Panel on Afghanistan Eight Years On

by Jennifer Parker

For many Yalies, both the war and daily life in Afghanistan are extremely distant concepts, impressions of which are usually formed by secondary sources—The New York Times, The Kite Runner book and movie, or BBC images. But for Eric Robinson, Katarina Kuai, Bill Johnston, Zahid Hamdard and Parwiz Abrahimi, both the war and life in Afghanistan were, for a time, their realities.

On a Thursday, October 5th, about forty-five Yale students and community members gathered in Branford Common room to hear civilian and military perspectives on the war in Afghanistan. The panelists sat in a semi-circle in front of a projector screen which showed photographs they had taken: Afghani school children, a soccer practice, and a lunch meeting for local Pashtu leaders.

Eric Robinson is a graduate student working towards a master’s degree in International Relations. He served as a captain and a Civil-Military Operations officer. Among other tasks, he oversaw day-to-day operations in a province, which included Mosque rebuilding, road projects, and economic revitalization, and police outreach work.

Also working towards a master’s degree in International Relations, Katarina Kuai spent five years working for the United Nations and two summers in Afghanistan, where her work focused on human rights and development. “We tried to better integrate human rights into development and planning. It wasn’t enough to just build roads and bridges, but also ensure governmental obligations to these people,” she explained. “We trained the ministries of health and education on human rights treaties.”

In Afghanistan, Bill Johnston, a West Haven police officer, “did road networks, dug wells for schools, tried to construct girls schools, but the Taliban would threaten teachers.” He also did social service work. “The coalition passed out fliers in Pashtu, Dari, and English, as well as radios and backpacks to kids.”

Reflections on the war from the Branford Common Room (Osborn/TYG)

Zahid, a second-year master’s student at the School of Foresty and Environmental Studies, worked for five years in Afghanistan and focused on international environmental issues, working specifically with the governments of Iran and Tajikstan on water control issues.

Parwiz Abrahimi, an Afghan-American, grew and attended college in Washington State. He worked as a science high school teacher in Western Kabul and conducted teacher training seminars.

Among other issues, the panelists were asked to comment on the recent elections in Afghanistan from their unique and diverse perspectives.

Eric: “Between November of ’08 and January of ‘09 there was an increased push to register new voters: people over 18, refugees returning from Pakistan, and people who hadn’t ever voted. Instantly, returns on voter registration were astronomically high—there were 300,000 new registrations. We got reports from districts where 800 women would register on a single day. A guy would come to the polls and say ‘women from the province are too chaste to appear before your cameras’ so registration cards were provided (voters were photographed). We walked into the election knowing that the registration process in 2008-2009 was deeply, deeply flawed.”

Katarina: “What the election means as an expression of true political will of the Afghan people is in doubt. It was already clear that Karzai was going around the provinces with donor money and campaigning but also buying votes. When I was there in 2008, I couldn’t swing a dead cat without bumping into Karzai. He was everywhere.”

Bill: “If you go to a country that’s getting out of about 30 years of war, there’s going to be corruption. I don’t think the people in Nuristan care who gets elected—they’re not going to see any changes. The provincial governor is elected by Karzai, so they can’t even vote for their own governor.”

Zahid: “It’s not that Karzai is a favorite person in the country, but it’s because of his alliance, the coalition he has built. In Afghanistan, people voted for him because of his coalition which mobilized community leaders and lobbied at local level.”

Parwiz: “I think it’s interesting that Eric said ‘we.’ That ‘we’ is the international community. Most Afghan people think even before the election started, the winner was already announced. There was a US ambassador meeting with the candidates. An Independent Election Commission has members appointed by Karzai, the Provincial Governors are appointed by Karzai, the mayors are appointed by the Provincial  Governors. Every warlord who wanted to make a buck off this deal is with somebody, but a lot of these people get their legitimacy from international actors. Afghan people have the feeling that there’s this international hand working.”

This panel reminds and encourages Yalies that, in addition to seeking out a wide variety of news sources (Al-Jazeera, BBC News, Haaretz Daily) for information about Afghanistan, we should especially look to our peers. They are accessible, working and studying nearby; they themselves are primary sources; but also because their work and bravery should be applauded and honored.

Jennifer Parker ’11 is a Modern Middle East Studies Major in Silliman College.