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Kandahar's security gets lost in translation

Mark Urban | 11:21 UK time, Wednesday, 4 August 2010

KANDAHAR: Out in the yard of the police station sit half a dozen motorbikes. They are being registered as part of the security forces' attempt to get a grip of this city.

Everything from people to guns, companies, and motor vehicles are meant to be recorded in the coming months; but meeting this daunting challenge illustrates some fundamental cultural differences between Afghans and Westerners.

Talking through an interpreter to one of the Afghan officers at the police station, I notice that the English word "registration" keeps cropping up in the Pashto language conversation. When asked whether there is no such word in Pashto, the translator replies, "No, we use the English word and other English words like 'control' too."

So it appears that under the old theory that one can tell the importance of an issue or activity in any culture by the number of words that it develops to describe it, Pashtun society just hasn't got around to the whole idea of keeping tabs on people.

This would hardly come as a revelation to old British Raj hands who understood well that the tribes of the North West Frontier negotiated a large measure of exemption from imperial and subsequently Pakistani officialdom by threatening to fight to the death against the subjugation represented by certain laws and controls. Even today, people moving between those Pashtun areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan do not require identity papers.

Speaking to another translator, I discovered that there is a verb that translates as "writing down one's name" in the Dari language, which is also often employed by Pashto speakers. But this hardly changes matters. Dari, a dialect of Persian, is the language used by urban or educated Afghans and much of their country's officialdom. Rural Pashtun society is largely illiterate.

Dari reflects foreign influences far more than Pashto. Indeed today it can be argued that the insurgency that rages among the Pashtuns of southern Afghanistan is an insurgency against Kabul and its Dari-speaking Western-influenced elite as much as it is one against Nato forces. The Taliban thought Kabul so decadent and evil that they shifted their capital to this city, which has long been regarded as the first city of Pashtun people.

So pinning down exactly who is coming in and out of Kandahar, whether they or their vehicles have been involved in attacks on the security forces or even establishing a person's true identity are all problematic here.

The Americans are pushing a scheme to register biometrically the whole population. But last week President Hamid Karzai halted that plan, arguing that US Marines in Helmand were getting ahead of themselves in their biometric campaign.
The Afghans do not want to sanction the various schemes of registration that are around at the moment, until they are satisfied they are in control.

"The issue is one of sovereignty," says Major General Nick Carter, the British officer who commands 30,000 Nato troops in this and three neighbouring provinces. He questions my assumption that this is a cultural divide, arguing that ordinary Afghans are excited by the modernity of biometrics and ID cards - rather more so than the average Briton.

However the process of registration has barely got under way here. Only a small proportion of people have been enrolled in it, and most vehicles I watched coming through a busy checkpoint yesterday had no number plates at all. Kandaharis worry even about the identity of those they see in police uniform when there are many rumours about Taliban assassinations carried out in this garb.

The Afghan authorities may indeed be sensitive about the collection of this information because of its power. But that nervousness results at least in part from the fact that this is a culture quite unaccustomed to the degree of surveillance that we in the West have become used to.

And while disputes about the details of registration are holding up the process, nobody can expect to reap any of the possible security benefits.

UPDATE: Nato have been in touch to point out that although President Karzai's decision has halted the Afghan national biometric program (one of the aims of which is a system of ID cards), the International Security Assistance Force continues to log biographic information. This is done for Nato's own purposes - for example comparison of an arrested suspect's biometric information with that held on people previously detained.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    HOW CAN A COUNTRY WITH NO CULTURE ADDRESS THOUSANDS OF YEARS OF SUCH?

    On the basis of Mark's observations about language, there will soon be no word for 'arrogance' in English, 'hubris' will fade, along with nihilism. Although the word 'honour' might still be used, its MEANING is already, today, quite other from what it was. As for integrity . . .

  • Comment number 2.



    I thought Afghanistan was a country not a US colony?, how arrogant of the US to try to impose Biometric ID's on Afghans, when they wouldn't dare try to in America!

  • Comment number 3.

    Funnily enough...

    ...the Afghan authorities seem pretty good at 'registering' the billions of dollars/GBP of 'aid' in hard currency/cash that arrives there and then promptly arranging shipment, of said cash (so much of it that it has to be loaded onto pallets), to private bank accounts in Dubai...and I bet there are perfectly adequate Pashto/Dari words for that caper...

    From Andrew Neil's blog
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/dailypolitics/andrewneil/

    "I asked him why we were increasing our aid to Afghanistan from £500m to £700m when his own department had reported that only £20 in every £100 that we were already spending was getting to the intended recipients and when there were reports of billions of dollars in cash leaving the country.

    I'm not sure he knew about his departmental report but he maintained that the money flight was probably drug money. In fact, the Wall Street Journal investigation of June 25th on which my question was based made it clear that the money leaving the country included "aid and logistical" money as well as drug money -- and reported that "massive infusions of poorly-monitored Western dollars were helping foster a culture of graft."

    It reported that over $3 billion had been openly (ie officially recorded) as having flown out of the country in the past three years, often in sums so large that it was piled on to pallets. Since Afghanistan's GDP is only $13 billion that means almost a quarter of it left the country in cash in three years, some of it aid money meant to help some of the poorest people in the world. Most of it went to Dubai, which means aid money has probably bought more million-pound condos there that it has built schools in Afghanistan."

  • Comment number 4.

    Obama said he would bring them out and guess what, he is going to do it...how refreshing, a politician who says what he means ...and does it..hopefully...

  • Comment number 5.

    ''"The issue is one of sovereignty,"''

    the issue is one of finding out the truth [who is really doing the drug dealing etc] more like.

    registration should have happened in 2002. however biometrics is probably overkill and more to do with a fat contract for someone?

    as ww2 shows you can set up a basic identity card system very quickly.

    if afghanistan is now plagued by hundreds of organised untouchable criminal gangs that extract billions from the country then it is in the image of the uk? mr blair has succeeded in his aims?

  • Comment number 6.

    Urban wrote:

    "The Afghan authorities may indeed be sensitive about the collection of this information because of its power. But that nervousness results at least in part from the fact that this is a culture quite unaccustomed to the degree of surveillance that we in the West have become used to."

    Waht planet are you living on Urban?

    Have you ever heard of that 'western' book called 'Big Brother?'

  • Comment number 7.

    oops!...of course I meant '1984'

  • Comment number 8.

    "Obama said he would bring them out and guess what, he is going to do it...how refreshing, a politician who says what he means ...and does it..hopefully..."

    maybe thats why he has just registered $300 million to extend the military airfields/bases and the top brass are certainly not talking of any withdrawal .. similarly in iraq.

    as for id cards .. a pointless exercise .. in a region that excels in copying almost anything from weapons to passports ..

    all an id card could do is create a surveillance state out of kandahar city .. but it couldnt guarantee security for the illegal nato/usa occupation ...

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