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Limbs of No Body: The World’s Indifference to the Afghan Tragedy

Indifference to the Afghan Tragedy

Immunized Against Modernism

Amanullah Khan, who ruled in Afghanistan from 1919–1928, was a contemporary of Reza Shah and Kemal Ataturk. On a personal level he was inclined towards modernism. In 1924, Amanullah traveled to Europe, returned with a Rolls Royce and made known his reform program. The plan included a change in attire. He told his wife to unveil herself and asked men to forego their Afghan costumes for western suits. Contrary to Afghan male custom, he prohibited polygamy. Traditionalists immediately begin opposing Amanullahmodernizing. None of the agrarian tribes submitted to these changes and rioting ensued against him.

Here, modernism without a socioeconomic basis, is but a non–homogeneous imposition of culture on a tribal society economically dependent on farming, and lacking any industry, agriculture or even preliminary means of exploiting its resources, not to mention prohibition of inter–tribal marriages. This superficial, formalistic and petty modernism served only as an antibody to stimulate traditional Afghan culture, making Afghanistan so immune to modernism that even in the following decades it could not penetrate the culture in a more rational form.

Even today, the preconditions for modernism, which include exploiting resources and presenting cheap raw materials in exchange for goods, have not been created. The most advanced people in Afghanistan still believe that Afghan society is not yet ready for female suffrage. When the most progressive sect involved in the civil war finds it too early for women to vote it is obvious that the most conservative will prohibit schooling and social activities to them. It follows naturally that ten million women are held captive under their burqas (veils). This is Afghan society seventy years after Amanullah’s modernism aimed to impose monogamy on a male dominated Afghanistan, whose only perception of family is the harem. In 2001, polygamy is still an accepted fact by women even in refugee camps on the Iran–Afghanistan border. I attended two weddings among the Pashtoon and Hazareh tribes and heard them wishing for more prosperous weddings for the groom. At first I thought it was a joke. In another case the bride’s family said: “If the groom can afford it, up to four wives is indeed very good and it is a religious tradition as well as helping a bunch of hungry people.”

When I went to the camp in Saveh to record the wedding music for Kandahar, I saw a two–year–old girl being wedded to a seven–year–old boy. I never understood the meaning of this. Neither could that boy or that little girl, who was sucking on a pacifier, have made the choice. Given this portrait of traditional society, Amanullah’s modernism seemed an overwhelming imitation of another country.

Of course, some people believe if a woman changes her burqa into a less concealing veil, she may be struck with God’s wrath and turned into black stone. Perhaps, someone has to forcibly rid her of her burqa so she’ll realize that the assumption is untrue and she can choose for herself.

There is another biased viewpoint to Amanullah’s modernism. In traditional societies, the culture of hypocrisy is a form of class camouflage. In Iranian society, wealthy traditional families decorate the interior of their home like a castle but keep the exterior looking like a shack, out of fear of the poor. In other words, that aristocratic nucleus needs to have a poor rustic shell.

Opposition to modernism is not necessarily expressed by traditional organizations. Sometimes it is a reaction by the poor against the rich. For the poor society in Amanullah’s time, while having horses as opposed to mules was a symbol of honor and nobility, a Rolls Royce was an insult to the poor. The war between tradition and modernism is primarily the same as the battle of the Rolls Royce and the mule. It is a war between poverty and wealth.

Today, in Afghanistan the only modern objects are weapons. The ubiquitous civil war that has created jobs in addition to being a political/military action has also become a market for modern weapons. Afghanistan can no longer fight with knives and daggers even though it lags behind the contemporary age. The consumption of weapons is a serious matter. Stinger missiles next to long beards and burqas are still symbols of profound modernism that are proportionate to consumption and modern culture.

For the Afghan Mujahed, weapons have an economic basis that creates jobs. If all weapons are removed from Afghanistan, the war ends and all accept that if there were no more assaults on anyone, given the sub–zero economic conditions, all of today’s Mujahedin would join the refugees in other countries. The issue of tradition and modernism, war and peace, tribalism and nationalism in Afghanistan must be analyzed with an eye to the economic situation and employment crisis. It has to be understood that there is no immediate solution for the economic crisis in Afghanistan.

