The Real Afghanistan


Much of Kabul is built of mud. And when it rained before last Christmas—relieving a long and severe drought—the whole city seemed to melt. The piles of sludge on its unpaved lanes rose, as though in a slow-moving tide, until it spattered everything: the big white Land Cruisers of aid agencies and Afghan ministers, the beat-up yellow taxis, the bombed-out palaces of western Kabul and the bullet-pocked huts on steep hills, the fortified foreign embassies and UN offices, and even the high billboards exhorting Afghans, in idiosyncratic English, to “national reconciliation and peace.”

Despite the rain and cold, the bazaars were crowded. Shopkeepers representing almost all of Afghanistan’s ethnic groups—Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks, and Turkmens—hawked oranges, carpets, Chinese-made windbreakers, and electronic goods, while beggars—mostly disabled children and widows in burkas—squatted beside the open sewers and tugged at the wide trousers of passing men.

It was strange to find no white faces in these crowds. Even in the modern part of Kabul, where thousands of Europeans and Americans—mostly soldiers, diplomats, aid workers, and businessmen—live, the streets were empty. Afghan guards with Kalashnikovs stood in front of the iron gates set in high concrete walls topped with barbed wire. The gates occasionally opened to reveal a new or renovated mansion, and to release or swallow a Land Cruiser with tinted windows.

To be a foreigner in Afghanistan, it seemed, was to move from one protected enclave to another. An Indian journalist I met soon after arriving in Kabul told me that security had deteriorated soon after the presidential election in October, which the Taliban had failed to disrupt, and which Hamid Karzai had won convincingly. That same month a suicide bomber, apparently from the Taliban, had killed an American woman and injured three European soldiers at a shopping district a few yards away from my hotel. The Indian journalist himself seemed lonely, frustrated by the restrictions on both his travel and social life. For some months now he had wished to set up an FCC (foreign correspondents club) in Kabul, on the lines of one in Hong Kong. One cold rainy evening I traveled to his home with one of the foreign journalists he had invited to join the club. When we arrived we found several other journalists.

As usual, there was no power. A diesel generator spluttered outside the journalist’s fortress-like home, one of the thousands simultaneously running in the city, giving Kabul its characteristic low rumble. Inside, Afghan servants, chauffeurs, and bodyguards—part of the new service economy of Kabul—bustled around, replenishing bowls of dried fruit. The journalist opened a case full of alcohol—smuggled bottles wickedly gleamed in the dim, flickering light. Sipping Scotch whisky and German beer, the journalists loudly exchanged local gossip I would hear repeatedly in the next few days from Afghans: about kickbacks from an Afghan mobile phone operator to a cabinet minister, and about $1 million allegedly missing from the coffers of Ariana, the Afghan national airline. They speculated about whether Karzai would be confident…

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