In the Australian press we now read that Afghanistan is sliding into chaos and that the promise of a peaceful, prosperous and stable state is increasingly elusive. But from our Australian homes, it is difficult to glean a true sense of what this really means. Sunday’s suicide attack in Paktya Province, south-east Afghanistan, that killed the Afghan-Australian Governor, Abdul Hakim Taniwal, paints a clear picture of what “fragile peace” means for both Afghans and Australians alike.
On Sunday at 1:30pm, I was sitting having lunch in Gardez, Southeast Afghanistan when an explosion shook the windows. Such an event is a daily occurrence in Gardez and more often than not, it is a controlled detonation of unexploded ordnance by the Coalition Forces. Today, as the dust settled, I was informed by mobile phone that the explosion was a suicide bomber that had claimed the life of Taniwal and several members of his entourage. The killing of Taniwal is a great loss for both Australia and Afghanistan.
Taniwal, a German-educated sociologist, had returned from Australia to his homeland in 2002 to take up the position of governor in his native province of Khost. Prior to being transferred to Paktya province, he also served briefly under President Karzai’s administration as a Minister in Kabul. Unlike some of Taniwal’s contemporaries, who at worst are alleged war criminals and drug traffickers, Taniwal had no “blood on his hands”. He was a professional, honest and hardworking public servant who, despite holding Australian citizenship, had left his family in Australia and returned to Afghanistan to participate in its reconstruction. Four nights ago, as I sat with Taniwal over dinner and talked about the increasing influence and militancy of the Taliban, he said jokingly that we should both leave this place and return to the relative comfort and safety of our families in Melbourne. Such a joke belied his commitment to, and vision for, his fellow countrymen and women.
Ominously, the lunch meeting I was attending when Taniwal was killed was on a proposed strategy to counter the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan’s troubled south-east. From the meeting I was to go to meet Taniwal to share with him the ideas that had been debated around the table. Interestingly, the cornerstone of the counter-insurgency strategy was not military, but relied on good governance — a rare commodity in today’s Afghanistan but one Taniwal was eager to embrace. Instead, at 2:30pm, while the legs, scalp and arm of the Taliban suicide bomber were still scattered on the dusty Gardez road, I was on the phone to Dandenong, Melbourne to inform his family that the Taliban had claimed the life of not only a courageous Afghan leader, but also more importantly a husband, father and grandfather. Despite having lived in the south-east of Afghanistan for nearly two years, it was on the phone to Australia today that the senseless horror of the situation in Afghanistan truly dawned on me.