Dispatches from Kabul: A New Script

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Former CLR Fellow Jessica Wright ’14 is currently working as an attorney in Kabul, Afghanistan. This post is part of a series of reflections on her experiences there.

Last Friday, as we were driving through downtown Kabul, our car was stopped briefly as the traffic ahead slowed at the checkpoint. Looking out from my backseat window, I was struck by the lack of rhythm, the absence of a familiar flow of city movement. In most places, lights change color, people cross the street, taxis honk, engines rev, and buses stop and go methodically. Instead, dirty, overfilled city cabs sat haphazardly in traffic, their lackadaisical drivers staring into the dusty commotion. Children with dirty clothes and charcoal around their eyes darted in and out of traffic, casting doleful expressions at foreigners in hopes of collecting an Afghani or two. Grizzled soothsayers moved slowly from car to car, wafting incense into open windows and mumbling incantations. In the absence of sidewalks, young men in shalwar kameez walked briskly through traffic, whole groups moving against the disorderly jumble, their prayer beads brushing against the sides of cars as they passed by. Policemen with tired, sun-worn faces ambled around aimlessly, occasionally blowing a whistle or commanding a car to move. Their uniforms looked like costumes from an outdated prop closet, faded and sagging, adorned with meaningless insignia. In fact, everything around me in that moment was reminiscent of a movie set after the cut. It was as if, off-script, no one knew exactly where to be or what to do. There are many metaphors for the state of affairs in Afghanistan, but this one struck me as particularly vivid.

Two years ago, when I was working for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in Casteau, the streets of Brussels were filled with life. We would spend weekends walking through the city, enjoying quaint cafes, chocolate shops, and the old Dutch masterpieces at the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts. On winter evenings, we would marvel at the Gothic and Baroque architecture and the beauty of La Grand Place glistening with Christmas lights. Since the terrorist attacks in Paris on November 13 and the subsequent lockdown in Brussels, I’ve been thinking of the European capital, and about how ironic it is that life here in Kabul, chaotic city of blast walls, checkpoints, and indiscriminate violence, has been less affected by terrorism in the past month than my previous home in the heart of Europe.

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While at NATO, I was writing about humanitarian intervention as applied to the ongoing civil war in Syria. In conversation with military strategists and political advisors from the Alliance, my arguments for intervention, even for the limited purpose of constructing humanitarian corridors, were met with vague statements about the impenetrability of Assad’s air defense and the NATO members’ “lack of political will.” I found such reluctance remarkable; at the time, the United Nations was estimating that more than 100,000 had been killed and millions more displaced.

I still believe there was a moral responsibility to protect the Syrian people, but I am more willing to acknowledge and consider the drawbacks of intervention now, particularly in light of the current situation in Afghanistan. Resolute Support, the follow-on mission to NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), still operates from the Green Zone in Kabul, but after fourteen years and billions of dollars, the Taliban now controls 29 of Afghanistan’s 398 districts, and 36 more are contested. The New Unity Government (NUG) is riddled with corruption, and the Afghan National Police seem unable to effectively control the provinces, as seen most recently in Kunduz. Ethnic violence in recent days has threatened to undermine the fragile cohesion that exists between the country’s disparate ethnic groups, and the Islamic State is gaining a foothold in several provinces.

At the invitation of President Ghani, and in the interest of maintaining stability, the United States has committed troops to Afghanistan for another year. Still, the question on everyone’s mind is how the government will manage to control the country once the donor money has dried up and the foreign troops are gone. The terrorist attacks in Paris have only highlighted the problem of Islamic extremism in the country, perpetuated by a resurgent Taliban and reinvigorated by an aggressive Islamic State. Despite robust efforts at reform in the economic, political, and legal sectors, no one seems to know exactly where to be or what to do.

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My plate is always heaped with rice; sometimes it’s fluffy plain white, but more often it is flecked with sliced carrots and raisins – Kabuli palaw. Lunch at the office has become an enjoyable midday ritual. The cook comes in to assure me that the unidentifiable meat on my plate is not goat and that I should eat all the vegetables. Then I sit with one of our young paralegals, Nabila, learning new Persian words, usually relating to food: Gau is cow, Anar is pomegranate, palaw is rice. We discuss important topics like where to get a ball gown hemmed and how to keep a headscarf from slipping, but the conversation inevitably turns to politics and what is happening in Afghanistan.

