A friend of mine gave up his job in London last year to take up an assignment with some NGO in Afghanistan. His new job eventually took him to Helmand where he is still based, though he often has to travel to Kabul and other cities. He was back for a break last week and full of stories that made for a great evening.
The Taliban, he says, remain a formidable force in southern Afghanistan and far from being on the run, they seem to be consolidating their grip south of Kabul. Their strength, growing by the day, apparently lies in their unchallenged ability to dispense immediate justice. According to this friend, who is not at all prone to exaggeration, most rural folk in southern Afghanistan still take their issues to the Taliban because that is the only way for them to get quick decisions.
They hate going to the government for anything, he says, because of the rampant corruption in every government department, especially the police. It may not be true but as far as the people's perception is concerned, he says, most police chiefs are former warlords known more for their love for rape, sodomy and murder than for their administrative abilities. The last couple of years in particular, when official corruption became widespread enough to start hitting the common man directly, seems to have convinced many in southern Afghanistan that despite their inherent cruelty, few in the country knew the Taliban as rapists or sodomisers.
And the Taliban seem to be making the most of it. In many districts, they run an effective administration — to the extent that no NGO can work in many of the areas, supposedly under government control, without striking some kind of a deal with the Taliban. We have heard, says my friend, that whenever some firm wins a new construction contract, the Taliban ask for the original contract which they examine in minute detail before deciding what is to be their share of the contracted sum.
But what I found particularly interesting in his description of contemporary southern Afghanistan was that almost everyone, Isaf included, seems to be settling down comfortably with this arrangement. It isn't as if the Taliban controlled territories and lived under a pall of fear or anything. Most of the towns are bustling market places where shops open soon after sunrise and people engage with their day-to-day lives as they would in any other place, such as neighbouring Pakistan for example.
Occasionally, of course, there is a bombing or a gun battle which sends everyone scurrying for cover for a while but the disruption is as short-lived and inconsequential as sunshine in a typical British winter. At times, the massive construction activities going on in Kabul are mentioned with envy and a fair bit of resentment but no one seems to be waiting for the government to make its presence felt south of the capital city. Most of them have found their own ways of negotiating life in their war-torn world.
Our chat brought to mind the umpteen conversations I have had with my Pakistani friends about Pakistan's future. Almost everyone says that Pakistan is in no imminent danger of breaking up and as such, there is no real reason to worry oneself sick thinking about it. I wonder how many of them are aware of the fact that sometimes, breaking up is not the worst that can happen to a country. It is breaking down that one needs to worry about. And I haven't come across too many people who are willing to argue as aggressively that Pakistan does not run that risk.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 21st, 2010.