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Kabul: A New Day Dawns, An Old Year Dies

Jacky Sutton

KabulIt’s cold here in Kabul, but there is no snow. This is good news for we expats, sitting outside the social centre on the UN compound, catching the white rays of the New Year’s winter sun and discussing upcoming rest breaks to Goa or grumbling about yet another deadline. Behind us the Koh-e Kuhnah Khomar Mountain looms brown against the azure sky, jutting above her saw-toothed, swarthy sisters. The mountains surround the city, trapping the ever-present smog in a throat-tickling haze that overhangs us like a shadow.

A chill wind blows constantly, but there are no clouds to catch the planes that lumber across the deep arc of the horizon, bearing away the last of the foreign troops whose presence has both comforted and enraged Afghans and aid workers alike for the last 13 years. There was a low-key drawdown ceremony for the US-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) at the heavily defended NATO bunker on Sunday.

The Taliban, or those who claim to represent Washington’s current Nemesis (or one of them) responded by mocking the foreigners, claiming that once more the Graveyard of Empires was living up to its name, and sending them packing in undignified retreat. They’ve been quieter these last few days, the last mass attack being a few days ago in central Kabul, an IED against a minivan filled with unarmed young recruits for the army, and in Helmand, a rocket on a wedding party that killed 24. That after sending a murderer with a bomb into the audience of a school play at the French-run Lycée Esteqlalin Kabul on December 11.

Several people died as a result of that “spectacular”, including a cameraman Zobir Hatami, whose back was blown off. He lived for 10 days more and when he died he was 23. The hundred or so journalists who attended his funeral have vowed not to cover the Taliban any more, not to let their deeds soil their broadcasts or writing. It’s a tactic that has worked in the past; like all evangelists, the Taliban like to see themselves reflected in the eyes of others, even if those others are infidels and reporters.

However widespread disgust at the massacre of children in a school in Peshawar earlier in December has cowed the killers somewhat, denting their self-proclaimed founding myth of being the agents of justice and security – a mission statement enshrined in their institutional Code of Conduct, or Layha. I guess it’s hard, walking that narrow line between intimidating people enough so that they don’t “collaborate” with the “foreign-backed government” and educate their girls, and intimidating them too much that they are repulsed. So the killers have hunkered down for a while, leaving the streets to the regular guys who rule the country.

There was a big gunfight in Kabul today between supporters of ex-warlord General Din Mohamad Jurat, former head of public order at the Ministry of Interior, and ex-warlord Haji Rahim Puri. It only rates a mention in the press because General Din’s son was killed, and this could signal the beginning of faction fighting, which last time round reduced much of Kabul to rubble before a plane flew into a tower in New York over a decade ago and triggered the latest foreign invasion.

We had hoped for a White Christmas in Kabul, and the compound dining room was decked with tinsel. But Christmas Day passed and the sky shone like blue steel, pitiless. Across the city the smog grew thicker as three million people around us drove their cars, cooked, burned rubbish and just lived. Most of them are peasants, displaced from their land or sharecrop by poverty and violence or hunger for the better life promised in the last three electoral cycles and delivered, if at all, as a loan against an opium harvest or a daughter.

No one really knows how many people live in the capital, however, let alone in the country. The last census was done in 1979 and that was partial. Parliamentary seats are allocated based on provincial population, so it’s in everyone’s interests to claim the biggest constituency as that guarantees another shot at the government trough. Attempts to hold another national headcount have been curtailed at gunpoint, so to speak, while ongoing efforts to organise a biometric voter registry are running into some interesting theological waters.

But what we know is that if there is no snow at Christmas, there will be no run-off in spring. And that, for Afghanistan’s 77 percent rural population, will spell disaster. An already fragile and cash-based economy that has become dependent on aid and foreign military contracts will not have the resilience or traditional barter goods to weather the devastation of a drought. Over the centuries Afghanistan’s farmers developed sophisticated techniques to modify their wheat, creating landraces that were specific to just a few acres. I will always remember an old man in Yawkowlang, a Shia Hazara community routinely ravaged by Taliban militia, telling me that when the white half-ton trucks filled with black-bearded thugs were sighted on the horizon he would store his precious seeds in a pot underground. Only then he would flee with his family, returning to his smouldering home once the storm had passed to reclaim his heritage and his family’s future.

That was back in 2002, when Afghanistan emerged from a ten-year drought with export quantities of export quality wheat seed and a proud spring in its step. That was before the aid money came, and imported, unaccustomed wheat seeds as well as an exodus of young men to the city where poverty, drug-addiction and employment as a bomb-carrying murderer awaited. Opium is relatively resilient and as the imported crops failed traffickers’ agents travelled far and wide across the country giving seeds to farmers for free against the future harvest.

Opium has now become a national, rather than a regional, crop and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime recorded a record-breaking harvest in 2014. International schemes to destroy the crop have given rise to yet another unintended consequence – opium brides. These are young girls accepted in lieu of the promised harvest when the agent returns to collect his debt. Nobody knows how many little girls are sold this way, it is a deeply shameful thing for a father to do and anyway, the birth of a girl does not usually warrant a record.

It’s cold here in Kabul, and the night is bitter. There is a crescent moon cut sharp against the glitter of the stars. A dog barks and the sound carries through the crystal air. It’s a new year, a new government and we’ve sung our Auld Langs Syne. The year’s midnight has passed in Afghanistan but there is no snow.

Feature image of Afgahni village on the hill in Kabul courtesy of Shutterstock. 

Jacky Sutton

Jacky Sutton landed in Canberra on a skilled migrant visa last year after almost two decades working with the United Nations in war zones around the world. Up until October she was working in Baghdad with the Iraqi election commission and before that she was working with journalists and bloggers in Iraq, Afghanistan, Gaza and Iran. She started out with BBC World Service and Vatican Radio before moving into the development aid sector. She arrived in Canberra on Melbourne Cup Day – “It was like a nuclear winter – there was no one here!” – but is now enrolled as a research scholar at the Centre of Arabic and Islamic Studies at ANU and otherwise keeping busy with Vegan ACT, HerCanberra and two rescue cats called Shirin and Narla. More about the Author

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