In the summer of 2003, I sat in the dining room of the fortified UN compound in Mazar-e-Sharif in northern Afghanistan drinking Russian vodka smuggled in from Tajikistan. At room temperature of 32º C, it tasted like industrial strength sake. The owner of the bottle, a Muslim UN worker from the former Yugoslavia, was telling me about the UN's efforts in preparing voters lists for the approaching election.
He regarded his work mostly as a PR campaign. In his words, anybody who believed that the upcoming Afghan election was going to even remotely resemble a democratic, western style, election was either "extremely naïve or plain stupid."
At that time, I regarded the cynicism of a burned out and disillusioned UN worker as premature. "After all," I thought, "you need to start somewhere." History however has proven my drinking buddy correct. Currently, both houses of the Afghan National Assembly are dominated by warlords of various affiliations. In January 2007, they legislated themselves immune to the charges of war crimes and human rights violations. Malalai Joya, the outspoken female member of the Assembly who opposed the bill, was simply "voted" out of this august body.
After Mazar-e-Sharif, I went to the small provincial town of Jabal Seraj where I met Zakia Zaki, the headmaster of the school for girls, who was also head of the local radio station, Radio Solh. I spent about a week at the station and during that time Zakia and her small crew sheltered me, educated me in the complex local history and political dynamics, and protected me from bad encounters in an environment where their own lives were far from secure.
Earlier this month, when I learned about Zakia's assassination, it struck me deeply, like a death in the family. She was murdered in her home in Jabal-e-Seraj, in her bed, with her one and a half year-old son beside her. Two men broke in through a window and shot her seven times.
Shutting off the radio
Our mainstream media, in their almost universal phobia of complexity, immediately went for the black and white picture of events. First, some agencies reported that Zakia's radio was founded by Americans, which is simply false. Then, our national newspaper ran a comment on Zakia's death under the headline: "The Taliban are silencing the voices of Afghanistan women." That one is true in general but not in connection to Zakia's death.
Jabal Seraj lies in the Shomali Plains, a Northern Alliance domain where the Taliban does not yet have a foothold. From a south-facing window on the top floor of Radio Solh one can see, in the distance, glittering dots moving slowly through the air. These are AC-130 flying dreadnoughts and Hercules transport planes approaching the American air base at Baghran.
This base, built originally by the Soviets on top of an ancient city founded by Alexander the Great, has been taken over by the Americans. It has been massively enlarged, modernized and outfitted with a detention center where the men and women of the 519th Military Intelligence Battalion perfected the interrogation methods later used at Abu Ghraib. In contrast, other Soviet investments in Afghanistan's infrastructure, like Kabul's public transportation system or Kandahar's main hospital, have not yet been brought up to full functionality.
As a matter of fact, the whole western investment in Afghanistan's civilian infrastructure probably still falls short of what the Soviets had done there in the '70s and '80s (most of which has been destroyed by the Mujahideen, the Taliban and by the American bombardment). Hardly any economy exists in Afghanistan today other than the business of war and the growing of poppies.
An overwhelming portion of the western assistance to Afghanistan currently goes into financing what is being described as "providing security." But still, the ranking UN representative in Afghanistan, Tom Koenigs, emphasized in his June 2007 brief to the Security Council that: "Ensuring the rule of law should become a top priority for the government of Afghanistan and its international friends -- people are fed up."
Koenigs believes that "Afghanistan's political stability has been threatened by competing warlords."
Internews, an international organization supporting independent media, stated in its April 2007 report: "Despite the existence of Media Law in Afghanistan, the killing and torture of journalists is becoming a common thing."
Radio Solh and Zakia personally, were threatened repeatedly not by the Taliban but by the local warlords. Last year, one of the station crew was arrested based on the absurd accusation that he was planning an attack on a member of the National Assembly. He was imprisoned for 11 months and recently released without being charged. The governor of the province, however, imposed a gag order on both him and Radio Solh "so that this case could be over."
Independent media in Afghanistan have few allies. The threats and bullets come from the warlords as well as the Taliban. Karzai's government ministers routinely direct police to brutalize media outlets that deviate from the official party line.
Until 2005, Canada supported a loose media network of several radio stations (including radio Sohl) with free professional training. These stations were run, staffed and programmed by women. Shauna Sylvester, a former director of IMPACS, a Vancouver based NGO that was providing this training in Afghanistan, stated that she "will never fully understand [why] the Canadian International Development Agency decided to stop funding IMPACS's women's media program."
An Internet review of Canadian governmental and NGO pages reveals that our non-military assistance for Afghanistan has shifted toward direct support of the Karzai government's day-to-day doings and to a number of welfare programs of very limited scope that, although noble in design, would have no visible impact on Afghan society at large.
The American-led coalition's involvement in Afghanistan is forming a now familiar pattern of setting up demonstration elections and bombing defiant villages. This is exactly what the Soviets were doing. As my friend in Mazar-e-Sharif pointed out, we (the coalition including Canada) are repeating in Afghanistan a failed Soviet experiment -- running a "demonstration democracy" in the absence of civil society.
Afghans fought off two British invasions in the 19th century and they successfully discouraged Russian attempts on their sovereignty about the same time. For almost a century, between the 1880s and 1970s, Afghans had opportunity to take care of their own troubles, of which they had plenty. During that time however, they made genuine progress in gender equity, they modernized their country to some extent, developed complex political culture and institutions, established respectable educational institutions and civil society movements, produced good literature and tolerated minorities. All of this disappeared in the blink of an eye when the great powers, and I don't just mean the Soviets, became interested in their land again.
The chance for democracy for this and for the next several generations of Afghans and Iraqis is disappearing along with their journalists, secular scholars, doctors, middle class, mixed marriages, minorities, artists, nurses, museums, libraries, lawyers, independent bookstores and teachers, as well as the civil society, the trust and the shared values.
Never mind the elections. By replacing the fundamentalist Taliban with the more compliant, medieval-minded warlords, we don't bring democracy to Afghanistan; we reside over its final departure.
Related Tyee stories:
- Afghanistan's Coalition of the Killing
Group wants to topple Karzai, but has bloody hands. A Tyee special report from Kabul.
- Good Morning Jabal Saraj! (story and photo essay)
What difference could a radio station make in Afghanistan? A Vancouver non-profit helped find out.
- Inside Afghanistan's Struggle for a Free Press
Canadians are part of a pricey push to build open media there. Will it pay off?