Understanding Afghanistan

8 01 2012

There’s a circle of journalists and scholars who has been following and writing about Afghanistan since the Soviet invasion days.  One of them is Edward Girardet, whose current book, Killing the Cranes:  A Reporter’s Journey through Three Decades of War in Afghanistan, offers personal accounts and commentaries about his encounters with Ahmed Shah Massoud, Gulbuddin Hekmetyar, and even Osama bin Laden.  Ed was a co-panelist with me at a 9/11 tenth anniversary talk we participated in at the University of Maine School of Law last year.  His talk was absolutely captivating, and I have a hard time putting down his book.

I like to consider myself as part of this circle, as I have also closely followed Afghanistan since the Soviet invasion.  Since 9/11 and the US campaign that toppled the Taliban regime, the US and ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) have come face-to-face with the complexities of the region.  If only the book Charlie Wilson’s War (2004) had been published sooner!  But, still, I doubt zealous policy makers on all sides would really appreciate or comprehend the complicatedness of the situation in Afghanistan, since diverse factors of the equations pertaining to each and every aspect of the situational factors are rarely considered, not to mention the often imprecise metrics in measuring the effectiveness of policies and strategies help put a more positive spin on the efforts and achievements of the coalition forces.  This is not to say that there are absolutely no positive results at all, but in light of a 2014 drawdown, this political analyst cannot help but be cynical.

For instance, much of Afghanistan’s economy relies on drug production and trafficking, as well as an intricate network of organized criminal activities involving warlords, gangsters, and a variety of opportunists, black marketers, and middlemen.  Check out this November 3, 2010 Time Magazine article (excerpts) describing only one aspect of Afghanistan’s black market economy:

“Popularly known as the ‘Bush Market’ and, increasingly, the ‘Obama Market’ the warren of small shops is the largest of several commercial centers named after U.S. Presidents that have sprung up since the fall of the Taliban in 2001. Indeed, the presence of foreign armies in the country has for many years spawned a supply and demand for their homegrown products. Three decades ago, during the Soviet occupation, its forerunner was called the ‘Brezhnev Market’ after the former head of the Communist Party, and its stalls were packed with basic Russian commodities. Now, 10 years into an American-led war, hard-to-find Western items are the top draw. ‘I come here all the time for new clothes,’ says Ajmal, 27, as he browses a selection of North Face trekking shoes. ‘The styles are good, the prices are low. It’s great’ …


At the Bagram market, bulletproof vests and Kevlar helmets are known to turn up. U.S. Army and Marine digital-camouflage fatigues are widely available for about $40 a set. And at another market near the capital’s largest mosque, Afghan police, army and even presidential guard uniforms sell for even less. (It’s not unheard of for Taliban suicide bombers disguised as Afghan security forces to infiltrate and attack large gatherings.) Yet shopkeeper Khwaja Muhammad, 23, concedes that although many of the customers are state military employees who go to buy a second uniform or have alterations done, ‘We sell to anybody with cash’.”


This is just one small glimpse into a spider-web network of the underground economy in Afghanistan, often linked to counterparts in Pakistan.  Ed’s book drives home the point:  if only we paid attention to certain caveats.

I contend that in order for a viable, legitimate economy to flourish, Afghanistan needs to empower an independent and impartial judiciary, which would presumably prosecute the lawbreakers, including those in the organized crime networks.  Some people argue with me that a viable Afghan judiciary is simply not possible, and even that it’s not the answer to Afghanistan’s problems.  It might not be the answer, but it better be part of the equation.

NOTE:  Everything I write in this blog constitutes my personal opinions and views.