An Afghan-American Perspective from the Ground Up
by Wazhmah Osman
Written by Wazhmah Osman, an Afghan-American graduate student and International Dissertation Research Fellowship recipient, this Research Snapshot examines the international community’s efforts at nation-building in Afghanistan. The “Research Snapshots” essay series is a new initiative aimed at highlighting important and innovative research by SSRC Fellows who are currently conducting or who have recently returned from doing international research.
I was born in Kabul during the good years, in the early seventies. Among my fondest memories is holding my stylish mother’s hand as we walked to and from the Lyceé Malalai, where she was a French teacher and I was in the first grade. I remember a lively international city with men and women in a variety of ethnic and western outfits mingling at busy outdoor bazaars. Today’s Kabul is a hollowed-out skeleton of the Kabul of my childhood, a city of ghosts and the living dead who have been traumatized by three decades of war. Those under the age of 30 have never known any good years.
The everyday lives of Afghans are looking more and more bleak. Afghans are now horrified by suicide bombings, which did not have a precedent in Afghanistan until the post-9/11 era. During my almost ten months here, I have mapped out eleven different attacks within a 20-mile radius of my neighborhood. I have heard the explosions, felt them shaking our apartment, and seen through our shattered windows parts of Kabul on fire, smoking and smoldering.
Likewise, having witnessed the attacks on the World Trade Center from my other home in New York City, I know how fragile the facade of invincibility in the West is and how easily and quickly it can collapse. As any refugee can tell you, there are no guarantees in life, especially of a peaceful life. We cannot continue to pretend that we’re not all interconnected. With the ever-expanding reach of new technologies, including technologies of violence, globalization theory reminds us that borders between and within nations are soft and permeable; economic, political, and cultural manifestations are transnationally intertwined.
So what happened to the promises of peace and nation building in Afghanistan, and where did the billions of dollars in aid money go? While reports of corruption and fraud are just beginning to surface in the international press, this is old news to the local Afghans. Every interaction with the Afghan government involves bribery. Even applying for an Afghan identity card or accessing documents at the national archives and libraries, as I have been trying to do, requires navigating a dense labyrinth of bureaucracy that fosters nothing but corruption.
The problem lies at least equally with the international donors who work closely with the ministries and provincial governments on “nation building” projects. Such partnerships can easily spend contracts ranging from $25 to $150 million in one or two years, with no practical results to show for it. Locals will point to the many examples of recently rebuilt highways, schools, and hospitals that are crumbling due to shoddy construction practices and poor materials. Projects designed to rebuild the electricity, water, and sewage infrastructure have yielded virtually no changes either, so that even the nicer neighborhoods of Kabul have terrible sewage and trash problems, and those who can afford it rely on generators and water delivery.
- Photograph by author.
According to several investigative reports and my own interviews, the bilateral American donors and NGOs are the ones marred with the most egregious practices of corruption and fraud, including wasteful expenditures, huge overheads, and gross misappropriation of funds. Non-competitive contracts, kickbacks, and nepotism seem to be embedded in the very structure of “development” aid distribution. The new United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime report, which surveys 7,600 people in 12 provinces, reveals that 54% of Afghans think international NGOs “are corrupt and are in the country just to get rich.” The report also shows that the number one problem facing Afghans is “corruption,” with “insecurity” coming in second, and “unemployment” in third place. Meritocracy and fair competition, tenets of well-functioning democracies that the West prides itself on, are largely overlooked on the ground in Afghanistan. Despite countless ambitious proposals, goals and objectives identified, expensive conferences and workshops held on everything from sewage canalization to the training of lawyers in constitutional law, and of course all the money being spent, most American/Afghan partnerships have been complete failures. Afghanistan is not just the “graveyard of empires.” Now it’s also the graveyard of hundreds of failed, discarded, and buried development projects, a wasteland of corruption.
It’s no wonder then that recently the question of Afghanistan has shifted from “Is it the right war?” to “Is it governable?” Some experts are using the current dystopic and despotic state of affairs as an example of why nation building is a hopeless cause in a country like Afghanistan and as an opportunity to sound the war drums. They are promoting a purely militaristic strategy of fighting the Taliban insurgency by increasing the American troop presence 80 thousand. This is a troublesome development. Afghans are very sensitive to foreign invaders. When the Soviet Union deployed 100,000 soldiers on Afghan soil to fight insurgents thirty years ago, the government in Kabul was quickly deemed its puppet regime and lost all legitimacy. Once the current tide of popular opinion shifts against the American and Afghan governments and toward the Taliban, little can then be done to redeem them in the eyes of the public. Abandoning the nation building and development project is abandoning peace, not just in Afghanistan and in the region, but worldwide.
