November 15, 2008

Obama win hailed by US Afghan aid workers

BBC November 6

By Aunohita Mojumdar in Kabul

There has been a warm welcome among aid workers in the Afghan capital, Kabul, over the election of Barack Obama as US president.

The last seven years of Western-led reconstruction in Afghanistan have been determined by policies emanating from George W Bush's Republican administration - and aid workers in Afghanistan are predominantly Democrats.

In contrast, senior US embassy staffers are often political appointees and the US army has a large proportion of Republican supporters.

Aid workers, including many senior staff working in the US government's aid agency, USAID, have often expressed extreme frustration with the approach of the White House, especially during President's Bush's second term.


The Obama victory saw many in this community express hope that "change", the watchword of the Democratic campaign, would go beyond the polling booth and transform the direction of policies in Afghanistan.

But many aid workers also argue that changes in the White House will not automatically make much difference. They point out that there are not yet enough details of the president-elect's policies.

Even so, many see Barack Obama's triumph an opportunity that will be enhanced greatly by his openness towards dialogue and the respect he is held within the international community.

"The US interest in Afghanistan had fallen apart after Iraq," said Kevin Gash, a development worker, who felt that the country was now a high priority for the new administration.

"We need dialogue between the two governments [Afghanistan and the US] and a long term commitment, though it will take a while to see the difference on the ground."

Mr Gash, who has eight years of experience working in the US Congress, also emphasised the need for the US to negotiate with allies in the region including Pakistan, India and Iran.

He and other aid workers see Mr Obama's willingness to engage in dialogue with governments previously seen as hostile to the US as a major asset.

The election of Mr Obama will, they hope, signal a change within the US.

"We have been able to show a more tolerant and open side to America," he said.

'Strategic significance'

Aid workers argue that Mr Obama's victory will also go a long way towards reducing animosity towards America by securing solidarity from other countries.

Eric Bartz, another aid worker, stressed that while increased attention on Afghanistan is helpful, the way this is done is what really matters. He argues that more consultation with the Afghan government is required, so that the people of the country believe that there is a common agenda for both countries.

Susan Marx, a compatriot, felt Mr Obama had already shown understanding of the complexities of the region. What was needed was someone who could grapple with the strategic significance of Afghanistan, she argued, and not someone who approached it from an ideological standpoint.

"Obama gets it," she said.

Ms Marx recently acquired US citizenship through marriage and was the lynchpin for Democrats Abroad in Afghanistan.

She said that she was surprised by the show of support her events drew.

"The first time we expected 25 people to show up but we got 90 instead."

The same desire to get involved in the polling process seen in the US was also evident among aid workers in Afghanistan, despite the logistical difficulties.

Postal ballots could not be received in Kabul, a city where years of bombing have meant that streets remain unnamed and houses are unnumbered.

Eventually the ballots were downloaded and mailed with the help of the US embassy.

Many aid workers have been in Afghanistan for several years. While they are cautious about the future of Afghanistan, they are uninhibited about the significance they see in Mr Obama's win.

Vitelli said that she felt that America had lost its morale and soul over the last few years, but the results proved "that we can be the change".

There is now a real sense among aid workers that their period of alienation under the Bush administration, especially in the post-9/11 period, is coming to an end.

"I had a hard time identifying with America," said one. "Every time I went back I would be frustrated with its policies and way of life. I tended to escape it by leaving. For once I feel it would be exciting to go back and get involved. There is a chance that things could be a little different."

US votes, Afghan hopes

Al Jazeera, November 5

Aunohita Mojumdar in Kabul

As Americans voted in a new president on the promise of "change," Afghans were watching the election of Barack Obama with cautious optimism, hopeful that a loud and clear mandate for change will extend to US policy towards Afghanistan, so helping to transform their lives.

Increasing insecurity, rising costs and growing lawlessness have left many Afghans sceptical of the US-dominated Western intervention, which began seven years ago.

But the infectious enthusiasm of Obama's supporters seems to have touched Afghanistan too - resulting in a cautious optimism that has been absent for a very long time.

At an election night gathering for American-Afghans and other foreign nationals, organised by the US embassy in Kabul, a mock poll saw 74 out of 77 votes cast in favour of Obama by the mixed group, according to Zubair Babakarkhail, who attended the event.

Babakarkhail, a journalist with the independent Afghan news agency Pajhwok, said event at Kabul's Serena Hotel was held in a room decorated with red and blue while badges of the two candidates were distributed.

However, it was the "Obama badges that were being snapped up by most people. We in Afghanistan mainly supported Obama. It is a historic election not just for Americans but for the whole world," he said.


