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Afghanistan’s aid virus

india Updated: Mar 15, 2009 22:46 IST
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On July 7, 2008, two senior Indian diplomats — V. Venkat Rao and R.D. Mehta — were killed in a suicide attack outside the Indian embassy in Kabul. But even more shocking than the attack was the attitude of the Afghans (whom both diplomats considered ‘friends’): they felt it unnecessary to mourn the deaths. For the Afghan, it was time to make new friends.

Unfortunately, this is the reality of Afghanistan: life means nothing and when friends die, it’s time to start afresh. In the last seven years, since the end of the Taliban rule, the world has changed immensely. But Afghanistan is still years away from stability, leave alone democracy. It is astonishing how even now, the world’s focus continues to be on counter-terrorism and reconstruction and how no one has realised that this process has achieved appallingly little in the last seven years. Instead of pursuing the old path, we need to shift our focus if we want to attain our goals.

Afghanistan’s problem is not the Taliban; it is the absence of a strong alternative to the Taliban. For every Taliban operative killed, ten new ones are born. The Taliban have conviction, purpose and commitment; the common Afghan has nothing to match these qualities. The Taliban are perhaps the most disciplined people in the country. But the rest of the country is neck-deep in one big money-making racket, where principles, beliefs, goals and alliances are easily compromised for a few dollars.

As countries like India dole out aid, it may be worthwhile to mention here that there are almost no beggars in Afghanistan. Even those on the streets have a home to go back to — and some may even own a Toyota Corolla and a mobile phone. Even ordinary households throw away enormous quantities of food after every meal, yet insist on cooking as much, because ‘it makes the house look proud and well-off’.

Foreign journalists are among the biggest parasites of them all, feigning great fondness for their Afghan employees and with their help, writing touching tales on the ‘Afghan plight’. And yet, be it official or social events, the only conversation they will make is about ‘the situation’, ‘who’s allied to whom’ and ‘what will happen now’. One can keep saying how ‘those poor people know nothing but war’. And yet in practice, one only gives them more of the same.

Instead of writing stories or sending grants and funds, Afghanistan could gain a lot more if there was an attempt to improve the lives of the people. In psychological terms, Afghan society seems to be suffering from a ‘victim’ syndrome and plays the ‘victim’ card to its maximum advantage — whether to get admissions to colleges abroad or jobs. A country full of deluded, conniving, proud and aggressive people is holding the world to ransom on a whim. Financial aid, in this present form, is debilitating. For what we are effectively doing is pandering to the demands of a society that refuses to learn to stand on its own feet and believes aid in any form is its birthright.

Even the most ‘modern’ Afghans cower behind ‘tradition’ and ‘religion’ to explain anything they are uncomfortable with. They want to be helped, not empowered. It’s time to change this attitude.

India is popular among Afghans, although only at a superficial level. Admittedly, India’s reasons for becoming the fourth-largest donor to Afghanistan with $750 million go beyond mere charity. But even so, India must recognise that if political loyalties are what it is hoping to win, it is failing miserably. Afghans are critical of India. The only allegiance India may hope to gain is that of the current Afghan government. But sadly, that’s not enough. The rest of Afghanistan is no one’s friend — or everyone’s friend for a price.

The only way to help Afghanistan is through fewer carrots and more sticks. Afghanistan needs to be taught to take assistance and use it for long-term changes. This endless line of aid is not helping Afghan society; its only stopping it from taking charge of its destiny. So far, we have succeeded in forming some sort of skeletal system for the country. With a few more million dollars and some more precious lives of our countrymen, we many even succeed in creating a body. But if that body is to become ‘Afghanistan’, it needs a soul, which cannot be Indian, Pakistani, Iranian or American. It has to be Afghan.

India is one of the oldest civilisations and the largest democracy in the world. Its culture is rich, its spirituality well-known. These are the very gifts India can and should give to Afghanistan. For without them, food, reconstruction, education and healthcare is worthless. We need to first create a society that stands on some basic framework of principles and values. Only then can we nourish it. Afghanistan is not poor and it merits no more sympathy. Afghans don’t merely need weapons, bridges, roads, schools and scholarships. They need psychologists, psychiatrists, spiritual leaders, introspection, emotional awareness, responsibility, thought, awakening, social uplift and above all humility. Afghanistan needs to wake up and take charge of its own destiny.

Shireen Logari is a journalist based in Kabul