Rameen Javid, founder of Afghan Communicator, recently sent this note out to the Afghan community worldwide.
“Make sure what you are ridiculing is not your own beard”
With the recent resurgent interest in Afghanistan and complex theories being put forward by an army of self-claimed Afghan experts, whose collective wisdoms seems to lead us into two general categories: academics and on the field experts. With its seemingly acceptable logic, based on already established [sometimes baseless] ‘facts’ and ‘truths’ that have become the latest fashion in the academic circles, academicians describe the theories of a situation. In the case of Afghanistan the usual is it is a landlocked country, Pashtun majority, no empire ever ruled it, xenophobic people and brave fighters.
In the media, the so called experts dispense unquestionable concepts that are magically accepted by all, without much thought to its authenticity. It seems spending three months or less on the ground gives you a license to speak about the complexities of Afghanistan. All other voices are drowned out by these two general sources, as almost everyone seems to be convinced by either one of these sources and do not bother to think of alternatives or the actual truth. Risking self damnation, I dare to reflect.
The Kabul suicide bombing of September 17, 2009 on the airport road killed one of my relatives, Saboor, father of 5 children and the only breadwinner for a housewife mother, elder disabled father, a wife and children, brother who has been unable to work due to medical condition and a sister married to a less fortunate man than himself; so Saboor contributed to her as well. A taxi driver who wanted to earn some more money to have a better Eid, he carried two passengers in the back seat of his Toyota station wagon popularly known assaraacha or courtyard. One of the passengers burned with Saboor and the other may survive, as he was partially shielded by the two men and the car. Saboor’s car was on the opposite side of the street from the suicide bomber. The force of the blast and the heat burned his exposed side to the blast, blowing off half his body along with one of his passengers. One of his arms was later found by his father laying near the car outside. I cannot express the feeling of seeing his remains, the condition of his family and the faith that awaits them. This is real Afghan people suffering!
The blast broke one of my apartment windows, which was about 500 meters away from the blast zone. The official body count was 6 Italian soldiers and 10 Afghan civilians killed. Reaching the site 20 minutes after the blast, many were saying the dead bodies were everywhere both Afghan and foreign, so the figures are downplayed. It does not matter. Like Saboor, so many other innocent by-standards were killed and for what?
True that the ISAF forces are taking losses too but innocent lives are being lost on both sides [foreigners and Afghan civilians] for a strategy that is not clear. What is ISAF/NATO/Coalition forces doing in Afghanistan exactly? What successful strategies have they implemented? What are the milestones after 8 years with those strategies? How do they justify so many lives lost, so much money spent, so much time passed and so many promises unfulfilled? If the strategy is successful then why don’t we see real change? If it is not, why do we keep on following them?
The undeniable truth is that NATO is endangering the very people it wants to save. By living and working in the cities, the military is creating danger to themselves and to the civilian population. For a false sense of security, they have blocked off sections of roads inside Kabul City and around the country, thus making life extremely difficult for the average Afghan. When the NATO convoys pass by, they have jamming devices that kill your communication, they push Afghans off the roads in their own country, they point a gun and laser beam to intimidate civilians from coming near them, as if they own these roads. By living in the cities they use civilians as a human shield but their mandate is to protect Afghans. They both fear the population they are here to protect and use them as sandbags for their own safety.
I am not sure anyone knows what the strategy is or if anyone bothers to check if anyone is following that strategy. There seems to be a general understanding among the media, troops and foreign civilians that things work differently in Afghanistan and thus all of the agreed upon plans/regulations/laws should be laid to rest. No one thinks why the plans don’t work. Frankly, I am not sure anyone cares. Most foreigners are behind high walls and completely indifferent to what is going on outside their compounds. I am not sure if anyone thinks why they are here to begin with.
Things are ran so badly, both by foreigners and some of the Afghans they hire, that one is confused if this is pure ignorance or the West really does not care about Afghanistan? Or perhaps both? The big strategy for the West is to work with leaders and power holders. This works well in the short ran, because to mobilize people, established sources are necessary. However, as the limited few are chocking resources and moreover abusing their power, they are seen as stooges of a West that is evil, careless and two-faced. Eight years of slow progress and regular Afghan civilian causalities drives the message home. As the recent Presidential Election fiasco shows, democracy, human rights, civil society and freedom are a front. Not only people lose interest in rule of law or doing something good for the country, they come to hate the West, democracy, human and women’s rights, civil society and everything else that the West is trying to implement.
There are a great deal of people in the West who wonder why we are not winning the battle for hearts and minds. Not only the West is not winning hearts or minds, but it is failing in almost every aspect of its operation in Afghanistan. On the humanitarian front, PRTs [Provincial Reconstruction Teams] and USAID are throwing money at baseless and mismanaged projects. For example, a PRT decided to build a school for two villages so that the children from both villages can attend the school. There was a disagreement over the location of the school. In their infinite wisdom the PRT team spends hundreds of thousands of dollars to build a school in between both villages so that both can attend. The result was that neither villagers sent their children to school there because it was too far. The school building fell into disrepair and is used by drug addicts. The PRT could spend five thousand dollar in each village to build their own school.
