Boston Review — Days of Lies and Roses: Selling out Afghanistan — Sarah Chayes

05 Aug

This is an Arts & Letters Daily offering.  Sarah Chayes’s Boston Review article is one of those invaluable contributions that take us away from the political and ideological into the actual world of human experience.

The other day I drove out to visit Nurallah, a member of my cooperative who had just lost his mother. His house lies a few miles outside Kandahar on the ancient road to India—the very place where Afghanistan was founded. From the sturdy beaten-earth walls of the compound, the lines of tawny Kandahar shrink to insignificance against the backdrop of the rocky hills beyond, etched in purple against the sky.

Enough children to fill a schoolroom crowded around me, clutching my hand to kiss, as I settled cross-legged on a cushion on the floor. The four strapping sons of that beloved matriarch seemed like lost children too, faces crumpled by the blow of her passing.

Nurallah’s mother died of a stroke. In a way, that was a happiness, a sign of improving times. For a woman who lost her husband and two sons during the Soviet occupation, a woman who spent 12 years as a refugee in Pakistan, a woman whose youngest son was drafted by the Taliban to fight in northern Afghanistan and almost perished when U.S. proxies there sealed him and other prisoners in a cargo container in November 2001—for such a woman to die in her bed was not a foregone conclusion…

Sarah Chayes is the founder of the Arghand, a cooperative agribusiness in Afghanistan. From 1997 to 2002 she worked as an overseas correspondent for National Public Radio. She is the author of The Punishment of Virtue: Inside Afghanistan after the Taliban.

In a context of increasing danger and violence—which reached a pitch last fall when open battles between Taliban fighters and Afghan and international troops were fought at the gates of Kandahar—the situation in this very symbolic southern capital of Afghanistan has indeed stabilized a bit. Village families that fled the fighting to camp out in the cramped homes of relatives in town have returned to their vineyards and orchards. Kandahar streets are crowded again—if somewhat tentatively—with the jolly chaos of late-model SUVs, caparisoned horse-drawn taxis, dark-green pickup trucks loaded with police officers, battered white station wagons, brightly painted rickshaws, vegetable wagons, donkey carts, dust, and smog.

And yet, after five years here I have learned to mistrust the weekly or monthly fluctuations in atmospheric pressure, seeking instead to discern the underlying pattern. And that pattern is not encouraging.

Permit me first to dispel a common misconception. This city where I live and work is Kandahar, Afghanistan, which since September 2001 has come to symbolize (at least for Americans) the forces of evil and obscurantism—enemies of our “enlightened civilization.” Kandahar, after all, was the lair of Mullah Muhammad Omar, where he cosseted his infamous “guest,” Osama bin Laden. Kandahar has arguably replaced Moscow as the ideological antipode to everything we Americans think we believe in. And yet the issues at stake here are not in the least ideological. They are practical—and opportunistic.

Ask a Kandahari what he wants from his government and you’ll get a familiar answer: not vast ideas but practical solutions to everyday problems. Most Kandaharis would put basic law and order at the top of their list, then public utilities and infrastructure, education, timely performance of administrative functions (such as delivery of driver’s licenses and title deeds), freedom from arbitrary shakedowns by public officials, and some mechanism to afford them a voice in their collective destiny.

But in more than five years in Afghanistan, the American government, which considers its presence here a part of its broad effort to “bring democracy to the Middle East,” has achieved none of these things.

Please read the whole article.

…Some urge me to swallow my outrage: bribery and corruption are the Afghan way. I refuse to accept such stereotypes. Every society is composed of diverse tendencies, and it is specific historical events that bring one or another to the fore. In this case, the historical event was America’s post-9/11 intervention in Afghanistan—our effort to transform an entire society without bothering to understand it in the first place.

Our first error was to subordinate every other concern to a cowboys-and-Indians-style hunt for al Qaeda and the Taliban leadership—a hunt that has thus far proved singularly fruitless…

I was reminded too of one of my “blogmarks” — who has been silent lately, now studying in the USA: Ahmad Shuja. Reading his back entries is still an education for anyone seeking to understand life in Afghanistan.

In another troubled part of the world, Paul McGeough in the Sydney Morning Herald gives some insight into a culture that is failing its members — this time in Gaza. In this story Hamas emerges as a force for modernisation, at least over against traditional clan vendettas. Such vendettas — as the word itself would suggest — are not confined to the Muslim world either.

IT BEGAN with a mango three years ago. A member of Gaza’s powerful Masri clan had stopped to buy fruit at a roadside stall in 2005, but the vendor did not have enough small change to break his 20 shekel note – equal to $5.

The Masri man pulled a gun and killed the vendor, who was a member of the Abu Taha clan.

By the end of last year, the ensuing feud had claimed the lives of 29 people – 10 from neither clan. Sixty had been wounded and homes and businesses on both sides had been torched.

“We want to kill one more to be equal,” a member of the Abu Taha clan told a researcher for International Crisis Group. But then the toll moved to 10 Abu Taha and 11 Masris dead – and the Masris vowed revenge.

This is the feud that is thought to have claimed the life last week of Akram al-Masri, 31, who was denied refugee status in Australia in 2002 and then deported…

Many clans have struggled to come to terms with the new power structure in Gaza and Hamas is trying to bring them to heel.

“There are about 6000 men in the Masri family, and Hamas knows that if it enters the family quarter it would face a battle far worse than [any] it has already fought,” a senior Masri figure has warned.

The Masri leadership refuses to co-operate with the new state of affairs. A clan leader said it needed to avenge the death of three of its fighters during the Hamas takeover, and said “the vendetta remains outstanding”.

But allegiance is a murky issue in the new Gaza. Another member of the clan complained that some of his relatives had joined Hamas and refused to act by the traditional practice of family loyalty.

Focusing on one of his own brothers who had joined the Islamist movement, he said: “Hamas members are standing with the movement against their family – their loyalty is to their paymaster, Hamas.”

The ironies of this world are endless, are they not?

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Posted by on August 5, 2008 in current affairs, human rights, humanity, Middle East, South Asian, terrorism


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