x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Peace but no hope in Afghan province

Turmoil-hit areas of the country are receiving aid while the inhabitants of Samangan, which has so far avoided war, do not even have water.

Borhan Koja, centre, holds a meeting of one of 120 shuras in Samangan province.
Borhan Koja, centre, holds a meeting of one of 120 shuras in Samangan province.

AYBAK, AFGHANISTAN // Beneath the awning of the village mosque, local elders, sheltering from the midday sun, murmur in agreement with their leader's denunciation of the Afghan government. "The ministers are passing their time very happily. They have US$60,000 (Dh220,200) vehicles and as you can see, we don't even have water - there is not one drop," said Borhan Koja.

"I have heard there is a lot of fighting in Herat, Kandahar and Helmand, but they have also had a lot of reconstruction. We try our best here. There is no fighting, no explosions and people can leave their doors open at night, but no one cares." His lament is echoed across the northern province of Samangan. From senior officials down to farmers, the complaints come thick and fast. On the face of it, they are more mundane and trivial than the concerns of residents in the south, where security is always the top priority. Yet what is happening in this part of the country hints at a turmoil that runs far deeper than the daily grind of the insurgent violence Afghanistan is notorious for.

Mr Koja is the head of 120 shuras in Samangan, each one a group of the most respected religious and tribal leaders who assemble to solve local disputes and problems. When he talks, those around him pay attention. During a recent village meeting, he reflected on the high hopes people had following the 2001 US-led invasion. "When the Taliban were removed we expected the government to make us roads, give us electricity, build us factories and bring clean water for us to drink. We know the international community is trying to help but the money is going to the ministries and there it is disappearing," he said.

Even at a glance, it is easy to see how people here have found themselves stuck in this purgatory. Samangan has no borders with other countries to stimulate the economy and little in the way of an urban centre to attract visitors. On car journeys from Kabul to Mazar-e-Sharif - two of Afghanistan's large cities - it quickly slips by in a blur of golden wheat fields and distant mountains. Ask any foreign aid worker, diplomat or journalist to name 10 provinces and it is doubtful this beautiful and historical place will ever make the list.

There is also another important reason for the neglect. Samangan's large Uzbek population is hostile towards the Taliban and for the past eight years they have kept the area free from unrest. Insurgents are, though, now edging close. At his office in the provincial capital Aybak, Haji Gholam Sakhi, the deputy governor, was quick to point out the negative side of good security. "If there is fighting somewhere, more funds are sent to keep the people busy with reconstruction. They don't care about the areas that are peaceful," he said.

After a while, all small towns in Afghanistan begin to look identical and Aybak is no different. Some of the main roads are paved, the rest are bumpy strips of dirt that kick up clouds of dust whenever a taxi or donkey cart uses them. People mill around because they cannot get work and pictures of warlords adorn the walls of restaurants. The Nato-led security force for Afghanistan (Isaf) has no permanent presence in the entire province, but a Swedish military team based in neighbouring Balkh deploys a unit of around 25 soldiers to help with reconstruction and development. According to the deputy governor, they have "not laid one brick".

Away from the town, villagers rely on diesel generators for power, despite the fact that huge electricity pylons leading from the north to Kabul pass virtually overhead. At a local school, a teacher complained that students were often taken sick because they had no clean drinking water. Haji Sirajuddin Siraj, the head of the provincial council, summed up the transitory nature of life for Afghans who have seen governments rise and fall without ever fulfilling their promises.

"When the Russians came, we were trying to learn Russian, when the Mujahideen came we were trying to learn Arabic, when the Taliban came we were trying to learn Pashto, now we are trying to learn English and how to use computers," he said. Mr Siraj complained that Samangan's capital had hardly changed since it was first built. Both the governor and the international community were singled out for blame. "It is like a game of roulette and our ball has landed on zero. The soldiers who have come here have nothing and we have nothing, so we are equal," he said.

The inevitable result of these years of neglect is now approaching. In recent weeks reports have emerged of the Taliban edging closer to Samangan's border. Around 60 or 70 insurgents armed with heavy machine guns, Kalashnikovs and rocket-propelled grenade launchers are believed to be taking new ground nearby in Baghlan province. Rahmatullah, a 55-year-old villager, said the rebels were only 20 minutes away from where he lives.

In their area of control they stop and search cars, looking for anyone who works for the police, military or national reconciliation programme. "The government knows why security is getting worse," he said. "If they armed us we could defend ourselves, but we don't have any weapons." csands@thenational.ae