Pakistan ties complicate efforts to connect some to Afghan government
September 22, 2010
SHINKAI, Afghanistan — In Zabul province near the Pakistan border, Afghans use Pakistani rupees rather than their own currency, the Afghani. They wear clothes bought in Peshawar and send their sons to study in Karachi, or to work in coal mines near Quetta.
Perhaps nowhere is the mission to connect locals to the national government — a key step in building self-sufficiency — more starkly displayed than here.
Soldiers from the 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment want the 62,000 residents of Shinkai and Shamulzai districts of Zabul province to deal with Afghan officials who spend much of their time in Qalat, the provincial capital to the north.
But to get to Qalat, locals must make a 41-mile drive through the Dab Pass, between desolate Shugar Mountain peaks, where only a few patches of vegetation struggle to survive. It’s a trip seldom made by most of them.
Villagers are far more likely to travel south to find work in Pakistan, where historical and cultural ties remain strong.
There are 42 million Pashtuns divided by a border drawn by the British in 1893 — the Durand Line — to separate what was then the Indian Empire from Afghan lands. It was part of “The Great Game” — a struggle for control of Central Asia, played out by the British and Russian empires for much the 19th century.
The United Nations estimates there are 1.7 million Afghan refugees in northern Pakistan, many of whom fled the Soviet occupation in the 1980s.
In the village of Latek, about 13 miles east of the Shinkai district center, most locals are illiterate farmers. The area lacks electricity and the nearest school was closed by the Taliban several years ago.
Almost every family in the village has two or three sons working in coal mines near Quetta, where top Taliban leadership has been based since 2001. The pay is not good, but often it’s the only employment option for young men from the area. And the work is dangerous. Local farmer Abdul Mohammad said two of his sons died in mine accidents in Pakistan.
Abdul Walli, 23, who was visiting his family in Shinkai earlier this week, said he’s been coal mining in Pakistan for three years but comes home every six months to bring his family food, clothes and money. The work earns him 10,000 rupees ($117) a month, he said.
Life in Latek is a world away from Pakistan. People live as they have for millennia, farming the parched land with primitive methods that barely provide enough food for their tables.
Walli enjoys his mother’s home-cooked potatoes and chicken when he comes home, but in Pakistan he’s sampled all kinds of strange tastes including pizza and “Japan food.” He said he expects his parents to arrange a marriage for him with a local girl, but added that he likes the more liberal women he sees in the Pakistani bazaars.
“They have good bodies and they are healthy and don’t wear the burqa,” he said.
Mohammad Zarif, 25, studies medicine in Karachi but visits his seven brothers in Shinkai every six months. Unlike other men from the area, he’s clean shaven, speaks English and likes watching cricket — habits he picked up in Pakistan.
He keeps a low profile when he visits Afghanistan.
“If the Taliban see me they will ask: ‘What are you doing here?’ ” he said. “They don’t like people who are educated. They think you work for the government.”
Zarif met his wife, a fellow medical student, in Pakistan, where he is free to surf the Internet and learn about the world, something impossible for young people in his village, who lack even televisions or DVD players.
Crossing the border is easy, he said, since Pashtun border guards never have a problem with other Pashtuns coming and going.
At the bazaar in the Shinkai district center, shopkeepers sell all manner of Pakistani products, including movies, cassette tapes of Pakistani musicians and fabrics from Peshawar.
According to the World Bank, annual trade between Afghanistan and Pakistan is worth well over $1 billion, mostly products moving into Afghanistan.
Shinkai shopkeeper, Mohammad Sarawa, 27, said all his fabrics come from Pakistan but that he prefers the quality of Chinese-made goods if he can get them.
Every store in Shinkai trades in rupees. The official exchange rate is one Afghani to 1.94 rupees, but in Shinkai the rate is one for one.
“We don’t have enough Afghani,” Sarawa said. “Most of the guys go to Pakistan for work and bring rupees back.”
Mohammed Zaman Khan, 30, who came to Shinkai from Qalat to help supervise the provincial elections, said he goes to Pakistan regularly to visit three sisters living there.
“We have less literacy, no schools, and no security [in Afghanistan],” he said. “This is the reason why people go to work or study in Pakistan. If we have good schools, roads and jobs, who will go to other countries? No one.”
When the local U.S. Army commander, Capt. Adam Scher, 27, visited Latek village recently, he told the villagers that their sons could be employed building hospitals, schools and new roads in Shinkai as long as there was security.
“I won’t bring outside contractors to do that work,” he said. “The work has to be done by the people who live here.”
Scher, 27, appealed to elders to help the Afghan government so that their sons would not be forced to work in Pakistan.
“Think about all the honor that a village elder will bring if he brings work, security and progress for his village so people don’t have to go to Pakistan,” he told the farmers over tea. “I want the kids here to remember that their older brothers had to go to Pakistan to work but they were lucky. They could work in Afghanistan.”