Afghanistan is ,after decades of war and more war, is in very bad shape today. A highly likely scenario for years to come is a continued stalemate between the Kabul government and the resurgent Taliban rebels. While better and more pleasant options exist, they are far less likely than the outright unwholesome possibility of Taliban upsetting the Kabul government after complete departure of the 'invader's.
But as everywhere else in the world, politics is only one aspect of life for the Afghan people. Even though ominous political developments in Kabul keep haunting the people all over Afghanistan as ever, that is not all the Afghans are worried about.
Now there remain some questions answers of which can tell us much more about the daily lives of the Afghan people. What about the dimensions of Afghan society other than Kabul-centered politics? What are the social and cultural trends? How much has been accomplished after ouster of Taliban and how much stands to be lost in case of their victory now? Where is the historical warlordism headed now after a decade of apparent democratic practice? And how do the ordinary Afghans perceive the outside world?
And most important of all, have the Afghan women achieved something tangible and enduring during t he past decade following the horrible Taliban era?
It is hard to comment on all these issues unless one actually visits the rugged terrain in Afghanistan and meets the people over there.
Fortunately, there are some ways of knowing about some people and societies other than really meeting them. Documentaries are one of them and in recent event Film Southasia 2011 in Kathmandu; there were three documentaries from Afghanistan each covering different parts of the country in the recent past but with surprisingly overlapping observations.
While the rest of the world shivers at the thought of ever having to live in a country as dangerous as Afghanistan, the core concerns of the Afghans are, as these brilliant works show, not quite different from those of the increasingly pauperized people in the world; even in the developed societies.
Definitely, they have the added concern of security in face of a lose-lose war and the repeating theme of all the three documentaries is that the worst nightmare of the people will be an all-out civil war or reinstatement of the Taliban rule. Also, the domestic and gender-based violence are taking their tolls incomparable to the most other parts of the world. But that forms only a smaller subplot in the context of monstrous poverty and destitution that have threatened the survival itself of many Afghans.
The most touching one of the three was ‘I was worth 50 sheep’ directed by Nima Sarvestani that follows the fate of a Pashto girl who was sold to a man forty years her senior. After seven years of confinement and abuse she escaped to find temporary refuge in a women’s sanctuary. Now she is again at risk, as her husband will kill her on sight.
The camera picks up Sabere at the point where she has once again made contact with her family of birth headed by her stepfather, and faces the decision of whether to stay in the safety of the sanctuary or to rejoin her family. For the family it is a dangerous game of cat and mouse as they move from location to location, always trying to stay one step ahead of her husband. Only divorce can set Sabere free, but under Islamic law she will only get a divorce if she can bring her husband to court. But her husband is a member of the Taliban, far beyond the reach of the law.
With desperation mounting, Sabere’s stepfather proposes an audacious plan. They eventually mount a ‘sting’ operation with help of police that successfully captures her husband. Still the case drags in the over-burdened court as her husband still refuses to divorce. In the mean time, her younger sister Ferzaneh, still a child, is forced to go to her husband’s house because the groom refuses to wait for six years as pledged in the initial contract in which her father was to get 50 sheep in exchange. After a year from then nobody knows the whereabouts of the unlucky girl Farzenah who remains away in the Taliban-controlled area.
The predicament of t he family is so common in the impoverished rural side of Afghanistan that in every family, the story repeats in some form or the other though the extent of suffering differs with the luckiest women living throughout their lives under safety of relatively well-to-do families and the unlucky ones suffering dismemberment and often death.
As it goes, if you have a son, you rear him as well as you can, as he will eventually help you earn the living. If you have a daughter and you have little to feed the family, there is an option of selling her off to someone with some money or a certain number of sheep and manage to feed yourself for some time. If you have both son and daughter, sell the girl so that a bride can be bought for the son or simply barter the daughter for daughter-in-law.
With time and persisting economic misery, these practices have become so entrenched in the psyche of the people that the men-folk see no fault with the system and take the arrangement for granted. But surprisingly, when it comes to the suffering girls, they not only think that it is so out of poverty and illiteracy but do carry the hopes of better and beautiful futures.
Unlike what the people outside would think; it is not the Pashtun tradition alone that has made the lives of women in Afghanistan so miserable. It is the poverty that thrives because of the enduring combination of low fertility of most of the rugged land and unemployment that has trapped the Afghan people through one period of conflict after another.
And its brutal ramifications include illiteracy and poor health both of which reduce the productivity of the people drastically which further perpetuates poverty resulting into a vicious cycle. That ensures the people’s continued attempt at seeking solace in the traditional tribal customs and rituals.
