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Mixed picture
Afghanis enjoying a sense of self-dignity -- without democracy
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Mahin Bahrami
September 4, 2004

Ring! Ring! Goes the buzzer. It’s 4 a.m. Time to go to Afghanistan. Within minutes I was dressed, packed and inside an early morning cab heading towards the airport. Two hours later I was straining my ears to decipher the usual welcome onboard words being uttered by the pretty Afghani stewardess with her light blue chiffon headscarf flowing over her hair. No signs of Taliban doctrine detected onboard the plane. Nothing but blue skies and barren land and mountains were visible through the window until we reached the air space over Kabul. From above, the city was a massive sandy color grid made of high walled backyards.

As our plane approached the tarmac for landing, several military helicopters and airplanes lining the runway seized my attention. After a rather bumpy landing the plane finally came to a full stop. Armed with only what the public media dares and cares to share with the rest of the world, I stepped apprehensively onto the tarmac hoping that I will be able to step back into the plane in a few days with both legs still attached to my body.

That was the prelude to my recent trip to that war torn country where the simple black and white picture created in the foreigner’s mind through mainstream media quickly smears into a complicated gray mess. Many Afghanis have mixed emotions towards Americans who are received warmly for helping to rebuild the country while loathed quietly for supporting the Taliban in the first place.

It is difficult to be unmoved by the people’s inherent beauty, charm and the immense poverty. Just a few days among Afghani people, watching them, listening to their stories made all the media reports via CNN, BBC and the rest of the news networks seem meaningless. One realizes that only a single line out of a whole book about Afghanistan has been read out to the public. As they say “There’s nothing like the real thing”.

Even the most honest and free reporters would be challenged in relaying the realities of life in Afghanistan in its truest form. From the open sewer system to the cheerful faces of the children eager to be photographed to the corruption and mismanagement in the system, all contribute to the common feelings of hope and frustration shared among all parties involved.

In the hot summer heat, walking about without a headscarf was a relief. Although there are no Islamic laws pertaining to clothing, leaving foreign men to enjoy wearing their Western shorts, many foreign women tend to wear loose clothing with a headscarf to avoid possible and illegal harassment by the more conservative Afghani individuals. I personally had no problems photographing people even in the shanty neighborhoods while wearing just my jeans and T-shirt.

Being extremely allergic to compulsory hejab, I found myself enjoying life in Afghanistan far more than in Iran, even though the latter is centuries ahead of the former in many respect. Afghanistan is Iran a century ago, yet because of the newly set up secular government, there is no constant fear of being undignified by some cheap Islamic police for one reason or another.

Despite the rampant poverty and corruption Afghani people are once again enjoying a sense of self-dignity forming the foundation of their hope in the future. This is in direct opposition to Iran where, ironically, there is an enormous amount of material wealth, yet no dignity and respect for the individual, hence, a sense of indifference towards the future.

Nevertheless, Afghanistan is a living example of a failed Western foreign policy, at least from the perspective of the ordinary Afghani. Despite all the rhetoric about bringing democracy and prosperity to these people, a keen observer will quickly grasp the insignificant role of the Afghani people. As with other people in the developing world, within the bigger picture, as harsh as it may sound, they are considered nothing but nuisance.

As evident from the current state of affairs in Afghanistan, Westerners have to realize that democracy is not an importable commodity. It is a process that takes years to be securely woven into the fabric of each individual society, while incorporating its historical and cultural background. It would be naïve to expect to change a nation’s centuries old thought pattern, within a few years.

Once inside the country, one can only laugh at the claims made by the Bush administration to have succeeded in implementing democracy. First of all, one CANNOT implement democracy with a government filled with foreign puppets. Secondly, democracy grows from the inside of a nation, not patched from outside. Thirdly, it would be foolish to think that the Bush administration really gives a damn about these people.

When I stepped back on the plane with all legs still attached, I dared to think that at no time in human history have citizens of the world had such insignificant value. All the way from the highest ranking UN officials representing the rest of us, down to the begging Afghani girl and further down to the starving children of Africa.

The international charity organizations have become corrupted to the extent that the very people whom they were set out to help have become secondary issues. There are no substantial natural resources to exploit in Afghanistan, therefore, there is very little incentive to funnel major funds into that country. In addition, much of the directed funds are being funneled for the wrong reasons to the wrong projects and mismanaged as usual. Those involved are cashing in and offering their services at outrageous rates.

Although there are a few low ranking young and dedicated individuals who try to stop the mismanagement. One expatriate reported how she was enraged by one proposal to bring in Americans at a rate of $300,000 a year to teach Afghani people about democracy. To stop such senseless decision-making by some top ranking fund managers was the reason why she stayed in Afghanistan a few months longer.

The bottom line is that ordinary Afghani people do not matter. They almost never did and maybe never will. They are only spectators of the battle of strengths between all the various domestic factions and foreign forces, regardless of their nationality. Regrettably, each time a different group has come around and claimed to be their savior and tried to lure in their support. Consequently they misled the people, mismanaged and pushed the country further into chaos.

Surprisingly, despite the recurring disappointments, the one thing that is still alive in their faces is hope. The late Ahmad Shah Massoud is still the most highly regarded leader, representing the Afghan dream of emancipation from foreign control. Although the limited international aid is thoroughly accepted and appreciated yet the unspoken message in the Afghani mind is “America leave.”

While discussing the concept of independence with a young Afghani man who recently passed his university entrance examination, he expressed his wish adamantly about a free Afghanistan ruled by only Afghani people.

Conversations with foreign expatriates involved in various government development projects revealed their major obstacle. That being the absence of qualified professionals with a clear vision and experience in fundamental planning and building a country from ground up. The badly needed long-term dedication and positive enthusiasm is missing at the higher levels of the system. Instead, the atmosphere is mostly filled with a short term make-a-fast-buck attitude.

Afghanistan lacks professionals and hope for independence is futile without high level education. The shortage of educated Afghanis will rob them of their dream. Some 15,000 Western educated Afghanis were expected to return from abroad to help with the rebuilding of the country, but only a fraction of that number has returned.

Since Afghanistan cannot wait for her toddlers to become university graduates, nor will she be granted international aid indefinitely, she runs the risk of falling back down into the black hole of tyranny and oppression, unless her educated people, wherever they may be, take responsibility for the future of their country and help stabilize her and build her bases on firm ground. One cannot over emphasize Afghanistan’s need for dedicated and visionary professionals and that can best be satisfied by Afghanis.

In addition to shedding a bit of light on the Afghani situation, this is also a call to those citizens of the world, especially of Afghan origin, who are interested in exploring Afghanistan and extending their hand for a humanitarian cause. I can only stress the urgency to do so before it is too late and the country becomes once again a battleground for the various foreign and domestic factions. See photos

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