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Afghan politics: “like watching Game of Thrones with headscarves”

When I arrived in Kabul in 2007, I met Sippi Azarbaijani-Moghaddam. Her reputation preceded her. She was the expert’s expert, someone who had a deep understanding of Afghanistan. Sippi has always had an unerring grasp of the complexities of government, politics, and culture, and remains my go-to specialist when I need a forensic assessment on how the country works away from the headlines and the glib explanations.

Women walk with their children along a roadside after a flash flood affected the area at Sayrah-e-Hopiyan in Charikar, Parwan province, on August 26, 2020. – The death toll from flash floods that swept through an Afghan city climbed to 100 on August 26, officials said, as rescue workers searched for survivors in the rubble of collapsed houses. (Photo by WAKIL KOHSAR / AFP) (Photo by WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP via Getty Images)

Her frank views on Afghan women were especially eye-popping. Underneath the veil, it’s not a sisterhood of the meek and the powerless, but a ruthless pecking order. When it came to women in politics, the story was shockingly the same. Was the presence of women in parliament about female empowerment, or were they just representing the family “firm”? Were decisions based on fuzzy ideas about women’s rights or profit and power?

After nearly two decades of Western intervention in Afghanistan, what has changed? The international community was one concerned about girls’ education. And yet, according to a recent report published by the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) “nearly two-thirds of school-age girls in the southeastern province of Ghazni and almost half of those in northern Faryab Province are being deprived of proper education.” Girls’ access to education has been declining for years.

Sippi fell in love with Afghanistan when she was a child, and her father would tell her stories of his travels around Afghanistan from Herat, via Mazar to Kabul. Her fascination eventually extended into her profession. She studied literature at Oxford, later development and anthropology and worked as a gender specialist, among other things. She has worked in Afghanistan since 1995, and during that time she has befriended aid workers, adventurers and spies. Her work moved between the Mujahideen on the frontlines and the Taliban commanders and governors around Afghanistan.

Now, another seminal moment in a succession of seminal moments — the Afghan Peace Process is taking place in Doha, Qatar. Six months after the US and the Taliban signed a four-part agreement, talks eventually started in September. The Taliban have agreed to engage in discussions with the Afghan government, and they have also agreed not to allow Afghanistan to be used as a base from which terrorists can attack the US. In turn, the US will withdraw its soldiers. Kandahar Air Field, one of the biggest air bases throughout this conflict, is being dismantled. Prisoner exchanges have already taken place. It’s a moment of change for the country, or at least it appears so. I knew there was one person who could tell me what was really happening:


Heidi: With the Doha Peace Process in full swing, we see the same issues and the same people. What is your take on the fact that we go round and round in circles?

Sippi: We like to bat away criticism when we start a new process in Afghanistan. After the hoped-for results shrivel in the glaring light of reality, we start looking for reasons. It would be comical if the impact were not so depressing. It was common in medieval times to look at sick or weak babies and claim that they were changelings, that the fairies had taken the real baby away. And so it goes with the Afghan peace process where the international community stands as a midwife and then once the peace has been birthed to claim it is a changeling because the result is weak or misshapen.

The standard narratives about Afghanistan have to be re-examined. Afghanistan is not the graveyard of empires or one rentier state. Since the end of the Cold War and shifts in the region, it has become the Grand Militia Bazaar composed of a thousand tiny shops, micro-rentier states if you will, where a complicated and confusing array of deals are being struck.

A single peace process works if you have a cohesive country with a unified government, which is not the case. Dr Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani fighting like two wives married to the same man is just one of the visible rifts. There are hundreds of hidden fault lines. Still, the process in Doha is more like a trade fair where business people dressed as politicians ultimately representing their family’s financial interests are striking deals and scrabbling to hold on to ill-gotten gains and war booty.

The surface is pure theatre, a performance for the benefit of the international community. The real deals are done in an area that is impenetrable for most internationals, following an old pattern repeated all over the world. Why should Afghanistan be any different? Why do we suspend judgement when it comes to Afghanistan? Anyone and everyone who is there, including the women, are representing the family business at an illegal and invisible trade fair.

Heidi: Which regime was the best for Afghanistan?

