Keeping the peace in Kabul

As sporadic fighting breaks out around the country, our reporter tags along with a British-led peacekeeping force trying to maintain order in the Afghan capital.


Phillip Robertson
January 31, 2002 11:39PM (UTC)

The two Italian soldiers on guard duty are tall, impressive characters who don't speak English. They are nice guys, but a little confused about whether they should let us into the headquarters of the International Security Assistance Force. One of the soldiers tells us to go on toward the British barracks; the other disagrees, and they argue about it in Italian. We cool our heels in the dark while they receive contradictory instructions over their walkie-talkies.

Finally, we are allowed in. After a few minutes of waiting in the cold, we find our way to the British mess tent. We drink coffee at long tables and watch the BBC on the television at the far end of the tent. People filter in to get their mail; others drop letters for home in a cardboard box. It is civilized, rational, a little piece of the West, like a fort built by a super-intelligent child.

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The U.N-backed peacekeeping force, under the command of British Maj. Gen. John McColl, was one of the creations of December's Bonn agreement on the future governance of Afghanistan. The outfit was created to "to assist the new Afghan Interim Authority with the provision of security and stability for Kabul," in the words of British Secretary of State for Defense Geoff Hoon.

While the final responsibility for maintaining order in Kabul rests with Afghanistan's interim government, the 3,000 to 5,000 ISAF troops effectively serve as their muscle. There are 16 nations with troops in the ISAF, including Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Jordan, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Spain and Turkey. But for the next six weeks at least, ISAF is being led by the British. The British have sent more than 1,500 peacekeepers to Afghanistan, along with all the equipment and personnel necessary to support them. Their barracks are set away from the street, where there's communications gear, a good-sized mess tent, and probably other things which we weren't allowed to see for security reasons.

New peacekeepers are constantly arriving in Kabul. They come in small groups; exactly how many are on the ground is still a mystery. Although no formal decision has been made by the interim government here, or the United Nations, the peacekeepers expect they will soon spread out beyond Kabul to other major Afghan cities such as Jalalabad, Mazar-e-Sharif and Kandahar. In most of those places, warlords are busy calculating their personal fortunes with the new government and vying for governorships, Cabinet posts, U.N. aid and international sponsorship. Rumors are flying, most of them utterly false, but they do point to what people are afraid of. Gulbuddin Hikmetyar, one of the men who helped reduce Kabul to a ruin in 1993, is said be in Iran, arming himself and getting ready to make war on the peacekeepers and the United States, in a replay of the jihad against the Russians in the 1980s.

Whether or not ISAF goes beyond Kabul will be up to the government of Afghanistan, McColl has said. Wednesday, Francesc Vendrell, deputy special representative of the United Nations Secretary General for Afghanistan, said the international peacekeeping force should be much bigger, stretch beyond Kabul, and plan on staying for a while.

Vendrell said a larger peacekeeping force is needed as tensions escalate in pockets around the country. On Wednesday, fighting had already broken out in the Paktia province between rival ethnic Pashtun warlords, and unrest threatened to engulf other parts of the country. Peace, Vendrell said, could only be restored with a larger, international presence.

"For that, you do need the deployment of an international force. The international force needs to be deployed beyond Kabul, and the Afghans want it -- even the warlords say they want it," he told the BBC.

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Clearly, the peace that has come to Afghanistan is still an uneasy one. It is now a country full of desperate young men who spend their days trying to figure out what to do next. In Kabul, like the rest of the country, many of them have weapons stashed out of sight, either as an insurance policy, or as preparation for something else.

Restoring a lasting peace in Afghanistan will be a delicate task. As the new Afghan government begins to coalesce, some of these regional power brokers are bound to feel left out, their men dissatisfied from having won the war and having nothing to show for it. Now that the war is over, many tribal soldiers have been sent home impoverished, ashamed to face their families. A good number of them have chosen instead to stay where they are rather than face the shame of going home. The bazaar in Jalalabad has more than its fair share of these fighters -- gaunt, depressed men who go to their former commanders to beg for money, clothes and food.

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One man came to his commander last week in a Jalalabad hotel, once word got out that he was in town, and said he needed bus fare to go home to Peshawar. "There are so many of them, what should I do? I have already given them most of my money," the commander, a former mujahedin fighter from Nangarhar province explains to me. "Everyone is in the same situation."

These rootless mujahedin are everywhere. As the commander and I spoke, there was a steady procession of men asking for his help. These are men with no money or food. The one thing they do have is a healthy supply of automatic weapons. The ISAF is here, in part, to make sure that international aid can reach Afghanistan's needy, and to keep the weapons silent.

The ISAF has set up their information office on the fourth floor of the Mustafa Hotel on Chicken Street, the central hangout for the international press. In their suite ISAF information officers Harry and Jonathan give me coffee, and tell me there is a patrol going out that night if I'd like to tag along.