Babakarkhail said Afghans have been "frustrated with the situation here and we need someone in America who can lead the war against terrorism.

"Obama, during his campaign, has paid attention to Afghanistan and we think this will make a big difference. He has promised to take troops out of Iraq and put them in Afghanistan. He will bring a change".

"Change" was also the watchword in the remote province of Bamiyan in the central highlands of Afghanistan.

Though less affected by the security situation, Bamiyan has seen a dwindling number of tourists due to deteriorating security in adjoining areas.

Hotelier Razaq was huddled around the TV with his friends on the cold late autumn morning watching the results on Al Jazeera in his hotel, The Roof of Bamiyan, which overlooks the giant Buddha statues destroyed by the Taliban.

"This is history. It is unbelievable. It is a new day for the whole world," he said.

"I am one of the strong supporters of Obama in Afghanistan. I think he has a good policy towards my country as well as towards the border region of Afghanistan-Pakistan and will deal with the problems in Pakistan."

Successive Republican administrations had failed to deal with problems emanating from Pakistan because, Razaq believes, they just continued to treat the country as "a good friend".

With the country still deeply dependant on external aid, Western troops and American support, many Afghans were closely following the results on TV and radio, aware that their own futures were inextricably linked to that of the American election.

Mustafa Rawan, a young business manager living in Kabul, followed the unfolding drama, switching from TV to radio as the city power, scant even seven years after the Western intervention, ran out.

Obama's promise to deal with al-Qaeda and the Taliban was his top priority.

Troops promise

Obama's promise of bringing troops from Iraq to Afghanistan was reason enough to win Rawan's backing and support, sentiments which he says are echoed amongst his friends and family.

Rawan hopes, however, that the new administration will seek to work with Afghans - consulting the people on policies - rather than act unilaterally.

"We still need the help of other countries and I hope Americans will provide it," he said.

Referring to Obama's promise to make Afghanistan a priority, Shahir Zahine, the managing director of Radio Killid, was all smiles.

"For eight years I was on the wrong side of history. I said, even then, that we should all be allowed to vote in the US elections because the faith of the US changes the faith of the world," he said.

"Today it is a great message for America and a great message for the world."

Zahine emphasised that the details of the US administration's new strategy towards Afghanistan were yet to be articulated.

Wahed Hashimi, who works for a media development non-governmental organisation, feels the US needs to re-evaluate its strategy in Afghanistan to see what had worked and what had not.

"The fundamentals of the American policy will not change since this is decided by multinational corporations rather than individual leaders," he said.

However, Hashimi believes change within America will also change its attitude towards the world and so have an indirect effect on other countries including Afghanistan.

Abdul Suboh Faizy, a political adviser to some Western diplomats, says the overwhelming desire for change forms a direct link between the two countries at this time.

"There has been a major gap between the people and the government of Afghanistan. The ordinary people have not seen the change they need in their lives," he said.

"After the American polls there will be a change towards Afghanistan. When we go to the polls we will also be voting for a change."

Afghans sceptical of US intentions

Al Jazeera: November 4, 2008

By Aunohita Mojumdar in Kabul

As a managing director of Radio Killid, a radio station dedicated to socially relevant programming, Najiba Ayubi keeps a keen eye on international political developments and is well aware of public opinion in Afghanistan.

Like many Afghans, the rhetoric towards Afghanistan used by the US presidential candidates ahead of Barack Obama's victory left her less than impressed.

"They are tools to come to power with," she says.

Unlike the focus on talk of a so-called "surge" in the number of troops in Afghanistan which dominates US talk shows and occupies American political pundits, Afghans are concerned on what the troops will do, the nature of the military operations and the rules of engagement.

The increase in both the violence and the number of Afghan civilians being killed, continuing poverty and a loss of hope are making Afghans' relationship with the foreign presence in their land more complicated.

Anger over casualties

Many Afghans continue to view foreign troops on their land as a necessary evil, but even those supporting them want fundamental changes in the conditions of their presence.

"We have got some good things from the US - the laws, the new constitution, the parliament - but we would like the international military presence here to be under a framework which includes a date for its withdrawal," says Ayubi.

Ayubi is no traditionalist. Her radio programming raises social awareness and tackles difficult subjects such as violence against women.

However, she feels Afghans have become very critical of the US because of the increasing civilian casualties in military operations.

She says: "In 2001, we would have welcomed anyone who came to deliver us from the Taliban. But now that feeling is changing.

"The US does not consult anyone. It decides, unilaterally, to do whatever it wants."

