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Canadian soldiers are not enough

Unless Hamid Karzai cracks down on his government's corruption, the people will keep making room for Taliban, says author and Kandahar businesswoman SARAH CHAYES

Sarah Chayes, Globe & Mail, 3 Oct 06


'Are you going back to Kandahar?"


On a speaking tour in the United States and Canada, I keep hearing this question. The recent assassination of Safia Ama Jan, the provincial director of women's affairs in Kandahar, not to mention the death of yet another Canadian soldier, has made people wonder whether the violence in Afghanistan has taken a quantum leap that would cause me to reconsider.


I have lived in Kandahar for nearly five years -- arriving originally as a radio reporter, then deciding to stay on to help rebuild. Currently, I run a small co-operative that manufactures fine skin-care products and exports them to Canada and the United States. For residents of Kandahar, like me, who have been watching the apparently inexorable decline, Safia Ama Jan's killing seemed utterly within the realm of normalcy. More than a year ago, in late May of 2005, the head of the provincial council of religious leaders -- a much more important person locally than Safia Ama Jan -- was gunned down outside his office right next to the seat of provincial government. Three days later, my best Afghan friend, the chief of the Kabul police, was blown up along with 21 other people at the oldest mosque in town, at a prayer service in memory of the slain mullah.


At that time, it seemed to me that nothing could ever get worse.


I was wrong. The situation in Kandahar has grown immeasurably worse. But the proof is not in the murder of a public official, an event that has become commonplace, it is to be seen in the pall of fear that has descended on the city, paralyzing it. Now villagers are afraid to accept the development assistance that was supposed to turn the country around. They are afraid to teach in schools or to send their daughters.


Above all, the change in conditions is to be seen in the battles between Taliban and Afghan forces, backed by Canadian troops, on the very outskirts of town. The first one took place in April. Now some 10,000 displaced families crowd the houses of friends and relatives or hastily erected tents in Kandahar proper, lacking the bare necessities. Now the members of my co-operative spend the first part of every day digesting whatever horror one of them saw the night before: the suicide bombing down the hill from his house, the gunfight for the district headquarters that he watched from his roof through the pre-dawn hours.


What is being called a Taliban insurgency is not, in my view, a true insurgency. It is not an ideological, grassroots uprising against the Western presence in Afghanistan. Rather, it is a low-grade invasion primarily orchestrated across the border in Pakistan. The evidence for this conclusion is abundant. Top Taliban leaders reside openly in the capital of Pakistan's Baluchistan province; Taliban crossing between Pakistan and Afghanistan get preferential treatment from Pakistani border guards; training camps have dotted that border; Taliban fighters -- often underage youths too immature to form ideological convictions -- are paid and equipped by Pakistani military intelligence.


But while southern Afghans, in my view, are not fostering the current Taliban resurgence, some of them are making room for it. The main reason they are doing so is not ideological, but practical: They are deeply frustrated with the post-Taliban government. Far from serving or protecting them, it seems just as hostile to their legitimate interests as the Taliban are.


Even before I arrived in Kandahar, in December, 2001, I was worried about what kind of government would replace the Taliban regime. For it seemed that U.S. officials were ushering discredited warlords into positions of power, though the Afghan people wanted nothing of them, and gave President Hamid Karzai a resounding mandate to expel them from the body politic. In 2002 and 2003, the U.S. government prevented Mr. Karzai from moving against these warlords, and then he, discouraged, gave up trying. The result is a government that is devoured by corruption, with offices up for sale, and officials whose entire motivation is to extract money and favours from their countrymen.


Safia Ama Jan, unfortunately, was one of those, and so her death is very emblematic indeed. She used her office to monopolize money earmarked for Kandahar women, pocketing much of it and using the rest to favour exclusively the members of her own ethnic group. Afghans currently dread interaction with officials like Safia Ama Jan. Bribes are extracted for the least administrative task; soldiers manhandle people or shake them down; principals steal humanitarian assistance earmarked for their students.


"We are like a man trying to balance on two watermelons," said Zarghona, a member of my co-operative, this summer. "The Taliban prey upon us at night, and the government preys upon us in the daytime."


We, the residents of southern Afghanistan, are deeply grateful for the presence, the courage, and the sacrifice of the Canadian troops. They are protecting us from the invading Taliban. Without them, it is clear, I could not return to Kandahar in November. But the Canadian presence is not sufficient. Unless the Afghan government cracks down on its own corruption and brutality, placing itself truly at the service of its people, villagers will keep making room for Taliban.


If I were Prime Minister Stephen Harper, I would make this point in no uncertain terms to President Karzai. I would instruct my people on the ground in Kandahar to demand accountability from provincial officials, and sensitivity to the needs of their people. I would be firm with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, making it clear that friendship with Canada will depend on concrete steps to curtail Taliban activity in southern Afghanistan. Finally, I would have a few words with my friend George W. Bush. President Bush treated the recent joint visit to Washington by Presidents Karzai and Musharraf as a form of entertainment.


In fact, the survival of one of their countries (Afghanistan) is at stake. In fact, Pakistan continues actively to harbour terrorists. In fact, U.S. taxpayer money, granted to Pakistan, is helping finance the "insurgents" who are killing Canadian soldiers. If I were Prime Minister Harper, I would be furious.

Sarah Chayes, founder of Arghand, a soap-making co-operative in Kandahar, is author of The Punishment of Virtue: Inside Afghanistan After the Taliban.

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