BBC BLOGS - Newsnight: Mark Urban

Archives for August 2010

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.

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.