Kabul to Colombo

After the end of the war and under the Rajapaksa regime, a few of us stridently opposed the integration of the military to backstop entirely civilian affairs – like hotel management and heli-tour operations. Some years ago, just after the Colombo Racecourse shopping precinct was opened and before the Good Market’s weekend throngs, I walked into what was then a curious beast – high-end lifestyle shops selling expensive electronics, clothes and lingerie, with no one in them or even window shopping. A lone, young soldier stood by, and in casual conversation with me, said (in Sinhala) that though their sweat had helped make the place, they, for generations, could never afford to buy anything from it. There was a mixture of wistfulness and anger in what he said, and not knowing how to respond, I smiled, bowed my head and walked away.

I remembered this encounter in Kabul last week, where I’ve been for the past fortnight teaching. Home, Sri Lanka, is another world away here. However, reading Dharisha Bastian’s compelling commentary on the deep state in Sri Lanka brought to sharper focus the role of a politico-military apparatus in governance, here and at home. In Kabul, the military is everywhere. Though coalition forces are vastly reduced from what the numbers once were, it is difficult to imagine this country’s political future independent of what the military establishment want to see as desirable outcomes in their self-interest. Highly sophisticated surveillance blimps, run by the US military visible from whichever part of the city you are in, monitor communications and movements of the city’s inhabitants. Many staff of development agencies and the expatriates of some Western Embassies cannot even leave the compound they are in, which makes for bizarre scenarios. For example, the monitoring of projects and programmes through Skype video, by staff based in the same city, who cannot attend in person these events. Or taking a helicopter to the airport, not on account of the distance, but because of travel restrictions by road. There is a monstrosity called a B6 here, which is a usually a recent model Toyota Land Cruiser in outward appearance, but completely re-engineered, from engine to shock absorbers, to accommodate a highly strengthened passenger monocoque, thick, bullet proof windows and steel-lined doors. Security for occupants come at a cost to others on the road, since the mentality of most B6 drivers is to ram into and literally bulldoze other traffic out of their path, akin to most SUV drivers in and around Colombo. Many expat staff, on the rare occasion they venture out into the streets of Kabul, can only ever travel in a B6 and never step out on to the road, visit a local mall, eat at a local restaurant, walk in a park, shop in a local farmer’s market, or interact in any meaningful way, with the life, livelihoods and inhabitants of a city and country they have ostensibly come to help develop. The military is everywhere, from the sky to the political fabric, from how the lives of citizens are shaped, to the way they see the UN and other developmental agencies operate.

And despite all this and more, there is really little to no real security. Hope is rare commodity. Just around a fortnight ago Kabul witnessed a horrific suicide bombing that all the invasive and almost ubiquitous surveillance couldn’t prevent – leading to not entirely unbelievable conspiracy theories around just how much political will there actually is to act upon intelligence reports. Engineered fear and constructed chaos is familiar to those in Sri Lanka who have monitored and fought against militarisation. Even after the war, the invasive and often offensive role of the military in the North and East is a fact of life for many inhabitants. The resentment, anxiety, fear and anger against men in Kevlar sporting guns endures in our country’s war torn regions, and is even more present here in Kabul, where the utterly corrosive geo-politics and superpower interests almost guarantee the continuation of violent conflict for decades more.

All this made me reflect what I was doing here, and what if any difference I could make. In the two years I have come to Kabul at least once a year, telecoms infrastructure has improved dramatically. Since my last visit six months ago, I was told by those even from far flung districts and provinces that they now enjoyed 3G connectivity, and proudly showed me their Samsung smartphones. Facebook is by far the largest and most popular social media network, which flourishes despite high illiteracy rates. In fact, Facebook is perhaps Kabul’s most frequented news and information service. A point I made at a presentation to a large gathering around the strategic use of new media for advocacy and activism was that the influx of donor funding had stunted the imagination of those involved in projects and programmes, who sometimes tended to believe that funding would never wane. This mirrors the mentality of many in Sri Lanka’s civil society. Instead of creative disruption and innovation, what I often saw was a lazy copying or continuation of things done a certain way, just because they were always done that way. The level of systemic corruption is incredible, ironically in large part driven by the imposition of impossible administrative guidelines and outdated, outmoded metrics of project assessment local entities just don’t have the capacity to honestly manage, or respond to. Many here, as they are in Sri Lanka, only ever think about the next project cycle and are horribly reliant on donor funding.

Here in Kabul and in parts of Sri Lanka, the challenge is how to foster sustainable change and security in spite of an overbearing politico-military complex. The military operates on obedience and discipline. Change cares little for established authority. Fund a military complex or invest in the creative disruption of civil society. One way depends on reaping the efficiencies of command and control. The other on cocking a snook at any oppressive, established authority. The future of both countries will depend on how they balance this equation.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 8 May 2016

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