Partying while Afghanistan burns

While Westerners dance at end-of-the-world raves, the country slips back toward anarchy -- and the Bush administration does nothing.

By Phillip Robertson

Published October 28, 2002 3:09PM (EST)

These are the days of wild parties in Kabul, strange celebrations at the end of the world. Journalists, aid workers, diplomats and soldiers all go, and late in the afternoon at the Mustafa, the hotel where most of the freelance journalists end up, everyone tries to figure out which of the competing situations has the most promise.

The events thrown by the major news agencies always turn out to be the best supplied and least restrained by far. At the news houses, in their secure walled compounds in the Wazir Akhbar Khan, the high-rent area of the capital near the U.S. Embassy, there is always good liquor and music in fantastic abundance. Hundreds of Westerners, alerted by e-mail and satphone, show up early and dance until the midnight curfew, raving but without the chemicals, and then they either find a place to crash for the night or pile into cabs and race back to their hotels so they can get past the men with guns before curfew descends. Being stopped at a checkpoint by illiterate, stoned soldiers with Western women in the car is out of the question and the nervous Afghan drivers know this and floor it, gunning their engines through the heavily guarded traffic circles. From the back of one of their beat-up Corollas, late one night after a situation at the BBC house, I watched the black mountains of Kabul race by at 90 miles an hour, the driver putting the most unbalanced and mercenary Boston cabby to shame.

Partying in the Wazir Akhbar Khan is surreal and weightless for a Westerner who has just come in from the darkness and violence of the unstable border zone. It's a twisted version of Los Angeles: Every house has a spacious garden, some of the compounds have pools, and all of them have Afghan staff to cook, take care of security and do whatever needs to be done, and the staff are almost always pious old men, dignified and ready to help, protective of the foreign women in their houses.

Meanwhile, outside the walls of the great houses, beyond the range of the John Coltrane tracks and the warmth of single malt Scotch, Kabul and all of Afghanistan are steadily sliding back into chaos and civil war.

The seeds of the current government's destruction were sown by the American-backed victory over the Taliban, and nourished by the Bush administration's failure to devote the necessary resources to rebuilding Afghanistan. Before the bombing ever started, those knowledgeable about Afghanistan warned that massive postwar reconstruction would be necessary to prevent the nation from once again becoming a terrorist breeding ground. They warned that ancient ethnic and tribal tensions, in particular between Tajiks and Pashtuns, could quickly rage out of control. All of their grim predictions of postwar anarchy are coming true -- and America is doing nothing.

The central problem is the enmity between the Tajiks and the majority Pashtuns. Once the largely Tajik Northern Alliance took Kabul, Pashtuns who had backed the Taliban did their best to get out of the way, many fleeing to the crowded refugee camps in Pakistan. The Pashtuns who weren't political, who just wanted a better life like the rest of the city's residents, now find themselves discriminated against, the objects of scorn heaped on them by a victorious and sometimes brutal minority. Since Afghanistan is roughly 60 percent Pashtun, with many Pashtun living near border regions close to Pakistan, a larger conflict is virtually inevitable.

Pashtun warlords like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar harness Pashtun disaffection with the new Afghan regime, and by extension the West and the United States. They will have a ready supply of recruits if Pashtuns give up on politics and turn to violence. Just a few days before the Sept. 5 bombing in Kabul and the assassination attempt on President Hamid Karzai, Hekmatyar -- a famous anti-Soviet fighter with strict views on Islam and a hatred for the West -- issued a call for Pashtuns to rise up against the infidels and the new government. Hekmatyar's aim is to set up a harsh Islamic state in Afghanistan after driving out the non-Muslims. Hekmatyar has supporters in the Pashtun provinces and has been rumored to be moving around the lawless region that lies along the Pakistani frontier.

If the U.S. invades Iraq, and continues its near-abandonment of Afghanistan, support for a larger anti-Western jihad could come not just from Afghanistan but from anywhere in the Islamic world -- Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt or Pakistan, the nation that spawned the Taliban and at least one of whose intelligence agencies has a long history of radical Islamist leanings.

After the war against the Taliban ended, the promise of a massive international aid package made many Afghans feel optimistic that peace and security would be restored after more than two decades of bloodshed. Now, one year after the foreign intervention started, with only a fraction of the promised foreign aid delivered -- America ended up pledging only a paltry $296 million -- confidence in the American-backed regime of Hamid Karzai is fading fast. Unsolved bombings and assassinations have rocked the capital, and all indications are that they are not the work of al-Qaida or Taliban supporters but internal enemies of Karzai's regime -- perhaps his own defense minister. Outside of Kabul, Karzai has no control whatsoever.