Civilian casualties, for example, could be prevented if there was greater consultation with locals "since the foreign troops do not know the customs or culture".

What the soldiers take for a militant gathering may just be the Afghan tradition of setting-up open kitchens for weddings which go on for several days," she says.

Occupation anger

Khalid Dawari, a young man who works in an architect's firm, shares Ayubi's lack of interest in how Barack Obama's victory in the US presidential elections will affect Afghanistan.

"The foreign policy of the US doesn't depend on one individual. It will not change." he says but, unlike Ayubi, he feels civilian casualties are part of any conflict.

He is more strident in his criticism of the western presence.

"Afghanistan has been occupied or captured by Americans or other European countries," he says, explaining that the very presence of foreign soldiers denotes occupation.

"It is fine for now. But they are doing it for their own benefit. Bush is in the oil and gas business isn't he?"

A 'tortured' relationship

Khalid's remarks reflect the tortured relationship of many Afghans to the presence of the West which is something they cannot live with, nor without.

He believes his country's president, Hamid Karzai, has been selected by the US and not the Afghans.

"Who is he? We never heard of him earlier. He was not a leader. He has been selected by Mr Bush," he said.

He sees a substantive portion of the country's aid going back to the donor countries but sees no way out.

"Afghanistan is not in a situation where it can help itself. We are hopeless from every side. If they withdraw, the Taliban may come and capture Kabul."

Dawari is clear that the western intervention in Afghanistan is dominated and led by the US.

As for other countries, he says "the rest are just members of the party".

Taliban memories

US dominance of the foreign intervention in Afghanistan is overwhelming.

It has contributed approximately half of the troops there and, between 2002 to 2008, provided one-third of the entire aid to Afghanistan.

The large presence of US consultants, contractors and aid workers has spawned its own economy, services and goods for the expatriate market.

The Kabul Coffee House, for example, is an American style cafe that is frequented largely by internationals.

Haseebullah Fayez, 20, is grateful for his work there as a cashier.

He was living in Kabul during the rule of the Taliban and has strong memories of what life was like.

"I went to school, but got no education. There was no work," he says.

"After they [the Taliban] left I could study. I learnt English. Now at least we can find some work. I support my family. My father's salary as a school teacher is only $60 a month and not enough for our family of five," he said.

Haseeb has been in the cafe for three years and along the way has acquired a taste for cheeseburgers, Bob Dylan's music and Arnold Schwarzenegger movies.

He regularly hears the criticism of the foreign reconstruction effort in his country.

He agrees that civilians get killed in military operations and that a substantial portion of the money Afghanistan receives goes back to the donor countries.

But his anger is not directed towards them.

"I wonder why it [war and destruction] had to happen to Afghanistan," he says.

He says that lives do get lost in a war but "they [US forces] don't want to kill them. It happens by mistake".

No 'nation building'

Aziz Hakimi, the country director of the charity Future Generations, digs much deeper than his compatriots, questioning not just the US role but the entire idea of "nation building" by the West.

The mistakes made in the initial days of the US intervention – such as putting in power 'warlords' and "the very people who are a threat to security" has cost dearly, he feels.

"The Afghans welcomed the intervention as they welcomed change each time. However, just as in the past, they were disappointed again," he said.

The change in Afghan society must be rooted in the community, he feels.

Decisions must be made by local communities "rather than being dictated by budgets in Brussels or Washington" he says.

Hakimi does not buy into the popular notion that the foreign aid has not been enough.

"It's dangerous to assume that throwing dollars at the problem will solve it. It will compound the problem. You cannot use development dollars and military might to deal with a political problem."

While he agrees that the Western presence is dominated by the US, he blames, at least partially, the Europeans who have contributed to Nato's Afghan troop force, for it, and echoes the feelings of many Afghans who believe the West has abandoned them repeatedly.

"The West abandoned us after they got what they wanted in the Cold War. They are here now to fight the 'war on terror'," he says.

He insists: "They will abandon us again if the al-Qaeda is routed. Afghans should think about this."

Source: Al Jazeera

November 03, 2008


Aunohita Mojumdar

October 31, 2008

It is not often a painting arrives at an exhibition with the extra protection of war and terrorism insurance. But that is exactly what Jemima Montagu, the director of culture and heritage at the Turquoise Mountain Foundation (TMF), had to obtain when she planned an international art exhibition in Kabul, bringing together contemporary artists from Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan. The show -- titled Living Traditions, and containing 50 pieces by 15 artists from the three countries -- opened October 11 in the restored Babur Gardens of the eponymous Mughal Dynasty founder.

