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Afghanistan Revisited 

The Weekly’s Ben Ehrenreich reports from Kabul

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Photo by Natacha Pisarenko/AP

DAMAGE

Driving out past the Kabul airport, I see a jumble of wrecked and gutted planes heaped at the edge of the runway. I will later learn that it was American bombs that worked that particular piece of magic, but it’s my first day in Afghanistan, and I ask the driver if the jets were Russian or of some other provenance, and at what point in the last two and a half decades of warfare they came to be destroyed.

He nods, smiles, shrugs. “Yes,” he says. “They are damaged.”

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Afghanistan is damaged in starkly visible ways. Endless miles of sunbaked ruins sprawl across the countryside. Overturned tanks dot the rural landscape. In much of Kabul it is a rare wall that is not pocked with bullet holes. Men and sometimes even children without legs crowd the bazaars. Widows beg in the streets, their lined hands protruding like tree limbs from blue, pleated burkas. The statistics are crushing: Four Afghans are killed by land mines and unexploded ordnance each day; 25 percent of infants die before age five; life expectancy at birth is barely over 40.

It is possible, for a moment or two anyway, to forget all this in Kabul. The streets bustle with bicycles, some of them ingeniously rigged to be hand-pedaled by the legless; shiny white U.N. Land Cruisers; horse- and human-drawn carts; motorbikes; too many dented Japanese pickups hauling men and boys with rifles; thousands of honking taxis, Corollas and old Russian Ladas painted yellow and white and swerving every which way. Armored vehicles belonging to the ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) cruise by, but not very often.

Music blasts from cabs and storefronts. In the parks boys play soccer and men sit in the shade drinking tea. There are pizzerias, a Thai restaurant, Internet cafes. Birds sing in the trees like in any other place, but it’s never long before another pickup skids by bristling with Kalashnikovs to remind you that whatever Donald Rumsfeld says, this is a country at war.

The damage runs deep. Except in four major cities, and often not even there, there is no electricity anywhere in the country. Even in Kabul, only about a fifth of the population enjoys running water. In most of Afghanistan there are no hospitals, few clinics and still fewer doctors to staff them. There are no paved roads linking the major cities, and in many places, no paved roads whatsoever. In the majority of the country, the central government has no visible presence at all — except for those provided by foreign aid groups and by the U.N., there are no social services; the only authorities are the men with the most guns, and they are far more likely to rob the populace than protect them.

Two years after the Taliban fled Kabul, there is still a lot of hope in Afghanistan. Optimism is frequently voiced, some of it even genuine, though it hardly balances the anger and despair. If there is a single story to be told today, it is a story about uncertainty. Some of that may be resolved (if only for the worse) following the constitutional assembly scheduled for December, and the elections planned for next June, but both of those events will likely be postponed because, well, there’s just too much instability. In the meantime, there is no master narrative but disarray, no through line but contradiction.

RUINS

Two men hastily slice and serve a watermelon before taking their places beside me in a circle of about a dozen gray-bearded men in dusty robes and turbans. We sit cross-legged on a cloth laid out on the shady side of the mosque, the one building in the village of Galabanan the Taliban left standing. Boys huddle round, arm in arm, to watch. The head of the village, a younger man named Sandar Agha, his brow lined but his beard still black, his eyes a shocking blue, tells me how he fled north when the Taliban arrived. He lived in a refugee camp in the Panjshir Valley for three years with his family, enduring the bitter winters with only a tent for shelter. Forty-seven children from the village died. He came back just after the Taliban fell, at the end of 2001. I ask him what he felt when he first returned to the village.

He lowers his eyes and laughs. “We were shocked. We thought, ‘How can we ever rebuild?’ We are very poor. It ate at my liver to see it.”

Galabanan is a little over an hour’s drive north of Kabul, in the middle of the vast Shamali Plain, famed for centuries for its wealth, its lush vineyards and orchards. Today the ruins stretch on for miles. Galabanan is little more than a heap of crushed brick and dust, tarps draped over crumbling walls to provide shelter until the walls can be rebuilt. There’s no latrine yet, and sewage winds through the village in a shallow ditch. For miles around, in dozens of other villages, it’s the same. Rubble without end. Mud brick walls left half standing, or less than half, like sand castles after the tide has come in.

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