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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 enough to exclude the most corrupt and powerful warlords—Defense Minister Mohammed Fahim and his deputy, Abdul Rashid Dostum—from his new cabinet. There were complaints about extravagant UN agencies and NGOs pushing up rents in Kabul (up to $3,000 for a dingy two-bedroom apartment); about the arrogant employees of the American company DynCorp who worked as Karzai’s bodyguards.

The Indian journalist abruptly called for silence, and read out what he said was a draft constitution, adopted from the FCC in Hong Kong. He then asked for suggestions. As it turned out, almost every idea proposed that evening ran into an obstacle. The club needed a permanent home. But this seemed possible only when rents in Kabul were less extortionate. High-paying corporate members? Perhaps, once there were many more multinational corporations in Afghanistan. Honorary memberships for such visiting foreign dignitaries as Dick Cheney, or the powerful US ambassador to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad? Perhaps, once the American embassy had become more accessible. Even a bar—indispensable to foreign correspondents clubs—seemed unobtainable. Seeking official permission for the consumption of alcohol in Kabul could only cause offense in what was still a deeply religious and conservative country.

Returning to my hotel late that night, past the sandbagged, barbwire-topped compounds of foreign embassies and UN offices, I felt sorry for the journalist. He had seemed right to argue, as his cherished project collapsed, that Kabul had advanced greatly since the collapse of the Taliban, and that with its new one million–strong population of repatriated refugees—many of them rich people who had spent decades in liberal societies—it was poised for a social revolution.

Earlier that evening, I had seen two Afghan girls at a pizza parlor. They wore tight blue jeans, their faces were uncovered, and they sipped Pepsi-Cola as they watched American women playing softball on ESPN. They would have been an unthinkable sight in the Taliban-ruled Afghanistan I had visited in early 2001. Almost four years later, Kabul was full of such surprises: new walled-off villas with mock-Palladian façades, well-stocked supermarkets, Internet cafés, beauty parlors, restaurants, and stores selling DVDs of Bollywood as well as pornographic films. Sitting in one of Kabul’s great traffic jams caused by the Land Cruisers, surrounded by the vivacious banter of Afghanistan’s new radio stations and the cries of children hawking newspapers, I often felt as if I was in a small Indian city, among people prospering under the globalized economy.

In brightly lit and heated offices, diplomats, NGO workers, and government officials radiated optimism as they offered facts and figures attesting to progress in Afghanistan. The first-ever presidential elections in the country had been successfully conducted without any major disruptions, and the keenness with which Afghans participated in it portended well for the parliamentary elections due in spring 2005. Three million Afghan refugees in Pakistan and Iran had expressed their confidence in their homeland by returning to it. More than three million children had been enrolled in schools, as compared with 900,000 under the Taliban. The eight-thousand-strong International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) under NATO command was now moving to cover regions beyond Kabul. A human rights commission had begun to function. The $4.4 billion pledged by international donors in Tokyo in 2002 for Afghanistan was coming in—if very slowly.

There was now a tarmac road from Kabul to Kandahar, three hundred miles to the south. More roads linking major Afghan cities were being constructed and renovated. Small civil-military provincial reconstruction teams (PRTs), which repaired schools and roads, and were run by the United Kingdom, Germany, and the Netherlands, now existed in the northern provinces and were expected to cover the entire country by 2007. Japan was at the forefront of the DDR (demobilization, disarmament, and reintegration) program, which is meant to disarm warlord armies, and had disarmed about 30,000 of the more than 150,000 fighters in private militias. The US was creating the Afghan National Army, with 21,000 soldiers already trained. The US and Germany had trained 18,000 police officers. The UK was leading antinarcotics efforts. The Italians were reforming the judiciary.

To hear this litany of efforts was to feel the words “international community,” which Afghans commonly used, acquire a moral dimension in Afghanistan. With one of the lowest life expectancies and the highest infant mortality rates in the world, Afghanistan seemed to need all the help it could get.1 But three years after the US brought together several nations to rebuild Afghanistan, many Afghans tended to blame rather than praise that international community.

