Time to fly a kite for Afghanistan’s future

The glass encrusted string of a cheap paper kite sliced chunks of flesh out of my fingers when I tried Afghanistan’s national sport on a recent windy Friday in Kabul.

Like much of what goes on in Afghanistan, kite flying is complex and violent. In what is essentially a fight to the death, the aim is to entice another kite into a duel and then get ahead of it so the string of one’s own kite can slice through that of the opponent.

The joy is in seeing the defeated kite float pathetically downwards to its death.

In the suburban back yard of my friend’s home, the cry goes up: “He’s cut, he’s cut.”

Kite flying — or gudiparan bazi — holds romantic memories for my friend, one of a large family of over-achievers. As teenagers, he and his half-dozen brothers made kites to fly over the homes of girls they had crushes on.

The Taliban banned kite flying; it was as decadent as dancing, music and white shoes. After the Taliban’s fall a decade ago, Afghans celebrated by taking to the skies.

The kites still fight, but the joy is fading. Afghans, my friend told me, are losing hope in their future.

“When the only message people hear is that all hope is lost, eventually they will lose all hope. And once hope is lost, it is difficult to regain,” he said.

“Now is the time to change it, to turn it around, to give people hope that things can get better and that change is up to them.”

Problem is, the message Afghans hear swings from one extreme to the other, and each end of the spectrum lacks credibility.

Western political and military supporters of the Afghan government struggle for traction as they constantly proclaim imminent victory, when all evidence appears to the contrary.

At the other end of the scale are those who say civil war is inevitable once the Western military leaves the corrupt and incompetent Afghan security forces in charge.

The Taliban leadership live comfortably in their “safe havens,” free from fear of IEDs or suicide bombers — or even public opinion.

A targeted assassination campaign has spooked the political elite, boosted the confidence of pro-Taliban Islamists, highlighted a lack of political reform and sowed doubt that presidential elections slated for 2014 will even take place.

Western officials shrug about the millions of dollars carried out of the country almost daily, though the theft feeds into the feeling there’s only three years left to cream off as much as possible and get the hell out before the Westerners cut and run.

My kite-flying friend, recently returned with US citizenship and an Ivy League degree, says he and his brothers “want to do some good for our country”. He’s got his insurance policy nevertheless.

The rhetoric from all players in this game lacks reality. There is no long-term strategy for a country that for a decade has lurched from one international conference to the next, hand outstretched for more cash to funnel into dodgy real estate and numbered bank accounts, while millions don’t know where their next meal is coming from.

In December, Bonn will host the latest in the decade-long series of international conferences on Afghanistan, where President Karzai’s government will be called on to account for itself.

Many of the pledges made at what should have been the most important of the series, last year’s Kabul conference, have yet to be fulfilled, and BonnTwo is expected to yield little more than a promisory note to do better.

What if, instead of engaging in the futile exercise of trying to cut each other out, those parties that stand to benefit from a stable, secure and hopeful Afghanistan use Bonn as an opportunity for some fresh diplomatic thinking?

Afghanistan has the potential to be the centrifugal force that brings Iran, Pakistan, China, Russia, India and Turkey into a dialogue of mutually-interested parties, which includes the United States, Britain, the EU and NATO, and could ultimately, over the long term, shift the balance in some of the most fractious bilateral relationships and bring a new dimension to the geopolitics of this region.

Time, perhaps, to fly a kite that might have a chance of staying aloft.