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Afghanistan: Reaching In and Reaching Out

In this guest article, my former student from the University of Vermont, Ian Lynch, narrates his perspectives on Afghanistan’s future based on the past months he has spent in Kabul as a teacher for the School of Leadership (SOLA). Ian exemplifies the best of American youth who are trying to genuinely help rebuild Afghanistan despite many challenges and risks. He is also keeping his own blog active with impressions regularly titled Relentlessllyalive

A road continuum view from South Kabul - Photography by Ian Lynch
A road continuum view of South Kabul – Photography by Ian Lynch

Guest article by Ian Lynch

The media portrayal of Afghanistan hardly comes close to imparting a sense of what this country is like.  Endless articles report on the most recent bomb blasts and threats to human rights improvements.  These articles are often accurate, but they never mention the good things happening every day.  Such reporting is of course inherent in a war zone, but the image it paints is one of violence and despair.  That is by no means the totality of Afghanistan today.  Sure there are many challenges and credible threats to worry about, but most Afghans I have met during my time here remain hopeful.

In Kabul, there are people going about their everyday lives with hardly a thought of the Taliban or what the government is up to.  They are enjoying the freedoms they now have and I wonder whether they would ever allow harsh conservatism return.  There are simply too many children, boys and girls, going to school, too many people opening restaurants, too many people going to the movies, too many people playing volleyball and soccer in the park.  Many of my students can’t even remember the last days of the Taliban.  The generation that is about to burst forth into adulthood is one raised on more education and freedoms.  Once that happens there is no turning back.  A few more years of the current security level should ensure their rise.

Nevertheless, any optimism must contend with the terror on the ground. In a week in January, a restaurant full of both expats and Afghans was brutally assaulted, a police transport was blown to pieces, and a bus full of Afghans on their way to a wedding party were also bombed.  The Taliban claimed these attacks to be retaliation for U.S. drone strikes in Parwan province that killed civilians.  Their so called retribution though did not attack the U.S. military.  The victims were mostly Afghan civilians and police officers, as well as expat civilians.

These are not the actions of a liberating army poised to drive out the great and terrible foreign invaders.  These are the actions of radical ruffians who show no regard for human life of any sort.  With their recent attacks killing Afghans of many walks of life, most of the population do not support their actions.  The Taliban are now little more than criminals.  Their control in the southern rural provinces is strong, but in the north they are a despised and disregarded entity. Nevertheless there is a broader concern that their ideology has stealthily crept into the fabric of Afghan society in pernicious ways.

Stealthy Conservatism through Democracy?

The next President is likely to retain control in the fortress of Kabul despite the growing audacity of the Taliban. The primary concern in Afghanistan today is its progressively more conservative government that has been influenced by some aspects of Taliban ideology as well as widespread corruption among the secular elite.  In past years, legislation such as the 2009 Law on the Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW) and the 2010 Mineral Law provided some social and environmental considerations on their corresponding issues.  The current Parliament has made bullish attempts to weaken both laws’ effectiveness.  Broad assaults on such laws by the conservative majority in Parliament are no surprise.  Their attempts at rollbacks have been publicly known for at least a year.  The lack of response from foreign donors has emboldened this political faction and they have already stepped up their efforts even before the drawdown of foreign troops.

The most recent attack on human rights from within Parliament is its alteration of Article 26 of the criminal procedure code in early February that institutes a carte blanche ban on not only the testimony of relatives at criminal proceedings, but even the questioning of them!  This law would apply to any man or woman accused of any crime from drug smuggling to terrorism.  Perhaps the greatest concern raised by the legislation is it will virtually enable all instances of violence against women.

It hardly matters how strong EVAW is if relatives cannot even be questioned by the Afghan police, the Afghan army or the attorney general’s office.  If this happens no cases of violence against women will be processed.  Many women in Afghanistan are still confined to the home and nearly all cases of violence against women are carried out by family members in the home.  If relatives are not allowed to be questioned or provide testimony against perpetrators of this violence then these barbaric acts will essentially be given immunity from the justice system.  After the alteration of Article 26 went to President Karzai’s desk, it would have become law in 15 days if he had not vetoed it.  Thanks to the tireless efforts of civil society groups and Embassies the President did send the draft legislation back to the Ministry of Justice for revision following a Cabinet meeting.

