Old Fears in the New Afghanistan

The New York Times
, Dec 8, 2002

KABUL, Afghanistan These days in Kabul there is a buzz in the air: new magazines and newspapers launching almost daily; film directors making movies; artists returning from exile; women clicking through the streets on high heels, flashing polished nails and made-up faces on their way to work; men sitting cross-legged on the floors of teahouses watching television and discussing the news. Some are even calling it the Paris of Central Asia. This is how life after the Taliban was supposed to be. As President Bush keeps pointing out to the people of Iraq, the new Afghanistan is a model for what their lives will look like after Saddam Hussein has been removed.

Yet a year after the overthrow of the Taliban and imposition of a Western-backed government, there has been little improvement in the lives of most Afghans, few of whom possess televisions or fine clothes or care about the luxury of free speech. These people spend their days struggling to feed their children on an average annual income of $75.

Western promises that Afghanistan would never again be forgotten collide with reality. In the general ward of Kabul's main children's hospital sick children lie three to a bed, one oxygen tank passed among them. According to the hospital administrator, children have died on the operating table because the oxygen failed when the power went out, as it frequently does. The hospital has no backup generator.

Of course, $1.8 billion in foreign aid has poured into Afghanistan this year, but there is little evidence of it. Much of the money seems to have gone toward gleaming new offices and air-conditioned jeeps for the 1,025 United Nations agencies and international aid groups that have taken over many of the villas in the Wazir Akbar Khan suburb where Osama bin Laden's Arab acolytes used to dwell.

Some Afghans have gotten jobs as translators and drivers and some are getting rich by charging outrageous rents but for most people the "U.N. Effect" has been an overload of an at best sporadic electricity supply and a rise in living costs. In fact, the Aschiana school, a highly regarded program for street children, is likely to lose its building. The landlord can earn far more in rent from a foreign aid organization that wants to convert it into a staff guesthouse.

The Taliban may no longer be running the state but Mullah Omar, their enigmatic one-eyed leader, is believed to wander the mountains, and many of the mullahs who inspired the movement were recently elected to Parliament in neighboring Pakistan. The moral police no longer stalk the streets but the fear remains, which is why so few women have cast off their burkas. In Wardak province, only an hour outside the capital, several schools for girls have been burned to the ground in the last two months. In Kabul last week, I spent a morning at the new beauty school in the Ministry for Women, chatting to giggling women trying out hairstyles on one another, creating ringlets with rollers fashioned from mulberry twigs. Yet when they opened the door for me to leave, the ministry's male guards shouted abuse, calling them whores and worse.

Any sense of political stability is tenuous at best. Afghanistan's president, Hamid Karzai, wields so little power outside the capital that he is spoken of as the mayor of Kabul. Inside the palace he now has round-the-clock protection from Western bodyguards. They drip with machine guns and machine pistols, both to protect Mr. Karzai and to impress the Afghans, who carry rifles as casually as the English carry umbrellas.

President Karzai's chief concern and the one that prompts him at nearly every opportunity to appeal for more foreign peacekeeping troops to range outside the capital is the threat to his authority posed by warlords. Principal among these are Ismail Khan, from Herat in the west, and Abdul Rashid Dostum, the Uzbek general from the north, who control vast stretches of the countryside, not to mention the lucrative customs posts at the borders. In an interview last week, Mr. Karzai told me that while Mr. Khan is earning more than $1 million a day in customs revenues, the Afghan government does not have money to pay the salaries of teachers (just $16 a month).

Such a plea does not spring easily from Mr. Karzai, the fiercely independent Afghan leader, but it comes from the certain belief that if foreign troops leave, the country will plunge back into the chaos it faced in 1992. In those days, the mujahedeen who had fought together to oust the Russians and then formed a government, split into groups and turned their guns on one another.

Destroyed view of Dar-ul-Aman palace - click to view more photos Anyone wanting a glimpse of what a lawless Afghanistan might look like need only take a drive along Dar-ul-Aman. Nearly 80 years ago, Robert Byron, the writer, described the avenue with its rows of tall, white-stemmed poplars as one of the most beautiful in the world. In the early 1990's, fighting among many of the factions now represented in Mr. Karzai's government left the road in ruins. Today, there's not a tree in sight.

On a wintry afternoon last week, I sat in the destroyed gardens of the tomb of Babur, the Muslim emperor, and watched the pale sun disappear behind the Hindu Kush. Young boys were flying kites from the flat roofs of the mud houses that cling like swallows' nests to the hillsides; young girls, who a year ago had not been able to go to school, were returning from classes in their new red and black uniforms, their heads held high.

Suddenly the quiet of a day winding down was disturbed by a loud rumble. One of the caretakers of the bullet-ridden tomb pointed up at two B-52's. As I watched the planes tracing vapor trails across the sky, I wondered if the people of Iraq might soon be witnessing a similar scene above some desert town. The caretaker seemed to be having similar thoughts. Funny, he said. Throughout history we Afghans have always fought outsiders. Now we are frightened they will leave us.

Christina Lamb, world affairs correspondent for The Sunday Telegraph of London, is author of "The Sewing Circles of Herat: A Personal Voyage Through Afghanistan."

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