Notes on the Dutch Decision to Leave Oruzgan

During my recent visit to the Netherlands, I had the opportunity to participate in a few lectures, debates and discussions. There I met many people with whom to discuss the general situation in Afghanistan and, in particular, the issue of Dutch involvement in Oruzgan.

Oruzgan, as you may know, is the province where the spiritual leader of the Taliban, Mullah Mohammad Omar was born, and where about 2000 Dutch troops, along with e forces from a few other countries, are fighting against terrorism and taking part in the rebuilding of the war-torn country.

The recent fall of the Dutch government on the issue of Oruzgan made the Afghan province -- and Dutch involvement there -- a hot issue in Holland, raising the question of whether or not this founding member of the NATO should have continued to work in Afghanistan instead of deciding to withdraw. Many Dutch people I met during meetings and elsewhere were curious to know if the forces were doing any good in the Afghan province and if the Dutch contribution would improve the general situation in Afghanistan, or at least in Oruzgan. Many said that they favor a pull out, but did not know what that meant for Holland or Oruzgan.

The Dutch I met had never met a real Pashtun. As a result, I found myself surrounded by curiosity as if some exotic curio had dropped from the moon. (Ironically, this was not not far off the mark as it can be as complex and time-consuming to leave Afghanistan for international travel as to travel to the moon.) Some, to my surprise, said they wanted to visit explosive Kabul as a "tourist", to which I replied "you are very welcome to see fireworks and not count yourself lucky". The interest in Afghanistan amongst the Dutch is everywhere apart from the lectures and debates, where they showed concern for Afghanistan generally, and in particular for women's rights by Dutch women.

The province of Oruzgan is in the central south of the country where insurgency was very strong a few years back. Many local sources say that some remote districts, and parts of other areas, are still under the control of Taliban insurgents. But in Tarin Kot, and in many other central districts where the government has presence, many reconstruction projects are completed or being completed. Some local people I personally interviewed favored the Dutch presence in the province and seemed hopeful for their future. Many were happy that their children were able to go to schools and for improvements in health facilities compared to 2001. In contrast to other Pashtun provinces in the south - such as Kandahar, Helmand and Zabul - there were fewer insurgent attacks and incidents in Oruzgan last year. Even Pashtun-dominated provinces in the north, like Kanduz and Baghlan, saw more violence than Oruzgan this and last year, which is a good indicator not only for the local population, but also for the image of Dutch involvement. Many local sources told me that the security situation is improving in the province.

The population, problematically, feels uncertain about not knowing how many troops will replace the Dutch or from where they will hail. According to Afghans living in other provinces, certain NATO forces used dangerous fighting techniques against citizens and rarely or never attempted reconstruction. Afghans are very hospitable as a result of traditions the require them to treat guests respectfully, but this does not count for guests who misbehave. A Pashtun can be your most loyal friend, but also your most loyal enemy with a temper for vengeance should you mistreat him.

Not being able to provide for their families assails the honor of Pashtun men, millions of whom are jobless and living in poverty, forced to join the Talibans, which can pay well. Employment opportunities and good trade-schools for boys and mature men are of the highest priority for Afghanistan. Even more important, school boys and male students in universities must be taught how to respect women to break the culture where women generally do not count and are badly mistreated and discriminated. Unlike in the Netherlands, where all women are variously educated, with most contributing to the economy in various ways, most Afghan women are analphabetic with dire results for them, their children, and for Afghanistan as a developing country in the 21st century, where medieval situations and ways of living are not uncommon, particularly in remote areas without any modern facilities.

With most of Kabul destroyed, there is still a great lack of housing. A high income is said to be US$800 per month, but in fact only US$200 on average is earned, for instance for a teacher. The majority of Afghans earn far less than a few rupees per day. Renting in Kabul is a major problem as little is available; any liveable flat of 3 basic rooms, unfurnished, without sanitary water flushing facility and heating appliances, costs from US$500 rent per month; that must be paid at least six months in advance. While most incomes are small to minute compared to the Netherlands, the cost of living is the same in Kabul if you want to live reasonably well -- and not in a dangerous slum without any facilities. Unfortunately, the presence of foreigners with high salaries has forced up rents; and with estate agents, land and property speculators richly selling to overseas investors and rich Afghans, buying a flat in Kabul is beyond the income of most Afghans. No major low cost social housing construction, as in other countries, has so far been undertaken, though billions of reconstruction dollars were poured into Afghanistan.

