This sobering, compelling work should be required reading on how NOT to “win a war on terrorism.” I have read over a dozen books on modern Afghanistan, and this is the best. It is passionate, brave, clear, witty, and well-informed with many documented examples, about what is happening in Afghanistan today.
Author, Ann Jones is an ardent American feminist with a PhD in Literature and background in ESL who entered Kabul right after the bombing stopped in 2002. She stayed on and off for nearly three years. Jones offers stark, painful criticism of Afghan culture and specifically those charged to improve it. Men, women, boys, girls, educators, government workers, military, and aid workers receive harsh tongue-lashings in their turn, from an astute eyewitness to the failures of pre and post Taliban Afghanistan.
Jones unwraps the open sores of Afghan culture that must be addressed to create a just society. She paints a clear portrait of the development of the violent religious culture born in 1950s Egypt that met its apex in a remote Afghan valley where Osama bin Laden and his minions planned their painful push backs against the West—to the utter shame of most Afghans.
As Jones reflects on six years of the West’s occupation of Afghanistan, she sees failure after failure, which explains the current deepening troubles in governance, infrastructure, health, education, economic opportunity, and security. Western troops were met by joyful Afghans after the rout of the Taliban, as people pulled out their cassette players, shaved their beards, plugged in their TVs, read their newspapers, shed their burquas, and walked the streets without fear of being beaten by the Talibs.
But as the years slid by, even basic improvements have been left unaccomplished. Desperate situations have actually become worse in many cases. And the disappointment of Afghans who suffered on behalf of the West during their Western-funded rebellion against the Soviet Union, is palpable.
Among the disappointments are often callous occupying troops and mercenaries, a disconnected and ill-informed international diplomatic corps, and untold millions in foreign aid that benefitted mainly non-Afghan consultants and contractors who delivered shoddy work, incomplete projects, or nothing at all for their bloated payments.
Promises to the Afghans are repeatedly broken. The national government, with the consent of the occupation, installed many of the very warlords who had shelled Kabul for years, and had welcomed Osama bin Laden as an inspired guest. A culture of bribery has set in. Police and courts are bought by the highest bidder. There is little electricity, clean water, or sewerage. In the rural areas, people starved during the winter, and were forced to grow poppies for the Western-backed drug syndicate in order to feed their children.
Jones is livid that Afghan women, by far, have had it the worst, suffering for centuries in a moribund patriarchal culture, from relentless discrimination that regarded them as the lowest form of slaves. For Jones, before Afghanistan can realize any real progress, the status of women must be drastically improved.
She makes a convincing argument, cataloging forced marriages of adolescent girls to much older men, women being used as bartered objects, women having no legal rights, and a culture that scapegoats women for most of its ills. Women have woefully few educational opportunities and miniscule health care. Women prisoners subsist in filthy cells, accused of sex crimes committed by men who go free. As the fundamentalists reinforce their hold on power, women are being forced to cover up again with burkas so they can’t inspire Afghanistan’s holy men to commit sinful acts. The result of all this is an appalling female suicide rate, a squandering of half of the nation’s intellectual capital, and a level of human misery that fouls the entire culture.
Personally, I had many different experiences in Kabul with Afghans who came out of 25 years of war and/or refugee camps with hope, a good work ethic, a commitment to fairness, and a healthy resolve to push back against the totalitarians, the criminals, and the opportunists lining their pockets with aid money. I worked in an office with nearly 50% women, none of whom wore a burka, ever. They were outspoken, educated, and progressive, and wanted to stay in Aghanistan . I met many men who were vigorously opposed to female oppression, and pushed the envelope of social progress to the point that their lives were threatened. They were hungry to learn, gracious, and unhindered by the decades of unspeakable violence. They earned my utmost respect. It could have all been an illusion, but I don’t think so.
Nevertheless the strong medicine of “Kabul in Winter” reveals important truths and obligatory insights to anyone with a real interest in the uphill battle Afghanistan faces.
For Americans, and other nations trying to support Afghanistan, “Kabul in Winter,” provides enough fuel to make your blood boil about how the federal government, sleazy businesses, and even respected U.S. organizations and institutions have bungled projects, squandered good will, and misspent billions of American tax dollars meant to improve the situation in Afghanistan—but simply disappeared.
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