The Silk Road to recovery in Afghanistan

There is a case for optimism in Afghanistan, amid all the fear, insecurity and the departures

Afghanistan 2014: This is the year of the poisoned adieu, the lament about failure. No matter how much has been done, there’s bound to be trouble ahead in Afghanistan. Security remains an issue, corruption hasn’t been tamed even a little, and the country, it often seems, could easily go sideways. But many who live and work in the country that’s been on our minds and in our wallets for a dozen years beg to differ about this dark forecast. On the eve of the March 12 lowering of the Canadian flag (and final departure of Canadian soldiers) and the April 5 presidential election, Maclean’s asked some leading figures, from the world of government, business and the arts, how they think 2014 will play out.

Deborah Lyons (Photography by Andrew Quilty/Oculi)

Deborah Lyons (Photography by Andrew Quilty/Oculi)

The diplomat: Deborah Lyons, Canadian ambassador

It’s not what you would expect: a woman from small-town New Brunswick in the big-time role of ambassador in a country best known for terrorism, corruption and failed governance. What’s a nice girl from the Miramichi doing staring down the Taliban at the 11th hour? Having the best time of her career, says Deborah Lyons, who won’t tell her age—“Are we still asking questions like that?”—and calls everyone from her bodyguard to the minister of the interior “dear.” “This is the place to be at this transformative time,” she says of a country that’s teetering on a fine line between collapse and success. “Civil war is not going to happen. Afghans have turned a corner. This is the year of democratic transition.”

In a country where extremists use suicide bombs and where venturing outside means she rides in an armoured car with 350-lb. doors (“Getting into this vehicle is like mounting a horse,” she says), this assignment isn’t for the faint of heart. But she says, “I feel lucky to have this job at this time.”

She sees the April 5 presidential elections as a turning point for a country that’s taking responsibility for its own security. She’s also poignantly aware that March 15—“wheels-up” day, when the last Canadian soldiers leave—will have an impact on Afghans. “The military has been the focus of our energy here; it’s drawing down, we need to reassure Afghans that we’re still here.”

The former deputy head of mission in Washington once ran a hunting and fishing lodge with her ex-husband on the Miramichi, then worked on energy conservation in the region for the federal government and eventually set up the first pan-Atlantic trade agreement with four Atlantic provinces. That led to a year-long program at the National Defence College. That, she says, changed her life and led her to the civil service and the diplomatic corps. As for her current post, which she took up last September, she says, “No one else applied for it and I wanted it.”

Lyons has no qualms about exiting a meeting with: “Thank you, my love.” But there’s no soft hearted East Coaster present when she drills down into a file and wants answers in the country that cost Canada more than 160 lives and approximately $18 billion in the last dozen years.

In the weeks leading up to the presidential elections she’s scheduled meetings with all the candidates. “I want to be useful to them. I want to talk about women’s rights and human rights and children’s health and the need to reach out to religious leaders to assist with the changes that need to be made.”

Lyons is well liked maybe because she insists on inviting Afghan women members of parliament for lunch once a week, often arming them with public reports the parliament has failed to send them. Or maybe it’s her disarming presence as a woman. An abrupt test of her standing in this country came six months after she arrived, when last Feb. 6 the justice minister announced another draconian rule change that claimed family members could not testify in court cases of family violence. Afghan women sent a message: “Get the Canadian ambassador to talk to Karzai about this.” The next day a short, sharp rebuke from Canadian Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Lynne Yelich landed on Karzai’s desk. Two days later, President Karzai’s communications secretary said he would not sign the law unless changes were made.

A typical whirlwind day includes a meeting at a new family call-in centre, where 12 operators answer calls about women’s rights, constitutional rights and family disputes. She says of a report that director Wahid Rahimdil is preparing about the success of the centre: “If you get that report out in March so it could be used before the presidential elections, it would be an incredible service.” Then she’s off to a de-mining centre that gives her jaw-dropping numbers about the removal of land mines—75 per cent of the country is now clear. “I myself felt a little surprised by the funding cut to this work,” she says, and then leads workers through a list of strategies for finding the funds. On her way out, she suggests, “Arm the presidential candidates with these facts.” Back at the embassy she handles half a dozen urgent calls (from ministers who want input and from her own security team). Then she’s off to meet with Minister of the Interior Omar Dudzai. She presses him on the treatment of female police officers.

