Afghanistan remains locked in the public imagination as hopelessly war-torn – a stage for endless misery and feckless foreign policy endeavors.
In an effort to widen and deepen that narrative, we talked to May Jeong, a freelance writer based in Kabul, Afghanistan. She’s written for the Guardian, the Financial Times, and the New York Times, among others.
Before moving to Kabul in January 2013, May’s first journalism job was at the Daily Star newspaper in Beirut. In Canada she worked for a newswire and a newspaper before writing her first magazine piece, an investigative article that exposed a gang rape scandal in an immigrant community in Toronto. It was nominated for a National Magazine Award.
Fun-fact: “Just as pomegranate season was starting in mid-September, I headed south to Kandahar province to report for the Guardian. Among the subjects I wrote about was a girls’ school that was running out of money. When I visited, the school were literally weeks away from closing.
There have been many problems with how the issue of women’s rights had been co-opted into the war efforts here, and for this reason I try to be hyper-vigilant when I write about women’s issues. But here, I could see that the school was real: it had students with ambitions who rightly saw the school as their “way out.”
Many of the graduates of the school had gone on to become the main breadwinners of the family, and even in conservative Kandahar, money talks. These girls, now women, had managed to carve out a place in a society that they couldn’t have dreamed of occupying had they not spoken English or understood how the Internet worked, all skills they learned at the school. They were sad to see the school close.
But then something magical happened.
A few days after the article ran, an anonymous donor came through with $100,000 in funding, enough to keep the school open for another year.”
FPI: You’ve been reporting on Afghanistan for the past two years. Can you give us a diagnosis on the country’s challenges? A prognosis?
Afghanistan just wrapped up a presidential election from hell. It began in October 2013 with 27 men announcing their candidacy (a list that was whittled down to ten), and ended in September 2014 when Ashraf Ghani formally succeeded Hamid Karzai. It was meant to be the first democratic transition of power in the country’s history and the first peaceful handover since 1901. Whether it was peaceful or democratic, that’s up for debate. Donors who picked up the $170 million tab to cover the cost of the election will point to the candidates and the ballots and will tell you the answer is a resounding yes. But others might say there was nothing democratic or peaceful in the bitter fight between the two candidates, Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah: their battle that nearly set the country aflame; the threat of violence from Abdullah’s supporters; and the subsequent compromise they reached. If the threat of violence influenced the outcome of the election, then can we really call it peaceful or democratic?
Having sad all that, Afghanistan feels like unset clay right now.
It’s a wonderful feeling, a sense of taking the measure of things, and finding them to be possible. A recent poll found that 84 percent of Afghans approve of Ghani’s first month in office. Numbers rarely mean anything in Afghanistan, but even with the margin of error, the approval rating seems like a good thing. I would liken it to the euphoria that America experienced after President Obama was elected for the first time in 2008. But as with Obama, there is concern that the goodwill of the public may run out before the president can start trading on it. To keep the momentum up, Ghani has been showing up at hospitals unbidden, checking up on police units, and announcing ambitious appointments. There has been so much rhetoric of change surrounding Ghani’s presidency, and he seems serious about delivering on his promise. But change cannot happen overnight. Ghani will need time to implement the reforms he has pledged, and for this the Afghan people and the international community must show patience.
Near the end of his second term, our relationship with Karzai had become irreparable. But Ghani, a former World Bank economist and a former U.S. citizen – is aware of the need to keep donors engaged, and has been making sensible moves to woo the West. He understands that without that money, he cannot run the country. To say Afghanistan is aid-dependent would be an understatement: something like 90 per cent of the country’s budget comes from foreign aid.
One of the unfortunate results of decades of war is the kind of short-term thinking being in a conflict environment elicits, which, combined with the influx of foreign capital, has resulted in a pandemic of corruption. Like many societies that have been denied access to global goods through the very oppression that we tacitly endorse, Afghanistan also suffers from corruption. But the country cannot continue on its current path without addressing these issues. All eyes will be on Ghani to see how serious he is about addressing this problem.
Another question that Ghani will have to answer is how much damage the electoral process has caused, and how much of that damage is irreversible. The first round of elections, in April, was feted as a success, but that soon faded with the allegations of fraud during the second round, in June. All summer long – while the insurgency raged on in the provinces – the two candidates fought over the presidency, forcing the country into a state of crisis. The UN led a full audit, and the gridlock was only broken after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry intervened, which raised alarm about the efficacy of the country’s democratic institutions. Will a U.S. Secretary of State have to fly in for all future political crises? The U.S.-led solution was one of a power-sharing agreement, in which the country would be ruled by Ghani, the president, and Abdullah, a chief executive officer. The concern is that we have opted for the short-term agreement that may compromise the long-term health of Afghanistan’s democracy.