International aid, promised back in December 2001, was supposed to begin restoring Afghanistan's devastated infrastructure, boost its economy, provide for emergency humanitarian needs and calm ethnic and political tensions -- in a word, rebuild it. But there is little evidence of much nation-building here. A few weeks ago, Kabul's electricity supply was worse than it had been in January. As recently as Sept. 11, 2002, Jalalabad was also without a steady supply of power, with people resorting to generators or simply working in the dark. A drive from Jalalabad to Kabul on Sept. 12 revealed no construction crews visible, no one seriously taking up the cause of public works. The roads had the same number of beggar children as they did in November.

"The distribution of aid has been very inefficient and spent in an ineffective way, and did not create jobs or markets as we expected and did not demobilize the thousands of young people in service to the warlords. This has been a total failure for the reconstruction program," said Daoud Yaar, a lecturer in economics at California State University at Hayward. Hayward is home to a large Pashtun community. Yaar expressed deep concern that if major changes are not made within the current Afghan government and the distribution of aid in Afghanistan, the consequences would be severe. "I'm worried about Karzai, American lives and the future of the country. It could fall back into the hands of fundamentalists. Not the Taliban, but different fundamentalists this time."

Disturbing reports of a rift between Mohammed Fahim, the Tajik defense minister, and Hamid Karzai, who himself is a Pashtun, underline the weakness of the new government. In Kabul, there is open speculation that forces within Karzai's own Cabinet were connected to the assassination of a key Pashtun government minister and Karzai ally, Hajji Qadeer, and possibly other crimes. Many people within the Pashtun community singled out the defense minister as being responsible, although none of them had direct knowledge of any plots. Still, the rumors are not easy to dismiss. The two men have been rivals for at least a decade. Mohammed Fahim was the intelligence chief of the Northern Alliance and has acquired enormous power as the Afghan defense minister. Fahim has also refused to disarm, keeping large weapons caches in the Panjshir Valley.

Karzai, in contrast, has few soldiers under his direct control and has been closely guarded by U.S. personnel since the Sept. 5 attempt on his life. Many Pashtuns feel that Fahim is trying to consolidate his control over the capital, and that some of the violence can be attributed to his political ambitions.

When asked what he thought about the odds for the long-term survival of the Karzai government, Daoud Yaar said, "Everything now depends on how prudent the United States is. If the U.S. succeeds in bringing Fahim over to democracy and creating a better balance and gives the Pashtuns due respect, and then starts massive reconstruction efforts, there is a good chance that Karzai will survive. If the imbalance persists, the warlords will continue to become stronger on a daily basis."

Anyone in Kabul will tell you that Mohammed Fahim, the man at the top of the Northern Alliance pyramid, is the real power in the Afghan government. As defense minister, Fahim controls a large intelligence agency that operates outside the presidential sphere and reportedly answers directly to him. Hamid Karzai's political life, and quite possibly his actual life, depend on limiting Fahim's control over the intelligence agencies and the defense ministry. But his success at this endeavor has been uncertain at best, and he may have to rely on his unpredictable friends in the U.S. government for help. In any system that claims to represent the population of Afghanistan, Pashtuns must make up a larger percentage of government positions than they currently hold, but Fahim's men are Tajiks and the Pashtuns are relegated to other, less influential posts. Any change in the ethnic balance would work against Fahim, so he has resisted it -- a stance that places him at odds with the elected president. And if fighting broke out between forces loyal to Karzai and Fahim, it is warlords like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and the other Islamists who would reap the political benefits.

Then there are the unsolved bombings and assassinations that take place with depressing regularity. Spokesmen for the foreign ministry claim that these are all the work of al-Qaida, but it seems much more likely that violent factions within the new government are responsible. And they continue to go unsolved. Just a week before we arrived, on Sept. 5, a large car bomb had detonated in a crowded area of the city, killing 30 people; on the same day, Karzai barely survived an assassination attempt in Kandahar. No one has taken responsibility for either act.

The bitter truth is that the security situation in the capital is worse than it was in January, and this is not purely due to outside forces like al-Qaida or returning Taliban fighters trying to destabilize the new government. The violence is coming from within.

Here's what you learn when you spend time with Pashtuns in Kabul. When Aman Khan and I arrived in the capital on September 12, after driving in from Nangarhar province, it just happened that our cab had Jalalabad plates, and on that afternoon, we were pulled over by soldiers and police and searched five times. It didn't take us long to notice that a pattern was developing. We would drive a block, get stopped, then drive another block, only to go through the whole performance again. The slack-jawed soldiers, on finding out that Aman, my translator and friend, was a Pashtun (they can tell by looking at him), immediately wanted to see the registration papers of the car, hassling him, getting hostile, then searching the car and demanding to see his identification. Aman could do nothing to placate them despite the fact that all his documents were in order, and then, finally, the soldiers told him in no uncertain terms to get out of town. "You see," Aman said to me, "I'm an Afghan and this is how they treat me. There will never be peace in Afghanistan. Never."

