It is a rule for the whispers to get lost in the raucous. Narratives of violence, dismay and hopelessness dominate the international media reportage from Afghanistan. Understandably, these stories sell faster than stories of locals making concerted efforts to rebuild their lives, society, polity and economy. The tragedy of Afghanistan is not the absence of good news but of good news getting overshadowed by the bad. Reality, however, is that if the present counter-insurgency strategy is to succeed, the focus must shift to bringing out the ‘positive’ stories, critical to the information campaign of winning the ‘trust and confidence’ of the local populace.
Unlike the pervasive pessimism that dominates the domestic debates in the western coalition, stories of hope and optimism frequently emerge from conversations with the locals in Afghanistan. More Afghans, around seven million, go to school than ever before. Between a third and half of them are girls. Most Afghans now have radios and in electrified cities, although the availability of electricity remains highly erratic, many have satellite or cable television. Almost every family has a mobile phone. The annual growth rate for new mobile subscriptions is estimated at more than 50 per cent. Significantly before 2001, telephone was a luxury available to only five per cent of the country’s population. Interestingly, mobile technology and introduction of M-Paisa programme has helped to address issues of corruption and governance, by bringing to light the case of ghost policemen to whom salary had been regularly paid.
Musical concerts have become very popular in certain provinces, bringing alive and binding people through their rich cultural tradition. Eye-witness accounts narrate musical events in the streets of Kandahar and Pashtu rock concerts in Helmand, in front of 15,000 audiences. This is significant in a region where music shops are systematically targeted by the Taliban. In response to the Taliban anti-music campaign and regime of intimidation, a new variant of Pashtun music – ‘Music of Resistance’ – has emerged. New music channels in local languages and FM radio broadcasts, and Satellite TV channels have opened avenues for new artists to reach out to millions of Pashtuns both in the frontier region and abroad, resulting in a resurgence of ‘cultural consciousness’. Likewise, the gaining popularity of cricket among the youth is seen as a strong rallying point for peace and bonding with other South Asian countries.
Beyond culture, media, sports and social networking, there has been considerable progress in rebuilding the war ravaged economy. The Afghan economy is growing rapidly, more than tripling family incomes since 2001. During discussions with officials with the Ministry of Agriculture and Commerce, one appreciates the rapid progress made in reviving the traditional agrarian base. Afghans now sell concentrated juice to Europe, Canada, India and the Arabian Gulf. Afghans earlier controlled 20 per cent of the world’s raisin market and now export them again, even to America. Staffed by educated and dedicated young Afghans who returned from abroad, the Agriculture Ministry has made strides in irrigation, has introduced new crops, farm credit, marketing and imparts teaching in new technologies. An array of new crops, including saffron, earn farmers more than growing poppies did and could be a good alternate livelihood project – a key plank in the counter-narcotics strategy. Developing the traditional small-scale sector – crafts, leather, nuts and fruits is a viable near term strategy. Linking the nascent economy to larger regional markets, infrastructure development, connectivity, trade and transit facilitation will be critical to build on the progress in the long term strategy.
Women, being the active agents of change, are increasingly taking the cudgel in their own hands. Not only that the last parliamentary elections witnessed an increase in the number of women candidates, but in recent times women as entrepreneurs, teachers, journalists and even poultry farmers are carving out space and leverage in a male dominated society. The expatriates and diaspora have helped bring back expertise and new ideas. Most of them working both in the government and nongovernmental organisations are dedicated and vociferous in voicing the Afghan need, priorities and ownership.
Such success stories, however, continue to be overshadowed by the gory ‘news worthy’ items from the war zone. The locals point out that the international media like the BBC Pushtu and Persian service, for instance, focuses largely on the atrocities of the insurgent, which helps the insurgent propaganda. The nascent yet mushrooming Afghan media, being heavily reliant on political gossip and scandal, is no less sensational. As a result, rural people have no information of the services that are available to them and continue to be cynical of the government and international efforts. The rural based insurgency, thus, stands to benefit.
If the present COIN (counter-insurgency) strategy has to succeed, there is an immediate need for the international community to work on strategic communication. These success stories need to be told not only to the locals but to a larger audience if the narrative is not to be lost. In the ensuing battle for the narratives, the need is also to seize on these local initiatives and build on them, whereby the international community reinvests to reverse perceived failures that are not irreversible. Importantly, the narrative needs to be built on economic development and not merely on abstract ideas of freedom and liberty, which means little to the people who are still striving for their basic needs and restoring normalcy in their lives.