KABUL – The rooftop at Mustapha’s is arguably the coolest place in post-Taliban, foreign-policed Kabul. Mustapha is basically a safe house for United Nations personnel, NGO staff and the odd Afghan-American returnee. At the end of a hot, dusty, exhausting day dodging mesmerizing traffic jams of taxis, buses, donkey carts and Toyota Land Cruisers belonging to every imaginable humanitarian agency or NGO on earth, to feel the breeze at Mustapha’s rooftop contemplating the stars and the mountains is the closest to peace one can aspire to in troubled Kabul.
There are signs of a new life everywhere. Foreign Office staff proudly display their brand new Transitional Islamic State of Afghanistan stationery – the country’s third appellation in a year. There’s an internet cafe in the basement of that derelict modernist pearl, the Intercontinental Hotel, terribly expensive by Afghan standards (US$5 an hour), when late last year the sole tattered battery of the sole battered satellite phone in the lobby was dead on an everyday basis.
Ariana Afghan Airlines is flying again – to the delight of its heroic technical advisor, Feda Fedawi. The Cinema Bakthar is doing a roaring business with Indian flicks. There’s a video shop with the latest Bollywood specials in every corner. There are many more burqa-less women and many more female smiles – as women are finally able to lead normal public lives again without having to hide behind a veil. Spanish peacekeeping soldiers armed to the teeth kill time during the day hunting for souvenirs at impromptu street bazaars. Greedy merchants in Chicken Street salute foreigners disposed to shell out almost $100 for B-52 and Apache helicopter-themed carpets, which add a new meaning to the term “carpet bombing.” Kabul rocks – and rolls. Now there are parties – apparently – every week. “Everything is flown in from Russia by helicopter – caviar, champagne and the women,” proclaims an insider. Who gets to these parties? “The people you see driven around on those huge 4X4s,” he notes evasively.
Some things never change, though. Nothing beats the experience of entering a tea shop in the sprawling Naderpashtun bazaar and watching a fabulous river of humanity pass by. And armies of street kids are still begging everywhere. At least 1.5 million refugees have already trickled back home since the beginning of 2002 – mostly from Pakistan and Iran, only to find the same dreadful catalogue of crippling poverty, shaky security as close as 5 kilometers outside of Kabul, the still undisputed reign of the Kalashnikov culture, and – despite a few hundred working schools – a literacy rate of no more than 30 percent. Just like in Cambodia during the UN jamboree 10 years ago, the sight of foreigners with expense accounts ordering lasagna al fresco is not exactly a sign of progress.
One question is essential: where is the money? There may be signs of crippling poverty everywhere in Kabul, but there’s a lot of money in the two money changing markets. Anyone with a stack of afghanis ($1 = 40,000 afghanis) sits down on the sidewalk and gets to business. Soon there will be a new afghani – equal to 1,000 old ones – with no pictures of Afghan heroes (just like the euro) to avoid controversies among Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras, only with pictures of mosques and historical monuments. Six different versions of the afghani can still be found in the country: a lot of people still have problems identifying the real thing from the fakes. “Dostum” afghanis are everywhere – and are promptly rejected: the Russians used to print special afghanis for Uzbek mega-warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum.
It is widely suspected that Dostum’s people are now plundering customs revenue in the north. According to Mohamad Rahim, customs director in the province of Balkh, more than 25 billion afghanis were collected in the past 12 months just at Hayratan, a strategic river port 30 kilometers from the Uzbek border. But the government has not seen the color of money since July. According to customs officials in Hayratan, gunmen are showing up regularly to collect the revenues. One of the officials says that “nothing happens in Hayratan without Dostum’s permission.” There may be trading and commerce money for the moneychangers, and money collected at customs, but there’s certainly no money to pay teachers. According to Mohammad Subooryar, deputy director of education in the province of Ghor, teachers’ salaries have not been paid in more than a year. The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) is supposed to pay each teacher $40 a month, but the money has “disappeared” somewhere in the Byzantine Afghan banking system.