Ghani has many challenges before him, but among the most pressing is that of security. The news from the NATO summit in Wales this fall was celebrated as great news for Afghanistan; that donors have pledged $5 billion annually to fund the country’s security forces. Some might say that giving money only prolongs the war, and does nothing to convince both sides to come to the negotiating table. As long as foreign money flows, that will be reason enough to keep fighting, goes the argument. There is also the concern that because of the scale of the problems – of security of economy of rule of law – other, “softer” issues such as human rights or women’s rights will be sidelined.
I have often felt that journalism in its current state is inadequate in capturing the nuance of a place as complex as Afghanistan. Take, for instance, the rumors. They are what they are – untruths – but the rumors swirling around Kabul often illuminate a larger, more interesting psychological truth about the place. What are some of the country’s enduring rumors? That Americans will stay forever. That America is funding the Taliban.
Korea, where my family comes from, also welcomed American troops in 1957, after the Korean War. In 2014, almost 30,000 American troops remain across the southern half of the Korean peninsula. With the exception of a few (like the one in Spain and France used during the Cold War, or the ones in the Philippines and Thailand used during the Vietnam War) once American military bases open, they rarely close. And as the Kabul Bank investigation proved, private contractors on Washington’s payroll have been bribing the Taliban for years, which makes up a major source of the insurgency’s income. America has indeed been funding both sides of the war.
FPI: What does Ghani’s presidency mean for the country?
For the international community, it may be improved relations. He sent the right signals by signing the security pact with the U.S. and NATO on the day he was inaugurated, the same pact Karzai refused to sign. He has also reopened investigation into the Kabul Bank case, which had become a shorthand for the country’s seemingly ineluctable corruption problem. The scandal, which implicated members of Karzai’s inner circle, had gone unresolved under Karzai’s reign. When the bank collapsed in 2010, the Afghan government assumed a loss of nearly $900 million, most of which fell to the donors. It went down as one of the biggest banking scandals in the world. By opening up the investigation, Ghani is showing his seriousness about addressing the problem of corruption in his government.
Ghani’s Lebanese Christian wife, Rula, has also been playing a public role, giving interviews and showing up to address foreign embassy events. The last ruler to allow his wife, Queen Soraya, to have a public life was King Amanullah. But Queen Soraya – dressed in Western attire and opting for a tiara over a headscarf – was a modernizing force that the country was not ready for, and that fact contributed to their eventual exile in 1927. There have been concerns that the Ghanis may be moving too quickly for a country where women’s rights remain an incipient concept.
For Afghans, Ghani in the presidential palace marks a welcome end to an election season that dragged on for months. Some voiced discontent at the fact that the election ended with two runner-ups striking a deal behind closed doors. But most Afghans were glad to have the stasis over. Every aspect of life – from education to business – had been put on hold while the country waited for a new leader to emerge. A local reporter friend of mine in Kandahar had a wife who needs to go see a doctor in Karachi. He waited for a new president before he could take time off to drive her to Pakistan. Meanwhile, his wife suffered through the summer months. This fall, they are finally making the trip.
For the Taliban, a Ghani leadership may lead to a kind of political integration. Ghani has already expressed his intention to reopen negotiations with the Taliban, who had previously stated their willingness to sit down with the post-Karzai regime. Soon after the vote, evidence had emerged pointing to insurgents having rallied behind Ghani to deliver votes in the south and the south-eastern provinces, as they prefer a Pashtun president (Ghani) over a Tajik one (Abdullah). There are concerns that Ghani will not be able to convince his political allies on this subject. The national unity government helped Afghanistan avoid an escalating political crisis, but it also created multiple power centers, and this will mean more work for Ghani as he tries to broker peace.
FPI: How are we – the international community, the press – getting Afghanistan wrong?
We went to war to defeat the Taliban, on the false assumption that they were a terrorist organization with global ambitions and strong links to al-Qaeda. They were the barbarians, we were told, with flagrant disregard for human rights. But as it turns out, we had it all wrong. The Taliban harbor regional ambitions, if that, and are tenuously affiliated with global jihadist organizations. (We see the same kind of intellectual dishonesty today, muddled thinking that connects the Taliban to the Islamic State.) It’s true that the Taliban have committed egregious acts of violence against women, but the marauding bands of men we eventually allied with are no better in this regard. Bacha bazi, the tradition of abusing young boys, is a common practice among the Northern Alliance, our made-up name for these warlords.
Long before 2001, during the internecine civil war of the 1990s, the West was already rooting for one side. Many of the warlords spoke English or French, lived near the capital Kabul, and reporters became enamored with them, Ahmad Shah Massoud leading the charge. As the charismatic leader of the Northern Alliance, he is still revered as a national hero in parts of Kabul. Traffic circles are named after him, and police vehicles are decorated with decals of his iconic portrait. But Massoud’s men were also accused of horrific acts of violence during the civil war of the 1990s, including mass rape and other violations of human rights.
