20 May Kabul Diary by Mike Petterson
Today I had the privilege of speaking to 55 18‐20 year old students at the University of Kabul. I was there together with fellow Kabul University teachers and officers from the British Council. One British Council Afghan lady (called Gulghutai – or ‘flower of the tree’) did a wonderful translation job as I waxed and waned about our new project and aspects of environmental science (their chosen subject). I was struck by the possibility that the future of Afghanistan lay before me embodied within a group of young people, relatively untainted and un‐baggaged. ready to take upon themselves the challenges of building a new world.
We discussed ideas such as ‘you are not here just to get a degree but to empower yourselves to give Afghanistan hope’; ‘you know many of your peers did not have your opportunities of education at school and university, so let’s squeeze every last drop of juice from the educational bottle’; and ‘enlightened minds are much more powerful than nuclear bombs’. The latter in particular, though perhaps a bit cheesey, is pertinent with respect to the Taliban, who fear education more than armies, and know in their hearts that their narrow Wahabi‐interpretation of Islam collapses like a pack of cards under wise scrutiny. So the future engineers, scientists, policy makers and decision takers listened attentively, were beautifully patient and courteous and probably left the room at least thinking, ‘I don’t have to listen to that crazy Englishman any more…’ We noted that only five of the fifty five were girls, but commented this was five more than would have been possible a few years ago.
Then I listen to an Afghan ‘old hand’ who knows Afghanistan better than his own country. He discusses corruption, present at all levels. Even teachers and police need bribes to keep going (but who wouldn’t on $40 a month and many mouths to feed?). At the higher end of the food chain rich and powerful people are connected directly to money‐making ventures that need war to sustain them such as gun‐running and drug trafficking. The old ruling elite are present in droves within government and industry with little real connection or affinity with the jobless masses. Then again we mused, is this so different to Britain that has just returned a government full of white upper and middle class men who graduated from the best private schools and Oxbridge (and sell this as ‘change’) or the USA where corporate America holds the real power seducing the masses with the ‘American Dream’. Yes, you meet all types in Afghanistan – it’s full of foreign dreamers, radicals, cynics and naive‐hopers all rolled into one. I read an article here in a magazine called ‘Afghan Scene’ by a writer who had traded goods from 1960s and 70s ‘Hippie’ Kabul spending 3 months every year in a town that was heady with wacky herbal smokes, Afghan jackets and coffee bars all soaked within an atmosphere of tolerance, fun and hospitality. This same guy went on to help invent MTV and has recently returned broken‐hearted to a broken city commenting ‘in my day, three philosophical groups were fighting it out (rhetorically): the Communists, the Islamists, and the New Age Liberals. Perhaps today a similar philosophical fight is going on, albeit in an extreme warrior fashion – let’s hope the extreme Islamist side doesn’t win out as this holds little hope for anyone and Afghans deserve much more than this’.
My day ends with an article in the Afghanistan Times that focuses on perhaps the biggest issue here: lack of opportunities for people to make a living. Kabul has 35% unemployment (estimated) and this is growing fast as people drift to the city from the Provinces. One malicious symptom of this is people trafficking. Desperate people pay unscrupulous dealers their life savings to get them abroad to a ‘better life’. One victim described how he jumped from a ship with a capacity of 20 people, crammed with over 40 people, before it sank, to arrive exhausted on some unknown foreign beach. He passed ‘piles of human bones’ that recorded the journeys of previous emigrants and after killing a sheep to keep himself alive ended up in police custody and back in Afghanistan. Today, in Herat on the Iranian border many people took to the streets protesting at the harsh treatment of the Iranians in returning bruised and battered Afghan refugees back to Afghanistan.
So I reflected on the optimistic discussions with the young students. It’s true – they are the future: they manifest hope in their smiles. But what a responsibility on their young shoulders to improve all of this!