Bamiyan Panorama

Bamiyan Panorama

Friday, July 26, 2013

Why are Afghans afraid of 2014?

Why are Afghans afraid of 2014?

composite image

"When are you going to get married?"

On a recent trip to Kabul, this was one of the first questions I asked a good friend who for years professed unending love for his girlfriend.

"I'm waiting for 2014," he said. "I'll see what happens and decide what to do after that."

"Waiting for 2014" is an increasingly common theme in Afghanistan, where uncertainty is growing about what will happen when foreign troops finally leave the country.

When dealing with milestones such as births, marriages and deaths, your average Afghan has certain questions sitting uneasily at the back of their mind.

Will Taliban violence get worse? Will our security forces really be able to cope? Will the country return to civil war?

"You've just come from London, what do you think is going to happen?"

I do live in London, and yet I was asked this many times - and with a real sense of urgency.
Stockpiling cash
Rubbish collection
The Jahesh charity group run by Mirwais Rahmani cleans streets among other ventures

Aziz Shah, 38, a clothes shop owner in the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif says this feeling of impending doom has translated into slow sales.

"People just aren't spending money like they used to," he told the BBC. "Everyone is worried about 2014."

Perhaps it is Afghanistan's chequered past that is to blame. It has a woeful track record for maintaining stable government.

When Soviet forces withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, the country collapsed into civil war.

And in some areas the "2014 effect" is not just an abstract fear. As foreign troops slowly depart for their homes parts of the economy are feeling the strain.

Afghanistan's once booming housing market has been particularly hard hit.

Houses that used to be rented out to foreign troops and civilian contractors for several thousand dollars a month are now standing empty.

Abdul Ahad used to be an estate agent in Herat province, but gave up his job after seeing house prices fall by half in his area. He is now in Kabul looking for work.

"People try to stockpile cash in case things take a turn for the worse, he says.

Farida is one of the rare female drivers found around Kabul

There are also fewer job opportunities. Ahmad Samim used to get paid good money as a translator for foreign troops in northern Afghanistan.

"I honestly believe that the growth we saw in the Afghan economy was just an illusion from the very start," he said.

And my friend, the reluctant bridegroom, is not the only one holding back on weddings.

Afghans are famous for holding extravagant nuptial parties, sometimes with more than 1,000 guests, but when I was there I attended few parties - a noticeable change from previous visits - and each time there were barely 200 guests.

"We used to have lots of parties just a year ago, but now people prefer to hold them in their houses," said Mohammad Zalmai, the owner of a hotel in Kabul.
'We clean streets'
There is a pervading sense of gloom and it is easy to succumb to the sense of helplessness.

But your perspective also depends on where you are in the country.

I grew up in the north and witnessed the growth of an extraordinary drive borne out of hardship that nowadays seems to possess young Afghans. The main concerns here, unlike in the south and east where security concerns dominate, are economic.

For others in more rural areas, the harvest is of greater interest than the year 2014.

But after years of living through war, young Afghans are used to playing many roles, doing more than one job at once as part of a conscious effort to be a force for change in the country.

"We share money and buy clothes, foodstuff for the poor," said Mirwais Rahmani, a member of a charity group called Jahesh.

"We are concerned about the future, but evading responsibilities is not the way."

Farida Akbar, one of a small number of woman who drive in Kabul, took me on a tour of Kabul in her silver Toyota.

"We have a charity group, Hadia. We clean most of these streets," she says pointing out a central street in Kabul.

"We plant saplings, we donate food and we even distributed flowers to women on the streets on women's day," she added.

These are examples of the generation who came of age in the last decade which saw unprecedented foreign intervention and investment.

Distributing roses
The charity Hadia distributed flowers to women on women's day

And it is the loss of these certainties that preys on their minds even while they are eager to become the country's future leaders.

Many express concerns about the events beyond their control, such as talks with the Taliban and a fear that Afghanistan could become a pawn in a regional power struggle.

And in recent months militant attacks have been on the rise. I was in Kabul when the Taliban attacked the Supreme Court in June, killing at least 16 people. I sought cover in a nearby hotel.

"You need to be here in Kabul to understand how life is like," one friend told me.
Fears exaggerated?
Some are seriously considering moving abroad.

"I have paid $15,000 for someone to smuggle me to Germany," says Ahmad Wali, a Kabul university graduate, showing me his passport. "I really don't want to be a victim of 2014 and civil war."

President Karzai was recently so concerned by the general feeling of pessimism in the country that he felt moved to intervene. He asked people to calm down, saying nothing was going to happen in 2014.

Last year, he blamed the media - Afghan and foreign - for "propaganda" about what would happen after 2014, which he said was "a tactic to terrify us".

Many Afghan analysts agree with him, arguing that fears are exaggerated.

"The key to Afghanistan's permanent stability is in the hands of the people," says Davood Moradian, of the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies (AISS).

He sees forthcoming presidential elections as a gateway to Afghanistan's permanent stability.

Coalition forces depart Afghanistan in 2014, leaving behind a skeleton staff for training

"It is the most important issue that will determine the peace process, security transition, economic transition and overall political direction of the country. If we get the election right, it will be a turning point for the country. Otherwise, we will enter explosive and unpredictable terrain."

I asked charity worker Mirwais Rahmani who spends his time trying to make a difference on the ground, what advice he would offer my friend who postponed his marriage.

"This 2014 is just a superstition and people will get over it. Tell the guy to get married and not waste a year waiting."

He would argue that like many other Afghans, my friend has the power to change the doomsday scenario of 2014 into a new chapter of hope - at least for himself by getting married and throwing a big party.

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