We are naturally drawn to those similar to us. After the Taliban fell, we continued this tradition of listening to those who sounded like us, and allowed them to speak on behalf of their country. This problem has worsened in recent years, as the security situation deteriorates and the areas where diplomats and reporters and development workers can visit dwindle. The reason why you get a disproportionate amount of news from Kabul and other provincial centers is because those are the areas that foreigners can visit. We will never know what happens in the deserts of Kunduz, or the dunes of Nimroz because none of us can go there anymore. But that’s all the more reason to be vigilant about making sure the narrative from Kabul does not serve as a stand in for the narrative for Afghanistan.
Back to 2001.
When NATO showed up in the fall of that year, the Northern Alliance, led by Massoud was already engaged in a bitter battle with the Taliban. We helped them drive out the Taliban, and allowed the warlords to transition into political life. So much of what went wrong in the following decade may be traced back to this moment, of allowing these warlords to remain in power. By doing so, we had effectively taken one side of a civil war. We shouldn’t let the political inconvenience of that fact deter us from calling it out. The collective ignorance of earlier years has been well documented, so I’ll end there.
A recent, more pernicious mistake is that of choosing security over justice or human rights. No one embodies this trade-off better than the police commander of Kandahar, Lieutenant-General Abdul Raziq, who has been long suspected of systematic abuses of power. He also happens to be the most important ally for the American military in southern Afghanistan. Both President Bush and Obama have shown public support for Raziq. Why? Because Washington believes that Raziq is our best chance at stability in southern Afghanistan.
For a government, though, it may make sense to have Raziq run Kandahar as if it were a police state, if it means keeping it clear of insurgents. In the long run, of course, it will have a deleterious effect on the country’s attempt at promoting rule of law. The Taliban first came to power as a reaction to the lawlessness of the warlords that Raziq and his men now espouse. We are only doing the Taliban a favor by tacitly consenting to Raziq’s attitude of impunity. Not only is it a governance oversight, it is also against the law. The 1997 Leahy Amendment bans American funding of foreign military units accused of gross violations of human rights.
Another mistake we are making is this: embassies are forever funding women’s empowerment projects, which has the unfortunate effect of ghettoizing women’s rights by deeming it a Western concept. We are so quick to prop up the small advances made in Kabul at the expense of the lives of women in the rest of the country. For most Afghan women, life has gotten much worse in the past thirteen years of NATO intervention. Because bloodletting happens in the rural areas, away from the attention of the international community, we sometimes forget that a full-scale civil war continues on in the background. The thing that is going to improve an Afghan women’s life is not a capacity-building exercise or a micro-financing scheme, but peace. If we are serious about improving the lives of Afghan girls and women, we have to end the war first.
In the end, though, so much of our failings come down to one thing: the absence of empathy. The billions we spent in Afghanistan (America alone spent over $600 million and sacrificed over 2,000 lives) did not amount to much because of our failure to fully imagine the lives of others. We made abstractions out of Afghans instead of seeing them after our own selves. Ordinary Afghans became an unruly mass of tribal relations. The Taliban were irrational actors with indecipherable interests. This reductionist narrative did not allow us to see the facts in plain view, that if you have been repeatedly invaded, it makes sense to be mistrusting of strangers, or that the Taliban may be a symptom of a deeper socioeconomic problem. Afghan – insurgents or judges or doctors or day laborers – also want what we want. That is, better lives for their children, of wanting to live and not to die. This fact seems to get lost at times.
FPI: Any reading/film recommendations for those interested in diving into the country more?
Afghanistan has received an inordinate amount of attention in the past few years, and as a result, there is no shortage in excellent books and documentaries and long reads.
Graeme Smith’s searing account of the events in the south, The Dogs are Eating Them Now is a great place to start, for those interested in parsing out what went wrong with the war effort here.
Anand Gopal wrote the best narrative nonfiction about Afghanistan, which was deservingly nominated for the National Book Award. His book is called No Good Men Among the Living.
An Enemy We Created is the first book on Afghanistan I ever read and it’s one that I go back to again and again and again.
Some new favorites: I’ve been reading Jenny Nordberg’s The Underground Girls of Kabul and Jen Percy’s Demon Camp and they are both amazing. What incredibly smart women. I am so smitten with them and their capacity for nuance and intelligence.
I have also long admired the works of Najieb Khaja, a Danish filmmaker who does slightly insane embeds, that illuminate new aspects of the war. His documentary My Afghanistan is tremendously insightful.
I am also a fan of Ben Anderson’s documentaries. They are all terrifying enough to keep me up at night.
Luke Mogelson and Matthieu Aikins have done incredible immersive journalism from here. I admire Matt’s instinct of holding those in power accountable, and I am enamored by Luke’s ability to write about subjects that readers normally don’t care much for – migration, civilian casualties – with such compassion.
FPI: What is your favorite thing about Afghanistan?
The first time I drove a car was in Kandahar, a Taliban stronghold. I also rode my first horse in Wardak, a province that has been racked by insurgent activities. Afghanistan can be like that. It is incredibly frustrating at times – the patriarchy, the pollution, the threat of violence all get to you – but that also means you become more awake to these unexpected moments of joy.
FPI: Any advice for young and fellow interruptors?
Go before you are ready.