I will never forget the look on Zamir’s face as he came to pick me up at Kabul airport. “I do need to wear the chador right,” I said to him, sweating under the dupatta wrapped around my head tightly. “No you don’t,” he replied, grinning bemusedly, “Who told you that?” Zamir’s expression made me feel like a ‘firang’ in India, the sort we make fun of when they try too hard to adapt to local culture.
Like most journalists in a war zone, I had to find an organisation to be ‘embedded’ with, to be safe. French NGO Acted, which had been in Afghanistan since 1993 when the Taliban was beginning to make its presence felt, seemed like a good choice. But within an hour, I would experience what being in Afghanistan really means.
It was 7 pm by the time we got to the guesthouse, a good time to explore the city, or so I thought. “No, you can’t go out on your own,” my Acted friend Zamir informed me. It was nearly a day-and-a-half—after security briefings that included a tour of possible escape routes from the Acted office and a list of dos and don’ts—that I was driven around the city in a blast-proof Acted car.
One year ago, it was okay to walk the streets of Kabul for short distances, according to Acted’s country director, Ziggy Garewal. But with security going down as elections approach in August (NGOs and expats are high-value targets), it’s just not that safe any more. “In fact,” she adds, “I like going to the US embassy for only one reason—it’s a chance to walk a little in the compound!”
Not a day goes by here without people talking in nervous tones about the day’s blast in some part of Afghanistan. It’s one or two every day now, the Taliban’s way of telling the Karzai government who’s really in control—despite the elections and the 16,000 extra troops US President Barack Obama sent this summer.
Seven years into the 21st century’s first Afghan War, with thousands of soldiers and civilians killed, US forces are effecting a shift in military strategy. Evicting the Taliban is no good. The US needs to hold territory, village by village, and also do what NGOs are doing—build an effective alternative power base that can get civil works up and running. Schools, irrigation canals, whatever. It’s part of the silent war to turn the Taliban slowly irrelevant by giving Afghans all they need: jobs, money, food and security without them.
In 2003, the Afghan government began its most ambitious project yet with exactly that in mind: the National Solidarity Programme. The idea was to take into confidence local tribal councils or shuras, religious heads, rich landlords and other power brokers, village by village, and ask them to form local councils. These would then be trained to list local development priorities, submit project proposals/budgets, and use the funds allotted for their implementation. The scheme is still being run in partnership with Acted, Care, Action Aid, Afghan Aid, Oxfam and other NGOs, with the hope that local self-governance will set the stage for democracy in the country.
According to Garewal, financial blockages from the government are a major cause for delay. “The structure itself,” she says, “isn’t conducive to funds flowing very quickly through it.” This is a critical choke point. “As a result of which,” she continues, “you had communities mobilised, possibly waiting for eight, nine or ten months to receive their grants.” Over time, they forgot their training and things went back to square one.
Since 2006, instability has been the big problem. That’s when the Taliban staged its comeback, regaining control of several parts of Afghanistan, particularly in the south, bordering Pakistan. Now, as President Obama shifts attention back to Afghanistan, hitting Taliban forces left, right and centre in the south, militants are regrouping in the north. As a result, once-safe provinces such as Faryab and Badghis are so unstable that Acted staff often can’t reach villages there.
Danger is never too far. Sitting at the Embassy of India with the defence attaché, trying to call Vice-president Marshal Fahim for an interview, we couldn’t ring his number—his convoy had been attacked with rockets while he was campaigning in Kunduz. He escaped his second assassination attempt. Ordinary Afghans working with NGOs are even more vulnerable.
Shahjahan, 26, who grew up in Peshawar after his family fled Afghanistan in the 1980s during the Soviet-Mujahideen war, had returned after 2001 to help rebuild his country. He used to work on the National Solidarity Programme for the International Rescue Committee in his hometown in the province of Logar, just 40 km from Kabul. Today, the Taliban have made it a no-go zone. Now he works as a senior reporting officer for Acted, and only visits his family in Logar on weekends. Having had threats ordering him to quit his work, he knows that even they are at risk.
Then, there’s another problem. The Programme, designed for self-governance, hires locals only temporarily. Once it withdraws from an area, they are often snapped up by the Taliban. “In 2006,” Shahjahan says, “one of my colleagues was invited by the Taliban. They said, ‘Join us, we will give you better money.’” There was an ‘or-else’ part of the offer, too. The man quietly signed up—to run Sharia radio in Khost.
THE NEW APARTHEID
Poverty afflicts almost every Afghan. Even landowners are often destitute. I meet Kabir, a class ten child who lives in a two-room tenement with six other siblings and his parents. It’s a modest structure without a kitchen, bathroom or electricity, made of materials part funded by Acted and partly by a loan, but they are extremely houseproud: not a fleck of dust, and wall-to-wall carpets. Kabir’s father works as a security guard, and the family—which escaped to Iran during the Soviet occupation and returned after 2001—is lucky not to be living in a bombed-out shell of a building, as many Afghans do.
Most heartwrenching, however, is an apartheid that has taken hold here. There are fair-skinned foreigners who drive Mercedes cars, and Afghans who strive just to survive. Kabul has exclusive pubs for expats; locals aren’t allowed in, though this is said to be because drinking is prohibited to all except foreigners in Afghanistan.
To enter an expat recreation zone, you negotiate three barricades, complete with gunny sacks, armed guards and a holding room (where a suicide pubber would be dealt with). Inside the resort, you have white women in bikinis around the pool, all the liquor you can dream of, and a menu with the choicest of chicken braised in honey-mustard sauce, if not goose liver pate and shepherd’s pie. Ask Rohulla Karimi, 21, an Afghan who grew up in Pakistan and has returned to a bar manager’s job here; he can swivel you a great caprioska or mojito if you like. He earns more than most NGO employees.
“Tell me,” I ask him, staring straight into his glinting green eyes, “how often do you get lucky here, huh?”
“Every night,” he lies. But I wouldn’t let him get away with that.
“Okay, once a week,” he bargains.
Karimi rolls out his story eventually, over beer: a torrid love affair with a beautiful Portuguese girl, a journalist, and a broken heart. She had upped and left once her assignment was done. It’s hard not to sympathise with Karimi. But it’s harder not to recognise that the all-pervasive apartheid in Afghanistan makes it even harder to neutralise the appeal of the Taliban to a vast majority who see whites as invaders.
The next night, at an Afghan restaurant, we speak to Mohammad Aslam and Mardan bhai, former Mujahideen fighters both. One has a scar on his hand and neck to show for it, the other a bullet wound on his chest. They took to guns early in life, and have been exposed to horrors that can raise the hair of the most battle-scarred.
They’ve suffered the brutality of the Taliban, and yearn for peace. If only an election was all it took to rid the country of its scourge.