A long–term resolution is contingent on an economic miracle and not on a nationwide military attack from north to south or vice versa. Have these miracles not happened time and again? Was the Soviet retreat not a miracle? Was the sovereignty of the Mujahedin not a miracle on their part? Was the sudden conquest of the Taliban not a miracle of its kind? Then why do problems remain? Modernism under discussion here faces two fundamental problems. One is rooted in economics and the second is the immunization of Afghan traditional culture against premature modernism.

Geography and its Consequences

Afghanistan has an area of 700,000 square kilometers. Mountains account for 75 percent of the land. People live in cavernous valleys surrounded by towering mountains. These elevations not only attest to a rough nature, difficult passage and impediments to business, but are also viewed as cultural and spiritual fortresses among Afghan tribes. It is obvious why Afghanistan lacks inter–state routes. The shortage of roads not only creates obstacles for the fighters who seek to occupy Afghanistan, it stops businessmen whose prosperity may become a means of economic growth.

To the same degree that these mountains obstruct foreign intrusion, they block interference of other cultures and commercial activities. A country that is 75 percent mountains has problems creating consumer markets in its potential industrial cities and in exporting agriculture products to the cities. Despite the use of modern weapons, wars take longer and find no conclusion.

In the past Afghanistan was a passageway for caravans on the Silk Road traversing China through Balkh and India through Kandahar. The discovery of waterways, and then airways in the last century, changed Afghanistan from an ancient commercial route to a dead end. The old Silk Road was a passage of camels and horses and didn’t have the characteristics of a modern road. Through the same winding roads Nadir Shah, Alexander, Timur, and Mahmmod Ghaznavi went to India. There used to be primitive wooden bridges, which have been badly damaged in the past twenty years of war. Perhaps today, after two decades of foreign and civil war the people want the strongest party to win and give a single direction to Afghanistan’s historical fate, no matter what. These same mountains, however, are a hindrance. Perhaps, the true fighters of Afghanistan are not its hungry people but the high mountains that don’t surrender. The Northern Alliance, led by Ahmad Shah Massoud,* owes its survival to the Panjshir valley. Conceivably, if Afghanistan was not mountainous, the Soviets could have easily conquered it; or it could have been prey for the Americans to hunt down like the plains of Kuwait, and bring it closer to the Central Asian markets.

Being mountainous increases both the costs of war and reconstruction after peace. If Afghanistan was not so rugged it would have had a different economical, military, political, and cultural fate. Is this a geographical misfortune? Imagine a fighter who has to constantly climb up and down mountains. Suppose he conquered all of Afghanistan. He then has to constantly conquer the peaks to provide for his army. These mountains have been sufficient to save Afghanistan from foreign enemies and domestic friends.

Each tribe has defended the valley it was trapped in. When the enemy left, again, everyone saw their valley as the center of the world. The same mountains have made agriculture very difficult. Only 15 percent of the land is suited for agriculture and practically just half of this is actually cultivated. The reason for livestock farming is that the grasslands are on the mountainsides or its environs.

It can be said that Afghanistan is a victim of her own topography. There are no routes in the mountains and road construction is expensive. The roads if any, are either military or narrow paths for smugglers. The only trunk road passes around the borders. How can a border road function like a primary artery in the body of Afghanistan to resolve problems of social, cultural and economic communications? The few interstate roads that existed were destroyed in the war. To whose advantage is it to pay for the costs of drilling these tough and elevated mountains? For which potential profit should this exorbitant cost be borne?

It is said that Afghanistan is full of unexplored mines. From what route are these possibly exploitable resources supposed to reach their destinations? Who will be the first to invest in mines that will generate profits in an uncertain future? Has the lack of roads prevented the Soviets and Afghans from excavating the mines?

