Afghanistan – Dying is Easy, Staying is Not

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office warns against all travel to Afghanistan, describing it as unpredictable, affected by conflict and extremely volatile. Earlier this month, I had to be in Kabul because of BAAG business and also because my parents live there. I had to arrange a hefty travel insurance, at an inflated price because of the FCO’s travel advice.

The overall message the FCO sends is strikingly clear: avoid Afghanistan. And that is exactly what many Afghans are doing, fleeing their country in unprecedented numbers. A combination of insecurity and a severely depressed economy has meant that civilians deaths are routine, jobs are scarce and internal displacement is widespread. As a sad example, the Taliban attacks in the heart of Kabul this week killed at least 64 and wounded 347 mostly civilians.

It should be no surprise that Afghans make up the second largest group of people trying to reach Europe to claim asylum: 213,000 Afghans arrived there last year. Additionally, internally displaced people are increasing, as many Afghans from provinces ridden with conflict and unemployment are forced to abandon their homes.

But many others, living in areas that are relatively safe, choose to stay. Choice is the crucial word here.

On a recent trip to Mazar-e-Sharif, in northern Afghanistan, I was surprised to find how the city had developed since my last visit in 2009. The scars of war were hardly visible among the new shopping centres, townships and the long asphalted roads. Though, an obvious exception was the burnt down Attorney General’s office that came under Taliban attack last year. Nonetheless, a sense of stability cocooned the city that was absent in most parts of the country, a sense that reassured people into staying.

Consistent international support could provide the same to other regions in Afghanistan. If there is an improved level of stability in the country, more Afghans will return and remain as they did in the years between 2002 and 2010. They would have no need or desire to undertake the perilous journey to Europe, risking their lives.

The majority of international spending and investment in Afghanistan had been military spending. Civilian aid is insignificant in comparison. A 2011 study by the Global Humanitarian Assistance shows that civilian aid during 2002-09 was only 9.3 per cent of the overall international assistance, whereas military aid was 84.8 per cent. But as most international troops withdrew in 2014, military spending ground to a halt. And the Afghan economy, dependent on such spending, is left decimated.

Rescuing the Afghan economy is important. When jobs are scarce and incomes pitifully low, people’s life choices are massively reduced. If a family’s survival is at risk, hideous decisions may eventually have to be faced, such as leaving the country or engaging in criminal or terrorist activities.

According to Afghanistan’s Central Statistics Organisation, the unemployment rate in Afghanistan has spiked to about 40 per cent. This doesn’t include those ‘lucky’ enough to be in severely underpaid jobs.

European donors are considering decreasing aid to use part of that money to support refugees arriving in their own countries. The result of this could be disastrous, as the root causes forcing hundreds of thousands of people to leave their homes would remain ignored. Without support, the security and economic situations will continue to decline.

Aid must fund projects that are based on the needs of Afghans and are delivered efficiently to them. The Afghan government has led many successful national projects with the assistance of donors. Examples include the National Solidarity Programme and the Basic Health Services Package. Aid has also tackled humanitarian issues such as conflict-induced displacement, natural disasters and acute food shortages. All these efforts have saved lives and created some stability in various regions.

Sufficient aid to Afghanistan can create jobs, improve livelihoods and decrease poverty, thus creating some stability in an increasingly insecure region.

In the long run, the Afghan government and private sector will need to serve Afghans. The government has embarked on a plan of ‘realising self-reliance’. But given the current poor security, governance and infrastructure, it will likely take decades before the country can fully meet its people’s needs. The undeniable truth remains that Afghanistan will need long term and steady international assistance.

In Afghanistan, dying is easy, staying is hard but not impossible. We should support those Afghans who have chosen this difficult path. Instead of throwing up their hands in fury at Afghan refugees arriving in Europe, international donors should be helping Afghans build a more secure and stable Afghanistan. Instead of cutting aid, it must be improved and increased.


First published in Huffington Post:

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Ayenda Conference’s keynote speech

London Conference on Afghanistan

Ayenda Conference: Fulfilling Afghan Futures (civil society associated event)

Jawed Nader, full text of keynote speech

Key note speech in Ayenda Conference, civil society associated event of London Conference on Afghanistan

Key note speech in Ayenda Conference, civil society associated event of London Conference on Afghanistan

Good morning ladies and gentlemen. I’d like to start by welcoming the 57 Afghan women and men civil society leaders who have traveled from different corners of Afghanistan to attend the Ayenda Conference, which means Future in Dari. You are the largest civil society delegation to attend an international conference on Afghanistan. We have been honoured to hosting you and looking forward to your fruitful contributions to this gathering and the London Conference on Afghanistan.