At the hyper-congested Ministry of Planning in Kabul, Minister Mohamed Mohaqeq – a Hazara – is desperate. Mohaqeq, a former military commander, was one of the key leaders (along with Dostum) who captured Mazar-I-Sharif from the Taliban last November. Today he denounces the fact that millions of dollars in aid are being diverted out of the government’s coffers by “well-connected people.” Because inter-governmental dialogue is so fractious, Mohaqeq says that the officials who should be in charge of aid distribution have no voice, and the money disappears before getting to the people in need. Afghanistan’s annual GDP per capita remains $160. If you’re lucky enough to find a job as a government employee, your salary will be $30 on average – or a maximum of $50. Mohaqeq says that he knows people involved in reconstruction aid who are getting their hands on as much as $15,000 a month.
He adds that there’s lavish spending in luxury goods – like on those swinging underground “parties.” His solution: all aid money should come through the central government, most of all through his Ministry of Planning. Well-positioned Afghan-Americans argue that this would not do either as it reflects a Soviet-style concept of central planning. They suggest that the money should come directly to each concerned ministry – the whole process supervised by teams of Western experts. Meanwhile, the problems just accumulate. Donor countries and a plethora of international organizations have pledged $1.8 billion to Afghanistan in 2002 alone, and a total of $4.5 billion over five years. The targets this year are far from being met. On his recent visit to Kabul, the UN special envoy for Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi, expressed what any average Afghan is now beginning to understand: Brahimi would like to see a fraction of the billions of dollars funding the American military machine spent on aid and development. Afghan Education Minister Yunus Qanooni touched on the same point, “If the international community allocated only a small part of the budget it’s using to fight terrorism and educated a new generation of Afghans, that would be a great service.” Only 3 million of the estimated 4.5 million Afghan children are now in school. The shortage of teachers, buildings and teaching materials is mind-boggling. At least 2,500 schools need to be built. At least 3,500 schools need urgent repair. According to the Education Ministry, the country needs only $874 million to rebuild its entire school system until the end of 2003. But the money is still not forthcoming.
The country more than ever depends on the goodwill of people such as Muhamad. He’s a Pashtun from Kandahar married to a Hazara. He’s been 25 years out of Afghanistan – first in Australia then in the US. Now he describes himself as “a banker in Washington.” He’s back to help – distributing school packets in the Hazarajat, or at the Lycee Malalai in Kabul. “You should see the look in their eyes when they get their first pen,” he says. Muhamad perfectly understands the menace posed by powerful Afghan warlords as far as the country’s future is concerned, “They are always uneasy when they have to deal with educated people. They only understand military language. They are unfit to rule.” Muhamad tells of very powerful Afghans working in the background, close to King Zahir Shah’s family, who have told him that they would leave Afghanistan again if the situation did not change: namely, a new kind of government strong enough to face the warlords.
The fact is the struggle between Afghans with a modern view for the country like Muhamad and the old mujahideen leaders is once again being won decisively by the warlords – and these include, of course, Northern Alliance warlord Mohamed Fahim, now the powerful Defense Minister. It’s an open secret in Kabul that Fahim is the man in charge, dwarfing the always elegant but otherwise ineffective Hamid Karzai. Fahim, a Tajik from the Panjshir Valley, was an operative of the political police during Najibullah’s communist regime, and then directed the secret police of the mujahideen governments from 1992 to 1996. He’s not exactly a diplomat.
Afghans recently arrived from America or Europe trying to help in the reconstruction of the country say that they have the feeling of a clock turned back to 10 years ago, to the mujahideen “governments” that evolved into a civil war that practically destroyed Kabul and created the conditions for the emergence of the Taliban. The only argument of the warlords to justify their preeminence is the usual “but we were the ones who stayed here and fought the jihad” (against the Soviets). Average Afghans, though, are tired of the warlords’ grip on the country. Some of these warlords even denounced Sima Samar, the minister for women’s affairs, as “Afghanistan’s Salman Rushdie.”
