“Things get curiouser and curiouser,” as Alice would say. Was it Alice who said so, or the Red Queen or the White One in Alice in Wonderland? I cannot do a quick check here in Kabul. Almost my entire collection of books remains in Delhi because books, in the absence of a land route between India and Afghanistan, are the heaviest baggage one can fly with. And sadly, books are the one thing that are really in short supply in this city. Five and half years into reconstruction of the country, there is still only the one bookshop selling English language books - the same shop which achieved international fame (or notoreity) with the publication of Asne Seierstad's bestseller The Bookseller of Kabul. Seirstadt struck up a friendship with Shah Mohammed Rais, its owner, who invited her to stay with him and his family. She did, and then wrote the tell-all book, tearing into her host, taking a hard, critical look at Rais's life and morals as well as certain Afghan customs. Rais took her court. He did not win the case, but told me recently he plans to write his own version of the same events Seierstadt describes.
But back to the ‘curiouser’ aspects. Recently we heard the bizarre news that the NATO led forces stationed in Helmund had issued a radio advertisement saying they would not destroy poppy plants in the area! Helmund tops the list of provinces growing poppy in Afghanistan. Later they claimed they had only pointed out that their mandate was fighting insurgency and not poppy eradication. Or were the troops were trying to buy some local support in a tough fight by getting the poppy farmers on their side? No really bought this subtle distinction, since reams and reams of reports document the linkages between drugs and insurgency.
The Afghanistan Development Fund, which intends to bring together government and donors so as to match needs to means and coordinate priorities, saw an impassioned plea by the government to get more control over the international aid to the country. Of all the money pouring into Afghanistan, only 30 per cent is routed through the Afghan government with the rest being spent directly by the donors. The government claimed this was undermining its authority. He who holds the purse strings is in charge.
Also impassioned, was president Hamid Karzai’s plea to international - read Western - donors, to allow Afghanistan to seek technical capacity from within the South Asia region. Speaking of his recent engagement at the SAARC summit, Karzai named India amongst other countries in South Asia from where he would like to hire capacity. As many development experts point out, regional expertise and experience is likely to be more applicable here and usually much cheaper as well.
South Asian cooperation is indeed being seen as an increasingly important component of stability in this country. The Ankara Declaration signed by Karzai and Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf some days ago was held up as an example of this by the international community. A less happy development has been recent moves by both Pakistan and Iran to push back Afghans residing in their countries. While both Iran and Pakistan claim they are only pushing out the illegal migrants, those without resident permits or refugee status, there are fears that scores of unregistered refugees who have been living in the neighbouring countries will be evicted forcibly. The United Nations estimates that 44,000 people have been evicted from Iran in two short weeks and fears a humanitarian problem on its hands. There are already reports of water scarcity and families being separated, but says that the problem is primarily a bilateral issue that Iran and Afghanistan need to sort out.
(The writer is a senior Indian journalist who has been based in Kabul for the last three years.)