Lyons sees possibilities: the Afghanistan National Army solidly dealing with security issues; the police expanding throughout the country with many more police women, more kids in school, particularly more girls (there are eight million children in school now, about one-third are girls), less corruption and the building of railroads. “I believe Afghanistan could become the Silk Road again,” she says.

Sima Samar (Johannes EiseleAFP/Getty Images)

Sima Samar (Johannes EiseleAFP/Getty Images)

The activist: Sima Samar, chair of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC)

It was a last-minute decision. Sima Samar decided to go to Gawharshad University to talk to the students about human rights rather than to her office one day last June. At precisely the time her armoured vehicle usually pulls up in front of the commission office, a massive explosion ripped through the neighbourhood: killing three, injuring 30 and smashing every window in the building. Some say the target was politician Mohammad Mohaqiq, whose car is identical in make and colour to Samar’s, but others fear it was another attack on the woman who defied the ruling Taliban and kept her schools for girls and medical clinics for women open throughout the extremist regime. “I am a target because I call for justice and accountability,” she says. “Who wants me dead? Likely both sides—the extremists as well as the government.”

A sinister addition to her concerns surfaced last June 15 when President Hamid Karzai appointed five new commissioners to the AIHRC, including Taliban supporter Abdul Rahman Hotak, a man who has publicly expressed his opposition to EVAW—the elimination of violence against women law. Brad Adams of Human Rights Watch says, “It’s like sending a fox to guard the henhouse.”

Despite the threats, Samar is optimistic about the future. “We won’t have civil war. We’ve already had that experience with the Taliban and we don’t want that again.” She says the warlords who looted the country and fought a fratricidal bloodbath throughout the ’90s are so rich now that they won’t give up their positions to make war in the provinces. Pakistan, she says, has its own problems, so it hasn’t got as powerful a hold on Afghanistan.

“The young people have experienced a new life that they won’t give up. In the ’90s there was one national radio station and one television station. Now there are 64 TV and 300 radio stations. Hardly anyone had a phone in the 1990s; now 60 per cent have phones. More than half a million Afghans are now on Facebook. This is a new century,” she says.

Samar points to other signs of success: eight million children enrolled in school, about three million girls; maternal and infant mortality rates have dropped significantly. “Human rights are now part of family discourse. They may not know all the principles but they claim they have those rights.”

However she is also quick to point out the deceitful statements of government officials that keep everyone off-guard. For example, she describes a recent military operation in Wazghar that went badly. The government claimed 12 were killed by ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) and they produced video footage and still photos as proof. Samar heard the civilian complaint and did her own investigating. In fact, two were killed, one from each side. The video and photos used as evidence were from another incident entirely. “The government lies,” she says flatly.

Samar is not as concerned about the withdrawal of the troops as the loss of jobs when they go: “Poverty is a reason for insecurity.” For Samar, a good election outcome would be a focus on justice and accountability. “That’s how to get the support of the people; that’s how the opposition will fail.” The rest, she says, will depend on the action of the government. “Respect for human rights are nice words but if they forget those promises when they come to power we won’t have a good result.”

The treatment of women is the canary in this mine, she argues. “When I was a school girl we had co-ed classes and no one wore a scarf. Now it’s hard to find anyone who isn’t covered.” At the risk of her own safety, she speaks of an interpretation of Islam that is both wrong and damaging. “In Tunisia, polygamy is not allowed. In Bangladesh the belly is exposed. In Sudan the arms are bare. We can’t claim we are better Muslims than Tunisians or Bangladeshis or Sudanese. It’ll take another generation to change this thinking.”

She sees her success in the changes of the last dozen years. “I went to my niece’s village in Jaghori [central highlands] recently. There was not one school-age child on the street. They were all in the classroom. That has never happened in the history of this country. I could see the impact of my work.” When asked why she stays in the face of death threats, she says, “I’d never leave. My responsibility is to stay here and struggle for equality.” This from a woman who has bodyguards 24/7, who has not been able to go for a walk or meet a friend for lunch or go shopping in 12 years.

