Tuesday, April 5, 2011


The economy in Afghanistan is severely unballanced. It will remain almost impossible to re-establish the country while this is the case . . .


The middle-aged man started out early, before the day’s thin film of dust had begun to cover the Afghan capital. He’d taken the spluttering bus which coughing black smoke out past the gaudy Kabul-Paris Wedding Hall and beyond the aging, Soviet 8-storey apartment blocks. He’d exited just beyond the fork in the road that marked the entrance to the nine-hole golf course, where smooth ‘browns’ cater to the small expatriate clientele. Then he positioned himself at the turnoff to Qargha Lake, proudly displaying the wide netting holding the small collection of soccer and volley-balls that he’d carried in a net ten kilometres out from the city.

And then he waited.

The first time we drove past he held up a ball. It was a Friday, the Muslim Sabbath, and the ageing entrepreneur was hoping he could sell some of the balls to the pleasure seekers who’d be relaxing around the lake. On a normal day he’d trudge the streets of Kabul, carrying the balls on his back in the hope of meeting someone who’d be prepared to make an impulse purchase. Today was a holiday so he’d travelled in search of the people who could afford to throw their money around.

He was asking 150 Afghani ($3.35) per ball.

On the way back we pulled up. Nasim, my translator, asked him how many children he had. “Eight.” Where did he come from? “Jalalabad.” The town is on the route to Pakistan through the Khyber pass, just to the north of Tora Bora, the mountain range where Osama bin Laden is thought to have sheltered after the fall of Kabul. There were more questions, yet somehow his polite answers seem immaterial. How can words encompass the sorrow of a life of fear and poverty, a person desperate to help his family, willing to bear every burden in the desperate hope of giving his children enough to wait and a chance of living a little longer.

Nasim bought a ball at the asking price. He frowned when I asked him why we hadn’t bargained. “We took his time, asking him questions,” said Nasim. “The real price was probably 120 Afghani’s. I think we can afford it.”

We could. I will never have any comprehension of the grinding poverty that surrounds his every moment, just as I can have no genuine understanding of the enormous wealth of the owners of the “poppy palaces”, the colonnaded houses adorned with gilt-painted Corinthian capitals and guarded by three or four heavily-armed toughs that are sometimes rented-out to Westerners at up to $5000 a month. If money makes the world go round there can be no doubting which engine is driving the turning of the Afghan economy. The twin, creeping distortions of drugs and power are shifting the gears until the locomotive is distorted beyond recognition – or rehabilitation.

The problem is the West. Our governments are pumping enormous sums of money into a country which cannot absorb the resulting liquidity. Everything is being pulled out of alignment. Nasim, for example, is an educated, honest and intelligent person – exactly the sort who is desperately needed in the public service. But in a day translating for me he can earn more than a fortnight’s wage as a government employee. He has no choice. Besides, he would like, one day, to go to Melbourne University or the ANU. Either institution would be lucky to have him as a student.

But how is someone like this, the future of Afghanistan, to be enticed to remain in a country where barely a third of people can read when so much is offered abroad? How is the ball-seller, who fled his home in the East, ever going to find a safe place where he can work and bring up his children? And why wouldn’t anyone who can afford it seek out a place on a boat in order to escape the hell of a refugee camp or the chaos of return to a country where every person seems to own a carefully-oiled AK-47?

The rumours are that those who buy their passage are quickly schooled to announce the correct reason that they are fleeing Afghanistan. Emphasis is to be placed on their fear of persecution rather than the other ever-present realities: sudden random death and violence; the inability to find work; and a legal system available to the highest bidder. None of this is the fault of President Hamid Karzai or the Afghan government – it’s and the inevitable consequence of the money that’s being poured in and further distorting an already crazy economy.

So think of this next time Prime Minister Julia Gillard talks about the need to remain in Afghanistan for at least a decade. No one is questioning our commitment or our objectives. But this does not go towards answering a far more pressing issue: what are we achieving?

It doesn’t take more than a few days in Kabul to demonstrate that the military strategy for the country has reached the point of bankruptcy. The answer is not to put more “boots on the ground”. It is, rather, the opposite. It may sound completely illogical to us, but the reality is that nearly every Afghan I spoke to seemed to be convinced that the US has long-term designs on the country. “Otherwise why”, they would say, “is America building such big military bases in our country?”

Very quickly any attempt at explanation makes as little sense as does the question itself. How is it possible to explain to someone why they should love their country, why they should want to stay rather than flee to a better life overseas, and yet also convey the idea that the West has no interest in the place at all? Clear explanations become lost in a miasma of cultural misunderstandings and economic confusions.

The comfortable assumption has been that until the security situation is fixed it will be impossible to rehabilitate the country. The reality is, however, that for as long as Afghanistan’s economy remains dysfunctional, the nation itself will remain unstable.