This book is a testimony to the Afghan poor, vulnerable and excluded: the mentally ill, the orphans, the desperately impoverished, the drug addicts and prisoners, all of whom have few outlets for their own voices to be heard. They are the victims of both war and its aftermath, and make up the majority of the population. While myths perpetuate of Afghans as war-mongering or ungovernable, these photographs serve to shatter those perceptions, shed light on the lives of those devastated by the path and consequences of thirty years of conflict at the crossroads of three continents. These are the lives of people yearning for participation in a just order, to earn a decent living and access the most basic of services.
In the aftermath of the tragedy of 9/11, and after more than two decades of war against the Soviet Union, an internal conflict, and takeover by the Taliban, the Bonn Agreement signed in November 2001 brought with it a glimmer of hope of a return to stability. Until 2005, while life was slow to change for some, peace seemed to take hold, and there was even talk of the ISAF troops returning home, as their job to keep the peace was done. Programs were launched in health, education, rural development, irrigation and public works that put people back to work, and ratcheted up access to basic services. People began to have confidence to invest in their future, to trade, and get educated. After 2006, sadly, the direction of confidence turned, and as the process shook, the Taliban returned and the conflict intensified. In 2009, Afghanistan faced another uncertain juncture as the White House deliberated on the structure of its policy on the character and direction of Afghanistan’s future. Major questions are still pending as to how a durable peace can be achieved within a framework in which all Afghans can both trust and find their place.
Meanwhile, life progresses for the millions of Afghan citizens who inhabit the territory. As these captivating and heartrending photographs show, the ongoing poverty and deprivation of one of the poorest countries in the world is palpable. The primitive living conditions, ramshackle official buildings and lack of opportunity shows that for many, little has changed since the war. This is made all the more tragic by the knowledge that in the 1950s, Afghanistan was a middle- income country poised to take off economically, capable of governing itself; and of its immense mineral wealth and agricultural economy that could mean the country could pay its own way. While rebuilding societies and economies is always a 20 to 30 year proposition, this is little consolation for those who face daily exclusions and indignities.
One of the hidden costs of war that is rarely measured is the psychological. War takes its toll in a deep and widespread trauma, where nearly every family has likely lost to the violence at least one member of their immediate family.
For those who stayed, they witnessed atrocities and loss, as well as economic deprivation. Those who left were dispossessed and had to start again elsewhere, often eking out a living for their families on the lowest rungs of the employment ladder, denied rights of citizenship and so facing exclusion from society. For those who return, land disputes, ongoing drought, intimidation and kidnappings make daily life challenging and insecure. With continuing uncertainty, lives become unpredictable and make planning for the future impossible.
The photographs show us starkly the different challenges of daily life. Those without opportunity of livelihood or education are often driven into the poppy industry − which is increasingly driving the opium and heroin addiction of thousands of Afghans. We see the particular challenges of women, including those unjustly punished and confined to prisons. Children are victims of war in manifold senses, most starkly because they are born in war and have only experienced war. Both orphans and those with one or both parents remaining are often forced to work from a young age in the cities, to support their families.
Despite all this, many Afghans maintain an extraordinary resilience in the face of hardship, a dignity in the face of tragedy. My own time in Afghanistan since 2001 brought me into contact with Afghans across the country, whose spirit of determination and hope was humbling. I had the immense fortune to travel across the country, to work with a dedicated team of Afghans, and talk to Afghans in villages and cities over a period of years. Afghans from all parts of the country and all parts of life show a deep wisdom, an ability and eagerness to learn, a discipline and commitment to work, and enthusiasm to participate in creating a new society. While the global media focuses on national elections, Afghans have been participating in their own reconstruction through the National Solidarity Program at the local level, which is now in 23,000 villages, where villagers elect by secret ballot their Community Development Councils. I saw the deep pride of ordinary villagers in participating in decisions and organizing their village’s rehabilitation, as they said it was the trust placed in them to do this that made them feel like a citizen.
These deliberations − and others with Afghans across the country − show that the aspirations of Afghans are simple: to lead ordinary lives. It is with their hopes in mind that we, in turn, all hope that leaders listen to their voices, and make the commitment and decisions necessary to allow them to create that future.
Clare Lockhart, Co-Founder and Director of the Institute for State Effectiveness, and co-author of the book Fixing Failed States.
Clare Lockhart served as a member of the UN negotiation team for the Bonn Agreement in 2001, and lived and worked in Afghanistan for several years.