping women was a common occurrence.

The Taliban may be the bad boys in the eyes of the west and the drawing room liberals in Pakistan, but they have to be credited with imposing absolute peace in the parts of the country under their control. One may not agree with Taliban laws, but they have to be acknowledged for instituting the rule of law. Despite widespread hunger, robberies and holdups are rare. Truckers can drive from one end of the country to another without anyone accosting them for money or any favours. Most of all, women are safe. They can walk alone on the streets, albeit in a burqa, without any fear of being harassed. None of these claims can be made for the territory controlled by non-Taliban forces. And incidentally, none of these claims can be made for any part of Pakistan either.

The Islamic regime imposed by the Taliban is harsh indeed, particularly for women. In reality, however, what appears to have occurred in Afghanistan is not Islamization but tribalization. Prior to the war, whatever semblance of modernization there existed was limited to the city centres of Kabul and some other big cities. The modernized elite, who wore western dresses and sent their daughters to universities, was narrowly centred around the royal family and the military officer class. Outside of this island of relative modernity, Afghanistan existed in the medieval age. Mountain tribes had had no experience with electricity or telephones or with education or health facilities. In the world that they knew of, girls never went to schools and women never went to hospitals because there never ever had been any school or clinic in their village or in any of the villages that they knew of. When these mountain tribesmen gained the reins of power in Kabul, they could not but impose a social and political order that they were aware of and familiar with. What really occurred was that the Afghan hinterland arrived in and took over Kabul. For want of an ideological platform, however, they chose the banner of Islam.

The Taliban regime is also egalitarian in some respects. Ministers' offices are modest and they sit on the floor and eat like any body else, the head of Kabul airport commutes to work on a bicycle, and so on. However, the egalitarianism appears to be borne out of sheer poverty rather than conviction. This is indicated by the fact that the Taliban have reversed the land reforms of the 'communist' era and the lands distributed to poor peasants have been reverted to the feudal lords and tribal chiefs. For a war ravaged country, where one in seven household does not have any adult male or an able bodied male, the ban on women's work amounts to condemning these families to starvation and only betrays the Taliban's callousness regarding the plight of the under-privileged.

The lessons for Pakistan from the Afghan experience are profound. Afghanistan was a dual society. The elite lived comfortably and even luxuriously. The mass of the people merely eked out a living without any of the trappings of modern civilization. There was a rising urban bourgeoisie which was progressive enough to clamour for egalitarian change; but their efforts amounted to too little, too late. The pressures of duality fractured the society, leading to political upheavals and war, and the consequential deaths and destruction on such a vast scale. The criminal role of the two superpowers in using Afghanistan as their cold war battle ground and destroying at least two generations of a part of humanity cannot be over-looked, but the internal conditions for such a situation were provided by the Afghan ruling classes themselves.

Pakistan is no less a dual society, with sub-layers within each layer. Societal fault lines have primarily been created through parallel education systems. At one end are the westernized English-medium educated propertied class, whose life-styles would be the envy of any upper class family in any developed country. This class classifies itself as 'modernized' and encompasses the military, the civil bureaucracy, the judiciary, the major political parties, professionals, and even the nascent NGO-cracy. At the other end are the non-propertied Urdu-medium or Madrassah educated class. Both have a totally different and conflicting world view. While the upper elite subscribe to liberal values such as individual rights, gender equality, etc., the Madrassah graduates reject such liberal values and do not even subscribe to notions of democracy or human rights.

Pakistan is not Afghanistan by any stretch of imagination. Unlike Afghanistan, even the remotest village in Pakistan has been exposed to elements of modernity: electricity, telephones, schools, dispensaries, etc. The danger of a takeover by 14th century minded tribals is non-existent. However, it cannot be ignored that Pakistan is also a society fractured along multiple fault lines.

The 'modernized' upper elite is limited to E and F sectors in Islamabad and the Defence Societies in Lahore, Karachi and Peshawar. The 'modernized' upper elite has assured the best housing, education, health and recreation facilities for itself. It bears only about 15 percent of the tax burden, which will be reduced further now that Wealth Tax has been abolished. It has turned a blind eye to the fact that the mass of people live in slums, send their children to worthless schools and madrassahs, suffer morbidity and mortality on account of poor nutrition and health facilities, and yet bear over 85 percent of the tax burden. That the vast hinterland of the dispossessed Urdu-medium and Madrassah educated cadres will one day take over the capital cities is inevitable. That Pakistan too may suffer the nightmare of Afghanistan is something one can only pray against
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