What is particularly troubling about this law change is that it passed through the Parliament so easily, without an outcry from even the ranks of the women in Parliament.  This is not the first time that the women of Parliament have dropped the ball.  In the fall legislation to remove the quota of women in Parliament passed through two Wolesi Jirga committees containing women before easily passing that body.  In the end, the Meshrano Jirga restored a quota for women’s representation to the language of the bill, albeit at a reduced percentage; from 25% to 20%.  The women in Parliament provided no opposition to this move.  Also in the fall, attempts were made to strengthen EVAW by a handful of MPs.  This positive action was quickly stamped down by the conservative majority.  Through all of these threats to women’s rights, the women of Parliament have largely been silent.  Whether their inaction is due to negligence, fear or worse matters not.  They aren’t doing their job and the conservatives continue to bolster their efforts to eviscerate what progress has been made in the past decade.

It would have been a damaging setback if President Karzai chose to sign the legislation or let it creep into law without his oversight.  EVAW is not a massive success story, but it has allowed for an increase in both reporting and prosecution of instances of violence against women.  The law criminalized 22 kinds of violence against women for the first time in Afghanistan.  These criminalized acts include: child marriage, exchange marriage, rape, and various forms of beating.  High profile cases such as that of Sahar Gul have shown the law can be effective, even if the punishments for such crimes are still weak.

The UNAMA report on the EVAW Law published in December 2013 notes that reporting of such events increased 28%, but indictments due to EVAW increased only 2%.  Even the increase in reporting is not as positive as it appears.  Of the incidents registered in 2013, 1,019 were registered by the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and only 650 were registered by the police and prosecutors combined.  Women are clearly still hesitant to go to the police for protection under EVAW.  Many more incidents likely still go unreported.  If the law banning relatives’ testimony goes through, what fragile gains that have been made in EVAW’s implementation may be undercut.

EVAW is not the only law under threat in Afghanistan today.  The Mineral Law also faces revisions that would erode its social and environmental considerations.  Afghan officials believe they need to soften the law in order to attract more foreign investment. Such diluting revisions will make it easy for foreign companies to essentially rob Afghanistan of its valuable natural resources.

Mineral Potential

Afghanistan is massively rich in natural resources including rare earth metals, industrial minerals, precious gems, oil and gas.  These abundant natural resources have not been properly surveyed, but it is safe to say that the wealth in the ground has enough value to seriously kickstart Afghanistan’s development.  Article 9 of the Afghan Constitution states that these resources are the property of the State, which has the responsibility to administer these resources for public benefit.

In 2008, Afghanistan awarded its first major mining contract to the China Metallurgical Group Corporation (CMGC) to operate the Mes Aynak copper mines.  This is the second largest untapped copper reserve in the world, and its production alone would put Afghanistan in the top 15 producers worldwide.  More than five years later, mining at the site has not commenced.  While the CMGC has followed through on its commitment to build local infrastructure such as a school, it has reneged on its commitments to build a power plant, a railway to transport the copper and other major public works projects.  The CMGC is now trying to renegotiate these commitments and reduce the fee it must pay to the Afghan government.  These negotiations are happening behind closed doors.

The Afghan government needs to learn from its mistakes with the Aynak contract.  Afghanistan needs the expertise and financial muscle of foreign companies to begin extracting resources, but it needs to choose its partners better.  CMGC is a huge company that is using its size to bully the Afghan government.  With no transparency in the renegotiations there is no way to ensure Afghanistan’s interests are being protected.  In other contracts the State needs to choose smaller companies that won’t renege on their commitments, yet still have the capacity to carry out mining.