Sippi: It’s difficult to say. When I first read about the Communist regime, I read that it had killed and disappeared thousands. Now I see people saying what wonderful guys the Communists were and [Soviet-era Afghan president] Dr Najibullah’s posters are on cars and he is respected for his vision. A strange nostalgia I can’t fathom. In comparison to the sh*t-fest today, yes, they probably look good, but they were held up by the iron fist of the Soviet Union. Across the world, we are facing corrupt, incompetent governance and false political representation. Yearning for an imaginary past won’t help us.

Similarly, I see people, so-called experts, who whitewashed the Mujahideen and vilified the Taliban in the 1990s. I was there. I dealt with both, and frankly, they were as bad as each other. By doing this, these experts influenced political opinion after 9/11. For this and other reasons, the Taliban were kept out of the various agreements which allowed criminal elements to run Afghanistan again.

The result has been another chapter of war which has killed and maimed thousands, boosted the heroin economy and indirectly contributed to the spawning of Isis. No accountability from the experts — they are still respected experts. Many people built a reputation on vilifying the Taliban, especially a lot of urban legends about women. Anything and everything is blamed on the Taliban. They have become the ultimate bogeymen. Again, I was on the frontline of this issue. They were as bad as each other.

Heidi: How are the Taliban still viable?

Sippi: Nobody questions why the Taliban have managed to stick around so long. There are uncomfortable reasons beyond the tired narrative about Pakistan. This is very simple, but the discussion is much more complex and nuanced. Efforts to create and maintain Afghan security forces have not produced impressive results. Those who wrote blueprints for the creation of the Afghan security forces post-2001 were swayed by narratives about Pakistan and outdated notions about symmetrical warfare.

The Taliban have not attempted to fight on any battlefield and have engaged in guerrilla warfare. All armed groups, legitimate and illegitimate, have a direct or indirect hand in drug trafficking, which means that there is little investment in rule of law. The Taliban have very successfully branded themselves as not corrupt and capable of providing swift justice. The current government, in comparison, is the poster child of corruption, nepotism and incompetence.

Heidi: What do you think the outcome of the peace process will be?

Sippi: Any sort of reality check on a high profile peace process is bound to be unpopular right now. Vast sums are spent to bring people together in a luxurious setting. Many people’s reputations are at stake. Many institutions want to showcase their effectiveness. A lot rides on squeezing out some sort of result. The pointless hand wringing and lessons not learned happens years later when the peace deal falls apart, and villains are unmasked. The Afghans will, of course, blame Pakistan because this ploy has worked for many decades now and has become a go-to strategy. The question to ask is who is invested in the rule of law, accountability and transparency. Afghanistan is still a bit of a supermarket grab game for members of parliament and other politicians.

Heidi: You’re heading back to Afghanistan soon. What are you focusing on now?

Sippi: I’m working on victim assistance. The ministry I will work with has a pension system complicated by the lack of death registration in Afghanistan. So let’s say your husband is a soldier and he dies. You’re illiterate so you can’t read the paperwork, you can’t even read signs in an office. You’ve never had a job. You have to find a male relative to go to the local authorities around 15 times with paperwork, to register that your husband really died and to get a bank account. Most entities will not deal with a woman at all. All this to receive a tiny little pension.

Chances are you have to pay bribes everywhere. Chances are your male relative will take a cut. And if you are lucky, a project may give you five chickens and tell you to make a living for yourself and your six kids. There is simply is no support system. There is no psychosocial support. If you are facing disability after a terrorist attack, there is minimal physical rehab, especially if you are in a district. The disabled mostly face a life of discrimination and even abuse. Many services are non-existent or overstretched. Nobody will know where to send you. Nobody is interested in helping you.

I think the latest stats indicate that more than 70 per cent of Afghans live on less than two US dollars per day, even if we are conservative and say around 50 per cent of Afghans are just above the poverty line. My mind blows. If I were part of the Afghan government, I would be at least concerned. At least set up an electronic system for registering births and deaths!

The blame game is alive and well, and everybody blames everybody else for why stuff hasn’t happened and how millions of dollars meant as aid ended up elsewhere. Afghanistan is bottom of the charts on many global statistics but top on corruption. And of course, people blame the Taliban, but even in the Golden Age of the king before the Soviet Invasion, Afghanistan was at the bottom of international development indicators.

But bless the politicians, they put on sharp suits and put on airs and graces in international venues and congratulate themselves on their Facebook and Instagram pages. They are continually celebrating and giving each other prizes while winter is coming for many people who will once again be burning plastic and any old rubbish they can get their hands on to stop from freezing to death. It is a bit like watching “Game of Thrones” with headscarves.