Monday, April 5, 2010

Were the Taliban good for Afghanistan?

It's a question that seems to be coming up more and more these days in Kabul. It's told often-times as a joke. Or creeps up in conversation as a counterbalance to the current Karzai regime. But there's more to it than meets the eye.

Were the Taliban good for Afghanistan?

I heard this implicitly pop up three times today alone.

What the Afghans need (an Afghan man broke it down for me) is a strong leader. Come in, take control of things. Wham, bam. No more corruption. One tale spun today illustrating the point was about how a (Afghan) friend was living in Pakistan during the Taliban time. One day he receives a notice from some unknown somebody in Kabul, claiming that because his family's house was going empty they were going to stake claim to it. So my friend returns to Kabul to meet with this claimant. An offer of 800k Pakistani rupees, the true currency of the hour, converting to thereabouts 1k USD (NB: I've not done any verification on this, just conveying the perspective). After agreeing to the amount, it takes the so-called claimant a full 3 days to come and collect the bakhshish. What's the hold up? Fear of being caught out and losing a hand to the ruling Talibs.

One of the very first stories I heard when I started researching in Kabul was of how disputes over village territories were settled under the Taliban years. Somebody: go stand at the mosque and yell REAL LOUD. Somebody else go stand out at the edges of the disputed space. If you can hear the call, village. If you can't, village no more.

Another story I heard today was about a water dispute in a far eastern province -- I want to say it was around Jalalabad, but memory fails me. But it was out in the area near Pakistan. Two farmers get in a fight over who has right to an irrigation source. They take it to the village talib, who does what? Proceeds to beat the living daylights out of the two. One of the unfortunates dies by night. Dispute settled. And naught was heard another water fight for quite some time.

The last story I was privy to today was about my current neighborhood, the fabled Shar e now, a lot populated today by surly foreigners like me. It's considered the most secure part of town. But let's go on and delete that the two recent guesthouse attacks were within blocks of one another. And where? Shar e now. Photos of the still holed out windows of the Kabul City Centre explosion soon may make an appearance.

But so, late 1990s. Shar e now. Governed, I'm told, by the one-man force of a single talib. On Fridays, the first day of the Afghan weekend, everyone walked about in file "like ants." Nothing like fear keeping ya'll straight.

There's a lot of weight in this was Taliban good question. Though surely no one seems to dispute in the least the deep costs of the Taliban. Schools were destroyed. Women's faces sprayed with acid and freedoms indefensibly curtailed. And an odd case of smithereened Buddhist statues.

What, in essence, this question boils down to is a more conventional economic v. political development trade-off. One we're more used to being couched in Lee Kuan Yew or Pinochet terms. Do budding states confined to sudden national borders need to have a benevolent dictator telling who is who and what is what?

In this you have the stuff of self-Afghanized orientalism, per my friend's corruption story: invader-fending Afghans need a state walking with a very big stick. But then you also have Western political correctness. Via yours truly.

I did up this graph earlier today.

Nothing big. Just what international agencies say improved water access trends look like in Afghanistan. As I've mentioned before, my posse and I have got some issues with these data. Shockingly (or not), I've surmised this near-half the population has access to safe drinking water estimate is based on sloppy work. It includes Kandas, Arhads and Karizes -- which are all open to the environment to large degrees and thus to contamination, making them directly violate the international water law of It Shall be Covered. In their detailed write-up of the data, the good ol' people at WHO-UNICEF had a question, Uh, What's a kanda, arhad, kariz?, but seem not to have gotten a response proper. Do they off and engage in some half-hearted googling? Nah, let's publish our report why don't we. And claim the Afghans aren't really doing so badly on water and sanitation, poor folk already have their hands full with violence violence everywhere.

Did you spot Waldo? Yup: between 1995 and 2000, UN agencies claim that improved water access went from 3% to 21%. Seven-manifold increase. And who controlled 80% of Afghanistan roughly during that time? 'Islamic students.'

The argument, to be sure, is stability. Stability gives NGOs and others calm enough to go in and drill some boreholes and maintain some canals. From such a low starting point, the opportunity to get any real work off the ground is welcomed. Stability. That is why the Taliban rolled over cities with scarcely a bullet seeing the other side of a barrel. This is why they're not all out and done for today. Compared to the current regime, where everyone knows exactly what Karzai's half-brother is up to, neck-deep in opium (who, by the way, it seems is gonna get it big time, and soon), compared to this, stability smells real nice.

Aside from having statistical qualms about the viability of surveys deriving such late-1990s figures, I sat and thought I'd best not make too much a storm about these numbers. And why? Because what would Mrs. Clinton say about our showing up a ton of figures saying how life may have been better before the US-NATO tonned in $31 billion in 'aid'?

To round things out, this is what seems the best estimate, tell-all trend: something that shows a notably less up-tick than the few Taliban years. And who is in power during these years....?

No comments:

Post a Comment