There are also many illegal mining operations in Afghanistan.  One such operation was a chromite operation being undertaken by an Afghan Local Police (ALP) Chief in Kunar Province.  He had been supplied a chromite crusher by the Task Force for Business and Stability Operations (TFBSO), a branch of the U.S. Department of Defense.  This action by the TFBSO ignored Afghan sovereignty, for the operation of a mine by an ALP commander was against the law.  When President Karzai was made aware of the situation the equipment was promptly confiscated and the ALP commander stripped of his post.

The case of chromite in Kunar was a clear success story.  Numerous other illegal activities are spread throughout the country.  These operations are run by local warlords, giving them both financial muscle and legitimacy.  Revenues from these illicit sources do not benefit the Afghan government in any way.  In Kabul alone, Integrity Watch Afghanistan (IWA) cites 710 illicit operations that are publicly listed by the government!  Despite the out in the open nature of these operations and their proximity to the police, army, and political headquarters of the nation nothing is done about them.  This is largely because even the most respected politicians in Kabul have connections to these illegal operations.

Afghanistan recently tied for the title of the world’s most corrupt nation.  On a small scale I have come face to face with this corruption when I was extorted by an airport security officer and twice when I was held by the police for no reason as they hoped to get bribes (which I was never going to give). With mineral wealth coming in the potential for such corruption being exacerbated remains high. At the core of dealing with this challenge are the educated elite of the country.

Educated but Unethical?

The connection between Afghanistan’s political elite and illicit activities extends far beyond the extractive industry.  Afghanistan’s industries are dominated by the monopolies of strongmen known by many as ‘warlords,’ many of whom are in fact fairly educated. These strongmen hold positions of significant power in the central government or have close connections with those in power.  When they enter a business, small business owners quit the industry or are forced out.  These strongmen use their political influence to win multi-million dollar contracts, further concentrating the wealth among the few.

Just like with the case of illegal chromite extraction in Kunar, the foreign aid community must take part of the blame for this situation.  Many of these proverbial ‘bad guys’ win huge contracts from foreign aid agencies.  The rationale given by these donors is that these strongmen are the only people that can get the projects done in the face of increasing insecurity.  The result is huge amounts of aid money go to making criminals richer.  Human rights violations by these strongmen in construction, transportation and security operations are totally ignored by the donors.  This is an argument with little more support than the age old saying, ‘The ends justify the means.’

It is even harder to understand how development operations in Afghanistan can associate with these strongmen when you consider their shaky connection to security.  When contracts go out for projects in certain areas, strongmen have been accused of causing attacks in the area to amp up security concerns and therefore increase the security fees they can charge.

Threatening these businessmen is a tough game to play.  There is virtually no competition in the industries they control due to violent tactics.  Small businessmen quoted in IWA’s report Criminal Capture of Afghanistan’s Economy say it is much safer for them to invest in ventures outside of Afghanistan to avoid the wrath of the strongmen.

These guys also don’t openly own their companies.  They have relatives and friends as the legal owners, so there is no paper evidence connecting them to either their licit or illicit operations.  In one case a strongman’s daughter, who is under the age of 18, technically owns most of his high rises!

All of these serious concerns; women’s rights, mining contracts, capture of the economy by the political elite and others make the upcoming elections all the more important.  The next President can’t solve all these problems, but he can set the tone for action.  Unfortunately, the field of candidates does not offer much hope of that happening.  The field is dominated by warlords (that old fashioned term for Afghan strongmen) and fundamentalists.  In large, they share the conservative view that women belong in the home and have ties to the legal and illegal control of the economy by the wealthy and corrupt.

The Way Forward

The educated Afghans who make up organizations like Human Rights Watch, Integrity Watch Afghanistan, the National Democratic Institute, Democracy International and others have options.  They could easily get jobs in other, safer countries.  Instead they have great pride and love for their country and work hard every day for change.  They see an opportunity for serious gains that has not been open in Afghanistan for decades and they are determined to take advantage of it.  Civil society is ever growing here.  By the numbers it hardly has the capacity to provide independent oversight of the government.  Even as the government itself lacks capacity to carry out its mandate, civil society is too small to play a major role.  This deters no one though, and civil society has been key in the fight against rollbacks on human rights and tragic concessions to foreign and illegal mining groups.

