What is life like in Afghanistan?
The UN organisations and some international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) provide reliable reports and statistics. However, the tone of these is sterile as the NGOs have to protect themselves against possible hostilities from the remnants of the Taliban and Al Qaida.
They are not allowed to mix with ordinary Afghans, although some of them are brave enough to do so. As a researcher and writer I studied the information provided by these organisations, but I learned more about the experiences of women and men by staying and travelling with Afghan friends in the capital, Kabul, and in Jalalabad and Mazar-e-Sharif.
Years of war and violent conflicts left Afghanistan with a massive loss of life, displacement, and physical and environmental destruction.
With the fall of the Taliban in 2001 many Afghans expected to achieve peace and development.
However, four years after the US-led invasion, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) reported this year that reconstruction and development is urgently needed, otherwise this fragile nation could easily slip back into chaos and abject poverty.
Very little has been invested in reconstruction. Out of 21,000 kilometres of roads, only 2,793 kilometres are paved. There are 47 airports, but only ten have paved runways, and only three of these are longer than 10,000 feet.
In Kabul the warlords who killed, raped and terrorised the population for years, and foreign contractors are now confiscating abandoned properties and building big houses and businesses for themselves.
Many buildings remain damaged. In some cases two or three floors are built on top of damaged foundations. As a result a number of schools and hospitals have collapsed, killing people.
The government has given the private sector the responsibility for the reconstruction. This means that in the absence of Afghan entrepreneurs, the limited reconstruction involves foreign companies and warlords.
The international NGOs are responsible for provision of services. But as elsewhere they are only able to provide partial health, education and other services at a local level.
According to the UNDP report, 39 percent of the population in urban areas and 69 percent in rural areas do not have access to clean water. One in eight children dies because of contaminated water.
In Kabul and other urban areas electricity is only on for a few hours a day. But international organisations and foreign troops have their own supplies of electricity, water and gas. Afghan people resent that.
The Human Development Index also presents a gloomy picture:
- Life expectancy is 44 years.
- 53 percent of the population live below the official poverty line.
- Adult literacy is 29 percent.
- Only 3 percent of women are literate.
- In some areas less than 1 percent of the population is literate.
- One woman dies from pregnancy-related causes every 30 minutes.
- One in five children dies before the age of five.
Some 70,000 teachers have returned to work. However, the majority of schools which were damaged in the war years have not been rebuilt and are not safe. There are shortages of teachers, books, tables, chairs, papers and pencils, let alone other equipment. Many children go to school at 8am and return home by 10am.
In Kabul and a few other urban areas, a small minority of people, with limited skills and education, work for foreign organisations, which pay a higher wage than the Afghan state and private institutions.
The average monthly wage is $40. The average monthly rent is $200. Average monthly food and expenses cost $200. Poverty has led to massive corruption.
In many cases three generations live under the same roof. Overcrowded conditions mean young people in particular suffer from lack of space and privacy.
No one dares to be out in the streets after the sunset. Drugs, violence and the kidnapping of children and young women are widespread. There is also the danger of being shot by security forces or run over by their fast cars patrolling the streets.
Three million refugees have returned from Iran and Pakistan. They live in tents in Kabul and other urban areas.
I came across a young man begging on the streets. He recognised my Afghan friends who run an NGO in Peshawar in Pakistan. In Peshawar he had attended the school provided by this NGO.
Back in Kabul he is a beggar. He felt that he had been better off in Peshawar as a refugee.
Around 1.5 million people come to Kabul from other parts of Afghanistan every year looking for work. Just after the fall of Taliban, Kabul’s population was 500,000 — today it is five million.
The majority are landless and homeless. Those who can afford to, mainly men, migrate to Iran and Pakistan to work and earn money to bring back for their families. The very poor do not migrate at all and live in absolute poverty.
For most people the only available way to achieve food security is to be engaged in the opium poppy economy.
Many are locked into debt. They sell or mortgage their land, their household belongings and even their children in order to cultivate opium to pay for their debt plus interest.
In other cases, families send their young boys to work in the fields of traders as bonded labour. Many young girls are married off to richer, older men in return for money to repay debts.
Despite the high prices paid for opium, they only succeed in paying part of their debt, while systematically failing to regain their land. So they sell their belongings to raise more money to pay their debt. They are highly dependent on selling poppies as a means of survival.
There are areas of opium consumption as well. In these a large proportion of population are addicted.
People use opium to fight the unbearable sickness and pain caused by years of poor nutrition, sleeping in cold conditions and constant cycles of pregnancy in women.
Pregnant women addicts either deliver stillborn or addicted babies.
Opium consumption is higher among poorer households. They give opium to their children to curb their hunger, to keep them quiet and when they are sick. Many older children cannot go to school without a dose of opium.
Widespread opium addiction is often the source of marital conflicts. Addicted men cannot provide adequately for their families, while addicted women face disapproval from their husbands. Both cases lead to violence against women.
A major justification for the war was that it would improve the position of women. Is there any evidence for this?
There is very little evidence. Girls can go to school, but school buildings are unsafe. The new constitution guarantees women equal rights with men.
But continuing religious and cultural conservatism, and a lack of security, are real obstacles to women’s participation in economy and society.
The regional and local warlords who were the key allies of the US against the Taliban are not advocates of women’s rights. The invasion forces are not interested in the warlords’ treatment of women.
In most of Afghanistan the rule of the warlords’ guns is more of a reality than the rule of law. Women suffer under the condition of violence, fear and intimidation.