On the other hand, Afghanistan is a land of eternal hidden paths that are quite efficient for smuggling drugs. There are as many winding roads as you want for smuggling, but for crushing the smugglers, you need straight ones that don’t exist. You can’t know the infinite number of paths and you can’t attack a path every day. At the most, you can await a caravan at a junction. A smuggler was arrested around the city of Semnan in Iran who had walked barefoot from Kandahar carrying a sack of drugs. He had no skin on his soles when arrested, but kept on walking.

In the mountains of Afghanistan water is more of a calamity than a blessing. In winter it is freezing. It floods in spring and in the summer its shortage yields drought. This is the property of mountains without dams. Uncontrolled waters and hard soil reduce agricultural possibility. This is the geographical picture of Afghanistan: arduous to cross, incapable of cultivation, and with mines impossible to exploit due to transport costs. The fact that some find Afghanistan a museum of tribes, races, and languages is because of the sheer difficulty of its geography. Every tradition in this country has remained intact because of isolation and lack of interference. It is only natural for this rough and dry country to turn to cultivation of poppy seeds to support its people.

In its present state the economy of Afghanistan can keep its people half full without any economic development. Wealth though, rests with the domestic criminal organizations, or gets spent on unstable Afghan regimes, and the people don’t get a share of it.

How do the Afghan people support themselves beyond farming? It is either through construction work in Iran, participation in political wars, or becoming theology students in the Taliban schools. Over twenty–five hundred Taliban schools, with a capacity between three hundred to one thousand students each, attract hungry orphans. In these schools anybody can have a piece of bread and a bowl of soup, read the Qur’an, memorize prayers, and later join the Taliban forces. This is the only remaining option for employment. It is because of this geography that emigration, smuggling and war remain as occupations and I’m wondering how the Northern Alliance is going to meet the needs of the people after a possible victory over the Taliban? Will it be through continued war, development of poppy seeds, or prayer for rain?

On the Iranian border the UN pays $20 to any Afghan volunteering to return to Afghanistan. They are taken by bus to the first cities inside Afghanistan or dropped around the borders. Interestingly, due to lack of jobs in Afghanistan, the Afghans quickly come back and if not recognized, go in line again to get another $20. The jobless Afghans turn every solution into an occupation. And as much as war may be a profession, few Afghan leaders have died pursuing it.

Continued war provides opportunity for the U.S., the Russians and the six neighboring countries to give aid to forces loyal to them. This largesse is normally aimed at continuing a war or balancing power, but in the case of Afghanistan it merely creates jobs. Let’s not forget that there’s been a two–year drought and livestock have died as a result. The mortality is predicted by the UN to be one million within the next few months. The war has nothing to do with this. It is poverty and famine. Whenever farming has been threatened by a shortage of water, emigration has increased, and wars have worsened.

The average life expectancy of an Afghan has been calculated at 41.5 years and the mortality rate for children under two years of age was between 182 to 200 deaths per 1,000. The average longevity was 34 years in 1960 and in 2000 was pegged at 41. The reality however is that in recent years it has gone down to even lower than what it was in 1960.

I never forget those nights of filming Kandahar. While our team searched the deserts with flashlights, we would see dying refugees like herds of sheep left in the desert. When we took those that we thought were dying of cholera to hospitals in Zabol, we realized that they were dying of hunger. Since those days and nights of seeing so many people starving to death, I haven’t been able to forgive myself for eating any meals.

Between 1986 and 1989 the Afghans had about twenty–two million sheep. That is one sheep per person. This has traditionally been the main wealth of a farming nation such as Afghanistan. This wealth was lost in the recent famine. Imagine the situation of a farming nation without livestock. The original tragedy of Afghanistan today is poverty and the only way to resolve the problems is through economic rehabilitation.

If I had gone to support the Mujahedin, instead of the true freedom fighters who are ordinary people struggling to stay alive, I would have come back. If I were president of a neighboring country, I would encourage economic relations with Afghanistan in lieu of political–military interventions. God forbid if I was in the place of God, I would bless Afghanistan with something else that would benefit this forgotten nation. And I write this without believing it will have any impact in this era, which is very different than that of Sa’di’s when, “all men are limbs of one body.”

