Father and sons, Zumbalay

Afghanistan appears on the brink of collapse . If attempts to save it are to succeed they must be aligned with the country’s underlying social framework.

“ALTHOUGH I WAS no cultural specialist, I did know a thing or two about selling and marketing. It seemed to me that in addition to overlooking the fact that the world’s third largest commodity market was already heavily invested in Afghanistan, we were failing to provide a sufficiently compelling alternative offer with which to entice the Afghan people.

The international community’s alternative to drugs, poverty and violence seemed to be democracy, gender equality and religious tolerance. Societal values prized by the West, but completely alien concepts to the majority of Afghans in Helmand Province.

I’d learned early on in my career in the advertising business that successful companies didn’t necessarily make better products than their competitors but instead invested in market research to gain a better understanding of their customers.

Thus I’d witnessed a failing high street fashion retailer transform itself from a clothes shop into a purveyor of teenage rebellion for those that gave a fcuk, making millionaires of its founders in the process. Similarly, during a collapse in consumer confidence in the farming industry following the BSE and Foot and Mouth crises of the late 1990s, I’d had a hand in helping a posh food shop reposition itself as the source of quality food, honestly priced.

Unlike these companies and many others who had become market leaders in their respective industries by investing in understanding their customers, DfID appeared to understand very little about the deeply conservative rural population of Helmand Province and seemed intent on pedalling a ‘stabilisation’ offer that the majority of ordinary citizens did not want.

Democracy had been forced upon the people of Afghanistan because DfID knew what was best for them. It seemed to me that this was democracy with a Stalinist twist and in an unconscious nod to the ‘Gardener of Human Happiness’, DfID even proposed to reconstruct Afghan society through a series of Five Year Plans.

While I enjoyed the oxymoron of enforced democracy I didn’t get the impression that the people of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan had very much faith in their elected representatives. This may have been because they hadn’t elected them or because they didn’t represent them. Or perhaps both.

It didn’t help that the version of democracy on offer was distinctly substandard comprising as it did of rigged elections, corrupt officials and an incompetent civil service.

In a rare moment of unguarded candour, the DST official responsible for mentoring the Department of Justice in our district shared his disillusionment with me.

A law graduate from a prestigious Danish University, he’d put his legal career on hold to do his bit and try to make the world a better place. He’d arrived in Helmand bright with ambition to help develop Afghan rule of law capacity. His enthusiasm had been quickly dulled by the reality of his job. He had imagined he would be assisting the Afghan Justice Ministry to build a stable society in which all members are equally subject to publicly disclosed legal codes and processes.

But this was not at all what the Ministry had in mind for him.

The Justice Department in Gereshk was housed in the Old Fort. Its previous occupants, including the British in 1839 had not maintained the property to a particularly high standard. It was not only old, as the name suggested, but also dilapidated. The Justice Ministry did not require a legal missionary but was in urgent need of a janitor. The disillusioned official disconsolately admitted to me: ‘They only call me when the toilets are backed up or if the light bulbs need replacing.’

In the meantime, prisoners continued to be held indefinitely without charge and routinely subjected to physical abuse and torture until such time as an appropriate bribe had been paid. Court officials existed on the payroll but were permanently in absentia and judges were appointed without any prior legal knowledge or training.

None of this mattered because the courts never sat and no one actually expected the Justice Ministry to administer justice. There was really no need for this because the Taliban already operated a very effective, efficient and widely admired mobile Shar’ia court system. The existing legal model was far superior to the cumbersome, time‑consuming and bureaucratic Western alternative my Danish friend was trying to advocate.”

SPIN ZHIRA: Old Man in Helmand is the true story of one man’s midlife crisis on the front line of the most dangerous district in Afghanistan where the locals haven’t forgiven the British for the occupation of 1842 or for the Russian Invasion of 1979. Of course, all infidels look the same so you can’t really tell them apart.

SPIN ZHIRA: Old Man in Helmand is available as an Amazon Kindle e-book

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