All this said, there is little doubt Afghanistan is one of the most impoverished conflict zones in the world and women in that country are likely the worst sufferer in the world. But the more important and tricky questions with controversial answers do arise now: what is being done to fight all that poverty and misery? What are the Afghans doing themselves and what have been the achievements of the outsiders who have intervened? Now that everyone indulging in Afghanistan looks exhausted, would the Afghans at large and the women in particular be able to maintain the momentum of change for the better (of course if it was ever there)?
In this regard we have the privilege of studying the past experiments at 'rescuing' Afghanistan from the economic and social ailments. Achievements of the invading Soviets in terms of betterment of education and women empowerment were huge. But their fallacy was that they did not understand, address and respect the delicateness and complexity of the Afghan society while looking at it with the prism of the Marxian class theory while the boundaries of tribes and clans were far important in that context . As a result, they became the target of vicious hatred and it took very little to reverse those gains once they had left.
The fallacy of the Taliban who came as 'rescuer' liberating the Afghan soil from the 'infidels' was that they thought and tried to define particular set of customs, norms and values in a tribe as something universal and brutally enforced them. After the devastating civil war in the early nineties, they were the only people in the destitute country to have disposable money and were thus able to lure the hungry youths to their folds, eventually establishing authority in Kabul.
Surprisingly, the consolidation of power by the Taliban lacked any remote probability of the majority of population being fascinated by religious values or norms as dictated by the Taliban. As aptly shown repeatedly in the documentaries, accepting and facing the Taliban rule had been the 'fate' of people as the Afghans were, in the backdrop of bitter civil war, ready to anything resembling 'authority' that could bring some order to the country. Their subsequent isolation from the world only compounded the misery of the people even as the monolithic ideology of the Taliban perpetuated their own brutal practices.
In this background, the greatest fallacy of the US led NATO invasion and occupation of the past decade surprisingly resembles that of the Soviet Russians who thought brute force was all that was needed to change a society. The hurry that the US showed to invade Iraq while reconstruction had barely started in Afghanistan was the perfect recipe for disaster and that eventually materialized with the strong resurgence of the Taliban. This ensured that while the visible power structures in Kabul changed from authoritarian regime to apparent democracy, the soft power structures and the social institutions retained their shape and influence.
Relapsing war and destruction of Afghanistan is the testimony of the failure of model in which the outsider forces apparently attempt to forcibly place freedom and liberty on some subject people.
In Afghanistan the best way to improve things is to first acknowledge that all Afghans are ordinary human beings with their own merits and demerits, that poverty and hunger is their biggest enemy; and that not every man there is uniformly hostile and evil and not every woman is a hopelessly suffering creature. Some regions in the country may be more backward and less receptive to the idea of empowering women. But back in the history, many of the societies in other parts of the world have passed through similar phase and not every other part of the world is uniformly liberal and democratic even now.
The crux of this argument is that the attempts of the outsiders should be at nurturing the progressive and rational ideas of people inside Afghanistan who are engaged in their own uphill struggle against the radical and fundamentalist tendency in the society. They are the people who can bring about the real change. Foreign forces might have reduced the military might of the Taliban and dislodged them from Kabul for once but that is a very small part of a gigantic project in changing a society like Afghanistan for better that most go on for decades if the Afghans are to benefit from that change.
The reality of the current Afghan situation is that the things have been murkier than ever because the US-led forces there have largely neglected the Afghan perspective of the Afghan situation, just as the Soviet Russians had done, while being narrowly focused at the concerns back home. While huge amount of money is being spent, little has really contributed in reducing the poverty and increasing the productivity. This again leaves the chronic problem of poverty and unemployment intact ensuring easy recruits for any fundamentalist group including the Taliban that is now constantly gaining ground vis-à-vis a poorly motivated Afghan army.
This is aptly illustrated by the poignant revelation of a former Taliban fighter in the documentary 'War and Love in Kabul': "I had to join the Taliban because my grandmother had to beg in the streets and I could not tolerate it. Then, they said, Taliban are the only people who can give money. Unfortunately, when I came back after devastating my own life with both legs paralyzed from the war, my grandfather had also started begging."
Any project aimed at helping Afghan people to step out of the ravine of poverty, social strife and violence is never as simple as ousting a fundamentalist group from power and letting the preferable warlords to rule. But it should be a comprehensive and cautious approach with sustained efforts to reduce poverty and increase employment while supporting the efforts of the young Afghans and particularly the girls to educate themselves.