A few minutes later, when two young women came up to the car and asked for a ride to Microrayon Four, a nearby neighborhood, Aman told them in Dari that he was sorry, we couldn't take them because he was from Nangarhar and a Pashtun, and the police wouldn't let him move around the city. When he explained it to them, he spoke quietly because he was ashamed. That night, it took four tries to find a hotel that would rent a room to Aman -- the men at the door kept telling him to get lost or quoted stratospheric prices. This happened on one day, an average day, to an educated man and a former soldier who had fought against the Taliban in Nangarhar province. During the war, Aman had distinguished himself by leading the unit that secured the governor's mansion.

Entering Kabul felt like crossing the boundary into a bubble of unreality, a hopeful vision of the way the country could work if everyone pulled together and the aid money was put to proper use. This, of course, was a first impression and it turned out to be dead wrong. I was simply overly impressed by the construction cranes that dotted the horizon.

International aid money flows into the capital, but most of it never makes it out. Fought over by warlords, taxed, delayed, squandered and mismanaged, funneled into the long winding guts of bureaucracies, only a fraction of it ends up where it is intended to. In Kabul, aid agency employees drive sparkling Land Rovers and defense ministry officials cruise in new Toyotas with tinted windows. Back in Kunar province, I'd spoken to three tribal soldiers at the Nawa pass border crossing who said they hadn't been paid in more than six months. When I asked them why they stayed at their posts, one simply told me that it was his duty to guard the border and that love of his country kept him there.

Later, on the way back from driving south toward Jalalabad, I saw a man lying in the dust in the road, thin as a rail, with an IV coming out of his arm. There were no hospitals, no clinics available, no one with proper medical training, and so the man was left on his own. Hundreds of scenes like this demonstrate that the aid package hasn't made it far out of Kabul. If the aid agencies are asked about it, they will give a predictable but reasonable reply: The provinces aren't secure, they are too dangerous. I did see the UNHCR handing out bags of wheat to returning refugees, but there are no Westerners around unless you count U.S. soldiers: no Red Cross, no Medecins Sans Frontieres.

The fact is that less than a year after the celebrated demise of the Taliban, Afghanistan is experiencing a low-grade war, a bubbling pot of violence and anarchy that only the U.S. military presence is keeping from boiling over. The moment the international presence scales down in the capital, the very second that U.S. military attention drifts away and westward toward Iraq, ambitious men within the new Afghan government will kick off a bloody snatch-and-grab operation, leaving a large number of civilians dead, and they will take anything that is not bolted down and then shell the rest, a replay of the mid-'90s when Kabul was laid to waste. It will be the same people doing it, another tragic irony. No one can predict the future, but this is how it feels in Kabul, and everyone I asked, whether journalist or Afghan national, agreed that this was what was coming. Conflicts are breaking out all over the country, but Afghanistan isn't a story any more, so most of these battles and the reasons they are being fought are going unreported. And as Iraq looms, Afghanistan will shrink even more. When I left Kabul, the big agencies were already scaling back their news bureaus, the great unblinking eye of the media making plans to look at something else.

On Sept. 26, only 60 miles from the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, fierce fighting broke out between the forces of two warlords who are both nominally part of the Karzai government. A recent Reuters article described the breakdown between the men as a disagreement over the demilitarization of the city: Because it was a wire story, the writer could not take note of the irony. Just 100 miles south of Kabul, on Sept. 27, a renegade warlord named Padshah Khan Zadran threatened to reoccupy the city of Khost, a town his forces controlled for several months before the legitimate governor succeeded in running him out of town on Sept. 9.

As renewed fighting has plagued Khost and Mazar, other parts of Afghanistan are ready to follow suit, making the Karzai administration appear weaker with each passing day. The writ of the U.S.-backed government, as most people here readily admit, does not extend beyond the outskirts of Kabul, and without U.S. military intervention it cannot coerce the warlords to lay down their arms. Up until now, peace has been the norm because the warlord-governors of each province have been waiting to see how they will fare in the government, but there are signs that they are growing disappointed with their take. In the past, Karzai has relied on negotiation rather than force to maintain security, but in the case of Padsha Khan Zadran, this strategy has begun to fail.

The day after Zadra issued his threat, Saturday the 28th, at exactly 9 p.m., I was working at my desk in the Mustafa when the second Kabul bomb went off. The hotel shook and the pressure wave rolled over us and pushed the windows in and then pushed them out again as it passed. Nothing broke, but the sound was spectacular. It wasn't anything like the sound of an air strike. This was deeper, more like a tympanum drum in the orchestra, a rolling big finish in a symphony. Up on the roof of the hotel, people were eating dinner when it detonated and somebody I didn't know pointed in the direction of the blast and, laughing for the benefit of his friends at dinner, said to me, "Make sure you tell me all about it when you get back," and then took an enormous bite of lamb kebab and a hit of smuggled Heineken. The sound came from the direction of Wazir Akhbar Khan. Until we arrived at the scene, I was sure that the target of the bomb was the American Embassy, but it wasn't.

