Remember Saigon…

It has been too long since I last came to Kabul. In the past two years, young Afghans have become more westernized: burqas have become (little) sparser and make-up more apparent. Once in a blue moon, the careful observer might even glance at a woman sitting on the driver’s seat. Young men dress like American contractors, wear Abercrombie shirts, and soccer jerseys (Real Madrid’s popularity is definitely on the rise). They spend increasing amounts of time on Facebook. Paradoxically, this process unfolds as people grow weary of what will happen after the 2014 withdrawal of US forces. The people my friend and I meet with (mostly former mujahideen and high-level politicians) seem to be sitting on the fence, waiting to see what the future will bring. Will the presidential election actually take place (and under which conditions)? Will Karzai really step down? How many US troops will stay?  Will the next government be able to defend Kabul against the insurgency?

The army’s presence is also getting heavier and heavier: more helicopters flying around, a surveillance blimp overlooking the city, higher walls, more sandbags, etc. Soldiers are getting nervous; foreign workers are ready to leave. They have more curfews and safety protocols to follow, less freedom, and maybe most importantly less confidence in the usefulness of what they’ve been trying to achieve here in the past decade. The atmosphere in the Afghan capital is getting extremely tense. Terrorist attacks are becoming more frequent. There was a big terrorist attack two days before we arrived. There was another one just a few days ago, as we were sharing ice cream with a former mujahideen and his friends, comfortably sitting in the garden of a Kabul restaurant in the middle of the afternoon. The explosion was followed by two smaller ones, as well as rocket firing, which didn’t stop until later that evening. As we walked home through the green zone, soldiers seemed extremely nervous. Early this morning, five suicide bombers attacked the governor’s office in the Panjshir, until now one of the safest provinces of Afghanistan. As I type this post, insurgents are attacking the office of the International Red Cross in Jalalabad. “It’s like Saigon,” Will Reno recently told me. The area controlled by the government is shrinking as insurgents progressively increase their sphere of influence. Even in Kabul, there is no such thing as a safe neighborhood.

Journalists, policy-makers, and scholars are all trying to predict what is going to happen to this country after the 2014 deadline. The truth is that we don’t know.

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About Afghanopoly

I am an Assistant Professor of peace and conflict studies at Radboud University's Centre for International Conflict Analysis and Management (CICAM). I completed my PhD in Political Science at Northwestern University and Sciences Po under the supervision of Will Reno and Bertrand Badie. Among other things, I teach students about the politics of international intervention in Afghanistan and elsewhere. My research focuses on the political strategies that Afghan strongmen use to consolidate and legitimize their authority. I am particularly interested in how these actors manage to conduct their own forms of international relations. My field research brings me in contact with Afghan community leaders, politicians, diplomats and foreign military officers.
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