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The real elephant in the room is the Taliban, not China: Adrienne Woltersdorf

The Afghanistan country director of German think tank Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, Adrienne Woltersdorf, describes in an interview to Aditi Phadnis, what it is like to live and work in Afghanistan and what the Afghans really want. Edited excerpts:

You live and work in Kabul. As the tanks roll out, what is it like for a foreigner, and for Afghans?

In December 2014, Kabul was a city in which citizens expected the worst every day. A minor growl, a distant bang, and all those who have smartphones check Twitter for the news of yet another Taliban attack. Sometimes, just cars blow up; sometimes, buses and their passengers. It’s quieter and safer now. But the last three months of political void and insurgent activism have taken their toll.

The disillusionment has reached new heights, or lows. It’s a matter of perspective. Ajmal, a young man who works for an international NGO, was one of those optimistic young Afghans who told me wholeheartedly, “I’m never going to leave my country”. He voted enthusiastically for Ashraf Ghani, but got really upset after last summer’s political crisis around an election that he had fervently believed in. Today, he says, “I feel ashamed that I insisted that my very old grandmother go out, stand in the sun, and vote. Twice. For what?” Ajmal, like many other young Afghans, is fed up with what he calls “the elite”, the same old faces, the same old tricks. Now, ever more often, he thinks about a way to leave the country, go abroad, look for a different life, safety.

For us foreigners, living and working in Kabul, a lot has changed. One single event put an end to a city that had its not-so-hidden oases of good living and fun. At the beginning of January 2014, a brutal attack on a favoured hangout, the restaurant Taverne du Liban, left 24 guests, mostly foreigners, dead. After that, nothing has ever returned to normal, even in the Afghan context. Most international organisations, such as NGOs and embassies, put strict bans on people leaving their working and living quarters. Most of us got sequestered in our shared houses or compounds. And those who were still free to move around soon gave up going to empty restaurants. Many of the hangouts closed; some were forcibly closed by the Afghan secret services to prevent further bloodshed: that’s what they said. Or, they simply went out of business, because there was no more business.

Now, for us foreigners, life in Kabul has come to a halt.

Many Afghans share this feeling, as more and more shops and restaurants have been closing. Or, they are idle and empty. Security is only one side of the story. People do not go out and spend money any more, especially the young generation, the first generation to have university diplomas in their pockets and big dreams to become a minister and make Afghanistan right and peaceful. The ones who could have been Afghanistan’s new middle class: the ones who are left unsure about what the future will offer.

What does the future hold for Afghan women?

Will there be jobs? Ala, a self-confident young woman given to wearing colourful headscarves, is worried. She told me: “A year ago, I thought I had a really good chance to become a professor at the faculty of law and politics in the university. But I’m not sure any more if I can really take up a job”. Like her, many young women feel pursuing a career has become more and more difficult. The Taliban is the only thing on their mind. The daily routine of work, with more and more criminal incidents, is another problem. And also, the lack of opportunities, as the international community seems to lose interest in their country. And there are still all these people who think a young woman’s place is home.

Ala is sure that the Taliban will never come back. But about the resurgent conservatism in her city? She has doubts about that. Like Ala, many young Afghans think international troops should leave, that the hordes of international consultants should pack up and that she and her fellow new graduates have all they need to work for Afghanistan. “All we need, is international financial support,” they say.

Do you believe that the US will leave the Afghans to their own devices and leave in 2016 as scheduled?

The US has said 2016, but we have to see what the decision will be when 2016 arrives. It looks as if the Islamic State is moving into that region. If that happens, the US might have other priorities…

Is there a sustainable political and economic alternative for the Afghan people? Right now, although elections have taken place, the mandate legitimacy is in question. Power-sharing in Afghanistan is a face-saver, and it is actually power division, not sharing. As the world’s attention shifts away from Afghanistan, isn’t it possible that people begin to work for warlords in the absence of other sources of livelihood, in which case we are looking at a return to the Afghanistan of old, where these 13 years of relative peace will become a distant memory…

We work with very young people. Afghans are ready to take their fate in their own hands. Young people think their country is doing great. Remember, 65 per cent of the Afghan population is below the age of 25. The country has Integrity Watch. They are free to criticise their government, the media is as free and open as anywhere else in the region. By no means is the situation bleak, they feel.

Sure, they are worried about the economy. Women are worried. But they say ‘now we have to decide where we want to go’.

Afghans feel the rest of the world hasn’t really heard their voice. They want to stand up in the rest of world and want to be heard. There is nothing like civil society there, so, there is an open debate about everything. But having said that, it is a society that has modernised extremely fast. So, there is confusion and fatigue at having to cope with this modernisation.

They are also tired of foreigners: in dealing with foreigners, you have to keep adapting to their levels of thinking. If you look at the Afghans today, they can talk the language of Americans as effortlessly as they can the language the Chinese speak…

Which brings us to the elephant in the room, China. How important or pervasive is the Chinese influence in Afghanistan?

I have lived and worked in China as well. My own experience is that the Chinese don’t like Islamic countries too much. Their main preoccupation is central Asia – Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan – to make the new Silk Route work. The Chinese have made enormous investments in roads, highways and so on in central Asian countries and while they make noises about Afghanistan and send a special envoy – which doesn’t cost much – it is the central Asian region they are really concerned about. So, I don’t think it is the elephant in the room.

The real elephant is the Taliban. There are so many groups – the older Taliban, the younger more radicalised elements, the Afghan Taliban, the non-Afghan Taliban… nobody knows who the real Taliban is and who is the pretender. Most Afghans recognise the Taliban and say ‘sure, invite them to join the government but they must form a political party first’. The supporters of the Northern Alliance say they will not rest until the last Taliban is eliminated from the country. The Taliban is still a group of terrorists in the eyes of most Afghans. So, there is no common understanding in Afghan society about who or what the Taliban is.

The main concern, in my mind, is the economy. Every survey done in the country says Afghans are less worried about Taliban and more worried about economic mismanagement – and what to do if there is no job and they are forced to join the illegal drug economy.

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