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Friday, 17 July 2009

The Afghanistan industry

For ordinary Afghans, the west is part of the machinery of corruption that thrives on the conflict

When the Taliban arrived in a village in Farah in May, the village elders approached them and asked them to leave. They told the Taliban that if the fighters stayed, the foreigners would bomb their village. The Taliban said: "We are fighting and dying for Islam and so should you. Why should you be spared death? Is your blood redder than ours?"

And so the foreign planes came, dropped their bombs and, according to locals, killed more than 100 civilians. "What could we do?" said a local man to the BBC's Afghan service. "The Talibs were young men with guns and grenades. We had no weapons to protect ourselves and no young men to help us."

But the western intervention in Afghanistan has long ceased to be about improving the lives of civilians. It has become a separate entity, with its own economy, creating lucrative jobs – for those who knew how to exploit the situation. Not all Afghans have come out of this war poor and destitute; not all foreigners are dying there. Unemployed expatriate Afghans from the west have returned to the country, setting up NGOs and flying around their relatives – who have become their employees – in helicopters with foreign aid money. After all, 80% of foreign aid is channelled through NGOs. Reckless Afghans with expertise for violence have been recruited to provide security for foreign special forces.

A cabal of discredited Afghan warlords accused of war crimes and ousted by the Taliban allied themselves with the foreign troops against the Taliban, and were co-opted into the system, becoming ministers, MPs and governors. To Afghans they remained just that – warlords – albeit warlords with new "democratic" titles and western friends. The 2001 intervention was a knee-jerk reaction to 9/11 done on the cheap. As local wisdom has it, there are three types of people in Afghanistan today: al-Qaida (the fighters), al-faida (the enriched) and al-gaida (the fucked). Most Afghans belong to the third category.

From the perspective of Afghans on the ground, the west is part of this machinery of corruption which thrives on the continuation of the current situation. If the Afghan leadership is corrupt and incompetent, so is the western leadership involved in Afghanistan. If Afghan warlords ignore international standards of warfare and engage in torture, so does the US in Bagram and Guantánamo. If the Taliban endanger civilian lives by suicide attacks, so do the foreign troops by carrying out reckless air strikes. The lines between the bad and the good, the problem and the problem-solvers, have become blurred. Moreover, the problem-solvers have themselves become part of the problem; they are costly but ineffective. Every little project, from digging a well to conducting a research project, involves hiring an entourage of armed security guards.

Far from disarming the many Afghan militia gangs, the current intervention has created a new set of armed men who are highly trained and well-equipped. Their daytime job is to protect foreign problem-solvers. But in their spare time, they run their own criminal businesses, robbing and intimidating locals and recently, even killing a government official.

The local population are capable of doing many of the projects for a fraction of the cost (and without a single bodyguard) but they are not being employed. The civilian and military problem-solvers are cut off from the population they are supposed to help. They talk to each other but not to Afghans, unless the Afghans in question are part of the English-speaking elite. In the words of an MEP who I met recently, "We have good ideas; the only thing missing is the Afghans themselves."

From a local perspective, Afghanistan has become a laboratory where a disparate set of international military and civilian problem-solvers and their Afghan colleagues are trying out and dropping various ideas and making a comfortable living out of it. Not everyone is starving in Afghanistan. The al-faida are doing well.

It took Afghans many years to openly criticise western involvement in the country. The fear that criticism might dishearten the international well-wishers was a powerful incentive to remain silent, and those who spoke out, like presidential candidate Ramazan Bashardost, were punished for daring to antagonise westerners.

So the conspiracy to whitewash problems carried on until the truth came home in coffins. The Afghan population shares the British people's anger and bewilderment at the situation. With every dead foreign soldier, the chances increase of the west abandoning Afghanistan. Afghans are aware of this but what can they do? After all, beggars have no choice.

When foreign troops arrived in Afghanistan, there was little concern for Afghan public opinion. Since then, they've had seven years to win a war against a once-discredited Taliban. Seven years to repair the Kajaki hydroelectric dam and win the hearts and minds of the restive, opium-producing south. Seven years to disarm the militias and bring war criminals to justice, as promised in 2001. Now that the seven-year itch has set in, they might decide to leave just as they arrived, in a hurry and with no more concern for Afghan opinion than they came with.