Former Riverside resident Zaid Siddig spends 11 months of the year living in Kabul, Afghanistan. It is, in some respects, a city like many others, he says. With a population of more than 5 million, it is a booming metropolis, a consumers paradise with all the latest in electronics and automobiles, complete with 24-hour-a-day rush hour traffic.
But there are also reminders that Kabul is NOT like other cities -- the suicide attacks and the roadside bombs that are a part of daily life in war torn Afghanistan.
Today, as the U.S. moves toward pulling its troops after 11 years of fighting, violence continues to erupt across that country, even as peace talks are being plotted. And Siddig is there, on the ground, watching it all firsthand. Greenwich Citizen spoke to Siddig recently to find out what life is really like in Afghanistan, where his ancestral family has lived for hundreds of years. How have things changed? Is there hope for the future? Can there ever be peace?
Q. Have things changed for the better or worse in Afghanistan since the U.S. entry in Afghanistan?
A. The attack on Afghanistan by the U.S., post 9/11/2001, resulted in the quick collapse of the Taliban regime but not their total defeat. Nevertheless it enabled the country to embark on a road to install democratic institutions, like an elected parliament, a supreme court, an elected presidency and most importantly the re-opening of boys and girls schools. Improvement in the health care system must also be mentioned. Finally, women, denied the right to work outside their homes under the Taliban, were re-integrated into a free society -- though social inequality and traditional restrictions hamper the advancement of women in Afghanistan to this day. Afghanistan continues, to date, to have one of the freest press in the region. The economy improved despite continued massive poverty and high unemployment. Kabul and other cities experienced a building boom fueled by legitimate money and illicit gains from the drug trade and funds amassed by warlords during the last 20 years of upheaval.
Among the negatives to mention is the continuing but necessary war against a re-equipped and determined Taliban force affecting the overall security situation in almost the entire country, ongoing abuses by the population in the countryside by local strongmen and warlords who engage in land grabbing, kidnapping, extortion and narcotics trade. Massive corruption and incompetency within the judiciary and government branches, reaching high up has angered and frustrated the average Afghan to the extent that they lost all confidence in their government.
Q. What is everyday life like for a businessman in Afghanistan? (With car bombings, drones, etc.)
A. Despite occasional suicide attacks and bombings, some of them spectacular, the major cities are booming market places filled with mostly Chinese consumer goods, the latest electronics, cars, new and used, and, of course, local food stuffs. Building supplies, sanitary equipment, etc. abound due to the vibrant construction activity. Rush hour traffic continues almost all day long. The Afghan businessman does have to cope with transport problems when importing goods that pass through Pakistan, a major problem. Corruption at customs and police checkpoints are headaches as well. Afghanistan has a free market economy with few restrictions, if any. Insecurity is a factor but does not impact your daily life. You just go on from day to day.
Q. How does the Afghan man on the street feel about the U.S. and/or Americans?
A. It depends on whom you ask. Afghans, in general, through history do not welcome extended stays of foreign forces in their country. Everybody realizes, though, that if NATO/ISAF and, most importantly, U.S. forces would leave before we have a capable, well-equipped and trained Afghan military and police force at hand with a competent government to lead them, Afghanistan would not be able to defend itself against the Taliban and civil war could not be ruled out. Persons who earn wages in U.S. dollars because of the foreign presence are, of course, glad they are in the country.
In the mostly Pashtun countryside, where fighting, bombings, arrests and frequent civilian casualties are ongoing, Americans have overstayed their welcome long ago, unfortunately. It is a fact that most of the civilians are killed by Taliban road mines and IED'S ( improvised explosive devices), executions of suspected collaborators and killings of government employees including local police. Nevertheless, an anti-American feeling has developed in those areas, blaming the presence of U.S. forces for the continued fighting and deprivation. The Taliban's massive propaganda adds to this notion.
Q. Do you feel safe or fear for your safety when you are there? Is the fact of your American roots well known?
A. It is well known where my home is as it is with most other Afghans having returned from abroad. You do take precautions when you are out and about but fear is not what I feel.
Q. Your time in the country goes back to the 1960s, before the Soviet invasion, and subsequent American arrival. What was Afghanistan like then, compared to now? Better or worse?
