Monday, September 17, 2007

My Hopes for Afghanistan's Future: Bilal Sarwary

'My hopes for Afghanistan's future' BBc; September 17, 2007

Former Kabul producer Bilal Sarwary left the BBC in 2006 to study in the United States. He has spent his summer holidays in Afghanistan reporting for the BBC.
Here, as he returns to university, he reflects on the hopes he and other Afghans had for their country after landmark elections - and what has happened since.

On a chilly Kabul winter morning in 2004, Haji Gul Kaka left his house in the early hours to cast his vote in Afghanistan's first ever free and fair election.

Previously, governments in Afghanistan had come to power with bullets not ballots, and Gul Kaka was one of 10 million Afghans who cast a vote in the presidential election.

"I had to wait for the polling station to open," he says.

"I was very happy because governments in the past had come with tanks and fighting, not with elections."

But almost three years after that chilly morning, Gul Kaka is still asking for a road, clinic and water for his village in this windswept, rural part of the mountainous Paghman valley, on the outskirts of Kabul.

Going back to the civil war days in the 1990s, there were governments everywhere, he recalls.

So many different commanders had their own administrations while battles were fought on the streets.

"We have come a long way, but we should admit that things haven't been done the way they should have been," says Gul Kaka angrily as he works in his field.

What went wrong?

Elections in Afghanistan were a huge step towards democracy for a nation with a bloody history of wars and vendettas.

The majority of Afghans are illiterate, but during the elections for the first time people in the south and east allowed their women to cast their votes.

It was a cultural revolution in a conservative country that has traditionally been male-dominated. In this post-Taleban Afghanistan, millions of children, including girls, went back to school. They had been unable to do so under the fundamentalist Taleban regime.

The government of President Hamid Karzai soon had its own national army and police and a single Afghan currency.

So the question that Afghans ask a lot these days is: What went wrong?

One answer to that question you hear a lot is the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. It hijacked resources and troops from Afghanistan, says an aide to President Karzai.

"You see, the people of Afghanistan have seen things getting worse for them in this post-Taleban era and they have simply started losing more and more faith in the process," he says, shaking his head.

"Had we had more money and troops we would have been in a much better position. But it's still not too late.

In 2003 the war in Iraq meant that everything went in there
Afghan MP Fawzia Koofi

"We had and still have our own problems, but the international community didn't listen to us and there are times when they have differing strategies and ideas," says the presidential aide.

"When you see that the international community is not united and they don't do what we ask them, it's no wonder that it will add to the problem, sadly."

Fawzia Koofi, a female parliamentarian from Badakhshan province in the north-east, agrees that the war in Iraq did result in the Taleban making a comeback.

But she also holds the US government responsible for what she calls turning a blind eye to the intervention of Pakistan in Afghan affairs - a subject of hot dispute between two neighbouring countries.

"In 2003 the war in Iraq meant that everything went in there. The Taleban and international terrorism and their backers renewed their strategy about Afghanistan.

"The lack of proper support for the Afghan police and army gave the Taleban the upper hand, but also the US turned a blind eye towards the intervention of Pakistan and didn't use its influence at the time.

"The US needed Pakistan as a strong ally compared to a weak and poor country and the US had double standards in its foreign policy."


And security has been getting steadily worse, something I have watched with dismay and concern like millions of other Afghans.

The violence that plagues Afghanistan has continued to touch my life.

Before I left Kabul last year, a police commander called Colonel Jahanzeb who was a good friend of mine invited me to his house for a goodbye dinner.

I never thought it would be the last time we would see each other.

About two months after I left, he was blown up by a suicide bomber outside the Interior Ministry in Kabul . He spotted the bomber approaching the main gate, pulled out his pistol and shouted to others to move away.

Col Jahanzeb saved a lot of lives that day. But he himself died on the spot when the bomber blew himself up.

A few weeks earlier, another suicide attack took the life of Professor Abdul Hakin Taniwal, the governor of Paktia province.

I had met the eloquent professor a week before leaving for the US, and he spoke about his hopes for the reconstruction of his province, a rough border area next to Pakistan's violent Waziristan region.

Later, it was reported that the suicide bomber who killed him had probably been sent from North Waziristan, across the border.

Other officials I knew, most of them police and security officials, perished in attacks in the months that followed, mostly in suicide bombings and roadside attacks. The violence seems to be spreading - and becoming more and more severe.

Optimism survives

For the past three months during which I have been gathering news for the BBC's Kabul bureau, hardly a day passed without incident somewhere in the country.

But one thing you continue to see in Afghans is that they have high hopes.

Despite the frequent Taleban attacks, and the many promises of reconstruction which are not fulfilled, they still prefer current times to the pre-war and Taleban days.

A 30-year-old Kuchi nomad from Sorobi district remembers the pre-war days, when he had to pay various commanders each time he travelled from one area to the next.

"We are happy with this king [Hamid Karzai] these days," he says. "Under his government we can travel from one place to another and we don't have to pay.

"On the other hand we don't have clinics, so our patients die before they get to hospital and our children are deprived of schools. We the Kuchis also belong to this country." I leave Afghanistan with mixed emotions and a new perspective.

Whenever I talk to my fellow Afghans back home they continue to express optimism about the future, despite all the problems the country continues to face. No matter what happens to Afghans, you cannot crush their hopes.

Like any other Afghan, I also have hope things will get better.

Also see: My Hazardous Journey to the US, BBC - August 24, 2006

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