Outside the Mustafa, photographer Steve Connors and I waited for Paula Bronstein, a photographer for Getty, to drive up. Ten minutes after the explosion, we climbed into her car and followed the police vehicles with flashing blue lights down the main streets, giving directions to the driver but not knowing precisely where the thing had gone off. As we followed the police cars, hurtling through intersections, we started to see Afghan soldiers running down the street with their weapons up, shouting at other journalists. We ignored them and instead looked for the armored vehicles of the international forces because they would certainly be on their way to secure the scene, and we didn't have to say that we were less worried about Italians or Turks than the Fahim's soldiers, because the foreign soldiers can control themselves most of the time and the Afghans can't. Paula's car rattled and swayed down the dark streets at 50 miles an hour and we looked out the windows at everything and nothing. Finding the site of the blast was like swimming up a river in the dark, through sirens and all the chaos and disorder, and as we got closer to the site, we saw Afghans had come out of their stores and houses and were just waiting to see what would happen next. They were listening for a second, more powerful bomb, because in the textbook practice of terror, there's often a small device that draws people to the scene, and it's the second one that finishes them off.

We found the ISAF armored personnel carriers parked in front of an apartment building called Microrayon Two, along with a hundred soldiers, some of them Italians. No one knew what was going on. One Italian soldier mumbled into his radio, "Everything's calm here," but in fact it was grade A mayhem, broken glass falling from the shattered windows of the apartment block and dazed residents moving in every possible direction. We followed the soldiers around back to the lot behind the building, through cordons of confused Afghan police who just let us through, while Paula and Steve were running and getting their camera gear together as they got close to the scene of the crime.

The bombers put the device behind the apartment building, in an empty lot a hundred feet from the tower block, blowing in all of its windows, sending glass flying toward families who had just finished their evening meal. Remarkably, no one had been killed. Glass kept falling down, and slowly, the residents were getting it together, taking an inventory of the wounded, getting them to the hospital in ambulances and cabs. The wire services reported that only five had been wounded, but it was more than that, and when I saw the blood it didn't seem trivial or so easy to write off as a non-event, an attack which somehow didn't live up to the bloody bombing on Sept. 5. Inside the apartment complex, one young girl stood in her house and told me in a calm voice how worried she was, and showed me the gash on her hand from the flying glass.

We wanted to see the crater, and by this time there were more Afghan soldiers who formed a line to keep us out because they finally had received instructions from somewhere, and when Paula tried to get through to get a picture of the crater (it was 12 feet wide), one of the soldiers grabbed her breast and she immediately took a swing at him and connected with his face, and the line of them surged and buckled, the whole crowd of stickmen with their automatic rifles.

At 9:30, we were still trying to understand where we were in the city, and the 15-year-old son of a police captain, who spoke a little English, told me that the complex just across the ruined lot was the offices of Military Intelligence and the bomb had been placed under a wall that separated the Military Intelligence building from the apartments. The mud-brick wall took most of the blast on one side, and left the government building untouched, reflecting the explosion's energy outward to the apartment complex. The bomb had certainly been a message, carefully arranged so that it wouldn't kill anyone, just cause panic and destruction, but the message isn't known; there's only the fact that it happened.

After the attack, Reuters and other news agencies didn't give the bombing much space, a column inch or two, but the Microrayon Two blast certainly points to violent breakdowns within the Afghan government and not infiltrating al-Qaida or Taliban forces. (It's almost certainly not al-Qaida: the terror organization never does anything that small, and the fact that no U.S. target was involved also makes their involvement less likely. It's slightly more plausible that it was the work of the Taliban, but the same strictures apply. Moreover, the fact that the bombing appears to have been a message fits better with the internal-faction theory.) The most plausible theory, perhaps, is that the bombing was a message aimed at Mohammed Fahim, the minister of defense, or at members of his intelligence agency, whose building was a mere 10 yards from the explosion.

At the Wazir Akhbar Khan hospital, Zaina Naeeb, injured by flying glass and still bleeding from the gash that covered her head, waited for a cab to take her home, but she didn't make a sound, and when I think about it now, none of the wounded cried or shouted or panicked. And Zaina, Mohammed Naeeb's wife, who would have been killed if the glass had flown a centimeter in a different direction, waited quietly with her husband as he held her IV, then waited quietly while Paula took photographs of her, but she couldn't stop shaking.

Phillip Robertson

Phillip Robertson is reporting from Iraq for Salon.

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