The exhibition, organised by TMF, a charity working to preserve Afghanistan’s traditional crafts, is going forward against the odds. It is scheduled to run through November 20. There were perhaps more reasons not to hold the show than to hold it. At the opening, a bomb scare saw several of the elite visitors depart hastily. Two paintings missed the opening due to transit delays, and few artists were willing to participate in an exhibition in Kabul, a city where there is as yet no sophisticated constituency for art and no PR points for those wishing to further their careers. Artists "thought if they sent their work, they would never see it again," recalled Montagu.

If it was difficult to get people to contribute their work, it was even more difficult to get them to participate in person. Why Kabul? Why now? How was it possible to ensure an exhibition of international quality with all its exacting standards? In the end, the answer to all those doubts and questions had to be answered with the single simple question: ’Why not?’

"The three countries [represented in the show] share a strong bond, particularly in art and in the way Islamic calligraphy and painting evolved," said Montagu. "These traditions can and need to be adapted if they are to survive."

Of the 15 artists who contributed their work, five were present at the opening. Among those in attendance was a young Pakistani couple, Muhammed Imran Qureshi and Aisha Khalid. A professor at the National College of Arts in Lahore, Qureshi saw participation as an act of faith. "It was exciting and scary at the same time. It is important for the people of Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan to have this connection," he said, speaking as he worked to help his wife finish her installation the day before the opening. Both were well aware that they had to complete the job before dusk since -- like most of Kabul -- the exhibition grounds would have no electricity. "Things may be primitive here after the impact of years of war. But they will not remain the same. We cannot control things, but we can make efforts to change it," he said.

Both Qureshi and his wife had their sanity questioned by their friends and family who perceive Kabul as a very dangerous place. For Khalid the decision to come was impelled by her desire to challenge western stereotypes of women from this region. Khalid’s exhibits center around the theme of the ’burkha,’ whether it is a graphical pattern of the ruffle of the hem or how it outlines the shape of a woman. "I want to question the stereotype that goes with the image of a burkha. If the Taliban were imposing their values, so is the West," she said.

For Iranian Khosrow Hassanzadeh, this visit was the first step in what he hopes will be a continuing regional collaboration. Hassanzadeh, who has shown his work in many western capitals, said "this is more important than showing in New York. We have a shared tradition and it is important for people here to get an idea about their own rich culture."

Most of the artists were conscious that their cross-cultural exchange countered existing political tension among the three countries. "We need to look at each other rather than have outsiders look at us," said Hassanzadeh. Qureshi, meanwhile, stressed how his own perceptions about Afghanistan had been changed by the visit.

Zolaykha Sherzad, an Afghan designer who has been interpreting traditional Afghan design in contemporary form, saw immediate similarities in the works coming from across borders: the use of calligraphy, the use of certain colours, the use of gold were present in many of the art works in the exhibition, she said. Sherzad, who divides her time between New York and Kabul, said this exhibition was a way to find common ground in the midst of conflict.

Despite the attendance of Kabul’s elite, largely foreigners, at the opening, Montagu made it clear this was not the target audience. "This is not a project for expatriates. There is no existing audience for arts and culture here. You have to create it," the former Tate curator said. The exhibition’s most important audience will be the 3,000-4,000 school children who will attend guided tours explaining the relevance and context of the artwork, Montagu suggested.

The past three decades of conflict in Afghanistan have caused the slow and steady decimation of art in the country. Survival, displacement and violence all took their toll. Long before the Taliban’s deliberate destruction of works depicting living forms, art had become a luxury that virtually all Afghans could not bother to contemplate. Post-2001 artists are back at work, but the extended, enforced hiatus has skewed Afghanistan’s art environment. Much of what is being produced now is tourist kitsch. Showing contemporary art in this milieu created perhaps even more of a challenge for organizers than the security constraints imposed by the difficult reconstruction process.

Ahead are more challenges. Montagu hopes she can take the exhibition to both Pakistan and Iran, but is not quite sure. "It is hard to raise funds for culture anywhere, but especially here, where there is often a feeling that any money spent on culture is money taken away from hospitals." Qureshi, who gave a lecture at Kabul University’s faculty of fine arts, expressed his strong conviction about the relevance of this exhibition. "This kind of opportunity is historical. We will feel the value of it later."

Qureshi’s special moment in the exhibition came from one of the Babur Gardens’ caretakers. "He saw me doing the floor paintings and said, ’The other art pieces can be sold. But what you painted on the floor is really just for us.’"

Editor's Note: Aunohita Mojumdar is an Indian freelance journalist based in Kabul. She has reported on the South Asian region for the past 18 years.

