Tuesday, 13 May, 2008

Placing Afghanistan

During its long history, Afghanistan has been a land which has seen various invaders and conquerors in the form of the Mughals, British etc while local entities fought amongst themselves to form their own empires. Since the 1970s, Afghanistan has been ravaged by wars and internal conflicts which started in the form of the soviet invasion of 1979 giving rise to various groups which would later compete with one another for power. The Taliban which came to power in 1995 after a series of governments ruled over the nation for half a decade imposing strict Islamic rule on the Afghan people, which acted as a huge hindrance to the economic, political, cultural and social development of the Afghan society. In more recent times, the US led invasion of Afghanistan had a much more disastrous impact on the development of Afghanistan, despite the downfall of the Taliban regime. The presence of the NATO troops in various provinces of Afghanistan has not gone down well with the fundamentalist groups leading to continuous chaos and anarchy in the country, which has been marked by the resurgence of the Taliban. Such unstable elements have prevented Afghanistan from making headway in any direction and the situation seems to be a lost cause.

At least, this is how the media portrays the situation in Afghanistan to be like; the reality is quite different. The roundtable discussion on Searching For Peace in Afghanistan: Collaborative Possibilities for Youth in Peacebuilding organized by WISCOMP on August 27th at the India International Center was an eye opener in this respect helping in highlighting the ground realities in Afghanistan. The roundtable, which brought together young people from both Afghanistan and India, along with organizations and institutions with considerable expertise in issues relating to conflict transformation, the reconstruction of Afghanistan, peace and security and work with young people in both regions, was envisaged as an important first step to explore the possibilities for collaboration of the youth of India and Afghanistan, examine the impact the youth can have on the peace building process in Afghanistan and above all provide the Afghan youth a platform to express their views and concerns that they envision for themselves and their country.

Contrary to the image promoted in the media, the past four years in Afghanistan have been marked by multifaceted changes. The economy has grown by 8.5%, the FDI has increased substantially, foreign investors are seizing the opportunity to rebuild the country and pouring in money, Afghanistan has been accepted as an observer in WTO and as a result of its strong growth in trade it has become a member of many economic groups such as Shangai Group. On the social front, there has been a substantial increase in the number of children going to school; the number of people having finished high school and registering for college has also seen a remarkable increase; under the Afghan National Solidarity programme efforts have been made to overcome the feelings of regionalism and promote a common national consensus, the average per capita income has increased to 350 $ per person resulting in a slight improvement in the standard of living of the people and health services now cover 80% of the population. Democracy has prevailed in Afghanistan, ever since the downfall of the fundamentalist Taliban regime wherein women are once again allowed to participate in the political process of the country.

However, the youngest democracy in the world suffers from a number of prolonged troubles. The most prominent issue continues to be the security threat which seems to overshadow all the progress which has actually taken place in Afghanistan. As a result of the prevailing insecurity, particularly in the rural areas, many parents are discouraged from sending their children to schools. The curriculum in schools is outdated and the bare necessities in the form of chalk, blackboards and well trained teachers are lacking. The UNESCO has declared the Afghan rural area to be the worst for a girl child to be born as they are treated as ‘guests’ and generally subdued. Despite the economic achievements, there are very few employment opportunities in the rural areas, thereby encouraging the flood of people to poppy cultivation; opium trade accounts for nearly 60% of the Afghan economy and Afghanistan is the world’s largest opium producer.

Despite these drawbacks, all the achievements are commendable given the fact that Afghanistan has been ravaged by war and violence for the last three decades. It is only in the last few years that deliberate efforts have been made towards peace building in Afghanistan. What one must understand is that Afghanistan is in a ‘transitionary phase’ where it would not possible for the peace building agents to completely transform Afghanistan overnight. The transition from an unstable underdeveloped state to a stable well-developed state is going to be a long gradual process for which peace and development have to go hand in hand with each other.

Peace in Afghanistan should mean the peaceful development and reconstruction of the country. The Afghan society has been dominated by various ethnic groups, often at war with one another, since time immemorial and it may not be possible to resolve these conflicts completely. As a result, peace in Afghanistan should be aimed at reducing these conflicts and promoting a national consensus, over and above the strong affinities for their respective regions. This accompanied by protection against the insecurity caused by the fundamentalist groups would help in removing the obstacles before development.

Such a large scale process would definitely require the sustained presence of foreign troops. However, given the international pressure on the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan it may not be possible for the various countries to maintain their troops in Afghanistan. It is important for the Afghan government to train their indigenous forces so that they can eventually take over the task of rebuilding their own country once the foreign troops are withdrawn. External factors, like regional development and cooperation among the countries of the Indian subcontinent are also important prerequisites for the success of peace building in Afghanistan.

Possibly one of the biggest roles in the process of restructuring Afghanistan can be played by the youth of Afghanistan. 68% of the Afghan population consists of people who are under the age of 25 years. However, the long period of war has deprived many of them of their youth and childhood. Categorized as the ‘lost generation’ of Afghanistan, the socially imposed silence and lack of education has suppressed large sections of the Afghan youth. Moreover, the youth is hardly seen as a direct mechanism for peace building, but only as possible recruits for various terrorist organisations.

The youth has been able to overcome some of these barriers in the recent past to play a more active role. This is evident from the existence of a number of youth organisations spread over the entire country which have undertaken the task of promoting non-formal education, increasing awareness, promoting volunteerism for peace and development of the country and most of them have got integrated in the government or working of other NGOs. Despite their success, the potential of the youth is still not fully tapped. There are numerous ways in which the youth can contribute more fruitfully. The foremost task in front of them is to attempt to bridge the cultural gap among them and build a feeling of trust between themselves so that they can collectively work towards a common cause. The destructive role of the media, in tarnishing the image of Afghanistan as a developing country can be converted to a constructive one. A number of similar conferences as the one organized by WISCOMP will definitely help in portraying the ground realities in Afghanistan, which in turn can instigate the youth of other countries as well including India to take up the Afghan cause; cultural festivals showcasing the Afghan culture through the medium of literate, theatre, poetry etc could be another step in the right direction and most importantly it is when the well-educated Afghan youth, especially the ones living outside the country, stress upon the revival of a ‘lost home’ that the country can hope to develop in the right direction.

- Aryaman Bhatnagar (the author can be reached at yp.aryamanbhatnagar@gmail.com)

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