Can I first be frank and say why I was chosen to deliver the key note speech. This is because our original key note speaker had to pull out to attend the private sector event. So, it is clearly not because of my personal credentials that I am standing here today!

As an Afghan who has mostly worked inside Afghanistan, I have seen many funny things in the UK conferences, social gatherings, inside taxis and on the roads. I can’t help but reflect on the differences and similarities between Afghanistan and an Afghan worldview and that of the British and Western one. I have also noticed numerous differences between the opinions of Western governments, departments, and international NGOs. I guess some of these differences may be responsible for the success or under-achievements of the last 13 years. And they might help us use the tax-payers money more economically in the years ahead.

The first difference is in Afghan and Western approaches. In Britain mostly policymakers and aid actors firstly define the problem, think of various prescriptions, do a risk analysis, pre-test the solution, and then implement it.

They constantly search for evidence of what works. In other words, I find them more rational in their decision making.

In contrast, we Afghans take a more pragmatic approach,. We know what the problem is, we know what the solution is, and all we need are resources to solve them.

The Western approach may seem more right than the Afghan approach for various reasons. After all, Western policymakers are held more accountable by the media and the interested public.

However, the Western approach might be wrong for the same reasons that make a rational decision making process a flawed one. It is not possible to collect all the necessary information, it is not feasible to gauge all the various alternatives and it is implausible to believe one can predict all the major factors that will take place during the programme life cycle. And to do all these about a country that is thousands of miles away in a different civilization is a little more time consuming!

Afghans understand their problems better. We are born with some of these problems. Understanding them with an acute intrinsic wisdom, we can more realistically agree on the urgency of them. We do effectively what good firefighters do. We don’t sit and contemplate about the causes of the fire, instead we find water.

We cannot always translate this approach in a logical framework structure and write a good proposal with strong ‘sustainability’ component.

It is necessary to plan programmes with the service users. In the last thirteen years the most successful programmes were the one that were planned and implemented through the Afghan people.

Planning with the people also allows us to use the resources more effectively and make the project more sustainable. Anyone who has seen development projects implemented by non-development actors, know what I mean.

The rhetoric of trillions of dollars of aid money spent in Afghanistan is misleading. As we know much of it has been wasted. Some international actors preach in Afghanistan what they have not entirely achieved in their own countries. They include some good issues such as gender balance and some not-so-good things such as asking Afghan civil society to speak with one voice.

On the former, I as a civil society actor firmly believe that Afghanistan needs to be a better place for women. Affirmative actions that redress the past injustices are effective. However, two days ago, a very good question was asked by one of our delegates.  Civil society delegates were being familiarized with the structure of British Government. The trainer, was asked where are the women in the UK Cabinet? This question can be asked from some other advanced Western countries as well

A similar question can be asked about the demands of international community and Government of Afghanistan when they ask that civil society should speak with one voice. Last year we saw, that the Afghan Government on this pretext stopped the participation of civil society in the selection of members of the Independent Election Commission. This is something completely unrealistic. Diversity is one of the hallmarks of civil society everywhere. The policies on which civil society work and give advice are complicated issues. Their diverse opinions reflect this complexity. Civil society should not be asked to simplify for the sake of ease.

This brings me to my last point, which is the diversity of Afghanistan. We Afghans are proud that we belong to a nation that has diverse culture and we have been able to live in harmony, barring the troubles of last three centuries! No, not all of us like diversity. In fact, a lot of past governments tried to mould Afghans into uniform bodies. It is therefore not surprising that in the last hundred years the number of rulers who died of their natural death inside the soil of Afghanistan is zero. They were all either assassinated or exiled.

However, in the last thirteen years, we are proud that Afghanistan has taken big strides in embracing diversity. Right from 2002 when the first broad-based government was established until the national unity government we have done so. Except for the one obvious group, we see that Afghans from all walks of life and from all political and regional backgrounds participate in the government.

My point is that diversity has implications in development planning. I have noticed that Western policymakers are emphatic about diversity. They always draw a line between the urban Afghanistan and the rural Afghanistan. However we do not have monolithic urban Afghanistan, nor do we have uniform rural Afghanistan.

In the same way that I think experts sitting in Western capitals cannot decide what is good for Afghanistan, evidence has shown that even Kabul-based ministries cannot effectively plan for the provinces., however, if we give the local officials more say in public policy decision making, in budgeting, and in implementation, there are more chances that the diverse opinions of the varied regions of Afghanistan will inform better decisions. It is more likely that our programmes actually meet the needs of the people.

