Of 'collateral damage' and danger of 'reductionist' view

The weekend calm was shattered by the sound of a blast as the house shook. It was early morning Friday – the weekend here in Afghanistan – and there was no mistaking the sound. This was one of several times it had happened over the past few years – and each time it has been followed by an eerie stillness. Not this time, however. Minutes? Seconds? Later as we tried to determine the direction of the blast, we could hear what sounded like small explosions followed by gunfire.

Though Kabul has seen many explosions over the past years - remote controlled explosions and suicide bombers - the complex and well–coordinated attacks involving bombs and direct engagement have been fewer. However, the frequency of that too has been increasing. Complex and sophisticated attacks were used against the Serena Hotel, several government offices, the two guest houses attacked last week and the UN guest house with which we share our compound wall.

Since 2003 when I have been living here, the city has transformed. While in 2003 and 2004 one counted the number of new shops and buildings which seemed to spring up almost one every day, now one counts the number of new cement bollards blocking off large chunks of the street, new barbed wire fences and yet another Kabul street cut off to ordinary citizens in order to protect the international community or the Afghan elite.

Curfews, armoured cars, door to door armed escorts, safe houses, bunkers, bans on walking and shopping, armed guards - new rules for living in the conflict zone are added with every fresh incident for foreigners working with international organisations. With the intensifying conflict spreading closer and closer, Kabul resembles a city under siege in many ways and the international community assembles itself in ever tighter bubbles of sanitised protection - which prove their ephemeral nature from time to time.

Living here as an Indian woman journalist I seem to straddle several worlds. Yet I have never felt as Indian as I do now living here. The saga of the bonhomie between Indians and Afghans is now well established. Most people in India now know the tales of Afghans’ obsession with Bollywood movies, the film songs blaring from the shops and taxis, the avid viewers of  the Hindi serial ‘Saas bhi kabhi bahu thi’ dubbed, in Afghanistan, in the most widely spoken Afghan language, Dari. India is seen as a friend.
Being an Indian means being greeted with warmth, with hospitality, sometimes with a barrage of tirades against Pakistan for its role in having supported the Taliban and having fuelled groups that have contributed to the violence in this country. That, especially, is the discourse in the Afghan government which blames the continuing conflict in Afghanistan entirely on Pakistan’s continuing support to armed groups of insurgents.

‘Collateral damage’

But for millions of Afghans across this country, violence comes in many forms. While armed opposition groups which include but are not confined to the Taliban perpetrate random and targeted acts of violence, especially in the volatile provinces in the South and Southeast, the presence of armed groups and the lack of rule of law cuts much wider and deeper. Afghans face violence at the hands of the groups of militias who are still to be disarmed, at the hands of predatory commanders and war lords some of whom are supported by the international community, at the hands of the government’s security forces who are supposed to protect them. They become ‘collateral damage’ from aerial bombings carried out in civilian areas by international forces. They are abused by the unofficial groups being armed to take on the task of providing stability by an international community eager to exit, and lacking the patience to see through the slow and steady growth of a national army and national police that is well-trained, armed and capable of establishing the necessary command and control structures.

Growing public discontent with the deployment of troops by western nations which see a rapidly rising toll of deaths amongst their soldiers (937 US troops died till the first of this month in Afghan-related operations), threatening even the survival of their governments (the Dutch government of Prime Minister Balkanende collapsed last month on the question of extending the deployment of Dutch troops), has meant that many western nations are now looking for a face-saving compromise: a measure of stability that will secure their own interests and allow them to exit Afghanistan gracefully. To do this they are willing to make some compromises.

Short-term measures for stability: building security institutions without adequate oversight, bypassing the government in delivering governance as well as development, propping up traditional justice mechanisms and, most significantly, questioning whether democracy is suited to Afghanistan.

‘Reductionist’ view

In a recent interview with this correspondent, the Indian Ambassador to Afghanistan, Jayant Prasad, spoke of his concerns on these issues, and what he termed the “danger” of the “reductionist view of civilian goals in Afghanistan.” “Some in the international community are reticent about sustaining the Afghan Constitution in its present form, or sustaining democracy, women’s rights, embracing a kind of racist view of Afghans that they will never embrace democracy or gender equality,” Prasad said. “Of course whatever we do in Afghanistan has to be done in accord with the genius of the Afghan people and their traditions, by combining the wisdom of the past with a vision for the future. But to say that we abandon the project started in 2001 in Bonn that was pegged to the Afghan Constitution, would be unfortunate.”

Being an Indian here does not provide all the answers. However, it does bring an appreciation of the challenges. We too struggle with the contradictions and congruences of tradition and modernity, of a pluralistic society and the threat of social and political polarisations. We suffer from economic inequities and grapple with ways to imbibe external influences without losing sight of our roots.

Being an Indian here does not give me the right to preach solutions to Afghans. However it does give me the strength to debate issues – whether it is relating to women and their role, media freedoms, the strengths and weaknesses of democracy. It allows me to raise questions about what being an Afghan means today, because the same questions of identity and nationhood are being asked and answered in India even today. But much of this remains at the individual level, with the region, including India, curiously content to let the western nations continue taking the lead in strategies that may further destabilise Afghanistan.

I sit here writing this a week from the terrible attack that claimed the lives of six Indians and left at least 10  injured.  It is again a Friday and the city is still. But underneath the quiet there is an expectancy that things will unravel further in ways we cannot imagine now. If that happens, we in the region – Indians, Pakistani, Central Asians and Iranians - will pay the price along with the Afghans.

(The writer is a freelance journalist based in Kabul.)

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