Hedvig Alexander (Photo by Jennifer Roberts)

Hedvig Alexander (Photo by Jennifer Roberts)

The entrepreneurs: Hedvig Alexander, owner of Far and Wide, and Karim Khoja, CEO of Roshan

Soldiers, journalists and humanitarian aid workers assigned to Afghanistan invariably make the journey to Kabul’s famed Chicken Street to buy souvenirs: beaded bags, jewellery and polyester pashminas. Now the trinket market to support local vendors has given way to a billion-dollar arts and crafts industry, says Hedvig Alexander, the owner of Far and Wide, an online business that hooks artists to buyers around the world.

Alexander felt there was a market for the artifacts Afghanistan was known for—delicately woven silk scarves,finely polished quartz earrings, wooden trays made from slender pieces of walnut in shallow relief—and she decided to go after the buyers interested in museum-quality pieces rather than souvenir trinkets. Says Alexander, “People want beautiful, handmade, functional products, but today there’s a huge interest in ethical buying that is also driving our sales. The side benefit to buying is that it helps a woman get her child to school or invest in her own business. That story matters to our buyers.”

Alexander is a Dane who spent seven years working in Afghanistan before coming to Canada (when she married former ambassador Chris Alexander, now minister of citizenship and immigration). She started the business in 2009 after working for Turquoise Mountain, the foundation funded by Prince Charles, whose concept is to reclaim Afghanistan’s artistic past that had been smashed and looted after 30 years of war.

Alexander wanted to invest in up-and-coming artists. One of them is Shugufa Yousofzai, 28, who was a shy, timid young woman when she was hired by Alexander as an assistant. “I always wanted to make jewellery but didn’t think I could earn enough money to pay my way with it,” she says. She had an eye for good stones, for the cut and the design of the jewellery, so Alexander decided to invest in her. She bought her a machine for polishing the pink quartz and lapis lazuli that Yousofzai loves to work with. She sent her to Dubai for a gem-cutting course. A year later the young designer landed a $150,000 contract from Kate Spade in New York. Now she owns her own company, makes a six-figure salary (in a country where the average annual income is $900 to $1,000) and supports her entire family: her husband, their child, parents and in-laws.

Another artist is silk weaver Saleh Mohammad, 41, who left his job as a labourer in a silk company during the Taliban regime and began weaving exquisite silks for PARSA, a non-government-organization that also sells crafts. Alexander knew he was a talented weaver and managed to get a grant of $28,000 to support him. “We gathered everything we needed: eight looms, labourers and six months of raw materials,” says Saleh, who operates a very successful business today. Like Shugufa, he supports a large extended family of 20, including his six children.

As a business owner, Shugufa is acutely aware that Afghanistan is about to take the test of its modern life. The departure of the foreign troops throughout 2014 and the presidential election mean there’s a lot at stake. The instability, the rise in kidnapping and robbery have most people at least slightly spooked.

Even Karim Khoja, CEO of Roshan, the enormously successful cellphone company admits, “This period is tough. In the last six to 12 months several business people have decided to move their families to Turkey or Dubai. The market is down 10 per cent. The Afghani is devalued.”

Still, he feels the vibrancy here. “People are excited that there’s going to be a change in leadership.” The increase in kids attending school is also on his radar: “That’s my talent pool and it’s 100 times better than it was 10 years ago.” He knows 2014 is going to be tough but feels there’s plenty of reason for hope. “We have bright young people who are standing up and asking the government to be accountable. We have school kids thinking for themselves. Civil society is flourishing, although we need to build capacity. We have a generation of returning Afghans who see opportunities here. All of that is very hard to reverse.”

Shugufa has a shop with 12 other artists, including Saleh, and is keeping an eye on the security situation hoping she won’t need to leave Afghanistan. But Saleh, who has seen the country at its worst during the Taliban years, says, “I’m not at all worried about what’s coming this year.” Alexander says, “People here are used to turmoil but the new lawlessness is an impediment to the businesses they are trying to grow.” Nevertheless, she is optimistic her business will be unscathed. “We’re flexible. We can produce under any circumstances.”

In the meantime, her artists are hard at work preparing products to go out into the world, bringing back more money than they ever imagined earning before.

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