I do not mean to devalue the significance of advance know-how, nor do I think international or Kabul-based experts have not done a good job. My point is decision making should reach Afghans where they are, and Afghans should not chase decision making corridors in Kabul only.

This is why I think the role of local governments in Afghanistan is useful in development planning and implementation. Remember, the wise man’s fable where he challenged his sons to break the bundle of sticks, and finally showed how each individual stick can be easily broken. That was about unity, but my takeaway from it is that we also can more easily solve Afghanistan’s development challenges, if we untie them first, and give responsibility of breaking them to the actors in the provinces. Kabul will not be able to break all these sticks at once.

And this is also why I think the role of civil society is important in policymaking and service delivery. I will not talk about the role of civil society any further, because there are more qualified Afghans to do that in this conference. But I’d like to briefly acknowledge the crucial role civil society has played in the many accomplishments that Afghanistan has had in the last 13 years. Because of their sacrifices and hard work millions of children (girls and boys) have been attending schools, we no longer go to neighbouring countries to treat minor ailments or make an international phone call.

We have created a better Afghanistan today and are on the right course to achieving even more.

We are a new democracy but an old civilisation, a poor country but a rich culture, a nation caught in conflict, but at peace with our shortcomings.

We might be stubborn in our methods, but once we have the chance to make our concerns heard, we are an accommodating host.

If we are portrayed as land of extremism today, in our core, we are the land of Rumi and Behzad who preached pluralism and beauty. We are the heart of the Silk Road, the crossroads of civilisations and the cradle of hope.

Ladies and Gentlemen, we the people of Afghanistan have never felt so in charge of our destiny. With our more broad-based government, more engaged civil society, more conscious citizens, and more responsive international partners, we are ready to embrace the challenges and the rewards of the transformation decade. We will not just survive the transformation decade. We will thrive! Our future belongs to us. And our Ayenda just started!


03 December 2014


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Kobra’s inspiration is alive

profile pic

Kobra Ahmadi Nader would have turned 28 today. She left us one year and five months ago. But it is so deeply moving that her legacy is alive in many ways.

Arzu Studio Hope, with the support of Kobra’s family and friends, has established a computer centre in Bamian. The idea is to equip women of one of the most deprived communities of Afghanistan with the skills of computer and internet – a gift that is simply overlooked in the developed world. The first batch of students already graduated.

Kobra, from Bamian herself, learnt about the Initiative to Educate Afghan Women (IEAW), the organisation that provided her the scholarship to study in the US, through internet. I am confident that the centre will change the lives of those women in many ways.

Refah School, a welfare-oriented school in the carpet weaving community of Kabul, supported four needy students under Kobra’s name.

IEAW set up an award under Kobra’s name: IEAW Kobra Ahmadi Nader Award. The eligibility criteria for the award reflects Kobra’s qualities. It will be given annually to an outstanding Afghan woman.

Randolph College, where Kobra studied her undergraduate degree in liberal arts, published Kobra’s story in its Bulletin.

And finally, University of Bristol, where Kobra did her graduate degree, commenced its Kobra Ahmadi Best International Student Award. This academic year the award went to Gabriella Bereghazyova, a student from Slovakia for her outstanding performance in MSc Public Policy course.

I am grateful to all these institutions and to Kobra’s friends who, with different contributions, has kept Kobra’s inspiration alive. I am sure she is very proud of herself and us.

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Return of a Historian; Pinch of Salt Advised

William Dalrymple’s conclusions about the relevance of Afghan war history with the current conflict are implausible .   

‘11 September 1838 was a dark day in British history. Just a year into her coronation, young Queen Victoria faced the question of whether to invade or not to invade Afghanistan. Earlier that day, the terrorists had crashed their planes into the tower of Westminster Palace’. This is obviously not what William Darlyample, the author of Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan claims. On the contrary, he says the first Afghan British war 1839 – 42 ‘was waged on the basis of doctored intelligence about a virtually non-existent threat… by a group of ambitious hawks to create a scare about a phantom Russian invasion’.

William has repeatedly advised that lessons from the past invasions be learnt. So, if not the motive of the war, what are the ‘striking parallels’ – and the lessons they contain – between today’s Afghanistan and Britain and that of 163 years ago? In his recent blog William believes there are at least four: a) Karzai is from the same Popalzai tribe that Shah Shuja, a British puppet of 1830s was, b) The insurgents of both eras are from same Ghilzai tribe, c) the current conflict is predominately if not entirely a rivalry between these two Pashtun tribes, and d) Afghans are still the xenophobic folks and British and Americans the same old hawks. He implies that in light of these historic facts, Nato troops should have never invaded Afghanistan.

