Dancing on land mines

After 9/11, I told America it couldn't bomb Afghanistan back to the Stone Age -- it was already there. Since then, the story of my country has been one step up, two steps back.

Published August 25, 2006 11:12AM (EDT)

Because I grew up in Afghanistan, because I often write about it, because I warned against America bombing the poor country back to the Stone Age after 9/11, people often ask me how the country's doing now, five years after the American intervention. Is it bound for glory or headed for hell?

All I can say is yes.

It's not that I lack information. I track news of the country closely. I've been there since the Taliban fell. I keep in touch with relatives who never left and cousins who have gone back. Friends of mine who come and go keep my impressions fresh. Still, I'm undecided.

The United States drove the Taliban out of Kabul with a brief, tightly targeted military campaign that entrusted most of the fighting to the long-standing Afghan resistance and made artful use of diplomatic pressure on the Taliban's Pakistani sponsors. The dreaded shock-and-awe bombardment and eviscerating invasion -- later visited upon Iraq -- did not materialize in Afghanistan. Once the fighting ended, room for hope opened up.

At that moment, however, a race broke out between chaos and order. That contest is still on and its outcome remains unknown. On one side are people who have no skills except the arts of violence, trying to reignite a war of all against all, because in that environment their kind can thrive. Their hope lies in sowing enough anxiety to make a critical mass of people pick up guns again for self-protection.

On the other side, modernists, technocrats, returning exiles, the old aristocracy and countless war-weary others seek to restore the peaceful order of a remembered Afghanistan. Their hope lies in getting enough normalcy going -- enough fruit and meat in the bazaars, enough traffic flowing normally, enough consecutive days without bloodshed -- to make a critical mass of people say, "This is working, I better get on board so I'll get my share."

After the Taliban fled, most Afghans simply wanted to start rebuilding. When I went to Kabul in June 2002, I found what should have been a scene of despair: a city teeming with amputees and burka-clad widows begging for money, about one-quarter of it reduced to rubble. Instead, Kabul felt as luminously euphoric as any place I've ever set foot. Why?

Because everyone thought the 23-year nightmare was finally over. Kabul belonged to Afghans again. And there was going to be a Marshall Plan for Afghanistan now! Everywhere I went, people told me their schemes for getting in on that money.

Even on the plane going in, I met a fellow with a black beard bigger than my head, wearing tribal clothes, his eyes rimmed with kohl, the archetypal image of a Taliban guy, I thought -- until he told me he was planning to start a cosmetics factory because the market for lipstick would be hot, now that the Taliban were gone.

In my ancestral village, my relatives had arid fields marked out for the vineyards they would plant, as soon as they got some of that Marshall Plan money to dig "deep wells" for irrigation. One fellow hoped to sell raisins to whoever makes Raisin Bran, a box of which he'd seen somewhere.

But talk of a Marshall Plan soon faded. At an international conference in Tokyo, economists said rebuilding Afghanistan would take $30 billion, the Afghan delegation asked for $10 billion, donor nations pledged $4.5 billion, and actual receipts that year came to less than half the pledged amount. In midyear, someone discovered that the U.S. budget had penciled in zero for Afghanistan. Zero. But it wasn't a policy decision, I'm told: The administration simply forgot. A distracting new war was brewing by then in Iraq. And so the crucial first year ended in a fizzle.

Then, the war in Iraq did break out, drawing attention away from Afghanistan and sucking America into the very trap it had sidestepped in Afghanistan. Eventually, spillover from Iraq came rippling back to Afghanistan. The suicide bombings began. Believe me, Afghans find these just as horrifyingly alien as Americans. Even at the height of tearing itself apart, Afghanistan never saw one single suicide bombing. Now it has suffered through a rash of them.

And yet reconstruction inches forward. The Japanese, French, Germans and Chinese have come in with money to repair airports, deliver police equipment and rebuild hospitals. The United States has now budgeted some $3.5 billion for Afghan reconstruction, mostly for highways (which have military utility) but also for schools, textbooks and clinics.

My friend Abdul Hayy, who traveled with the mujahedin during the '80s, went back to northern Afghanistan last year and found numerous men he had known as guerrilla warriors now making their living as shopkeepers.

But unintended consequences keep mounting. Foreign entrepreneurs, technical experts, aid officials and charity workers flooding into Kabul have sent rents skyrocketing. The Kabul office of the International Foundation for Hope, which cost $200 a month in 2002, now rents for $4,000. Soaring rents have dragged up other prices, making Kabul as expensive as many American cities.

The foreign workers can afford Kabul because they're paid on a foreign wage scale. But locals? Senior civil servants make $120 a month, teachers about $50. Policemen make less, so they live off traffic accidents. When two cars crash into each other in Kabul (I witnessed four serious accidents in just two weeks!) the cops arrive, fine both parties without inquiring into fault, pocket all the money and leave. "They have to get by too," my cousin explained. Naturally, in this environment, anyone who can extort a bribe does so.

Wahid Omar, a University of Colorado professor who teaches part time at Kabul University, says a Kabul postal clerk charged him 150 afghanis for a 10-afghani stamp. When he protested that the value was printed right on the stamp, the clerk said, "I'll charge the face value when I myself get a living wage."

In one ruined neighborhood, my cousin Zahir witnessed government bulldozers knocking down houses that some residents had rebuilt on their own -- allegedly because the construction didn't fit in with the five-year-plan. More likely the residents didn't pay the bribes for building permits.

