No light at the end of Afghan Tunnel

Jan 4, 2016
The day that the Soviets officially crossed the (Afghan) border, I wrote to President Carter, ‘We now have the opportunity of giving to the Soviet Union its Vietnam War'”.
Zbigniew Brzezinski who was President Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser said this in 1998. Little did he or anybody else in America’s political establishment then realize that within three years their country will be face to face with a second Vietnam. In October 2001, a US-led coalition invaded this land with rugged mountains. Within two months, the Taliban vanished from Kabul — vanished but not vanquished.
The proof lies in the fact that officials from US, Afghanistan, Pakistan and China are due to meet in Pakistan next Monday for a meeting aimed at laying the groundwork for talks with the insurgents. This is not the first time the US or Afghan government will be talking to the Taliban. In fact, the Monday meeting will be an attempt to revive a peace process that came to an abrupt end in July 2015 when the news came out that Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar had died two years earlier. The fact is that 14 years after the US invasion, security still eludes Afghanistan. The country lacks a strong and stable central authority. Despite a decade and half of costly Western intervention, insurgents can act at will with lethal efficiency. Yet, Afghanistan doesn’t have a full-time minister of defense. Lack of development and economic opportunities are leading to an exodus of people from the country.
Though NATO-backed Afghan security operations claim to be killing scores of militants on a daily basis, they have only succeeded in the “displacement of the insurgency, not its eradication”, according to a Western official.Security situation is so tenuous that the top US commander Gen. John Campbell says he wants to keep as many US troops there as possible through 2016 to boost beleaguered Afghan soldiers and may seek additional American forces to assist them. Maintaining the current force of 9,800 US troops to train Afghan forces and conduct counter-terrorism raids is vital. The scheduled reduction of US troops to 5,500 by Jan. 1, 2017, should be put off as long as possible. “My intent would be to keep as much as I could for as long as I could.” Friday’s suicide attack on a French restaurant in Kabul that killed a 12-year-old boy and wounded more than a dozen people shows how right he is in his assessment. Earlier this week, one civilian was killed and 33 were wounded in an attack claimed by the Taliban in an area close to Kabul airport. Last fortnight, six US soldiers were killed as they patrolled near Bagram air base outside Kabul and, last month, suicide attackers struck a Spanish Embassy guesthouse in the capital.
Despite disputes over leadership after Mullah Omar’s death, the Taliban made big advances last year, inflicting heavy casualties on Afghan forces fighting largely on their own since 2014. Apart from briefly capturing the northern city of Kunduz in September, the insurgent movement threatened to take the volatile southern province of Helmand after overrunning several district centers. The Taliban now control more territory than in any year since they were toppled from power in 2001, with the UN estimating that nearly half of all districts across Afghanistan are at risk of falling.
Meanwhile, the main faction of the Taliban has rejected peace talks as long as foreign troops remain in Afghanistan. This may be a bargaining chip. But in a final political settlement, as envisaged by Taliban, there will be no role for those who assisted American or international forces. US is not likely to accept such a settlement and leave those who stood by them to the tender mercies of the Taliban. This means the agony of Afghans, which began with the Soviet invasion in 1979, is likely to continue for some more years.
Fahmid Rashid, Table for None, Dhaka Tribune, January 4, 2016 (Bangladesh)
Going to restaurants with friends and family is a common pastime in Dhaka. It’s because there are so few options for entertainment in our fast-growing yet small and crowded city. Whenever myself and my friends go out to eat, it’s usual that we take a glance at the prices before deciding on the menu. Since we are students and receive finite pocket money from our parents, the prices of items on the menu end up affecting our orders quite a bit.
Sometimes there is a real compromise between what we want and what is available within our budget. While restaurant prices may seem a trivial matter, it is indeed a stark reflection of our economy and the cost of living here in Dhaka.
Surprisingly enough, not many people seem to react to such high prices. Some of us would at the most, discuss amongst ourselves and express dissatisfaction about this, but wouldn’t stop going out for dining.
So even though prices do increase every now and then, restaurants in Dhaka are still packed for most of the time. On many occasions, one has to queue up before even getting a place to sit -- every special day of the year sees this happening. Weekends, holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, Ramadan Iftars and even Sehris are considered special occasions for eating out these days. And the owners of eateries wouldn’t dare miss a chance to miss out on extra revenue by hiking the prices quietly during an opportune moment. As it stands, restaurants set their initial prices pretty high, and then they keep increasing prices regularly.
But restaurant food is not an essential commodity, since we can live without it. Prices could also go up if the number of restaurants were less than the number of people wanting to eat out. However, it is found that, almost every other day, there are several new restaurants or cafes or fast food joints mushrooming in Dhaka city. With my rudimentary knowledge of economics, I cannot explain this price determination. But what I do know is that there are other factors behind such frequent price changes. One of the reasons is the rise of a very wealthy class, an indication that the people of Bangladesh have become much richer than before. They can afford a lavish lifestyle -- modern houses, expensive cars, stylish outfits, exotic holidays -- pretty much anything is affordable to them. With this comes a sense of pride, since wealth has always been a point of admiration in our society. We are often fascinated by the “peacocking” of the affluent class, to the extent that many actively try to follow what the more well-off families do. They join in the race of spending. They want to be seen in places where the rich move around.
This fake sense of “prestige” has contributed greatly to the high costs of living in Dhaka. Otherwise, who in their right mind would spend Tk7,000 on Iftar for one person at a plush hotel in this city? Apart from the shining floors and air-conditioned rooms, what exactly is the difference between this food and a home-cooked meal, or even a the cuisine offered in a smaller, more humble restaurant? In reality, it’s likely that only a small group of people can afford to go to these restaurants. Going out for dinner to a restaurant in Dhaka is a luxury for the lower-middle class and absolutely unthinkable for the poor. But that is not the case in many countries -- our neighbouring countries India and Thailand can be seen as examples.
From my experience, I can tell that the food at restaurants is pretty much the same in India. However, prices are significantly lower than what they are in Dhaka. At the same time the quality is much better, so is their ambience of the venue, not to mention the customer service. In Thailand the food is excellent, both in terms of taste and price. Tourists flock to Bangkok throughout the year. Affordability in Thailand is one of the city’s major attractions. 
Of course, one might argue that restaurants have to meet break-even costs and make profits in order to make their customers happy. But I feel restaurants would be more profitable if the owners keep prices at a moderate-high level so that eating out becomes affordable for many more people. This would make everyone happy and result in a win-win situation. The government could play a part in monitoring unreasonable pricing, in this regard.
Sadly, Dhaka is gradually becoming an increasingly expensive city to live in, where the rich will survive but the poor will suffer. Food prices in restaurants and the lifestyle of a select group of people are rather telling in this regard. As author and playwright Sholom Aleichem once said: “Life is a dream for the wise, a game for the fool, a comedy for the rich, a tragedy for the poor.” 
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Saudi Gazette, January 4, 2016

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