To most familiar with the global affairs of the last 2 decades, these are rather simplified arguments. Yet William doesn’t think it is a historian’s fallacy. Highlighting selective events, he creates an interesting story that chimes in with the war frustrations of American and British audience. The story gets more compelling when supported with the hindsight view of some developments in the last 12 years. They are the seemingly unending Taliban insurgency, Karzai’s sense of insecurity regarding his legacy, and – to more watchful spectators – the coalition of Qayum Karzai and Zalami Rassoul, two Durrani presidential candidates.

But it is an incomplete story, at best. The current war in Afghanistan is more different than similar to the previous British and Russian invasions. In order to arrive to a more subtle conclusion, we need to have a broader analysis about ‘who’ and ‘why’ of the current war in Afghanistan, the gains of Nato intervention, and the perceptions of the majority of Afghans.

The Nato forces are part of the international effort to tackle terrorism and Islamic extremism. The majority of their forces may speak English – a parallel William has pinpointed – but unlike the past, they are not fighting against only speakers of Afghan languages. Global extremists from Pakistan, Central Asia, Russia, China , the Arab world and even the UK benefited from the safe hideouts in Afghan mountains. So, it is not a tribal insurgency contained to Afghanistan anymore.

The other key feature is the nature of current war. Taliban’s resistance is not an Afghanistan-wide fight for freedom, nor is it for the version of Islam acceptable for the majority of Afghans. But in contrast, the Russian and British invaders of the past faced an all-out resistance. In 1830s and 1980s, the entire country was defending the nation’s dignity, freedom and religion.

During the anti-Russian war, the Jihad was fought by an overwhelming majority of Afghan population in almost 100% of country’s territory. Today as William himself admits, it is mostly in the pockets of southern and eastern regions. And as it stands today, the war is not between Nato and the Taliban, but between the progressive Afghans against those bent on imposing their extreme ways of lives on the rest.

Another key difference is the fruit of Nato efforts which is partly explained by the type of government structure they leave behind. British and Russian invasions strengthened a highly unpopular autocratic regime. The ineffectual monarchy and communist dictatorships were doomed to a natural death anyways. In contrast, in the last 12 years the foundations of a broad-based elected government have been laid.  The Afghan women and men from all ethnic and social affiliations have a say in choosing their leader. The Afghan elections, like those of the early ones in the West have many flaws. But their outcome has been accepted by Afghans and international partners. The 350,000 Afghan security forces seem in no mood to turn their back on democracy.

Karzai may be unfriendly to the American government lately, but he and his aides do not represent the majority of Afghanistan. The 2,500 members of consultative loya jirga, a grand convention of Afghan leaders held last November, unanimously voted for friendship between the Afghan and US governments. They urged that Karzai signs the security agreement as soon as possible. All leading Presidential hopefuls in the April elections have publicly spoken in favour of the agreement between Afghanistan and the US.

The majority of Afghans are grateful to the international military forces for putting an end to the Taliban’s barbarian regime. They are equally grateful for the development assistance that has brought improvements in country’s roads, hospitals, schools and overall wellbeing of millions of women and children. Public services still remain poor, but many of them have broken the country’s personal best record.

For me and the majority of other Afghans it is all so pleasant when William acknowledges that ‘Afghanistan has changed beyond all recognition… cities have grown… television, the internet and an ebullient media have opened many minds’. Perhaps this side of the contemporary history requires more attention.

Stories about selective events from the past leave us biased. But Western policymakers may want to learn from those too. After all, Britain could have been lot more safer, had Queen Victoria negotiated with the hijackers.

For another relevant article, please read Rory Stewart’s Great Game: An Afghan Response
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Afghanistan beats Bangladesh but …

The Afghan team has learnt how to play cricket, now the nation needs to learn how to celebrate  

An outburst of celebratory gunfire is hardly surprising in Afghanistan. Such was the case tonight after Afghanistan secured a landmark victory against Bangladesh in the Asia Cup cricket tournament today. It was a historic moment. In just its 4th one-day international match, Afghanistan beat a test-playing nation. The same had taken Bangladesh 28 matches.

It is not even surprising that bright and otherwise law-abiding youth fire guns into the havens after such a victory. Youth are more adventurous, sensational and risk taker. In Afghanistan there are more people under the age of 28 than above. They have had very little chances to be happy this way. Last year when the nation’s football team became the South Asian champion, even security personnel were reported to have shot stray-bullets.

