The Shura in the Porno Cafe: An American Peace Activist's Observations in Afghanistan

Published on
by
CommonDreams.org

The Shura in the Porno Cafe: An American Peace Activist's Observations in Afghanistan

Afghanistan ranks 176th out of 178 countries on Transparency International’s corruption index, only slightly better than Somalia and tied with Myanmar. So perhaps it isn’t surprising that no matter who I speak with, the conversation quickly turns to corruption. In Afghanistan, corruption doesn’t mean just a little skimming off the top by a few people. Rather, it means a corrosive destruction of society based on a complete lack of justice. It means that the government’s sole function is to accept bribes. It means that a small group of families controls all the wealth in the country while the huge majority of Afghans barely survive. And it means that no one can feel safe because power is concentrated in the hands of a few, who are beyond any law.

“The Americans promised that they would bring justice to Afghanistan, but there is no justice,” Salim, executive director of an NGO, tells me. Because of the lack of justice, he claims, the suffering of ordinary people is now “over the limit,” but anyone who dares to speak up is dealt with quickly. It is too dangerous for local leaders, unaffiliated with the Mafia government, to arise now, he claims. “Ordinary people feel like they are in prison. The only thing we are permitted to say is ‘Yes, sir.’ This is a return to slavery,” he declares.

Salim contends that the actions of the U.S. have fostered corruption, and in the process dramatically increased the power of a few families to such a scale that even the U.S. cannot control them now.  Billions of dollars have been poured into the country, and continue to be, but still average people cannot feed their families. Where is all this money disappearing, Salim asks? He points out that during the Soviet occupation, at least people could eat, there was a basic level of subsistence for everyone. But now, immense amounts of money simply enrich the war lords who control the government, further solidifying their power. And the people go hungry.

The U.S. Army Tries Community Development

Fahima and I go to a village outside Kabul in the afternoon where we are supposed to meet with some village elders in a “shura,” or council, set up by an army captain. The captain wants to win hearts and minds with a few local projects, and to that end, he hopes Fahima will organize education classes for women.

He had spoken with people in three villages near the large military base on which he is stationed and found some interest on their part, at least to the point of agreeing to speak with Fahima. However, when we arrive, the captain tells us that he is extremely disappointed: due to an “incident” the night before, one of the villages is “mad” and is unlikely to participate now. We ask what happened, but he says he can’t tell us. However, later we find out from one of the villagers.

The story began about eight months ago. A young man in the village got married, going into debt to put on a large, Afghan-style wedding. Right after his wedding, he was arrested by the Americans and sent to a prison where he languished for four months—in fact, his is a case of mistaken identity, his name being similar to that of someone else wanted by the military. By the time the man got out of prison, his debts had grown quite large, since he couldn’t make payments on loans during the time he was incarcerated. He decided to go to Iran, where he could make more money in a shorter period of time, as a way to begin to pay down his debts. He returned to the village yesterday, glad to be home and happy to see his bride again. In the middle of the night, his first night home, the U.S. military broke into his home and arrested him again—the exact same case of mistaken identity. The villagers are furious.

Hard to win hearts and minds this way.

Our shura is held in a simple café on base, in a building made of plywood, with orange fabric covering the windows. Orange-flowered plastic table cloths adorn the tables, along with bottles of hot sauce, and we sit around the tables in cheap red plastic chairs. A young Afghan man stands behind a small counter with a large “tips” jar next to a television. When Fahima and I arrived, the Afghan and a couple of American soldiers were watching a porn movie on the TV but quickly turned it off when they saw us. The heat in the little plywood café causes us to sweat profusely. After a couple of hours, someone finally brings three electric fans into the room and turns them on; but the fans blow a fuse and the electricity goes off. The soldiers finally get that fixed and after a half hour, they are able to get one fan going, for which we are grateful.

Fahima negotiates with the captain, trying to get funds for the projects he says he wants. She is willing to help establish a school for women and a training program for midwives if she can get a minimal commitment from the captain. She wants the army to buy a few $50 sewing machines to enable her to establish dressmaking classes, and she wants school supplies. The captain says that he will try to obtain these, but he isn’t sure if that will be possible. In any event, funding for the projects would be restricted to a maximum of $5,000.

We actually have two separate shuras, with just two Afghans participating in each, representing two of the three neighboring villages. Fahima explains the projects to them and seeks information on what it is they want and the extent to which they are willing to allow women to take courses.  Even without knowing the language, I could tell that she was very persuasive!

The result: Fahima gets the village elders to agree that women can take classes, and she is invited back in a couple of days to finalize the plans. The captain will see what he can do.

After we leave the base, Fahima tells me that one of the village elders explained  that they are tired of dealing with the Army about development projects because it is all talk and no action. The Army organizes lots of shuras, but no results ever seem to come from them. The Afghans consider this a waste of time.

A Few Observations

It is clear that the Afghans from these two villages do not trust the Americans, although they may ultimately accept some small projects from them, such as the education classes Fahima would like to bring to the women and the widening of a path in the village. And it is clear that the Americans are hoping to buy the friendship of the Afghans with these small projects. Fahima is essentially begging for school supplies, when we know that the U.S. is paying over one million dollars per year to support every soldier in Afghanistan.

The captain, a charming and intelligent man, had told us when we first met him, “My job now is to make friends and this project is part of that.” Perhaps he genuinely believes that trying to buy friends in the day with cheap projects, while arresting innocent people at night, will lead to stability and development.

Afghans understand that these projects are peanuts compared to what we are handing over to the war lords who now run the government. And what every Afghan I have spoken with really wants is justice and an end to corruption. Having to beg for school supplies from a wealthy occupying force is, in my opinion, unlikely to do much towards winning hearts and minds and it is unlikely to foster justice or counter corruption—what is really needed in Afghanistan. But perhaps Fahima can pull a hat out of a rabbit.

Jean Athey

Jean Athey is a coordinator of Montgomery County (Maryland) Peace Action, and Secretary of the national Peace Action Board of Directors. She is traveling with women's organizations and activists in Afghanistan. This post and others are available on the blog http://peaceactionmc.wordpress.com/

Share This Article

More in: