Afghan Bloom

Can Afghanistan weather the storms after the U.S. withdrawal?

Photos be Mariam Ghani
Photos be Mariam Ghani

My parents have a house in Dar ul-Aman, a neighborhood on the western outskirts of Kabul that was once a separate city, when Kabul was much smaller than it is today. To build their house, they bought a plot of land whose parameters were drawn up by King Amanullah’s city planners in the 1920s, during Afghanistan’s first grand rush to modernization. Then, to settle a dispute over property rights, they bought the land again. This disagreement was one among thousands that have clogged and corrupted the Afghan courts since the early 2000s, when an influx of returned refugees brought landowners who abandoned their properties during the war years into conflict with those who squatted, developed and cultivated abandoned houses and land.

Once the dispute was settled, a wall was built, then a house and then a garden, which grew from roses and spindly shade trees to a profusion of flowers, an orchard, a kitchen garden, a greenhouse, a grape arbor and a raised takht — a platform covered with the cushions known as taushak and screened with bamboo — for sitting outdoors even in the heat of summer. On first visiting this walled garden, most say it is like “a piece of old Kabul,” suggesting that, to those who remember, it seems like a remnant of the prewar city rather than something constructed in the civil war’s wake.

Every time we turn over the soil in the garden, however, we find reminders of other times and other inhabitants of this patch of land. In the first few years, it seemed that the new trees we planted would never succeed in putting down roots, until we finally dug deep enough to remove the last of the stones from the old walls and foundations, most of which dated back to the Amanullah era, when a civil servant or royal cousin was allotted this land and built a family house upon it. Once the trees’ roots were settled, we had to turn to the problem of their leaves, which were choking in the dust that blows in from the plains. This problem has only grown more acute over the years, even as more and more gardens are planted across the city, because the dust storms passing through the city now pick up oily particulates from air pollution (mostly vehicle emissions, exacerbated by the poor quality of available fuel) and coat leaves with sticky dirt that must be washed off regularly to allow photosynthesis. The wartime deforestation that caused the dust storms has also stripped the ground of its mineral-rich topsoil, so we bury iron around the fir trees to keep them evergreen.

During my latest visit, this past June, my mother was absorbed in tracking down the source of a persistent drainage problem in one corner of the garden. All hands pitched in to dig a hole, so she could see what might be diverting the water away from the plants that needed it. Barely three feet down, however, the soil started to fall away from the spades. A long, deep trench already ran under fully 10 feet of the garden, just by the west wall, and it was filled with hundreds of spent shells.

Shells the artist’s family found in their garden in Dar ul-Aman. 

The soldiers who guard our gate looked over the trench and pronounced that a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) launcher must have been sited there, sometime during the 1991-1996 period when the territory of Dar ul-Aman was contested, first by rival mujahidin groups and later by the mujahidin and the Taliban. It’s likely a member of one of the rival groups had fired the RPGs at the Dar ul-Aman palace, where several different groups had camped out during that time. Of course, back then, there was no wall between the plot of land where our house now stands and the Dar ul-Aman palace, to our west; almost every structure for a mile around had been reduced to rubble.

We unearthed the shells and piled them against the wall. We filled in the trench and built a new joi, a small irrigation canal, to carry water to all the plants and trees in that corner of the garden. We couldn’t decide what to do with the shells. I think they may still be piled there in the garden, awaiting an outcome.

In Afghanistan, history is very close at hand, buried in shallow trenches all across the landscape. The slightest excavation may uncover another unknown story, or another trace of a story already known. Is it better to walk lightly toward the future, so as not to disturb the dead, or is it better to dig deeper, and settle past accounts before accounting for present needs? Is it possible to plant a new project of modernization in the ruins of old failures without first examining the ruins to discover or remember why and how those past projects failed?

A moment of self-determination is approaching, a moment around which Afghanistan’s national imaginary — and in particular, the Afghan population’s collective understanding of its past histories and possible futures from its present vantage point — will pivot. More than half of Afghanistan’s formal legal economy and an unknown portion of its informal “gray” economy are directly or indirectly dependent on either the purchasing power of the U.S. military or the particular demands of the international community of diplomats, security contractors, journalists, bilateral and multilateral organizations, and NGO workers. All of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces have been formally — if not fully — handed over from U.S. to Afghan military control, as have a number of prisons (though these sometimes retain prisoners under U.S. custody). The final 2014 drawdown of U.S. military presence in Afghanistan to a minimal force of 10,000 — or even zero, according to a rumored alternative plan — will affect not only the economic sectors directly dependent on the military, but also those that indirectly rely on its presence to provide security for the rest of the international community.

This ripple effect is already becoming visible. As NGO and bilateral operations are reduced or closed in anticipation of a security crisis to come, not only do these organizations stop participating in the Afghan economy as buyers and employers, but they also cease giving the grants that have artificially sustained certain sectors. For example, if the international fund that currently pays the salaries of the Afghan National Army runs out, what will the 100,000-odd men currently “keeping the peace” in volatile provinces do with their job training, which taught them, essentially, how to wage guerrilla warfare?

This scenario may seem familiar to those Afghans who remember that some of the mujahidin groups fighting each other in the civil war of 1992-1995 were originally army-aligned irregular forces — militias armed by the Soviet-backed government in the 1980s to fight against the mujahidin. Ultimately, when international military and nongovernmental actors pull out simultaneously, the legal economy could well collapse, creating a vacuum that the still-strong illegal economy may readily fill, and transforming Afghanistan into a playground for traffickers of all kinds. This situation, too, will be familiar to Afghans who remained in their country through the years of 1989-1992. When Soviet funding was withdrawn from the government and Western funding from the jihad dried up, minerals, antiquities and opium were all sold to finance the continuing war.

If the legal economy does crash in 2014, the collapse would severely test current social, cultural, and class structures, which are already marked by manifold divisions and contradictions. The religious and cultural divisions between town and country or center and province, for example, have already proved the downfall of reformers from Amanullah onward. Logically, this tension should have (at least partially) dissolved in the mass diaspora of the 1980s and 1990s and return of refugees in the 2000s, since many who left rural villages but returned to live in cities have created regular avenues of communication between the cities where they have settled and the villages where their relatives remained. Instead, new class and cultural divisions have arisen between those who spent their years of exile in the West, many of whom gained second citizenships and the freedom to move across borders, and those who lived as perpetual refugees in Iran or Pakistan, whose collective fate remains tied to that of Afghanistan. Moreover, some of the new city dwellers have set up entire neighborhoods of informal housing organized along lines of previous alignments — with their village, tribe, ethnic identity, mother tongue or some combination of the above. Where the oldest Kabul neighborhoods were named for, and organized around, professions (like Kocha-e-Kharabat, the street of musicians), and mid-century neighborhoods were planned to house the civil service as it grew the ranks of the middle class, these new neighborhoods reproduce in miniature — and in alarming proximity — the country’s internal borders and conflicts.

If Afghanistan remains a nation divided (whether between center and province, town and country, tribe and polity, fundamentalism and secularism or opportunists and idealists), then many, if not all, of the mistakes of the past are bound to be repeated. If the Afghan state remains unwilling to engage in collective reckoning with those divisions, contradictions and mistakes, then the fault lines already present will only continue to widen, until they crack the state apart.

Despite the parliamentary pardon already applied to all the crimes of the civil war period, there is an unspoken ban on discussing them in public forums, because some of the main actors of that period are still in power. Consequently, the civil war period still hangs over the present like a black cloud, eternally threatening to return. Contrast this with the communist period, which is more or less freely discussed, to the point where people compare prison stories over dinner and wax nostalgic about President Mohammad Najibullah (the last leader to attempt a real reconciliation between fundamentalists and secularists, and who paid for this attempt with his life). No one fears a revival of the Afghan communist project, perhaps because its most visible exponents are mostly in exile, imprisoned, or dead. And yet, some Kabulis will admit to having been members of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) in the 1970s or 1980s; remnants of the Maoist parties have survived to this day; and student strikes at Kabul University are beginning to follow a pattern eerily reminiscent of the mid-1970s. Nonetheless, a recurrence of Afghan communism is not feared, because that past has lost the awful power of the unspoken, the compulsion to repeat the trauma not disclosed, now that it has been aired out in daylight.

A real process of truth telling and reconciliation should have been the foundation of the disarmament project undertaken in the early 2000s. This was made impossible, however, by the U.S. insistence on including many of the people whose past acts needed to be addressed in the new government, as reward for their assistance in waging the American offensive. While it may well have been impossible in that moment to construct a coalition government without some participation on their part, a space should first have been made for Afghan mechanisms like the jirga and Pashtunwali to air and redress the wounds of the war years. After the Afghan presidential election and U.S. withdrawal in 2014, such a process will once again become possible. If the groups now subsumed under the name Taliban are to be brought into dialogue with, or find representation within, the post-withdrawal government, as recent prisoner exchanges and releases seem to indicate, a real process of reconciliation will become more necessary than ever, and moreover will have to be updated to include the 2001-2014 period.

In order for Afghanistan, like our garden, to provide food and comfort and shelter and delight, some digging will have to be done. Some unpleasant truths may have to be uncovered, and some ugly histories dragged into the light. But once the muck has been raked through, those poisons that linger from the unexamined past, recurring in generation after generation, may finally be leached out.

Sour cherries grow in the artist’s family garden in Dar ul-Aman, Afghanistan

* * *

My parents’ garden was not planted, as some might assume, during the first hopeful years after the Bonn Agreement. It is a product of, as much as a retreat from, the more turbulent period that followed the presidential election of 2004. The garden is, essentially, an act of faith. Each season’s planting is another bet on the proposition that the Afghanistan imagined in the garden will exist outside its walls someday.

This proposition is unlikely to yield returns unless more people start making the same bet. If the only future imagined by and for the Afghan population is a return to the chaos and destruction of the civil war, or a descent into the special hell reserved for countries that, like Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, have both too many minerals and too many strongmen, that darkest future is almost certain to arrive. If instead we imagine a range of possible futures, each becomes only as sure as its believers, those who will it into existence through their actions, hope and faith.

I will be back in the garden next year, picking sour cherries for jam and lettuces for salad, walking the paths along the walls, eavesdropping on conversations in the takht and inviting friends, colleagues and students for tea and kolcha, the sweet-salty Afghan cookies. I will be performing — as I am now, and as my parents do every day — our own small articles of faith: bringing the world into the garden, so that the garden may begin to bleed into the world.

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