A. I lived permanently in Afghanistan from 1967 until the end of 1980, when I came to the United States. Having been born and raised in Berlin, Germany, I was keen to see the entire country. It helped that I worked with the Geological Survey of Afghanistan, in charge of the survey of ore deposits. In this capacity I was able to see the most remote regions of the country and appreciated the spectacular beauty of the mountains and valleys that I travelled through on foot, horseback and jeep. People were warm and kind wherever you went, offering freely to share whatever little they had of food and tea. The hospitality of Afghans goes back to a thousand years. Security was never an issue in five years I worked as senior geologist. I think I arrived in Afghanistan at its best time. People had hope, we had peace and the economy was improving. Everything ended with the communist coup d'etat in 1978 and the subsequent Soviet Invasion on December 27, 1979. People before then were more polite, dependable and honorable. Kabul's population consisted mostly of families that went back generations in this city. Population was about 500,000 in 1967 and by the end of 1980 had increased to 750,000 due to fighting in the countryside. Today, Kabul has a population of over 5 million people, most of them having migrated from the countryside and not used to city living. It has created all sorts of problems.
Q. What about the differences seen post-Soviet invasion?
A. Thirty years of turmoil, war and destruction, millions as refugees in neighboring countries, like Iran and Pakistan, living under harsh conditions has changed people's perceptions of whom to trust and whom to distrust. People today are more politically savvy and most everyone has a mostly negative opinion about the government, foreign aid programs and the police. This does not come as a surprise for a country that teeters on the borderline of a failed state.
Q. Do you see specific things that the U.S. can do before they leave that can actually help Afghanistan?
A. The Afghan Army and police have to be trained and sufficiently equipped in order to enable them to defend against hostile elements -- which has not been the case so far. Until 2014, the withdrawal deadline, much work lies ahead. The question remains whether the new military will be a cohesive national force with a strong national identity and motivation to defend the state or will it fragment into ethnic divisions and affiliation with their own local strongmen. The army is made up of Tadjiks, Uzbeks, Hazara, and Pashtuns as in the old days. Then it worked quite well. Today? I'm not so sure.
A responsible, competent administration free from the most egregious corruption has to emerge. I say "the most egregious" because corruption is so ingrained in the fabric of the governing class that it will be impossible to rid ourselves completely of it for many years to come. It has to be said that some responsibility for this dilemma has to be borne by foreign nations, including the United States, who have done a bad job in monitoring the vast sums in foreign aid. Let me be clear. Donor nations have repatriated a large percentage of this money in the form of goods and services provided by foreign companies right back into their own accounts. Recently, efforts for better oversight have been made.
For years to come, Afghanistan will be in need of substantial economic aid and professional know-how in order to get the country on a sound economic footing. Needless to say, this will be much cheaper than having 100,000 plus foreign troops in the country. Afghanistan's vast natural resources, like copper, high grade iron ore, lithium, oil and gas offer the country a good chance to achieve self-sufficiency in the future. Already two contracts, copper with the Chinese and iron ore with the Indians, have been signed. Work at the copper deposit has begun.
For these things to happen we need peace, and peace will not happen as long as the Pakistani ISI ( Inter Services Intelligence Directorate) and the Pakistani military is covertly assisting the Afghan Taliban and providing safe havens in their tribal area at Afghanistan's border where all the training camps are located. Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader, lives in Pakistan, in Quetta, with his entire council.
Q. What do you see happening after the U.S. pulls out?
A. It is too early to predict what will happen after the 2014 withdrawal of foreign forces. One question so far remains unclear of what number of U.S. troops will remain after that date. It depends on a successful conclusion of a strategic treaty between the U.S. and Afghanistan. If there will be no resolution by 2014 and the Taliban will continue their insurgency and the Afghan Army is not yet ready to defend the country, then there could be a remote possibility that the non-Pashtun Tadjiks, the Uzbeks and the Hazara will take matters into their own hands and we would face a recurrence of a civil war.
Q. What do you see as the biggest challenge for Afghanistan going forward?
A.The biggest challenge going forward will be -- can we get the Pakistani military and specifically the ISI, which is practically running Pakistan's affairs, to go along with a negotiated settlement between the U.S., the Afghan Government and the Taliban. Secondly, is a negotiated settlement with the Taliban possible at all? At the moment they seem to be willing to enter into talks with U.S. representatives but reluctant to talk to the Afghan government, which would be crucial for any positive outcome. It has been agreed for them to open an office in Doha, Qatar which has been done and two of their officials, Mullah Obaidullah and Taeb Agha, are in place. Because the Taliban are not a single monolithic group, the question is will everybody sign on to the process. Also, the non-Pashtun population and its leaders, the former Northern Alliance, have to agree to any Taliban participation in a future government. So far, they are vehemently opposed to such a deal. Peace negotiations have dragged on for extended times in other conflicts, such as in Northern Ireland, Vietnam, Algeria, etc., -- and it certainly will take time in our case here.