“If the central government doesn’t stay together, I’ll have to find a way to protect my people.”
That’s just one of the many negative outlooks about the future of Afghanistan offered by Afghan civilians, police commanders, and US troops alike in the new book “Swimming with Warlords: A Dozen-Year Journey Across the Afghan War” by award-winning journalist Kevin Sites.
The pessimistic quote comes from a police commander named Imam Muhammad whom Sites interviewed, as he travels back to Afghanistan for his fifth and final journey to retrace his steps when he first entered at the beginning of the US-led war against the Taliban in 2001.
As Sites notes in his book, the commander’s reference to “my people” is a bad sign, signifying a reliance on tribalism rather than a national identity — as Afghans — that continues to plague the war torn nation.
To be fair, the country has accomplished much in the years since the US invasion. Construction of schools, bridges, and dams have provided some semblance of infrastructure, and a growing art and skateboarding scene has emerged in Kabul — a development that would be unheard of under Taliban rule. Meanwhile, women’s rights have considerably improved, and the average Afghan has seen health care improvements that have dramatically increased life expectancy.
But high levels of distrust toward the government among Afghans should yield no illusions as to the likely outcome when US troops leave.
“Corruption, all kinds of corruption,” former Northern Alliance Gen. Moammar Hassan told Sites. “The justice system in Afghanistan doesn’t work. The people are frustrated. And this is why in the western and southern provinces they go to the Taliban for justice and the application of Sharia law.”
While offering a sober look at the state of Afghanistan, the book yields interesting perspectives from not only the many subjects interviewed but also the world of Sites himself, a journalist who has been in-and-out of conflict zones for more than 28 years. As he tries to follow along the path that took him to Afghanistan more than a decade before, he brings the reader back to entries in his 2001 journal, which offers perspective, wonderful reporting — and at times — sheer terror.
There is much to bolster the pessimistic argument toward Afghanistan’s future these days. A new US government report shows record levels of opium production in the region, which is now a $US3 billion industry with much of the profit going to the Taliban. And then there is the 2013 Vice documentary “This Is What Winning Looks Like,” which showed that despite the best efforts of US forces, rampant corruption, military and police incompetence, and illiteracy still continue.
It’s not just Afghans who are worried about the Taliban possibly returning to power. Sites references a Jan. 2014 classified “National Intelligence Estimate” put together by all 16 US intelligence agencies, which predicts chaos will engulf the country if foreign military and financial aid dries up, with the Taliban likely seizing control by 2017.
A favourite Taliban saying is that “the Americans have watches. We have the time.” — Eric Margolis
Still, there is an air of uncertainty that remains over Afghanistan — and Sites does not try to predict what will happen beyond 2014. It’s worth remembering that before Afghanistan was ravaged by war, the country had paved roads, plenty of cars, schools, a modern, professional military, and a shared national identity.
Could it happen once more? As Sites argues, there is some room for optimism:
“So is all lost? My journeys tell me no. Hope both political and economic remains. Youth movements are forming, pushing back against both the government’s corruption and the Taliban’s extremism. Experts also say that Afghanistan could one day sustain itself with properly managed mineral and other natural resources. China, India, and other nations are already investing.”
Whether Afghanistan blooms into the democracy hoped for by the US or turns to a Taliban dictatorship, Sites’ book is a clear reminder of the inherent dangers of America’s fiasco of “nation-building” in Iraq and Afghanistan. In Iraq, the U.S.-backed Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki destroyed the promise of democracy by pushing Sunnis out of the political process, paving the way for the rise of the Islamic State. With the final withdrawal of NATO forces approaching quickly, the next US president will want to avoid a similar outcome in Afghanistan.
“One thing I do know is that while hope is mightily tested, often beaten, battered, and sometimes stolen, it never really dies in the hearts of most Afghans,” Sites writes in his afterword.
Sadly, much of Sites’ book on the current state of Afghanistan yields little optimism toward the country’s future. But only time will tell whether he’s right about the survival of Afghan hope.
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