Posted October 31, 2008 © Eurasianet


Aunohita Mojumdar

October 29, 2008

The lack of security outranks poor economic conditions as the population’s top worry in Afghanistan, according to a newly released public opinion survey. While support for the country’s reconstruction process has declined over the past two years, a plurality still believes the country is moving in the right direction.

The opinion survey, prepared by the Asia Foundation and released October 28, represents one of the largest efforts to gauge the mood of Afghans. When compared with Asia Foundation polls in previous years, the 2008 results indicate that Afghans are experiencing a steady decline of hope for a better future, and they are growing increasingly disenchanted with the government’s performance. At the same time, the 2008 survey shows that public acceptance of the presence of foreign troops on Afghan soil remains steady, as does approval of international assistance efforts.

According to the survey, the percentage of the population that feels the country is moving in the right direction dropped from 44 percent in 2006 to 38 percent in 2008, while the number saying the country is going in the wrong direction increased from 21 percent in 2006 to 32 percent this year.

In 2006, economic worries topped the list of concerns for Afghans, but over the last two years security worries have surged ahead. Nationally, 36 percent of respondents in the 2008 survey identified security as the biggest problem, followed by 31 percent who cited unemployment as their main concern. A breakdown of responses by region showed that insecure feelings are spreading across Afghanistan, and are no longer limited to the traditional hotbeds of Islamic militant activity in southern and eastern sections of the country. Even relatively stable areas in the North registered a drop in confidence.

The survey also indicates that the perception of insecurity is more widespread than actual incidents of violence. In addition, the results seem to dispel the notion that Islamic insurgents are the most widespread cause of insecurity. Just over 1 percent of the Afghan population reported they had experienced violence at the hands of insurgents or militants. In a worrying trend, 1 percent of Afghans said they had suffered violence at the hands of the foreign forces, drawing attention once again to the dangers associated with the growing number of civilian casualties connected with US and NATO military operations. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

In the southwest region -- which in the survey covers the provinces of Helmand, Kandahar, Uruzgan, Nimroz and Zabul, where the bulk of radical Islamic insurgent activity occurs -- 16 percent reported suffering from insurgent-related violence; 12 percent in those provinces suffered violence connected to actions by foreign forces.

In a deeply worrying trend, despite the expenditure of $25 billion in aid over the past seven years, and the promise of $21 billion more in additional assistance pledged during the Paris summit in June this year, there is now little difference in the number of people who feel their economic situation is better today than it was under the Taliban (39 percent) and those who feel they were better off during the Taliban era (36 percent).

The survey identifies unemployment as a "major problem." More than three-fourths said the availability of jobs in their area was very low and "a significant proportion of respondents expect the availability of jobs to be even lower in the coming year."

In analysing the biggest problems facing their country, Afghans surprisingly did not cite the lack of foreign assistance as a major issue, even though 30 percent identified the poor economy, poverty, unemployment and corruption as the biggest problems they face.

Corruption was seen as a major problem at the national level (76 percent), with as many as 51 percent terming it a major problem in their daily lives. Over half the respondents felt corruption had increased at the national level over the past 12 months, while a quarter felt it had increased in their daily lives. While a majority felt the government had done a good job, the number of those dissatisfied with the government increased by 13 percent.

In evaluating public services, Afghans positively rated their access to education and health care. Unemployment was cited as the biggest local problem followed by lack of electricity and water.

On the matter of poppy cultivation in Afghanistan, the results were mixed. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. An overwhelming majority, 82 percent, considered it wrong to cultivate poppy. But in some of the country’s leading poppy-producing regions in the Southeast and East, opposition to poppy cultivation is eroding. In southeastern Afghanistan, for example, the percentage opposing poppy cultivation slipped from 85 percent in 2006 to 77 percent this year.

The revelation that fewer people believe that participation in the electoral process will bring future benefits is a worrying trend, as the country prepares to hold presidential and parliamentary elections over the next two years. Confidence in the electoral process dropped from 75 percent in 2006 to 65 percent in 2008; the number of people who were likely to vote dropped by 9 percent over last year.

Satisfaction with the democratization process in Afghanistan dropped from 73 percent last year to 68 percent in 2008, with dissatisfaction rates highest in the insurgency-prone areas of the South and the East. On the positive side, the number of Afghans who felt democracy was a challenge to Islam dropped slightly, from 29 percent to 26 percent.

Editor's Note: Aunohita Mojumdar is an Indian freelance journalist based in Kabul. She has reported on the South Asian region for the past 18 years.

Posted October 29, 2008 © Eurasianet