Kandahar has not seen any major attack for the past two months. However, relative calm does not mean much in a war ravaged country like Afghanistan. Peace remains fragile. On 31 October, a combined assault and suicide bombing by the Taliban insurgents in Kandahar killed at least five people, including three security guards working for the United Nations' refugee agency. By driving an explosives-filled truck into a checkpoint, several insurgents entered the compound and battled with Afghan forces for seven hours before they were killed.
The optimism displayed by officials could be entirely misplaced. On 5th October a senior UN Official in Kandahar told me that he was optimistic about the progress made in the transition from US to Afghan control. Not many share such sanguinity; the last attack certainly reveals that such assessments need to be grounded in reality. The gap between the logics of security (clear) and development (hold, build and transfer) remains stark. In fact, Afghan lawmakers themselves, fearing that Kandahar would figure in the second list of areas to be named by President Karzai to be passed into Afghanistan National Security Force (ANSF) control, insisted that the province is not yet ready for the transfer of authority. Kandahar should be among the last provinces to be handed to the Afghans, they argued.
Along with wider US strategy for Afghanistan, much of which is now hinged on pulling US forces out of this war zone, the plan for the transition process itself has undergone change. Instead of a six-phase transition process, there will now be only five. The last phase will start in late 2013 instead of early 2014. Whereas according to the original plan the peaceful areas would have passed under Afghan control, now a cocktail of peaceful and not-so-peaceful areas will be handed over. For the areas in the second category, the coalition forces will stand guard as a backup. This would test the capacity of the ANSFs, or so goes the justification.
While the Afghan border police have been able to provide security at the airport and large installations, much needs to be done in building local police capability. General Abdul Raziq Achikzai, chief of police in Kandahar province, told me in an interview on 5 October that he wants more help in terms of equipment, training and literacy programs for his men. Such requests were pointers towards the lack of preparation for the long haul.
The presence of sanctuary and easy access for the insurgent from across the border is often pointed at as the key security problem for the Afghans. My conversations with Afghans from all walks of life in Kandahar and elsewhere in the country revealed the anger and frustration with Pakistan for providing sanctuary to the Taliban to carry out destabilizing activities in their country. Without addressing the issue of ‘sanctuary’, the prospects of stabilization will remain elusive.
Americans have reason to view this as the right time to transfer authority. Afghans, however, talk in hushed voices about the transition, reflecting their real and valid concerns. Travelling in the city gives one a sense of the mixed level of development. One has a sense of déjà-vu. A bustling city with open air car showrooms, banks, hotels, mansions with high rise Texas barriers, and an increased number of checkpoints (something akin to the green zones) stands in stark contrast with women and children begging on the street. The rich and powerful have become richer by manipulating the tribal power structures and carrying out land grabs with impunity. While the counter-insurgency strategy might have worked in terms of ‘clear’ might have worked, the ‘hold and build’ component seems to have been neglected. This lack of a civilian surge in reconstruction and development is bound to make the ‘transfer’ part problematic.
These issues are symptomatic of the fact that the Afghans lack institutional capacity to take responsibility both in the security and development sectors. American officials at the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Kandahar provide an optimistic assessment of the civilian surge and transition process. However, what remains worrisome is the rush to pass the authority and implementation to the Afghans irrespective of their preparedness. A decade-long policy of the international community doing things independently (due to the lack of belief in Afghan capacity or will) has created an aid dependent rentier state, reflected in the creation of a populace getting used to easy dole outs. The intrinsic nature of aid-giving and execution of development activities have clearly proved to be inadequate as a capacity building exercise. To effect a sudden change with the hope that the Afghans would become the masters of their own destiny is a sure recipe for disaster.
Not all is lost, as yet. There are reasons for hope. What is striking is the demand by the Afghans for more aid in building the local indigenous economic base. Contrary to the media-created myths of backwardness and inward-looking tribes that reject modernization, the civilians in Kandahar are yearning for more development and aid in the health and education industries. There is a demand for the international community to do more in that country. The reports of foreigners being seen as occupying forces do not hold true, but for the raised levels of expectations and the perceived gap in the lack of development activity in relatively peaceful areas.
The airport manager Mr. Ahmedullah Faizi at the Kandahar international airport told me that he wants modernization for the airport and greater connectivity of Kandahar International airport with other international airports. At the moment, there are direct flights between Kandahar, Dubai and Delhi. He said that the region needs more cargo flights to export pomegranates and dry fruits. Indeed, it was heartening to see aspirations for progress. The waiting room in the airport looked more like a war briefing room. However, women personnel at the airport proudly claimed it to be their waiting lounge.
In Baba Saheb Ghar in the Arghandab Valley, traditionally known for its pomegranates, locals seek help in establishing storage, processing and transit facilities. In meetings with political leaders Shah Wali Karzai, Qayoom Karzai and Mehmood Karzai in Kandahar on 5 October, they expressed an immediate need for setting up cement factories, irrigation and power projects in the province in addition to building roads and improving health and educational facilities.
My discussions with women groups in Kandahar brought out the need for small-scale income generation activities, and the need for improved health facilities. Rangina Hamidi, a woman entrepreneur and daughter of slain mayor Hamidi, brought to light the work leaders such as herself have done in changing lives at a community level. By providing employment to more than 400 women in traditional Khamak embroidery, Rangina’s vision of setting up Kandahar Treasure is aimed at making a difference in her own way. Kandahar Treasure is now transforming into an independent for-profit business, marking an important milestone in the creation of economic opportunity and independence for Afghan women.
These signs of hope and aspirations are too real to be ignored. Fulfilling these needs requires commitment, both in terms of time and resources. Alas, the task of stabilizing Afghanistan is getting more complex by the day, with the hurried international withdrawal and ‘transition’ at the centre of the problem.