Kabul Thrives at What Price?
By Imtiaz Gul
Weekly Pulse, Islamabad April 19, 2008
Kabul is throbbing with life; over five million people rubbing shoulders, half a million vehicles plying the roads, booming construction with a few splendid glass-walled private plazas, cellular phone revolution, media explosion with over a dozen private TV channels, several dozen FM stations, and expansion of the banking sector. On the face of it Kabul in 2008 is way ahead of what it was by the turn of the century.
But several anomalies underlie this apparent hustle and bustle; crime, corruption, insecurity and uncertainty that is being perpetuated by continued Taliban insurgency. Massive power, potholed roads at even critical places in Shahre Nau and Wazir Akbar Khan, meanwhile the most fortified district of the capital because of foreign missions and NATO-ISAF offices there.
Shirpur, an upscale locality adjacent to the largely diplomatic Wazir Akbar Khan district symbolises this all. Ministry of defence lands awarded to the powerful elite – both in and outside the government. Cynics refer to it as Chorpur (thieves’ haven). Palatial houses here remind one of Islamabad’s F-7 and E-7 sector. Shirpur therefore, said a friend, is constant source of frustration for most residents, who are faced with a corrupt police, inefficient and lethargic bureaucracy, that remains largely obstructive than helpful.
It is not surprising, however; like a typical post war society that has been through Jihad between 1979-1992, civil war between 1992 - 1996, a very controversial Taliban era (1996- 2001) and is reeling the Taliban-led insurgency in several provinces, Afghanistan suffers from problems that stem from lack of government structures, financial resources, insufficient human capital.
Tribalism, small egos, and socio-economic frustrations of the majority of population further precipitate the factors mentioned above. Salaries are extremely low. A policeman gets about 100 dollars a month, while the dominant majority of government employees much less than this. These salaries are miniscule if compared with the cost of living in new Kabul. Sky-high prices for essential commodities that come from Pakistan – except for fruit and vegetables. A bread that is lighter by a few grams now sells for Afghanis 10 ( One US $ = 50 Afghanis).
People’s frustrations fly high also because members of parliament receive almost 2000 dollars a month – compared to 700 that Pakistani MPs get.
Dr Dafdar Rangeen Spanta, the academic-turned foreign minister, admitted the problems his country faces.
“Unfortunately, decades of war have had their impact on us,” Spanta told the Pulse in Kabul. People have lost respect for law , for relationships and for human values. “Money and power seems to be driving everything,” said Spanta, who had done his doctorate in Germany and had been teaching there before returning to Kabul to take up the charge of the foreign ministry.
Moving through Kabul’s social, diplomatic and NGO circles one comes across countless stories of nepotism and corruption.
“Given the countless number of stories of mis-governance, crime, massive corruption it is increasingly becoming difficult to convince head offices back home that Afghanistan needs continued engagement to come out of the misery inflicted on it by a quarter century of war and conflict,” said German aid worker.
“We call it the Cop and Court corruption which is undermining progress and obstructing governance,” a western ambassador told the Pulse. That is why crime, corruption, and governance still top the international community’s agenda. We had to arrange even for electronic transfer of police salaries because local chiefs have earlier been taking their cut from the dollars we would give them for disbursement.
The envoy said that most of the cabinet and bureaucracy appear involved in drugs – directly or indirectly.
“Many of them find it convenient to set aside part of their income and fund insurgent groups as well as criminal gangs. This is a good way to keep the pot boiling and continue with your business,” observed another aid worker, who is familiar with Afghanistan for over three decades. Once only two banks - the Bank Milli Afghanistan and the Pashtani Tejarti Bank - used to cater to all banking needs of the country. Today 14 other banks have joined in – all of them private and international including Standard Chartered, Al-Falah, HBL. The rest nine are Afghan private banks including the scandal-riven Azizi Bank
One Afghan finance consultant rued the fact that military and security related funds as well as an overwhelming presence of foreign consultants and NGOs have injected have greed as well as craving for foreign currency.
“Almost 90 percent of assets of local and foreign banks are in dollars,” said a senior banker. It is a dollar-denominated economy just because the government as well as the foreign military and aid organizations are awarding contracts essentially in dollars.
A foreign banker said the high-risks involved in business had encouraged his bank and others to step forward and invest in Kabul. And it is paying dividend, he said.
The cellular business is also booming. Five private mobile companies are doing roaring business, particularly the Aga Khan-owned Roshan and Afghan Wireless Company which were the pioneers in the cell phone industry, are all over. Within last two years, they have improved their services as well.
As a whole, the Afghan capital has made big strides – reconstruction, new construction, expansion of the cellular and internet services, scores of capacity-building projects being funded by the international community do give some hope for the future of this beautiful city. It, however, remains uncertain as to when will the capital come out of the shadows of the insurgency and violence that continues to engage 60, 000 Afghan and over 70 US-led troops across the country.
(The author heads the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies, Islamabad.