In an Islamic State like Afghanistan, one of the most hopeful signs is the ragtag traffic being held up by lines of young girls crossing the road returning home from school. When you recall that when the Taliban were in power from 1996 to 2001, girls were not even allowed to go to school, this is a sign of change.
<b1>Something really serious must be happening 'beneath the surface'. Although from a low and uncertain base, the Afghan economy grew by 14 per cent last year. In the next few weeks, Afghanistan will get its fifth cellular licencee. India has only about seven licences per circle. It is also quite likely that Kabul will have a 3G operator before Delhi gets its own. If you are not quite convinced by that statistic, how about the news that a third private airline operating out of Kabul is about to launch operations soon with two early movers already running their own network of domestic and international flights. Clearly, something is happening in Afghanistan that most of us are unaware of.
Even the media here are buzzing. At least six new TV channels have rushed in. FM channels are the new and reliable medium of choice with dozens operational across the country. The buzz is that the warlords who control large parts of the country outside Kabul are now busy establishing TV channels of their own. Imagine not a war with bullets and bombs, but with channel pitched against channel.
Large swathes of the city still bear tell-tale marks of rocket attacks and snipers. The mud buildings that scurry across the mountain-scape belong to the 15th century. Yet, the biggest building in town is the City Centre Mall with its eight floors of shopping to tempt any customer. Some serious investment is going on in this country of 30 million people where most of us only see and hear of war and warlords.
Indian ambassador to Kabul, Rakesh Sood, is the second-most guarded diplomat after the American ambassador. He has just returned after a visit to the provinces where he inspected, with a local cabinet minister, a project where an Indian company is building a road. “The $ 750 million of Indian aid flowing into Afghanistan is helping Indian companies look at some serious projects in this country,” says Sood. But the usual influx of enterprising Indians are missing. Only a few big corporates like the Tatas and KEC are aggressively investing. Even they remain ‘invisible’.
Over breakfast, President Hamid Karzai insists that the world’s best croissants are those baked in Kabul’s re-energised local bakeries. He honestly seems to believe that this is “the time to invest in Afghanistan”. Of course, not everybody believes this. Specialists insist that things will only get worse for Karzai and his flock in the short-term. The US-led forces in Afghanistan have only been able to outline a possible long-term political solution, and there is a long way to go before the opportunities are free to emerge.
Sceptics mutter that ‘real growth’ has nothing to do with investors from overseas but with the booming poppy economy. This economy is apparently controlled and developed by the Taliban. Estimates suggest that it is worth over $ 3 billion a year. So does this money filter back into the local economy?
For Karzai, the signs of progress are in the new investments. His strategy has been to “try and repair the wounds of war in as many provinces in the far-flung parts of the country as possible”, with a special focus on ensuring that each of these regions gets more attention. This is the sign of a man who knows that it is important to spread goodwill among the constituency that matters: those living in the provinces and not just those in metropolitan Kabul. For these are the ones who will vote in 2009.
Dilip Cherian is a communications strategy consultant. He was recently in Afghanistan.