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What's the Plan, Afghanistan?


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Chances are that when you think of Afghanistan, you think of the war, or the Taliban, or the drugs. Watching the news it sometimes seems that all that people do there is blow themselves up or get blown up by others. VICE correspondent Henry Langston agrees that probably “nine tenths of media coverage is to do with the war or our troops. We wanted to do something different”.

Cables from KabukThis is exactly what makes VICE's Cables from Kabul sointeresting. In a country that for many is defined by conflict, it is easy to forget that there are real people living there too. But they are what this documentary is about: ordinary civilians, their reactions to the war and the ways in which they still live their lives around it – from illegal drinking to going to the zoo to boxing.

Henry and co returned from filming in July and have just about recovered – “it’s a tough place for weak Western bodies”.

Cue some chat about the toll on their digestive systems, which sounded pretty tough -  but surely the emotional aspect was the toughest? Cables from Kabul covers some fairly shocking stuff, from paedophiles in the park casually discussing the orphans they could abuse, to kids on the street poking at bits of suicide bomber, to teenagers getting high at home then getting out their shotguns.

Henry describes how quickly you become– or have to become – ‘desensitised’. It’s something the population has done as a whole: most Afghans have become “desensitised to violence. It’s part of their culture now.”

Similarly, there is widespread tolerance of drugs, which are widely available at stupidly low prices. Henry tells us how “smoking hash is not technically illegal”, to the extent that it’s no biggie to see policemen on duty smoking the stuff.

Which brings us to one of the biggest problems facing Afghanistan’s redevelopment - corruption.

Afghanistan is the “second most corrupt country in the world, after Somalia.” Corruption is endemic; there is a culture of ‘baksheesh’, which translates roughly as ‘gift-giving’ - in the sense that you give your doctor a ‘gift’ if you want him to perform an operation on you, or your friends if you don’t want them to report you to the police. Nice. And there’s no guilt in any of this, Henry explains – ‘it’s just the culture.’

As for corruption on a larger scale, there are rumours of links between the authorities and the Taliban, and the profitability for both parties of perpetuating the war.  Henry suggests that a large amount of the aid offered by charitable NGOs to Afghanistan is diverted or misused. Corruption is a huge problem that Western powers have failed to address during years of ‘intervention’ and is a huge obstacle to a more democratic Afghanistan.

“I can’t see it changing much in the next ten years”, says Henry.

But being in Afghanistan has also given him hope - people have started returning to the country with money and education and they want to help rebuild.

“These are the people that should be involved”, he says. But whether they will get a chance is a different story. 

One of the more disturbing moments of the documentary comes during an interview with a couple of Western prisoners, victims of the hugely corrupt legal system. Both seem sure that when US troops withdraw in 2013, the Taliban will return to power – and they will be killed.

If you’re a naïve and half-arsed follower of Western media like me you probably thought that all that Taliban business was more or less over and done with, right? Wrong! The expectation that the Taliban will simply take back power is one shared by probably “7 out of 10 people we asked”, Henry says – the Afghanis seem “resigned to the fact.”

For a country that has been at war for pretty much 30 years now, perhaps resignation is inevitable – but to me this seems like the kind of thing people should be getting angry about. Crusading western troops with their aims to transform have by no means been a constant force for good in Afghanistan; with news like this one is forced to ask the question “was it all worth it?”

This question is particularly pressing for women. Oppression continues despite the end of Taliban rule, with no sign of changing in “the immediate future.” And do people want change? “It’s a tough question” to answer in a transitioning but still deeply religious country.

But would he go back? “I’d love to,” he surprisingly says.

In the same spirit – reporting on those overlooked and under-reported by western media, Henry would like to create a film charting the ongoing conflict in a province near Kabul – as yet unheard of over here, but apparently it’s “the new Helmand.”

Henry tells me how a charity first aid post set up there, a complex with just 4 rooms, received 50 admissions on its first day alone. Or, and this sounds amazing, he might do something on the threats and fights facing female Afghan boxers, some of whom are currently in training for next year’s Olympics.

Sure, Afghanistan has its problems, but it is stories like this that prove it is so much more than just a war zone.

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