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"Sure," I tell them. "Count me in."

Kabul is high in the mountains, set in a pocket surrounded by tall hills. At night, if there's a moon, the hills and mountains look like the backs of whales as they rise up out of the water. Treeless. A scattering of houses with electricity.

The convoy of paratroopers we are going to tag along with pulls up to the gate, one covered jeep and two open personnel carriers. For such large, bulky machines, they really move. It is clear that they won't wait long for us to get in. The mood is serious, keyed up, and talking is pretty much out of the question. In the two open vehicles, seven paratroopers sit with their legs over the side, their science fiction guns down in what a military spokesman might call a non-threatening posture. They bristle with radios. Each soldier communicates with the rest of his unit through a headset and microphone. To move around in the dark, they have night-vision goggles and night-vision gun sights. In place of the wool Afghan pakul, the paratroopers wear red berets. They might as well be from a different planet.

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A sergeant major gets out of the lead vehicle to explain things before we head out. "Right, when we come to a checkpoint, don't be surprised when the Afghans jump out with their guns up, shouting at us. They often don't know who we are." In Kabul, there are cobbled-together checkpoints scattered throughout the city, usually at major intersections, populated by militiamen in fatigues, native dress or a haphazard mix of the two. It is impossible to tell just by looking who they are, or where their allegiances lie. To figure this out you have to ask, "Who is your commander?" or "Which province are you from?" to get a clearer picture of what their individual deal happens to be, to know the fighter's provenance. But from a peacekeeper's point of view, anybody with guns is a threat. There's this uncertainty reminiscent of Vietnam, the same "We're here to help you" rhetoric, a condemnation of a universal evil, this time terrorism instead of Communism. There are only a million ways this mission could turn sour.

From the peacekeepers themselves, you don't hear a lot of bitching about the fragility of the situation, especially from the officers, who like to give long, sincere monologues on the reasons and objectives for the ISAF mission. Intelligent and articulate speeches are fine, but these little soliloquies seem to be some sort of positive affirmation of what the West wants to come to pass -- a future where the developed nations can lead Afghanistan out of desperate poverty and war.

That ultimate fantasy still seems a long way off.

The soldiers leave their bases and drive around the shattered city. More often than not, they wave, and the citizens of Kabul wave back. It's not friendly every time -- they get their share of catcalls and curses in Dari -- but the soldiers are unfazed. It's worth noting that this particular group from the paratroop regiment have been to a catalog of the world's most dangerous, evil, unpredictable places, a list that starts with Northern Ireland and gets progressively worse. Some have just arrived from Macedonia.

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The three British vehicles steam down the street, staying together, the last driver stepping on it whenever a large gap develops between his jeep and the one in front. The plan is to head south across the Kabul River, swing past the soccer stadium, cross back over the river and return home. British patrols form a careful web that extends outward from the city center into the suburbs. They are lightly armed, travel in unarmored vehicles and keep their bulletproof vests under their fatigues, all part of the low-profile policy sent down from above. Patrol routes are named after colors. Indigo. Maroon.

As we race down Bibimahro Street, the soldiers wave, and Kabulis wave back. It is bitterly cold and in the open jeep the air shoots past like a gale. Adding to the unpleasantness, one huge soldier lets out a champion fart between friendly waves at the population.

"Jesus, what's that?" the guy next to him wants to know.

"Steak and chips," the farter explains.

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"You had the steak and chips then?"

"Yeah."

They laugh. The whole unit must have heard it over the radio.

We cross the Kabul River and turn down a street into a neighborhood so damaged by shelling it seems no one could possibly live there. It is late; most people are inside, off the streets. Nights in Kabul have become even too weird for the local residents. Suddenly, the convoy pulls over and the men get out.

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At that moment, it seemed noble to go out into the uncertainties of the Kabul night with so little in the way of protection. My mind was racing with all of the paranoid fantasies of what could happen. A person with a hard on for destruction could have fired a Russian rocket-propelled grenade at the waving soldiers, just for kicks.

The paratroopers move out into the street, keeping a strange, perfectly choreographed formation. No two men walking abreast or single file. Each one turns, walks backward for a few paces, then swivels around to face the front again. At every intersection, the men who get there first take up defensive positions along the walls, sighting down the streets. One soldier hears a dog barking down an alley, and with brisk movements, raises his weapon and night-visions it until it isn't interesting anymore. He clicks back into the strange dance of the others -- some men moving forward, some staying back. This is all done in near-perfect silence.

Fifteen minutes later, down one of the dead alleys and across from an old Soviet apartment building, an old mujahedin soldier named Nazir Mohammed comes out to talk to the sergeant major. He is frail from sleeping in the cold, his chest caved in. He explains that he was a soldier in many wars. The British soldier towers over him. The old man invites the soldier in for tea.


Phillip Robertson

Phillip Robertson is reporting from Iraq for Salon.

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