Where was much of the money for reconstruction going, they asked, pointing to the Land Cruisers and the high-rent houses and offices of the expatriate population? Disarmament was a failure, and would remain so until there was better security and rule of law in the country: most militia fighters had simply concealed their best weapons and turned in old, ineffective ones. The new Afghan army was already afflicted with desertions. There was no comprehensive plan to house and feed the millions of repatriated refugees. And though Afghans had turned out enthusiastically for their first-ever direct elections, they were disappointed to see US-backed warlords still ruling much of the country.

One evening, early in my time in Afghanistan, I went to see Dr. Massouda Jalal. In October 2004, she had been in the news as the lone woman candidate in the presidential election. She had got only 1.2 percent of the votes cast, as compared to 55.4 percent for Karzai. But the fact that a woman could stand for high office alone hinted at the immensity of the changes occurring in Afghanistan.

So it was disconcerting when Dr. Jalal, sitting in a very cold, dark room and speaking in slow, precise English, denounced the election, and the registration process preceding it, as a fraud perpetrated upon Afghans—largely a show put on by the US government to impress American voters in the year of their own presidential election.

The international community, she kept saying, believed in “quantity”—statistics about elections and registration processes—but was indifferent to “quality.” The elections had not been free and fair. Many people had registered more than once, she claimed, and voted several times.2 Often, men with guns had forced people to vote for Karzai; they had also tried to intimidate her during her election campaign.

Western nations, she said, had not given her a single dollar while pouring millions into Karzai’s campaign. Worse, they had forgotten about women’s rights, which Laura Bush and Cherie Blair had so ardently embraced in late 2001, and which were trampled upon daily across Afghanistan by men hired by the United States in its war on terror. Educated women like herself were not allowed to participate in political decision-making. Karzai’s cabinet was dominated by corrupt warlords and had hardly any “qualified people”—people with the training and experience, she explained, to translate Western concepts of democracy into Afghan terms.

As with other Afghans I had met, I felt unable to assess much of what she said; it had seemed to me that the election, though flawed, had been a positive step. As it turned out, within a few weeks, she was appointed as minister in charge of “women’s affairs.” It again occurred to me that outsiders like myself brought to places like Afghanistan their own assumptions of what constitutes progress, and risked being limited by them.

But to know, as the days passed and I traveled around Afghanistan, that the new mansions with the architectural adventurousness of Los Angeles belonged to corrupt government officials, often built upon lands stolen from poor Afghans3 ; to learn that the provincial governor, who spoke fluently of “peace,” “reconstruction,” “international community,” and “poppy eradication,” was a drug lord; to find out that the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), which was briefly famous in the West for highlighting the Taliban’s harsh treatment of women, was too fearful of radical Islamists to announce its presence in Kabul—to know this was to begin to have a different sense of the change that had come to Afghanistan in the last three years. It was also to realize that like the millions suffering from contaminated water, power and housing shortages, warlords, and disease, a club for foreign journalists also had to wait for better days.

  1. 1

    The Afghan government has asked for $4 billion per year from international donors for reconstruction. This seems modest when compared to the $10–12 billion that the US spends per year on military operations in Afghanistan. See Barnett R. Rubin, Abby Stoddard, Humayun Hamidzada, and Adib Farhadi, Building a New Afghanistan: The Value of Success, the Cost of Failure (Center on International Cooperation, New York University, March 2004).

  2. 2

    Given that there were only 250 international monitors for the elections in Afghanistan, caution does seem necessary while considering the claims that 10.5 million people registered to vote, and that 70 percent of them actually voted in October 2004. However, the scale of Karzai’s victory suggests that a better-organized election would have had the same result.

  3. 3

    Pamela Constable, “Land Grab in Kabul Embarrasses Government: Mud Homes Razed to Make Room for Top Afghan Officials,” The Washington Post, September 16, 2003.

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