Five days in Afghanistan

The Frontier Post, July 28,1999
Tariq Jamal Khattak

The moment a person enters Afghanistan after crossing the Durand Line, he finds himself in an altogether different environment. Here, you will not find a man without a beard and turban and a woman without a burqa (veil). The traffic is left-hand drive in contrast to the one prevalent in Pakistan.

Similarly, the amount of poppy cultivation was incredibly large in Afghanistan. One could see poppy fields on both sides of the road for scores of miles. This is indeed a very worrisome development for the region, particularly for Pakistan since most of the drugs make their exit to the outside world via Pakistan.

Afghanistan presents a poignant picture of abject poverty. The inflation rate can be gauged from the fact that one Kaaldara (i.e. a Pakistani rupee) equals around 850 Afghanis. Prices of commodities of everyday use are soaring high, well beyond the reach of most the Afghans. Although we only visited Jalalabad and Kabul, the observations made here about the general conditions of Afghanistan are based on exhaustive interviews with the local people.

It is worthwhile to mention that Kabul was found to be poorer than Jalalabad. This difference is owing to the fact that Jalalabad is more accessible to Pakistan and hence is favorably placed for cross border trade. Also, Jalalabad has largely escaped widespread destruction thanks to its marginal location as compared to Kabul, which was devastated after protracted warfare inside and around it.

One can find a lot of beggars in Kabul including childern and women. Most of the women beggars are believed to be doctors, teacher's office workers, etc. They have resorted to begging because their male kinsmen have been devoured by the civil war and they are not allowed to work under the Taliban regime. We were convinced about the veracity of this fact when some of the juvenile beggars roaming the streets of Kabul talked with us in reasonably good English and Urdu.

The extent of damage to the infrastructure of Afghanistan is also consummate, as can be expected. Around 75 per cent of Kabul is completely in ruins. It is to be noted that most of the destruction of Kabul had occurred between 1994 and 1996, that is, before the onslaught of the Taliban.

During our survey work in Afghanistan, we came across dilapidated roads (especially the Jalalabad-Kabul road), blown away bridges, ruined buildings and the like. Between Jalalabad and Kabul, there were a lot of small villages, which are now deserted and give a gloomy look. There are so many bullet marks on the walls, electric poles, neon sign boards, etc, that one gets the feeling as if there had been a rain of bullets over this unfortunate country.

Even now, there seems to be no end to their ordeal. Hundreds of thousands of unrecorded, concealed landmines are still there in Afghanistan. Kabul city is still vulnerable to sporadic rocket attacks from the northern war front and, finally, one still hears about spasmodic subversive activities within the areas under Taliban rule.

It is the Taliban's mode of governance, which is proving to be their Achilles' heel. Their medieval interpretation of Islam, their stringent behaviour towards women and minority ethnic groups, their system of public executions and other punitive measures have gained them much notoriety in the international arena.

We, ourselves, came across a stadium where a public execution was about to take place. The stadium was jam-packed with people, even a lot of veiled women standing outside the ground were among the spectators. A Land Cruiser was parked in the middle of the ground and some-body was speaking on the microphone. When we inquired about the nature of the congregation from a man standing nearby, we were horrified to learn that a man and a woman were about to be stoned to death within a few minutes. They were convicted on the charge of adultery. We were also invited by the locals to "entertain" ourselves by witnessing the ongoing proceedings. We, however, preferred to leave that place.

Another nuisance for the people of Afghanistan is a new ministry called "Amar bil Maruf wa Nahi Anil-Munkir". The employees of this ministry roam the streets and bazaars of the city and punish the people for unjustified reasons. Anyone without a turban or the prescribed length of a beard, or not found in a mosque during prayer times, is subjected to their persecution. This ministry is anathema to the urbanites and is considered by them as an agency whose job is to harass them.

The Taliban are conservatives and orthodox to the hilt. Their non-pragmatic mode of governance has dragged them into a cul-de-sac. Despite their consolidated rule over 80 per cent and above of Afghanistan, for about four or five years, they are standing isolated today in the inter-national community. Though the Taliban disapprove their critics with opprobrium, yet they have started to realise that being ostracised from the world community is now really hurting them.

Their future in domestic polity is also in doldrums. After talking to a lot of Afghans, we got the feeling that the people were becoming wary of the Taliban rule for two major reasons. First the inability of the Taliban government to ameliorate the economic condition of the Afghan people. Second the extraordinary stringency of the Taliban in imposing their idiosyncratic mode of Islam. In the latter category, they were particularly critical of public persecutions and the Ministry of Amar bil Maruf. Most of them were very sceptical about the fairness of trail under the Taliban judicial system. It is sad that only after witnessing the grisly consequences of the civil war and the inexpressible plight of the Afghans, it has dawned upon us how important it is to have an urgent solution to this festering problem. It is, however, admitted by all that the Afghans need a truly altruistic leadership.

The Taliban should now open up, at least for the sake of those paupers of Kabul, who often go without food for two or three days in a week. They should shun all their polemical, confrontational policies. At the same time, the world powers should also strive to find a solution to this problem instead of obfuscating it by linking it to terrorism and fundamentalism only.

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