The recent stoning of a woman in Ghor Province for the crime of zina (extramarital sex) angered Nabila. “This practice is not allowed in Islam. Many of the people in the provinces don’t know what Islam teaches,” she said. I countered, “But the Quran establishes zina as a punishable crime.” As expected, she explained what I had learned previously from other liberal Muslims: the Quranic verse that defines zina is accompanied by an extremely high standard of proof for establishing that the crime actually occurred. All but one of the madhhabs or distinct schools of Islamic law agree on this point. President Ghani called the stoning, “extra-judicial, un-Islamic, and criminal,” and condemned the incident in the strongest terms. The Taliban has been blamed for the stoning, although tribal elders may have been responsible; a variety of groups in the provinces employ strict Taliban-like interpretations of the Quran.

Nabila has explained that the Sharia – the word of God in the Quran and the lived example of the Prophet Mohammad in the sunna – isn’t knowable except through distinct methods of human interpretation. “Muslims who want to justify violence can find plenty of passages to cite and terrible ways to interpret them,” she said. “We shouldn’t focus on that.” She and others like her are confounded by the too common perception that all Muslims are extremists, and that they must choose between extremism on one hand and secularism on the other. “Why can’t people learn more about Islam? We learn about your prophet,” she said. “Harchi bakhair basha. Whatever is in your goodness. It’s a phrase I learned and it’s a type of prayer. I think Jesus said it.”

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It’s difficult to say whether the situation in Afghanistan would be worse today had the United States and western allies not invaded in 2001. I now have a greater appreciation for the complexity of military intervention and the drawbacks of state building operations, but I have also been reminded that non-intervention has unintended consequences too. Despite the generally gloomy outlook, and the fact that hundreds of thousands are trying to abandon the war zone of Afghanistan for Europe, some things have markedly improved in the country since the Taliban fell from power, which likely would not have happened without a western presence.

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These days in Kabul, I see boisterous groups of girls in white headscarves walking to school. In fact, close to nine million children are now in school compared with fewer than a million before 2001, and half of those children are girls. At a business conference organized by the Afghan-American Chamber of Commerce, I sat at a table of young Afghan women who studied at university and now work in businesses across the city. The days when women were only allowed to be seen in public with a mahrem, a close male relative, are long gone. Some women still wear the light blue chadri on a daily basis, mostly for their own comfort, but they are now regarded less as the ultimate symbol of oppression under the Taliban regime, and more as a novelty of a bygone era. Expats can now buy chadri wine bottle covers – “made from real Afghan chadri” – and “burka bears,” stuffed animals covered head to paw in nylon, in varying shades of blue.

And there are other signs that Afghanistan is slowly continuing to change for the better. On November 11, thousands of men and women gathered on the streets of Kabul to participate in the largest peaceful protest in Afghanistan’s recent history. They were demanding justice and protection after seven innocent Hazara hostages were beheaded by the Taliban and/or the Islamic State. People marched with signs that read “Down with the Taliban” and “Down with ISIS,” but the protests were aimed mostly at the Afghan government; President Ghani was seen as ultimately responsible for failing to provide protection. In the past it has been easy for Afghans to side with whichever strongman our militant group seemed most capable of providing security and stability, but now, it seems, Afghans want more.

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We see how corrupt and mismanaged the national government is on a daily basis in our roles as international lawyers in Kabul. Last week, one of our clients came to us with a stack of papers bearing the emblem of the Taliban. It was an old administrative regulation issued under the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan – the now defunct Taliban regime – and signed by Mullah Omar himself. One of the government agencies demanded that our client comply with the regulation. We were startled to see the old black and white emblem in place of the new coat of arms of the Islamic Republic; it was as if the Taliban had resurrected under the guise of the NUG and no one working in the government had noticed. Still, reference to the regulation had been an administrative slip; it was not meant to herald the reemergence of an extremist regime.

Despite the severe deficiencies of the current order, Afghans are making sense of the chaos by learning a new script, provided in part by western countries under the Bonn Agreement. Like the traffic in downtown Kabul, progress is stop and go and there is not yet a discernible flow, but if there is to be meaningful change in Afghanistan, it will be led by the new generation of Afghans who believe in constitutional government and free enterprise. Future leaders will draw their legitimacy from commitment to security, the dignity of communities, and the rule of law.

Photos: 1. Kabul traffic, Getty Images; 2. Brussels La Grand-Place, Jessica Wright; 3. Women in Kabul, Jessica Wright; 4. Protests in Kabul over ethnic unrest, The New York Times.

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