What is surprising however is that those youth brandish their guns, take photos and post them in Facebook. There seems to be no fear of being named and shamed. No worry that what they have spit up in the air will get back on someone’s head. No regret that their unnecessary display of happiness will result in a family’s grief.

More painfully, there seems to be no fear of being caught and prosecuted – a ghastly sign of lack of rule of law.

After beating a test-playing nation tonight, many Afghans expressed hope to become a full-member of International Cricket Council (ICC) or getting the test-playing nation status. Luckily it sounds that ICC has yet to establish very clear criteria. It would be wise that celebrating the victory more peacefully is one of the pre-conditions.


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Western-influenced laws in Afghanistan?

It’s a common misperception, reinforced by the international media, that democracy and human rights were imposed on Afghanistan after American forces ousted the Taliban in 2001. You only have to look back to the country’s “Democracy Decade”, between 1961 -71, to realise this is simply not true.  The 1964 Constitution included a bill of rights for Afghans, specifically including women.  The 1977 Civil Code stipulated that girls under 16 should not be allowed to marry.  The New York Times called this “Afghanistan’s Golden Age”, noting that “Afghan women not only attended Kabul University, they did so in miniskirts”.   We Afghans have always been concerned with laws promising rights and democracy.  It is just a coincidence that our fellow human beings in the West think the same way.

The 2004 Afghan Constitution, which  laid the groundwork for elected representatives and rights-based laws, wasn’t imposed by the West.   It was adopted by  a grand assembly of largely elected representatives after a year of extensive consultations  and weeks of  rigorous debate between  502 delegates.   Similarly, the 70%  turnout in Afghanistan’s first Presidential election and 50% in the first Parliamentary election, despite continuing insecurity, demonstrated just how strongly ordinary Afghans support democracy.   In a country where only 26% of the population can read and write, one could hardly find a stronger vote of confidence in a political system.

The struggle between progressive Afghans and conservatives bent on imposing their strict mores on others is not new.  In the early 20th century, the latter succeeded in overthrowing the progressive King Amanullah, who opposed child marriage and supported universal education.  In 2009, they succeeded in pushing through the controversial Shia Personal Status Law which makes it mandatory for wives to seek the consent of their husbands to even visit their fathers’ houses.  Such actions are reminiscent of blocking tactics used by more sophisticated conservatives in the UK and Switzerland which prevented British women from voting until 1919 and Swiss women until 1971.

This battle between progressive and conservative thinking will undoubtedly continue in Afghanistan.  Perhaps we should laud the fact that Afghans are actually debating what laws are needed for democracy to succeed.   I would argue that there are far more progressive people in Afghanistan than traditionalists.  For the progressives, the prospect of a freer society has never seemed so bright.  We should celebrate this, rather than despair. 

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Taliban talking to the US: Peace in Doha but war at home

I asked an Afghan rights activist two years ago whether he would welcome the Afghan government’s decision to talking to the Taliban. He grimly answered with a question: ‘With the lost opportunities to defeat them militarily, is there another option?’. ‘Even if it means stomaching some aspects of the dreadful life under Taliban’, he added ‘a negotiated settlement will stop the slaughter of Afghans’.

Yesterday, the first major step to kick start the peace process was taken. Media showed footage of Taliban diplomats of different age groups in their newly opened political office in Doha. The US acknowledged publicly that they intend to talk to Taliban directly.

In the G8 summit Obama tried to keep the expectations low by saying it is going to be drawn-up process. Taliban spokesperson reminded us that he can’t agree more by obdurately emphasizing that the ‘Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’ will fight and talk peace to the US simultaneously.

Taliban talking to the US and not to the Afghan government sits uneasily with Karzai.  Perhaps, Obama’s remarks that the peace process has to be an Afghan-owned and Afghan-led will comfort him and the members of the High Peace Council a bit. But it wasn’t good enough to stop Karzai from demanding that the location of negotiations should change to Kabul ASAP.

In the meantime, a suicide attack targeting Mohaqiq, an MP and opposition leader, killed three more Afghans and wounded thirty other yesterday. It definitely seems stopping the slaughter of civilians isn’t an agenda item on the negotiations table yet.

Like other Afghans, I am concerned that if the peace carrot is not combined with the right stick, the US and the Afghan government may loose another opportunity and will need to offer something more irresistible to the Taliban when and if the second round of peace talks start. 

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