Hamid Karzai’s transitional government has so far failed completely to enhance the power emanating from Kabul and extend it to the provinces – for obvious reasons: Afghans everywhere outside of Kabul see Karzai as “the man from America,” a weak president who cannot go anywhere without his American bodyguards. Ismail Khan, the so-called “Emir of southwest Afghanistan” who runs four provinces, and Abdul Dostum, who runs crucial Mazar-i-Sharif in the north, remain the lords of regional fiefdoms, and don’t give a damn about Kabul. Pashtuns in the Pashtun belt are secretly organizing their own counter-power. And there’s absolutely nothing that the US can do about any of this.
The US still refuses to allow peacekeeping forces out of Kabul, so they could help Hamid Karzai to disarm the warlords. The Pentagon says that an extension of their role would compromise direct American military operations. The West as a whole still does not tie aid for regional government projects as conditional on human rights progress – which would be a way to reign in the warlords. And – worst of all – the West is not even providing a fraction of the aid that it promised, with or without strings attached. Take the matter of roads. Jalalabad-Kabul, a mere 150 kilometers, is still a back-breaking five-hour journey around a moonscape. The West – for all its claims of not abandoning Afghanistan this time – still is not committed to help the road-building. Without a decent road system, Afghanistan simply cannot even begin to reap some benefits from its crucial location as a Central Asia crossroads.
The World Food Program (WFP) estimates that over half of all Afghan families are in need of emergency aid. But the WFP has received only 57 percent of the food that it needs from foreign donors.The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) is also in dire straits. The constant flood of Afghan refugees pouring in from Pakistan has simply overwhelmed the UN. Hundreds of thousands of these refugees lived in Peshawar or Karachi – and not in refugee camps. A lot of them complain that Pakistani police harassment forced them to go back to Afghanistan. And when they come back they find that their homes have been destroyed and livestock killed. Even under so much strain, the UNHCR had to cut food rations to the returnees by two-thirds – and it is still warning that it may have to end all food distribution if foreign governments do not come up with the money they promised.
It’s crucial to remember today that “regime change” was never the main target of the US bombing of Afghanistan. “Regime change” evolved into a doctrine only when the Pentagon woke up to the reality that it would be nearly impossible to capture Osama bin Laden and eliminate the danger of any further al-Qaeda attack.
But now “regime change” in Afghanistan is about the only tangible success of the US after Washington’s decision to answer to the September 11 challenge with overwhelming military force. In the process, the American bombing machine killed what is estimated in Kabul nowadays as as many as 8,000 innocent civilians – a “collateral damage” (copyright Pentagon) two-and-a-half times the number of victims of September 11. And this total does not include the incalculable number of those who died of hunger during the disruption of aid supplies last October – ordered by the US. The US also set the extremely dangerous precedent of one nation’s right to overthrow a foreign government – any foreign government – by bombing, and is now trying to sell world opinion a replay in Iraq. Poor, hard-working Kabulis in the bazaars are still happy: at least they can be entertained by an Indian movie without being tortured by the Taliban. But some educated Afghan returnees are increasingly desperate. A collection of opinions not usually carried by the Western media says it all. One of these returnees says that “the situation is a mess. The Americans came too early, without doing their homework, bombing everything. One more month of pressure and the Taliban would have collapsed, and we could have decided our future by ourselves.” Another says. “The US is giving only minimal economic and food aid. They are only seeking their own interests.” A third one complains. “[King] Zahir Shah was denied being named head of state by the US envoy, Khalilzad. The Northern Alliance was the chosen government by the US so that they could build their oil pipeline through Afghanistan.” And a fourth one goes straight to the point: “If the Americans want to remain loved by the Afghans they should finish al-Qaeda as soon as possible and then go away.”
On December 21, 2001, George W Bush said that 2002 would be “a year of war.” The new Iraqi war is coming, while the new Afghan war is far from over. But the definitive historical judgement of the American adventure in Afghanistan will depend on whether the bombing-provoked fall of the Taliban is capable of outweighing so many unbearable “collateral” costs.