Dr. Kamal Hossein, the UN Humanitarian Adviser for Afghanistan affairs from Bangladesh, visited our office in the summer of 2000 and told us that he had been reporting quite futilely to the UN for ten years. He had come to assist me in making a movie that perhaps would awaken the world. I said: “I’m looking for that which will affect.”

It must be added that Afghanistan has not so much suffered from foreign interference as it has from indifference. Again if Afghanistan were Kuwait with a surplus of oil income, the story would have been different. But Afghanistan has no oil and the neighboring countries deport its underpaid laborers. It’s only natural when occupational options fail—as explained earlier in the text—the only remaining choices are smuggling, joining the Taliban, or falling down in a corner in Herat, Bamian, Kabul, or Kandahar and dying for the world’s ignorance.

Once, I happened to be in a camp around Zabol that was filled with illegal immigrants. I wasn’t sure if it was a camp or a prison. The Afghans who had fled their homes because of famine or Taliban assaults had been refused asylum and were waiting to be returned to Afghanistan. It all seemed legal and rational to that point. People, who for any reason enter a country illegally and are afterward refused, get deported. But these particular people were dying of hunger. We had ended up there to choose extras for my film. I asked the authorities and found out that the camp could not afford to feed so many people and they hadn’t eaten for a week. They had only water to drink. We offered to provide meals. They wished we’d go there every day.

We brought food for four hundred Afghans ranging from one–month–old babies to eighty–year–old men. Most of them were little kids who had fainted of hunger in their mothers’ arms. For an hour, we were crying and distributing bread and fruits. The authorities expressed grief and regret and said that it took a long time for budget approvals and kept saying that the flow of hungry refugees was far greater than what they could manage. This is the story of a country that’s been ravaged by its own nature, history, economy, politics, and the unkindness of its neighbors. An Afghan poet who was being deported from Iran back to Afghanistan expressed his feelings in a poem and left:

I came on foot, I’ll leave on foot.
The stranger who had no piggy bank, will leave.
And the child who had no dolls, will leave.
The spell on my exile will be broken tonight.
And the table that had been empty will be folded.
In suffering, I wandered around the horizons.
It is me who everyone has seen in wandering.
What I do not have I’ll lay down and leave.
I came on foot, I’ll leave on foot.

The Role of Drug Production

In modern day economy, every supply is based on a demand. The production of drugs everywhere meets the need for its consumption. This universal market includes both poor and advanced countries such as India, the Netherlands, and the United States. According to UN reporting in 2000, in the late 90’s about 180 million people worldwide were using drugs. Based on the same report, 90 percent of illegal opium, as well as 80 percent of heroin, is produced in two countries, one of which is Afghanistan. Why? Although Afghanistan earns half a billion dollars from drug production the actual turnover for these drugs is $80 billion. In transit to the rest of the world, the mark–up stretches 160 times. Who gets the $80 billion?

For example, heroin enters Tajikistan at one price and exits at twice that much. The same goes for Uzbekistan. By the time drugs reach consumers in the Netherlands, they cost 160 to 200 times the original price. The money ends up with the various criminal organizations that manipulate the politics of those countries en route.

The secret budget of many Central Asian countries is supplied through drug traffic, otherwise, how can smugglers who walk all the way from Kandahar for example, be the prime beneficiaries of this wealth? How can we at all consider them the true smugglers of drugs?

If it weren’t for the extremely high drug profits Iran, for example, could have ordered a half a billion dollars worth of wheat to Afghanistan as an incentive to stop planting poppy seeds. Yet the $79.5 billion profit is far too valuable, for the drug smugglers and their allied forces, to dispose of poppy seeds. Ironically, the Afghan drug producer is not himself a consumer. Drug use is prohibited but its production is legitimate. Its religious justification is sending deadly poisons to the enemies of Islam in Europe and America. This reasoning is nicely paradoxical given the economic significance of drugs on the governmental budget of Afghanistan.

The total drug turnover in the world is $400 billion and Afghans are the victims of this market. Why is Afghanistan’s share only 1/800 of the total? Whatever the answer, the market needs a place with little civil organization, but which is a cornucopia of drug production. If there were roads in Afghanistan instead of obscure paths, if the war ceased and the economy flourished, and if other incentives replaced the half a billion dollars, then what would happen to the $400 billion market?

