File picture: Reuters/Jeff Mitchell
File picture: Reuters/Jeff Mitchell

The war in Afghanistan made it impossible to conduct a census

By Pali Lehohla Time of article published Sep 5, 2021

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Afghanistan has been in the news over four decades, but the victory of the Taliban over the American backed 300000 strong Afghan army catapulted Kabul onto our screens. It brought back scenes of Vietnam where the US army fled just as unceremoniously.

My adventure to Kabul in 2008 was at the behest of the United Nations Population Fund for me to undertake an assessment of the possibility for Afghanistan to undertake a census of the population. I struck luck with both in transition and in conflict countries as far as accounting for populations is concerned.

One such was with the South African Population Census of 1996 – the very first endeavour under democratic rule. This put me in good stead to be invited to a conference on national statistics systems in transition countries of Eastern Europe that was hosted in Bishkek, Kyrgezstan and later in that year to Cambodia where I advised on the state of readiness for its census.

When former president Mbeki was assigned the task of looking into the peace settlement in the Sudan, a condition for the Comprehensive Peace Agreement centred on conducting a census of the population of Sudan. This was a constitutional requirement. I became the Chief Advisor to the Monitoring and Observation Council and over a period of five years from 2005 to 2010 I led a series of census missions in the Sudan. Being a candidate to advise on the census in Afghanistan did not come as a surprise, but being in Kabul was full of shocks.

From the airport I was taken to a UN Security briefing session and issued with a mobile phone with which I would report my point of departure and arrival throughout the day. The vehicle I was ferried in was bullet proof. Then I was dropped at one of the guest-houses the United Nations uses. I was not allowed to leave the guest house for a stroll. Security was tight all round. Within three days I could feel the pressure of being imprisoned in the three environments, the bullet proof vehicle, the guest house and the office.

A number of the UN colleagues at the guest house had been in Afghanistan for three years. My question to them was how do you survive here and is there an end in sight. The government offices were like an army camp.

The meetings we had with officials, had American military personnel in attendance trigger ready. There was the better side to this ordeal – the Afghani cuisine, the naan bread and the lamb especially, are without a match and within that hostile environment of guns and barricades there is amazing hospitality. But I have some embarrassing moments from these delights.

After days of immersing myself in these sumptuous meals, my tummy started rebelling. My assessment came to an obvious conclusion, which was under those dire security conditions a census would not succeed, but steps towards securing peace would have to be taken and those should begin with the promise of a census that would account for all people of Afghanistan. When I finally left after consulting with multitudes of people, my heart pounded with sadness in that even the poppies could hardly raise the imagination of this nation of great history. Whither a census Afghanistan remains a fundamental question. A census takes stock of what challenges economic, social and political have to be addressed. All countries that go through strife undertake this important task to shed light on the challenges. The Taliban may wish to find out after 50 years of not undertaking the exercise. A strong signal in that direction may just be the hope raising flag, that at last the Afghani shall know who they are.

*Dr Pali Lehohla is the former Statistician General of South Africa and former head of Statistics South Africa.


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