Getting hotter in Afghanistan
By Ryan Gawn In the eastern provinces of Afghanistan — one of the hottest regions in the country, where temperatures often reach over 110 degrees in July — there’s a lot more to worry about than the heat. I’m currently based less than an hour from the Pakistani border, working for an international economic development ...
By Ryan Gawn
In the eastern provinces of Afghanistan — one of the hottest regions in the country, where temperatures often reach over 110 degrees in July — there’s a lot more to worry about than the heat.
I’m currently based less than an hour from the Pakistani border, working for an international economic development organization. I live and work in a major city, which, though only a few hours’ drive from Kabul, feels very different. Pashtun-dominated and so close to Pakistan, the province feels a mish-mash of the two countries: the rupee is the dominant currency and many residents maintain businesses and families on both sides of the contentious Durand line.
The past few weeks have seen a sudden rise in insecurity and violent attacks against foreigners, businesses, civilians, and soldiers. The change is dramatic. Until mid-July, the province felt relatively stable and safe. But two new elements have unsettled the precarious balance in this most tense of regions: the surge in foreign troops and the upcoming elections. Increasingly, and despite worse situations in other parts of the country, this corner of Afghanistan feels like a tinderbox that has just been lit.
Countrywide, July has been the worst month this year for casualties among nongovernmental organization (NGO) workers, with five killed. July has also been deadliest month for the coalition forces, who suffered at least 70 deaths, since their arrival in 2001. At 168 per month, the average civilian death rate this year is nearly double that of the troops’ — and a 25 percent increase over last year.
In the past six weeks, violence has markedly increased in my corner of Afghanistan. The attacks — mostly by the Taliban — tend to target the local police, Afghan Army, and the U.S. military base on the outskirts of the city. They vary depending on the target. Security forces often face improvised explosive devices — suicide bombs, car bombs, or explosives left on the side of the road for convoys. Other attacks include shootings and hand or rocket-propelled grenade attacks. Civilians are often inadvertently caught up and killed. Worryingly, the uptick has occurred despite the iron fist of the local governor, who normally keeps a lid on things.
Although the Taliban attempts to avoid civilian casualties and target only security forces, everyone feels at risk. We aid workers hear about the attacks in emails and texts from our security providers and the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office. We also receive information from the local community, which is why good relationships are vital. But these attacks have our community scared. Compared with coalition and local security agencies, NGOs like mine are more or less embedded with the local population. We have limited resources. For the first time since I’ve been in Afghanistan, I’ve had to close the office for security reasons.
As in most conflict zones, the violence has the worst impact on local civilians, who rely on humanitarian aid for things like infrastructure development, health, and education. Schoolchildren are forced to go without classes; health facilities are strained. And, insecurity inhibits the economic growth and development this country so crucially needs. Working closely with the local business community, I see daily how insecurity threatens businesses and would-be entrepreneurs. It raises costs and discourages the long-term planning and risk-taking that is so essential for prosperity. Only last week, I heard about a refrigerator company failing to fill orders due to hijacking and other transit risks. Put simply: violence drowns growth.
Now, Afghanistan’s presidential election is just a day away. An influx of international electoral observers and their entourages have arrived, even here in eastern Afghanistan. Translators’ rates have doubled overnight as their skills are found in short supply; international-standard guest houses and hotels are full to the brim; and private security firms are benefitting from the election bonanza. But even as the August 20 election has brought money and international attention to the country, it has also brought increasing insecurity for everyone.
Elections in most countries present some logistical challenges. Here, nearly as many donkeys as trucks will transport ballot papers. Electoral preparations have brought numerous serious challenges in balloting and organizing. Many of these problems remain unresolved, leaving the first elections run by the Afghan authorities in thirty years remain unstable and open to criticism. Apathy is high as most Afghans almost expect corruption and vote-rigging as a given. Many feel the elections are a sham that promises to bring little benefit to the country.
It now seems unlikely that President Hamid Karzai will gain more than 50 percent of votes — suggesting we’ll see a destabilizing, ethnically polarized runoff between Karzai, a Pashtun, and his main rival Abdullah Abdullah, who is half Tajik. Abdullah’s campaign chairman has already stated that his team will not accept a Karzai victory, and that this result would lead to mass protests. Other commentators expect that this will likely be a trigger for bloodshed, the vulnerable election process and likely run-off providing a potent mix. The Iranian election has set a dangerous precedent — only in Afghanistan, everyone has guns.
And that’s to say nothing of the Taliban, who have vowed to disrupt the elections across the country. To make matters worse, the border, a vital commerce route, is expected to be closed during the election period. With offices, factories and bazaars also closing due to security concerns, NGOs, businesses, and civilians will suffer during this unstable period and likely for long after.
Things are already hot over here. And we’re expecting them to get hotter.
Ryan Gawn is an aid worker in Eastern Afghanistan.
BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images
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