Those doubting the governability of Afghanistan (which I have never fully understood because even though the present situation here is indeed grim, how can an entire people be completely ungovernable?) need look no further than the country’s past for clues to a possible hopeful future. Historically, several Afghan governments in the last century have made bold attempts at modernizing Afghanistan by establishing institutions for the advancement of its citizenry, most recently the projects initiated by the government of Zahir Shah in the 1960s and 1970s.
Although Zahir was popularly considered a benevolent but ineffectual king, his prime ministers and other high-ranking governmental officials launched ambitious state-sponsored programs to build the educational system and create national media institutions and took steps toward democratic governance. During this time, among other successes, the parliament was established; state-sponsored media began promoting a modern secular civil society; an equal rights amendment to the constitution ended obligatory veiling and purdah; and education systems were aggressively extended to reach even the remotest parts of Afghanistan.
When the Taliban briefly retreated after 9/11, there was a moment of optimism here. Afghans were encouraged by the international community’s renewed interest in Afghanistan. But that hope was quickly squandered, and most Afghans today agree that conditions are becoming increasingly worse. In order to stop the situation in Afghanistan from spiraling further downward and sucking the rest of the world with it into an abyss of instability, Presidents Karzai and Obama have to break with the past. There can be no more maintaining of the status quo of conservatism, lawlessness, and corruption that has been born out of the fires of three decades of war.
The American people who are suffering economically and footing the bill for the Afghan war deserve better. The Afghan people who have experienced the worst that humanity has to offer for three decades deserve better. Both publics are tired of not seeing any results. We were all promised and are still waiting for change. During President Obama’s inauguration Afghans chanted in the streets “O ba ma, Ma ba O,” which in Persian translates to “He’s for us, we’re for him.”
It’s time for real leadership and real changes. Afghans realize that there are many dil souz (kindhearted) Americans working in Afghanistan who want to make a difference and improve the lives of Afghans. But the systems of aid distribution, such as non-competitive contracts and practices of subcontracting and sub-subcontracting, are corruption breeding more corruption. And American procedures and policies for the monitoring and evaluation of projects are problematic. American-funded NGOs are required to use American accounting and managing firms for “performance rating” and “book checking.” But regular monitoring of projects at the local level, including both scheduled and unannounced on-site visits, tends to be much more effective than manufactured external accounting. And the high cost of these independent third-party accountants often keeps Afghan-run NGOs with smaller budgets from receiving contracts.
A handful of smaller international organizations are making a visible difference, successfully building schools, universities, and health clinics; renovating historical sites and monuments; digging wells; and bringing solar technology to towns and villages. These organizations hire more local staff, who may not have the job experience or education of the internationals but who can provide direct oversight without the additional expense of translators and constant security.
- Photograph by author.
This is a critical juncture in the tangled history of Afghan-American relations. To restore the faith of both the Afghan and the American people in the legitimacy of the Afghan government and America’s foreign policy, we need to see American/Afghan partnerships that yield visible results, reach local communities, and improve people’s daily lives. The Obama administration needs to renew its commitment to nation building and recognize its responsibilities to the Afghan people. With the adoption of new methods for capacity development, Afghanistan can become a successful model of democracy and demonstrate the possibilities of nation building. This would not only remedy the mistakes of the past but also curtail the resurgent Taliban. Otherwise, the Taliban, with their severe brand of Islam and violent enforcement of shari’a law, will emerge as the better alternative, offering both security and sustenance.
Whether Afghanistan is brought into the global dialogue or plummets further out of control is not solely dependent on military might. The fate of Afghanistan and therefore the key to stabilizing a volatile region rests on the public opinion of the Afghan and American people, which rests on a radical shift from the way the business of war and peace has been conducted thus far. Another Afghanistan, without bombs and burqas, is possible. When I partially close my eyes and look out on the beauty of the Kabul skyline — majestic mountains backlit by the setting sun, the scattered lights of the city twinkling, the few remaining trees swaying in a dust storm, high-flying kites that seem to collide with low-flying Chinook helicopters — I can almost see the Kabul of my past: a peaceful, functioning society, with a class of educated professionals who believed in a modern Afghanistan.
A version of this essay has appeared at The WIP (Women’s International Perspective, Inc.).