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The Land that Politics Forgot

Six months later and another surprise return to Kabul.  I make the rounds to my old haunts and spend my off-time catching up with well-missed friends.  As with every return I think about what has changed and what has not.  Certainly this place feels familiar to a point far beyond exhaustion, and that familiarity might even be comforting if anything felt like it was going anywhere.

Afghanistan has matured in the years since I first came here in 2006.  The incompetence of the government and armed opposition groups rival each other over a large chasm of public apathy.  The government is comfortable not even trying to govern but instead with its individual employees and their hungry pockets trying to skim off a little extra money at every opportunity.

A friend of mine was in her company’s car going back home to Kârtai Se when they were stopped at a police checkpoint.  Not just any checkpoint really but the one called Zêrzamînî at the central intersection of the capital and largest city in the entire country.  Typically the police went about showing their diligence and motivation and asking about unnecessary but beloved documentation in the form of a passport.  It should be stated that no such documentation is needed domestically and moreover that actually handing over one’s passport means that there is an increase risk of the authorities using that same passport to extract a bribe.  Failing the production of my friend’s passport the police then moved “to talk to their superiors”, as in waste time hoping that the victim will just get fed up and pay up.  At this point my friend decides to call me for my expert advice on what to do.  I duly reported that no they don’t have to have or show their passport and to just wait it out.  At this point my taxi driver overhears and offers to go sort it out.  I mentioned that it was necessary but was a bit curious, and besides I can negotiate my way out of these situations so I realised that things could get comfortable for the police’s favourite pray, the non-Persian-speaking foreigner who is trying to contribute something.

We rolled up to the checkpoint and indeed the driver did know everyone present.  After about a minute my friend was free to go.  On the way back to my hotel the driver casually mentions to me that the police are all corrupt and he promised to give them a $10 phone card the next day.  So someone somewhere would have gotten a bribe.  I refused to chip in any extra and instead offered a lecture on how giving bribes can be as bad as taking them and on the ridiculousness of the situation.

The point is not a rather insignificant bribe that is the most minor of nuisances compared to what the average Afghan faces, rather it is the inability of the government to produce even the most modest decorum in the most high-profile situations.  Whether it’s Karzai continually snapping at the hands that feed and prop him up or a cop on the beat viewing expats as sacks of money, one would imagine that someone could pound together a few examples of things working.  Even going to the airport to just get out has become an increasingly shakedown-ridden encounter with officials at every turn looking to take a cut or create problems.

Throughout the various expat spots of Kabul, the increasing securitisation of development can be felt in the changing nature of the guests and clientele.  The world of contractors (ever growing in number) and the NGO workers largely lead separate existences.  A trend that has been underway for some time but is now even more apparent to me since I know people in both circles.  Many NGOs meanwhile shift uncomfortably between the worlds of donors and beneficiaries, humanitarian enough to keep trying to work but mostly not political enough to grasp their proper place as non-state actors.  All development work in Afghanistan is understood by locals to be done by “NGOs” and hence these same organisations bear the brunt of government abuse and graft seeking.  While large contractors can bribe their way out of problems, the small and more independent NGOs (whose development work is far more effective with less side-effects) bear the brunt of government abuse.  The government of Afghanistan seems to assume that they are holding back massive revenues when the reality is that they are disproportionately providing employment for Afghans (the ratio is usually something like 1,000-3,000 Afghans for every 5-10 expats).

All the while the political debate here seems unable to advance beyond basic issues like the foreign presence and whether something is Afghan or not.  Part of this is just structural and the result of an awful electoral system that fragments and incapacitates legal opposition, but a lot of the reasons go back to the basic lack of development that has for so long fuelled conflict here in the first place.  Soldiers end up being a net burden when they obscured quiet work done by smaller organisations while massive amounts of money dumped into an economy that can’t absorb it (via contractors) in lieu of attention only end up encouraging corruption and subsidising pre-modern lifeways and moralities.

In the trainings I’ve been facilitating I mean a lot of smart, capable, and pleasant people.  They’ll figure it out one day.  In the meantime being a republic of aid has infantilised people.  After sitting through training after training, all containing very useful and necessary participation, I know that my participants will still vehemently demand a certificate at the end.  I have been on the other end of the HR desk and always ignored those piles certificates.  I tell the participants they should be able to talk about what they have learned rather than just show a token, but still the desire for some sort of validating neutral authority runs deep.  And so does the anger at such authorities when they say things people don’t want to hear.

It’s interesting to sit down with some of the experts here and talk about the details of what’s going on.  How is the road over Shighnan Pass and what about the smuggling routes running through Shahri Buzurg?  There is detail and texture in these conversations, and in this country, but as a political junkie I don’t find them satisfying.  During the last few years, it seems the world has moved on and moved forward, except Afghanistan and Pakistan.   Basically I’d rather read Game of Thrones for my dose of pre-modern political reading than live it out in dinner-table conversations here in Afghanistan.  Eventually someone will establish some order because the costs of not having authority are just too high, and for a while that order will continue with some support and probably a deficiency of true participation.  Then people will finally have space to think past the distance from hand to mouth and have some real debate.  Give it 20-50 years.  In the meantime, let’s watch what’s happening in the Middle East.

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