Life is not rock n roll in Afghanistan

“Sometimes life is rock ‘n’ roll”, says one voice in an NBC news report about “the first rock concert in Afghanistan for 35 years”.
I don’t know about that. Sounds a bit Beavis and Butthead-ish to me. But the news item – called “Kabul rocks … with music” – was one of many that reported last weekend’s “Sound Central” festival in Afghanistan, perhaps with a touch of amazement. What? Young Afghans? Listening to rock music? Guitars and tattoos? Women without burkhas?
Actually, I think there’s quite a well-defined pattern of these kinds of Afghan stories now. You get plenty of media reports on the emergence of Afghanistan’s answer to Pop Idol, Afghan Star, or on how football is “helping people to recover some sense of normality and enjoyment of life” in things like this Trans World Sport feature. They’re the flipside to the almost daily diet of Afghan political news, much of it decidedly bad.
The cultural/sports stories are light relief. But from what? Well, the not so uplifting news from Afghanistan seems to cover just about everything else. It’s worth breaking it down a bit though. For example:
* The maternal mortality rate is 1,400 deaths per 100,000 live births (down from 1,600 a decade ago)
* Annual infant mortality is 161 deaths per 1,000 live births (down from 257 in 2001)
* Seven million children are at school, including 2.5 million girls (there were only 5,000 girls being educated in 2001), from an overall population of around 28 million
* Approximately 65% of the population has access to at least basic health services (this was only nine per cent in 2001)
These figures, admittedly just a snapshot, are from a new Amnesty 2001-2011 “scorecard”, charting how things have changed since the US military led the international invasion of Afghanistan exactly ten years ago on 7 October 2001. The picture is of uneven progress (see this video), and in some areas it’s going backwards not forwards.

Providing general security for the Afghan people is faring extremely badly, and President Karzai himself admits they’re failing on this score. And even with better news, it’s not necessarily wholly good. So, for example, while the number of girls being educated has risen hugely (from a near-zero-point during the dark days of the women-hating Taleban), even now the majority tend to drop out of school when they get into their early teens. Could conservative views amongst families have something to do with that, or the fact that – amazingly – 56% of all marriages in Afghanistan are child marriages?
In the Trans World football video the female football players are positive about playing the game but worried about their own safety on their way home from the ground (they have to play at an ISAF compound to help protect them from the Taleban). And they speak about their own families’ opposition to their involvement in such un-womanly pursuits. “Even our own families do not want us to play football”, says one.
For women in Afghanistan this is it in a nutshell. They’re struggling against widespread cultural conservatism on the one hand, and trying to survive the murderous misogyny of the armed groups on the other. And, as if that wasn’t enough, they’re worried that the international community is going to sell them out in peace deals with the Taleban. There’s an online campaign about this here – please support it.
In his look-back over the last decade in Afghanistan the Guardian’s Declan Walsh today recalls a gung-ho US Colonel by the name of Stephen Williams going into battle in Kandahar in 2006 like a character from Apocalypse Now (he “played heavy metal music as his artillery pounded Taliban-held compounds. ‘Rock'n'roll, man,’" he said”). Hmm.

Meanwhile, back at the Sound Central rock festival, the guy who says life is sometimes rock ‘n’ roll is from the US embassy and the event is, it transpires, funded by the US government. I’m not knocking it (I like a bit of rock music myself) but let’s see if the Afghan government and friendly countries like the US and the UK can help give the Afghan people a better future away from the music concerts as well.

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