This blog is submitted by Huma Saeed, a PhD candidate at the University of Leuven, Belgium.
I just came back from a two and half month trip to Kabul, which was organized around my PhD fieldwork. I am a student of Criminology at the University of Leuven, studying the intersection between the violation of socio-economic rights and state crime in the context of transitional justice. Notwithstanding this background, however, there is always a latent ‘anthropologist’ within me, no matter where I go and what I do. These reflections are based on side observations made while doing my research, an inseparable part of any researcher’s work.
The experience, all at once, was very intense throughout, precarious at times, and exciting all along. It was intensive both because there was much to be done in a short time but also my stay coincided with a particular and important moment in the recent history of the country, namely the problematic and controversial presidential elections and the announcement of the outcome after four months of scuffle between the two candidates. The political tensions and the resultant uncertainty were palpable in my interactions with shopkeepers, schoolgirls, taxi drivers, government officials and international aid workers, among others. The disagreement and the stalemate between the two contending candidates created much disappointment, uncertainty and anxiety among all Afghans who had enthusiastically casted their votes in the first democratic election in Afghanistan’s history.
Among the elite (politicians, civil society activists, parliamentarians), the pessimists worried about the occurrence of yet another civil war, similar to the one the country experienced in the 1990s. The optimists, on the other hand, believed that Afghanistan and its people had reached a level of political maturity that would not allow the wheel of history to turn back. Such debates were ongoing in electronic and printed media, increasingly significant features of civic engagement in Afghanistan since 2001 and considered as one of the hallmarks of the Karzai administration. The ordinary Afghans, however, did not seem as divided in terms of their views of the future. Most people simply seemed fatigued by the decades-long conflict and political disagreements and concerned with earning their daily bread. What most Afghans seem to want is peace and stability and a government that could provide them with basic needs such as an income generating employment and assistance in health, education, and shelter, regardless of who is in power.
This desire for normality was most pronounced when millions of eligible Afghans went to the polls on April 5 and again for a run off on June 14, 2014 to cast their votes. They did so while being wary of the security dangers the voting entailed. The insurgents had issued warnings about attacking and bombing the polling stations and the voters. In the western Herat province the blue colored fingers of a number of elderly men were chopped off. Nevertheless, ordinary people showed an unprecedented willpower and resolve not only to say ‘no’ to the insurgents, but also to demonstrate their level of political maturity, in particular their appreciation of modern and representative democratic institutions, particularly the electoral process. Alas, many voters felt they were let down despite the risks they took to vote and became disenchanted with the post-election power plays that preceded the eventual selection of the new president. On a number of occasions, I heard fellow Afghans stating that they felt so proud when millions voted, and prouder yet for the ability of the national security forces to protect them during voting. The voting process received wide national and international coverage, but with everything that happened afterwards many felt disappointed and even embarrassed for the nation. The latter was in part due to what many Afghans perceived as interference by John Kerry and other American officials on a number of occasions, implying that Afghans could still not resolve their own disagreements.
However, the post-election mood changed almost overnight when Ashraf Ghani was declared the new president, despite the fact that the exact number of votes casted for each candidate, counted and re-counted under the supervision of national and international observers, had not been announced. Though there are many concerns regarding the formation of the new unity government, chief among them being security, people felt relieved when the deadlock was at last broken.
Due to the uncertainty following the elections, many decisions in everyday life of the people had been put on hold, awaiting the outcome of the elections. Some had had job interviews but were told they had to wait until the result of the elections was announced. A number of local NGOs with whom I talked were uncertain about their funding situation and thus the future of their work because their international donors had told them that all funding decisions were on hold. National and international investors and the business community were not making business decisions. Prices of certain key commodities had shot up while the Afghan currency lost value against the dollar and other key currencies. The Ministry of Finance announced that if the political situation did not improve soon, the government would not be able to pay its employees. These side effects of the inconclusive elections compounded the uncertainties many people felt and added to an already palpable sense of insecurity.
As part of my trip, I also visited Herat, a western province in Afghanistan, rich in history and culture, legends, warm and hospitable people and delicious fruits, dry and fresh. The layered history of this city is reflected through a number of historical sites and monuments, but also the way in which people dress, talk, carry their legends, and tell stories. I visited the mausoleum of a 14th century empress, Gowharshad, during the Timurid Period, and was stunned by the important contributions she had made to the cultural life of the city, specially towards enriching the Persian language and establishing an educational center. I was also stunned by the beauty of the rainbow sunset behind her tomb. Contemplating upon that beauty I wondered why the sunset of the Karzai administration was not as colorful.
As the first democratically elected government of Afghanistan, the Karzai administration ended leaving behind major uncertainties and chaos, a dysfunctional mode of governance, and entrenched and endemic corruption. Despite this, many ordinary Afghans believe that the Karzai administration scored well in comparison with other regimes during the last four decades. This positive view is not shared by the intelligentsia, however. Quite a few of the highly educated Afghans with good understanding and analysis of the country’s political development told me quite the opposite. Referring to the level of corruption and nepotism as the key defining features of Afghanistan’s system of governance, and the overt willingness to compromise unequivocally with warlords and human rights violators, they maintain that the administration has left one of the darkest scars in the history of the country, and one which will not be scrubbed away easily. The dilemmas faced by the Ghani administration are attributed in part to this legacy.
Months after the appointment of the new President there is only a partial cabinet in place, the economic conditions and prospects remain grim, and, above all, the security situation seems to be steadily getting worse. “Someone is coming” to save Afghanistan from itself for sure, many say to themselves, but who this someone is remains a mystery. The central question for the majority of Afghans is whether the country will move forward or backward, with the knowledge that ordinary Afghans remain well outside the process that will answer this question.