I am also lucky to teach in a school everyday, so I get to watch the development of the next generation of Afghan leaders.  They talk about all the aforementioned issues and more on a daily basis.  They deplore the current situation and they are dedicated to their studies so that one day they can run this nation.  They want to see more women in the police force.  They want to see women in Parliament standing up for human rights (and they’ve written letters to demand this).  They want a sovereign wealth fund to be created so that mining revenues benefit the people and not the coffers of corrupt government officials.  They are always asking what they can do even now to fight for their rights and the future of their country.  I tell them that the best thing they can do now is get an education so people will respect them.

The school I teach at is unfortunately unique.  Most Afghan schools are incapable of providing the kind of quality education young Afghans crave.  The figure bandied about Kabul is that as much as 70% of teachers in Afghanistan do not meet the minimum qualifications for the job.  As most of my students attend public schools in Kabul I have a view into the style of education here.

Lessons in Afghanistan are defined by rote learning, with absolutely no room for questions to be asked.  Most teachers, particularly in the upper grades, simply show up and tell the students to recite the answers to their homework all class.  Often these teachers make incorrect statements and when my more outspoken students try to question their teachers about the inconsistencies they notice they are reprimanded.  Other teachers don’t even bother trying to teach and simply show up to pick up their paychecks.  Whenever a student tries to report offenses such as these by their teachers they are faced with threats of failing grades.

Beyond the horrendous pedagogy employed by many Afghan teachers there are other major structural problems with Afghanistan’s education system.  The Ministry of Education has focused largely on rapidly building schools throughout the nation.  Admittedly there are several-fold more boys and girls in school today than a decade ago, but the quality of education has hardly kept pace.  Textbooks are few and inadequate.  The books are poorly written and entirely omit important 21st century skills such as critical thinking.  One of my older students is actually the ‘author’ of several textbooks! Yet as with all cases of development, quality must keep pace with quantity in order to have maximum impact.

Afghan society has been ravaged by interference for better and for worse.  No doubt there is plenty of blame to go around for the country’s current predicament. Yet, the next generation of Afghans will have to go beyond criticizing history and will have to both reach out and reach in to ensure that their future remains secure from internal and external threats.

Comments

  1. Elizabeth Titus
    NY, NY
    May 31, 2014, 11:14 am

    Ian,
    I sat behind you at the SOLA conference at Omega and wish I had had a chance to meet you. Your excellent, comprehensive article fills in many gaps in my understanding of Afghanistan. As the host to Sabira, a young SOLA woman about to enter Trinity College in Hartford, CT this fall, I will refer to your article often as I converse with her about her country and her own goals to return and be a leader.
    Best wishes,
    Liz

  2. Patricia Bolger
    USA
    March 28, 2014, 11:02 am

    An excellent, thoroughly perceptive, reflective evaluation and perspective on the current state of Afghanistan. Ian’s students are lucky to be taught critical thinking skills and guided by his persistent, humanitarian heart and intelligence.

  3. Suzanne Griffin
    USA
    March 11, 2014, 10:34 am

    Ian,
    Thank you for taking the time to write such a comprehensive and honest article that reflects the Afghanistan that I have experienced during my 11 years working there. Your concerns about the education system are being addressed by massive teacher training programs (BESST and EQUIP) that began in 2005 and are ongoing. However, it will take awhile to undo the damage done to the educational system by 30 years of war and the banning of schooling for girls under Taliban rule.

    I concur with you that the hope for the future of the country is the generation in high schools and universities. My best days in the country have been in classrooms with eager learners and energetic teachers who have discovered the rewards of interactive teaching methods.

  4. Jean Skaife
    USA
    March 1, 2014, 5:58 pm

    One of the best articles I have read on Afganistan.