The secret budget of Central Asian countries is supplied through drugs. That explains the strong incentive for the world to remain indifferent towards Afghanistan’s chronic economic condition. Why should Afghanistan become stable? How could it possibly compensate for the $80 billion directly generated from its soil? Drugs are an interesting business for many. Just a few months ago when I was in Afghanistan, it was said that every day an airplane full of drugs flies directly from Afghanistan to the Persian Gulf states. In 1986, when I was doing research for the making of The Cyclist, I took a road trip from Mirjaveh in Pakistan to Quetta and Peshawar in Pakistan. It took me a few days. When I entered Mirjaveh, I got on a colorful bus of the same kind that you might have seen in The Cyclist. The bus was filled with all kinds of strange people. People with long thin beards, turbans on the head and long dresses. At first, I wasn’t aware that the bus roof was filled with drugs. The bus drove across dirt expanses without roads. Everywhere was filled with dust and the wheels would sink into the soft soil. We arrived at a surreal gate like the ones in Dali’s paintings. It was a gate that neither separated nor connected anything from or to anything. It was just an imaginary gate erected in the middle of the desert. The bus stopped at the gate. There then appeared a group of bikers who asked our driver to step down. They talked a little and then brought a sack of money and counted it with the driver. Two of the bikers came and took our bus. Our driver and his assistant took the money and left on the bikes. The new driver announced that he was now the owner of the bus and everything in it. We then found out that together with the bus we had been sold.

This transaction was repeated every few hours and we were sold to several smugglers. We found out that a particular party controlled each leg of the route and every time the bus was sold, the price increased. First it was one sack of money then it went up to two and three towards the end. There were also caravans that carried Dushka heavy machineguns on the backs of their camels. If you eliminated our bus and the arms on camelback, you were in the primitive depths of history. Again we would arrive in places where they sold arms. Bullets were sold in bags as if they were beans. Kilos of bullets were weighed on scales and exchanged. Well, how would the world’s drug trade take place if such places didn’t exist?

I had gone to Khorasan and along the border was looking for a site for filming. By sunset the villages near the border would be evacuated. The villagers would flee to other cities for fear of smugglers. They also encouraged us to take flight. Rumors of insecurity were so widespread that few cars passed after sundown. In the darkness of the night, the roads were ready for the passage of smuggling caravans. According to witnesses the caravans are comprised of groups of five to one hundred people. Their ages range from twelve to thirty years. Each carries a sack of drugs on their back and some carry hand–held rocket launchers and Kalashnikovs to protect the caravan.

If drugs are not flown by airplane, they go in containers and if otherwise, they are carried by human mules. Imagine the enormity of events these caravans pass through from one country to another until for example, they reach Amsterdam. Again, imagine what fear and horror they create among the people in different regions to maintain that $80 billion trade.

I asked an official in Taibad about the number of killings committed by the smugglers. The figures say 105 were either killed or kidnapped in two years. Over 80 have been returned. I quickly divided 105 by the 104 weeks of the two years. It equals one person per week. I reckoned that if these numbers render a region so unsafe that people prefer not to stay in their own villages and flee to other cities by night, how do we expect the people of Afghanistan to stay put? In the past twenty years, they have had one killing every five minutes. Should they stay in Afghanistan and not migrate to our country? How can we think that if we deport them, the lack of safety in Afghanistan will not bring them back? I inquired of the officials stationed on the roads about the causes for kidnappings and killings. Apparently, the caravans on the Iranian side of the border deal with the villagers. When an Iranian smuggler does not pay money on time, he or one of his family members is kidnapped and they are returned once the money is exchanged. Again, I realize that this aggression also has an economic basis. Near the Dogharoon border the customs agents were saying that the region had been unsafe for eight years but the papers had been reporting about it for only two years. The reason for the relative wave of openness is related to the new situation of newspapers in Iran.

2001, Volume 53, Issue 06 (November)
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