Afghanistan The Reign of Confusion

As if under a spell, wherever you look, whichever you focus on in Afghanistan is drowned in confusion. Confusion prevails in government, in its all three branches, in its relationship with regional powers even its allies. The politician is confused. Ministers, representatives of the people, judges, the military, the police, the common man, are all in a state of confusion as to where they are and where they are going. There is a dire need to break this spell. It would need foresight, planning, good leadership and clarification of hurdles. And it needs a leader and a cabinet that are clear as to where they are heading.


I was watching the proceedings of an application for a vote of confidence from the Lower House of Afghan Parliament by a candidate for membership into the cabinet of President Hamid Karzai. As you do that, you watch first hand democracy, Afghan style, in action. By watching the proceedings you realize that imitating western democracy is just an imitation and not the real thing. But having said that let me mention also that I learned a lot about governance in Afghanistan and how deficient it is in form, in meaning and in its application. I watched cabinet position hopefuls, supposedly the cream of the crop, that resembled neither the cream nor the crop. I observed a legislature that was intoxicated with the so-called power to free speech, perhaps too free, address the hopefuls in the meanest language which was void of diplomacy, candor, and tact. And I watched persons who have a fat chance to be confirmed by the legislature as members of the government who seemed to be confused. I saw confusion, a lot of it, that reigns the country.

I saw candidates for ministerial positions who could not clearly define the functions of their portfolios. This was not because they did not know the name of the ministry that they were chosen to run; the confusion was in finding their place among a group of other government departments. For one example the candidate for the portfolio of fighting narcotics was asked legitimate questions by the House members about the following issues:

What is the developmental budget of your ministry?
What alternatives are you considering to replace planting of opium by the farmers?
What measures are you taking for controlling drug trafficking?
You mentioned that some higher ups are involved in the business of drug smuggling, and to our knowledge some come even close to the president himself. Who are they and could you dare name them here and now?
What are your plans for the treatment of addicts?

The answers ran something like this: The developmental budget of the ministry is provided by the Americans. They control its disbursement and expenditure. We have no control over that.
Alternatives to planting of opium are within the realm of responsibility of the Ministry of Agriculture.
Drug trafficking control is within the realm of responsibility of the Ministry of Interior. My ministry does not have much to do with it.
Yes, some higher ups have been under investigation for involvement in drug matters, but I am not at liberty to name any names before the investigations are concluded.
The Ministry of Public Health has the duty of providing treatment for the addicts, not my ministry.

Earlier a deputy from the far off province of Badakhshan had insisted to ask, according to him, a pertinent question: Last year you visited Badakhshan and promised to build a bridge on the river. What happened to that bridge? In disbelief I had answered for the candidate from thousands of miles away and these are my words: “Bridge building is within the realm of responsibility of the Public Works Ministry, my ministry has nothing to do with it and if I had made the promise then I must have been as confused as you are regarding my responsibilities!”

I am sure these answers gave the same impression to many that if that were the case why the government needs this ministry in the first place?

I had also listened or read parts of presentations by a number of other members of Karzai’s cabinet as they sought a vote of approval by the House. Then too, I had come across the great confusion in the minds of the candidates as to their portfolios, their responsibilities as in charge of particular ministries and above all as members of a team that is otherwise called top executives of the cabinet. The example that comes to my mind is that of the candidate for the Finance Portfolio who very proudly told the deputies that he has already, in the few months that he has run the Ministry, saved the people millions, by personally discovering corruption and catching the culprits. Only if he were the minister of interior would I take off my hat to him, but in reality he was neither the minister of interior and nor the chief government spy. He was the minister of finance.

If this is not confusion in the part of the cabinet or in the whole process of governance, what is it? Why cannot the cabinet make a cohesive team and work as such fully aware of what is expected of them and fully prepared with plans of action pertinent to their own portfolios rather than other ministries? And if the president has not been able to provide for this simple clearance of minds of his ministers then why is he the president?

Unfortunately the same level of confusion prevails when it comes to Afghanistan’s foreign supporters who have poured millions of dollars into the country and have allowed millions of the same dollars to be taken out in the pockets of contractors and NGOs with little to show in the form of change in the lives of the common man on the street or winning over the hearts and minds of the populaion.

A few days ago I was reading a mid-1980s Readers’ Digest edition. Under Laughter the Best Medicine there was a story similar to what goes on in Afghanistan. It was the story of the need for reparation of the Pearly Gates: I don’t remember the exact wordings but this is the story: St. Peter was entrusted to look into the reparation work. He interviewed a carpenter who said he would do the job for $5,000. The next contender was an electrician who asked for $10,000 with guarantees of keeping the Gates brilliant with lights. Finally the third contender was interviewed by the Saint. He gave St. Peter an estimate of $25,000. “Oh, no, this is too steep,” said St. Peter. The man responded: “I am a contractor. That figure is very reasonable as it translates into $10,000 for you, $10,000 for me and $5,000 for the carpenter.” At least that contractor was not confused. But most of the donors to the cause of reparation of Afghanistan are. They still believe in contractors, blank checks, no oversight and no benchmarks for continued help.

Other areas of life in that country are also confused. The military, the police, the issues related to security and maintaining it and the great problem of corruption and above all working with some degree of coordination with the host government by foreign powers fighting in Afghanistan are all in a state of confusion.

It therefore must be a true era of confusion that has blanketed all action and reaction in this misfortunate country in the heart of Asia. 12/29/2009