Development is undeniably going forward in Kabul, but much of it exacerbates standing schisms in Afghan society between rich and poor, city and country. The capital has an American-style shopping mall, but locals can't afford the goods. It has five-star hotels, but who can stay there? You can easily get liquor in Kabul now. Glory be. And everyone knows about the Chinese brothels.

Imagine how this looks to rural Afghans, out where the soil is still loaded with land mines. In the Shomali Plain north of Kabul, I saw a guy crouching beside the road, raking through dirt with a device like a garden fork: He was looking for land mines. Behind him, a crowd of children played tag. I said, "Hey, if there might be land mines here, might there not be mines over there?" He allowed that there might. "Well, then," I said, "shouldn't someone tell those kids to stop playing there?"

"Where should they play?" he shrugged. "That's where they live."

Farmers who must risk limbs and children clearing land for plowing often dare to rescue only small patches for their farms. On that much land, they can't grow enough wheat to support their families, so they plant opium poppies. But this crop links peasant farmers to a global criminal market that turns idle warlords into busy drug lords, with petty commanders reporting to bigger commanders, creating a new feudal order that stretches into Pakistan (where the drug labs are). In this new feudalism, the Afghan peasants are ... still peasants.

Idealistic Afghan-Americans have launched several efforts to build schools in the countryside. They know that rural children are exposed constantly to the jihadist idea of an apocalyptic showdown between God and Satan, in which Westerners represent Satan. They hope that if such kids learn to read, they'll have access to competing messages and grow up less likely to hate Americans.

But schools face an uphill road because any information they dispense is seen as inherently political. Even pure science implies changes to the local way of life, a transfer of power from traditional authority figures to technical experts from somewhere else. And it's school builders from far away, those of us with the money and energy, who want to highlight science and geography as much as (more than?) the Quran and theology. We want to use textbooks that devalue martial virtues. (One alphabet book I saw from mujahedin days really did include items such as "M is for Mother, who teaches her sons to kill infidels.") And we want to educate girls.

Rural Afghans really do need literacy, more than they know. But schools as stand-alone projects, separate from more palpable aid -- fruit trees, seed for next year's crop, herds, water, medicine -- present easy targets for Islamist propaganda. Certainly, in southern Afghanistan, unknown parties are distributing anonymous documents ("night letters") characterizing schools as the sharp tip of the Western knife coming in to kill the one thing rural Afghans proudly feel they do possess -- their religion. An afterlife.

When violence breaks out in Afghanistan, the Western media reflexively blames "the Taliban." But that label implies an organization, headquarters, cadre, leaders. I see no proof that such a Taliban still exists. At its height, the Taliban cadre consisted mainly of young men recruited out of the Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan, funded and led (most Afghans believe) by Pakistani Pashtun with links to the ISI (Inter-services Intelligence), Pakistan's version of the CIA.

What "Taliban" really refers to now is an attitude, a social movement, a historical current. "Taliban" means "those who do Talibanish things." They no doubt include people associated with the former Taliban regime, Arab Islamists who settled in Afghanistan during the war, and renegade mujahedin guerrillas such as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a one-time client of the ISI and the man who garnered the greatest amount of U.S. military aid to Afghanistan during the anti-Communist campaigns of the '80s.

So who's finally behind the mounting violence in Afghanistan? It's not one group but many. Or "any," perhaps: anyone who stands to gain some power if the central government loses some. That could include tribal chieftains threatened by mandates from officialdom in the capital. It could include reactionary local clerics, drug lords' henchmen, cross-border terrorists, saboteurs dispatched from Pakistan, stateless militant international revolutionaries, and perhaps even local young men out to impress their friends.

Whoever they might be, the Taliban exploit old dramas to fuel fresh anger. After all, the current conflict in Afghanistan sits atop layers of history. Emancipation of women? Afghanistan went through a violent revolution over that one in 1928. Tribes fighting the central government? Centuries old. The troubled southern border? That arbitrary line drawn by 19th century Russian and British imperialists split a homogenous population in two and assigned each part to a different country. How could it not be troubled? When I traveled to Peshawar in 2002, my Pakistani Pashtun hosts hailed me with the disquieting greeting, "Welcome to Free Afghanistan!"

And so the race between chaos and order goes on.

At this time five years ago, Afghanistan had only 900,000 students, all of them boys. Now over 5 million Afghan kids are going to school, both boys and girls, even in remote provinces like Helmand, the home turf of the Taliban.

On the other hand, over the past year, unknown thugs have been torching schools, burning books, intimidating students and threatening teachers, forcing at least 200 schools to close. They dragged one poor guy out of his home and slit his throat in front of his family.

But then, Kabul University is back in business. The television station is broadcasting not just news but sitcoms. The Afghan film institute is making movies again. The capital has Internet cafes, even if electrical service is iffy. A theater troupe is touring a Dari version of Shakespeare's "Love's Labors Lost," translated to an Afghan setting. It's all so thrilling to modernist Afghans like me.

And yet, in this same country, deadly riots broke out over Danish cartoons lampooning the prophet Mohammed. The Afghan Supreme Court was ready to execute a man for converting to Christianity. (He got off on a "technicality.") The United States still has about 20,000 troops in the country, and both Afghan and American war causalities have risen every year since 2003.

Is Afghanistan better off since the American intervention? Of course it is! Afghan children are playing again.

But they're playing on land mines.

By Tamim Ansary

Tamim Ansary is a writer in San Francisco.

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