USAID is giving grants to organizations that are active in southern Afghanistan. The grants are for millions of dollar. No one from the USAID dares to visit those places to see if any progress was made. Grantees come back with some story and some pictures and after a year they get another grant for more money to do the same thing. Mostly the grantee does nothing and takes pictures of other buildings or seminars and submits it as their own work. Or the grant is divided between the grant manager and head of the NGO getting the grant. They come up with a way to write a good report and the few connected people get rich while the poor remain unaffected. Last year I interviewed for a position with the USAID, whose Chief of Party bluntly said that they are looking for someone to write favorable reports of the work that the USAID was supposed to do but never did. He was not impressed by my twenty years of public service and the fact that I have relocated to Kabul so that I can help people. “I can think of many positions which I can use you for” he said, “but this is a position with an acquired set of skills”. A couple of months after that interview, reports of USAID mishaps were reported by the media.
Growing up in Afghanistan as a child and then in the US as an adult, we were always thought to hate the communists – a feeling that came naturally. Much to my shock and horror, when I returned back to Kabul after eighteen years abroad in 2002, I saw many pictures of Dr. Najibullah, the former Afghan Communist President who was hanged from a traffic pole in Kabul by the Taliban in September 1996 when they took Kabul. While Afghanistan never had so much wealth in its entire history, Afghans still pine for the communist era. When in disbelief I ask why do they prefer that time, they all agree that there was a discipline back then, there was national identity and nationalism, that there was a respect of individual and that there was respect for law and no one was above the law, not even the President who only owned a five room apartment in the Soviet built district of Micro Rayon. People admire Dr. Najibullah’s leadership, his government, the qualified and civilized public servants, the social justice and equality and the civic culture that everyone enjoyed almost equally.
Witnessing and experiencing so much injustice from 2002 onward, I left my aspirations to become a diplomat and started to work for the fast disappearing Afghan culture. Establishing Afghan Communicator, as an art and culture organization, my colleagues and I focused on the arts of Afghanistan, helping artists. After a three decade war, art was not in the vocabulary of most people. Ancient artifacts were disappearing or being destroyed, the artisan class was extremely thin to none-existence and respect for the arts and culture completely gone. Hoping to not only restore the lost prestige of the artists and the arts, but also to make art part of the reconstruction and everyday life of the people, I started to work with the artists. However, I first had to learn about the arts as it was a new field to me. Through my analysis and research of the arts I found that to make art matter, it must feed people sustainably. Thus I began with a seven city North American tour of Afghan art and films in 2005, selling 80% of the items for exhibition and reviving an interest in the arts.
Then I had an opportunity through the Christiansen Fund to take four Afghan artists to Istanbul Bi-Annual Art Festival later that year. In 2007 I sponsored two Afghan master artists from the US and Canada to come to Afghanistan and share their expertise and experiences as successful artists. I also brought basic art supplies such as digital cameras, paint, canvas, cutting boards, matts, etc based on the artists’ requests. It has been four years that I have been working with the artists directly and trying to support their initiatives and efforts instead of enforcing my vision. I mainly, but not solely, work with large artist centers such as fine arts universities, artist collectives, or master artists with many students. I empower the top leadership and encourage them to share their knowledge and resources with others. For example, if they go to a seminar they should report what they have seen back to their colleagues. This way, one person becomes the window to many others who were not there.
Aside from supporting the efforts of the artists through in-kind donations, I inform them about marketing and provide venues where they can sell their work. To date, I have sold over two hundred thousand dollars worth of art, which is a considerable amount considering the average daily wage is less then one dollar in Afghanistan. The business I bring to these artists centers have attracted a lot more students, have encouraged students and master artists alike to produce more art, be exposed to new ideas and trends and to find sustenance and dignity in their profession. It is both sad and pleasing that I am the only lifeline for these artists. Whenever I remember a certain master artist who lost his young wife to a road accident but was able to save himself and one of his children from death through the sale of his works, it brings me satisfaction to continue my volunteer work for the artists. Still recovering, he moved me when he told me that my assistance has made him believe in his craft and he is eager to get back to work. After months of physical therapy, losing his home and counting on family to take care of him and his two children, he finally was able to buy a house, remarry and produce even better work that is still unrivalled in Afghanistan.
With love for Afghanistan, understanding and respect for people’s needs and very limited resources, I have managed to revive an industry to a certain extent. I am not alone in this, but my work more then feeds people, it revives a lost prestige and a lost profession, it revives the culture of Afghanistan and it brings independence and dignity to people. To those who believe in more troops, more money and more experts, I say to come and see my example and see how easy it is to save Afghanistan. If you empower people who have done something in the past for Afghanistan and who care about Afghanistan and its future, then with limited resources they will change this country. Afghanistan was ran by Afghans for five thousand years, thus the only people who can save this country are those who care for it and have contributed positively for Afghans and Afghanistan in the past.