Afghanistan, renewed

Jun 17, 2012, 12:39 IST | Kareena N Gianani

In his new book, Sujeet Sarkar traces Afghanistan's journey towards development and modernity, and issues that plague a region trying hard to shake off its strife-stricken image

Geographically, Afghanistan lies landlocked at the centre of Asia, and, in popular consciousness, it lies frozen as a land dominated by strife. Think Afghanistan and the Taliban, which is far from defeated in the region, comes to mind.

Author Sujeet Sarkar, who works as an international advisor, with a reputed international non-governmental organisation, looks after the portfolio of governance and civil society in selected countries across Africa and Asia, including Afghanistan. In his new book, In Search of a Afghanistan, it is clear Sarkar wants to explore all things unknown about a region which has been, unfortunately, stereotyped by the western media.

Afghan children study modern subjects in a home-based school at Gulkhana village in Kabul in 2001. Pic/AFP Photo

He sets out by first discussing where the country stands in terms of development and security by highlighting what he calls the ‘Kabul Syndrome’. Most development and policy experts in Afghanistan, argues Sarkar, have not gone beyond Kabul, into the country’s smaller, invisible villages, which is as ‘real’ an Afghanistan as Kabul is.

Sarkar highlights how blaming the government for failures is the most pointless exercise and argues that the money pumped by the US into Afghanistan is for the military, not for ‘aid’, per se (the ratio of the money granted by the US in Afghanistan for development purposes and military aid is an abysmal 1:10).

Sarkar’s book is simply written, and in case you haven’t followed every development in the news about Afghanistan, it is easy to understand why the region is where it is today. The book goes into details about the Provincial Reconstruction Teams, a unit introduced by the US government consisting of military officers, diplomats, and reconstruction subject matter experts, working to support reconstruction efforts in unstable states. Thanks to the fact that funds never reach the locals from the PRTs, locals have nicknamed them ‘Purely Relaxing Teams’. Sarkar speaks to locals to understand the discontent and manages to get details, if not the mood, of the situation, well.

As a reader, if you’re picking up this book to understand Afghanistan’s history, issues and things that hold the region back from development, it lives up to the promise. The book is a layman’s guide to Afghanistan, sans the jargon and inclusive when it comes to voices from the region itself. The book also includes a chapter on Afghanistan’s Bollywood connection. Sarkar recollects how he was hounded by questions on Amitabh Bachchan and Shahrukh Khan — everyone from the desk officer at a hotel to a village leader in south Afghanistan want to know what the stars are up to. Another chapter on the forgotten Sikhs makes for a soft, interesting read.

The book, however, could have been a tad more interesting that Sarkar managed to include the sights, sounds and detailed experiences in the region. He does describe his surprises and travails, but the book tends to get heavy with facts.

The human stories of change are far more encouraging than the broad figures. Once I met, a rather well informed English teacher, in the Surk Valley of Bamian province, during one of my scheduled field visits, in September 2007. An English teacher in a rural set up is a rare commodity in Afghanistan. Surk Valley comprises five schools, and is part of Sheeber district of Bamian. He was imparting English education in middle schools, in the said valley, on a government pay roll. Even though he was paid for teaching in one school, he extended his services to two other schools. When enquired about his extended philanthropic display, he was quick to remind how his little contribution will lead to a well educated human workforce. English, as competitive language, could integrate the Afghan youth with the rest of the world, and benefit them greatly. He, further, reminded me about the spread of the call-centres in India, and how the youth of India were gaining from it. His actions may have been limited to a small school campus, but his thoughts were truly global!

Large number of Community Development Cuoncils (CDCs) are displaying heightened interest in sector of primary education and mobilising rural communities to bring more children under the fold of primary and middle education. A considerable numbers of mullahs are also pursuing the agenda of girl's education, during their routine Friday prayers.Hundreds of Afghans today, take pride over the fact that their daughters are studying English. Kandahar has witnessed a sudden spurt in English training centres and girls have joined higher studies in the Kandahar University, too.

In the media, you will often hear about Taliban attacking girls and recurrent incidents of acid being thrown over girls, for attending schools. Rarely are the positive changes reported by the same media. This portrays an incomplete picture of the ongoing development and reconstruction process of Afghanistan. However, there is no room for complacency. The State still has to bring 42 per cent of its remaining school age children and illiterate youth, under the fold of formal education. The key is, of course, the lack of a supportive environment in schools, the status of women in their own communities, along with the influence of conservative and religious forces preventing girls from attending school. However, negating the achievements of the education sector, in the backdrop of the above problems, is unfair and unwarranted.

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