The well-intentioned system in which NGO's receive project funding, has largely failed. Say a major road project receives US$10 million. Of this the contractor building the road ultimately receives US$2 million, which means that he cannot build a good road, but must by contract, and is forced to use cheap, inferior material, causing the road to break up quickly. The money has been wasted as the road is back to square one, no better to worse then before, because a number of NGO's were involved as "middle men" with good salaries and expensive overhead, before the contractor received the US$2 million. It is not always, as is said, corruption that causes things fail or disappeared; often, it is over-complexity, and an over-abundance of NGO's.

Corruption is inevitable for Afghans who earn too little to survive and support large families of 10 or more children - families which also often include members of the extended family. A post office official doesn't earn enough to provide for his family. This staggering corruption hit me when I hadn't asked for a receipt after paying for a parcel to be delivered. As a result, it was sent to another building fifteen meters down the road, where the official made me pay the same amount again. The time wasted waiting in post offices and other government department amounts to great loss for the Afghan economy. To my amazement I was told that "the Dutch complain a lot" and replied by saying, "send them to Afghanistan where they will not stop until dropping from exhaustion from continuously having to complain." Although Afghanistan is a beautiful country with many different areas worthy of international tourism, and with many untapped natural resources to enrich the economy, both tourism and natural resource development are waiting for investment and attention.

Prospective Dutch tourists cannot expect any bus they see to run on time. They should also know not to break their legs and necks simultaneously on what still doesn't exist in Kabul: safe, well paved pavements. Do not use any bicycle on roads that are useless, unless you want to break your back as well and get dumped in some open sewer. Try a donkey instead, though that also cannot survive a bomb attack, which will probably not be listed on your travel itinerary. Probably weak and undernourished, the donkey could collapse with you underneath.

Though Kabul is mostly considered safe, avoid the post office at all costs; it is always packed with customers and unsafe for your mental health. Do not ever try sending a parcel or collecting one, as it takes longer waiting for officialdom to finish acting efficiently than to fly to Holland and back. Sending a parcel means filling out forms and shoving while you battle amongst other post office victims, moving from one official to the next. What you intend to send you must bring unwrapped, for all goods and gifts will be carefully scrutinized by one official and then personally wrapped by another attentive post office man. This is a form of customer service unknown in Holland, though you have to pay for the time spent wrapping, for the wrapping material. This payment does not include the two hours spent in the Post Office.

Book and all other printed matter, including your business cards you, can only be sent after having received a red "Government of Afghanistan Approved" stamp; if the over-worked stamp fails, do not despair, as he'll find another one somewhere that is equally worn-out. Your parcel will ultimately be sent as Afghanistan Government Approved souvenirs of Afghanistan, so that future readers will know that each book came from Afghanistan.

To live or visit Kabul, above all keep watch for any danger, do not fall on non-existent pavements but into holes. Always be very patient, regularly swallow large doses of skepticism, cynicism and sarcasm; and try to look at the sunny side of things, though rare. And with God's blessings you'll survive, with guarantee that your bliss as a tourist will be that you never feel bored in explosively exciting Kabul.

"Welcome to Afghanistan" remains as things have generally improved. Afghans are grateful for increased interaction with the international community and computers that have helped thousands develop their world citizenship and educate their children. The Dutch presence helped to achieve many improvements, enabling Afghans like myself to travel internationally, study, attend conferences, and conduct business. I hope the Dutch stay with us somehow, as Afghanistan continues to need their help for reconstruction, development, and education.

Regrettably, the Dutch have decided to leave Oruzgan, but the decision taken by the Dutch nation must be respected. However, failure to stabilize Afghanistan would give this country back to the global terrorist network that would use our land to attack across the world. The war against terrorism needs the efforts of all nations of good will. There is nothing more important for the millions of peace-loving Afghans than peace in Afghanistan with a government that they have freely chosen.