With the exception of Kabul city centre, women do not go out of the house or travel without burqa and without being accompanied by a male member of their family.
In many parts of the country parents do not send their daughters to school because it is not safe for them to walk there, according to Human Rights Watch reports.
The practice of exchanging girls and young women to settle feuds or to repay debts continues, as do high rates of early and forced marriage.
The Western media have reported Afghan’s access to satellite TV, Bollywood films, mobile phones and the internet as a positive development.
Taking into consideration the level of poverty and lack of electricity, very few Afghans have access to the ten television stations across the country. For those who can afford this luxury the choice is to watch violent US-style cop movies or Bollywood movies that advocate subjugation of women to men.
The relative availability of cheap mobile phones for a minority of young men and women in Kabul and a few other urban centres may mean that boys and girls can text each other and meet each other in internet cafes.
Many conservative families do not consider the internet cafes an appropriate place for their daughters as pornography is freely available online.
There are many young girls in jail who have been put there by male relatives. Feze, one of my interviewees, explained: “I was put in jail by my father, uncles and cousins for being a ‘bad girl’.”
Although she passed the virginity test which is done in jail for all “bad girls”, she was kept in jail for months.
She said, “When a young woman is accused of being a bad girl by her own father, the words go around the town that she is available to men.”
Out of jail she is under constant threat of being murdered by her family.
What do people feel about the presence of foreign troops?
Most people are hostile to the presence of foreigners. A woman whose blind husband was dragged from their home as an Al Qaida suspect was cursing the Americans as “kafar” (infidels) who raided her home, disrespected her culture and created fear for her and the neigbourhood.
Many believe the US is stealing Afghanistan’s resources. Another interviewee, Najia, explained:
“They are building massive walls around large areas where Afghans are not allowed to enter. My husband works for them. They pay in dollars, so even those people who hate them work for them. They have no choice if they want to feed their families.”
US soldiers kick, swear at and beat people up in the streets. “Motherfucker” is used so often that many Afghan men use this terminology for the foreigners even though they don’t know the meaning of the word.
What about the claims for the birth of a democracy in Afghanistan?
The US has concentrated on maintaining Hamid Karzai in control of Kabul. The warlords have a grip elsewhere.
Some of the old warlords are now registered and paid as part of the security contingent. But they all have their own private security forces and resist state authority.
They are connected with the opium economy and impose forced labour on the communities. They are engaged in corruption by confiscating lands and properties belonging to those who left the country during the war years.
There are 30 registered political parties approved by the ministry of justice. Most of them remain allied with the warlords.
How would you sum up the experience of Afghanistan?
The country has massive natural resources and also skilled labour, in areas ranging from the professional to the industrial and the agricultural. Much of this skilled labour has lived in Iran and Pakistan over the last 25 years, with some in the West.
But the Afghan economy is still not functioning and is unable to absorb this skilled labour.
Davoud, a US-educated engineer, explained, “I have been to Afghanistan and offered my services. The American client state administration does not want us to participate in the reconstruction.
“The Americans cooperated with the warlords to defeat the Taliban and still they are cooperating with them. They have a mutual interests in sharing the country’s resources.”
Shahla, an educated businesswoman from Britain, said, “I have come to help with the reconstruction of my country. But there is no place for me here. There is no reconstruction, there is just a terrible rush to make quick money.”
Hundreds of thousands of people have no choice but to go back to Iran and Pakistan to work illegally.
According to research by the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit in Torkham, one area on the border with Pakistan, 160,000 people a day go from Pakistan to Afghanistan and 190,000 people go the other way.
The warlords are engaged in the opium economy and the majority of the population is engaged in survival activities.
International organisations and Western governments keep changing their position between a military anti-drugs campaign and a long term approach combining law enforcement with alternative economic opportunities.
However, no real attempt has been made to develop Afghanistan’s economy. It has been argued that the presence of international security forces is positive. This is because international organisations feel safe to work.
But in the eyes of many Afghan women’s rights activists I interviewed, the lack of any meaningful reconstruction and the presence of military invaders have created resentment and hostility.
The UN organisations and NGOs have no power and resources to aid development. In order to attract more funds and continue their business they have to exaggerate the degree of their programmes’ success.
Najia explained, “Women’s rights, human rights and democracy issues are cosmetically imposed from above.
“There are so many international organisations, some are trying their best, but they are miles away from understanding our cultural issues.
“Also when people are hungry and sick these issues are meaningless for them.”
Some felt that even their languages and cultures are under threat. Many are questioning whether these organisations with all their good intention are contributing to the improvement of people’s life in Afghanistan or unwittingly cooperating in neo-colonial reconstruction.
Fatima, another interviewee, believed, “Women’s rights and human rights issues have become tools and slogans for those in power to use it for their own agenda.
“I work with ordinary women and men and try to explain to them that Islam has given rights to women. This is the only way to fight for women’s rights in Afghanistan, to show to women and men the positive side of Islamic culture, not from outside and not by insulting people’s culture and religion.”
The Western invasion of Afghanistan was and still is about strengthening US hegemony and control of the energy resources of the region.
Afghan women and men do not have the power to combat them on their own. But they have the power to decide and to implement what is best for them in order to construct and develop their country.
They need the women and men around the world to stop the neo-conservatives’ imperial programmes, which will continue a vicious circle of war and terrorism.
Elaheh Rostami Povey teaches at SOAS in London. Her recent project is on Afghan women’s struggle and resistance in Afghanistan and diasporic communities. It is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.