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Ground Truths in Afghanistan

Spring / Summer 2010 In Situ

Ground Truths in Afghanistan

The future of Afghanistan lies with its destitute rural majority, and its view of the world. Matthew Arnold reports from Tagab, Afghanistan

In stark contrast with the barren Hindu Kush Mountains rising dramatically in the background, the low valleys of Tagab are amazingly lush – beautiful green stripes streaking against the base of the brown peaks. Life in Tagab continues, in many ways, as it has for centuries for the province’s 70,000 or so residents – petty traders and farmers famous for producing superbly sweet pomegranates. Tagab forms the southern half of Kapisa Province – a small province northeast of Kabul. Despite its beauty and the seeming timelessness of the scenery, Tagab has had the misfortune of being at the centre of much of the manic violence that has defined Afghanistan over the last three decades, including the ongoing Taliban insurgency. Given its consistent importance to the wars, it is a good bellwether of the possibilities for Afghanistan’s future, based on the present realities on the ground (in situ, as it were).

To understand where Afghanistan may be going, it is critical to understand the perspectives of the rural majority of the country. The current insurgency is being waged in rural Afghanistan, and that is where, for all practical intents and purposes, success or failure will be determined. In Tagab, there are two major themes that consistently come out of conversations with local farmers, village elders, merchants and government officials. The first is that – at a local level – what is of driving importance to most ordinary Afghans is employment. A reality that is perhaps not always fully appreciated at macro-policy levels in distant Western capitals is just how miserably poor rural Afghanistan actually is. This is especially true of a place like Tagab. Said one notable local recently: “You must understand how poor this area is. It has been through three decades of almost constant war.”

Options for generating income are few. Commercial farming is limited. Tagab experienced a devastating hailstorm during the last pomegranate harvest season; it left the region’s farmers expecting to make only 20 percent of what they would have otherwise. Making a living through existing local jobs is difficult, if not outright impossible. Aside from running small stalls in neighbourhood bazaars, most people in Tagab make the hazardous trek to Iran to work as manual labourers. Given these challenges, a consistent request on the ground is that development projects focus on immediate job creation. Building schools and roads, clinics and government offices is useful, and indeed happily accepted; however, a good deal of bitterness has been generated among locals who see the projects coming in, but lament the lack of tangible individual benefits in the form of more work and cold hard cash.

The second major theme that one hears at the local level is that dialogue and reconciliation are the only ways to end the current war. Reconciliation has been mooted as an idea in the past, but it finally generated broad acceptance and momentum as a strategic policy imperative at the London conference last January. At a local level, this is very welcome news. Tagab is a completely Pashtun area, but by no means universally pro-insurgency. There are many villages that resent the Taliban, and some that have even resisted them with violence. Still, it is often said in Tagab that distinctions must be made between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Taliban. Those who are ‘good’ – those with whom there should be reconciliation – are locals who are fighting mostly for what they perceive as a neighbourhood defence against foreign invaders; they are also driven heavily by economic motives. Whatever else they may be, the Taliban are quite reliable in paying their fighters – something that counts for much in these climes. Conversely, the ‘bad’ insurgents are those from outside of the area who target locals in their war against foreigners and the Kabul government. Such targeting includes setting up check-points on roads to extort money, assassinating village elders who are not as supportive as demanded, and causing careless collateral damage – like hitting villages – during mortar attacks on Coalition bases.

Afghanistan in 2010 is in the midst of great uncertainty – and also potentially immense change. Two major new dynamics are shaping the possibilities for a year that is likely to prove decisive for the country’s near-term future: the surge of Western troops that is starting to slowly stabilize the aggregate security situation, and a newfound strategic emphasis on the said dialogue and reconciliation with the insurgents. These broader dynamics can only issue in sustainable change on the ground if they intelligently emphasize the rural communities at the epicentre of the war – such as those of Tagab. After years of lofty Western rhetoric about ‘democracy’ and ‘good governance,’ Afghan communities confronted day-to-day with an ongoing insurgency and a dire economic situation are very seriously looking for a heavy dose of pragmatism emphasizing local solutions and simple language. Whatever national policy initiatives unfold – either from the Coalition or from the Karzai government – they are most likely to succeed if they respond strongly to these localized ground truths; that is, create jobs and reconcile with ‘good’ insurgents.

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Matthew Arnold is a civilian socio-political adviser for the US Department of Defense, and currently works with the French military in Kapisa Province, Afghanistan. The views expressed herein are the author’s.

(Photograph: The Canadian Press/Jason Straziuso)
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