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Afghanistan Revisited 

The Weekly’s Ben Ehrenreich reports from Kabul

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Page 6 of 9

In the street another policeman joins in. They push the Hazara to the ground and begin kicking him. A crowd gathers, and passersby help the Hazara to his feet. The policemen walk off, and the Hazara stubbornly rides off after them. They kick him off his bike, but the crowd intercedes before they can lay into him again. More people gather, and more policemen, at least one of them carrying a Kalashnikov. Things have a way of blowing up quickly, and it looks like it may get very ugly very fast until Babrak pushes his way into the crowd and up to the largest policeman, the only one with stripes on his shoulders. He points to me, explaining that I am an important American journalist, and that this looks very bad. The officer smiles broadly and shakes my hand, then leads the rest of the cops off. The Hazara rides away unharmed.

Babrak and I wander back into the zoo. We watch the peacocks peck at the dust in their cage. Another policeman walks by, no older than 17, laughing with a friend, fanning himself with a single green, gold and violet feather.

 

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LAUGHTER

A large man with a Kalashnikov sits on the landing outside Sima Samar’s office. The security seems light given the nature of Samar’s work. She is the head of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission. Once the minister of women’s affairs and one of Afghanistan’s vice presidents (another is Marshall Fahim; a third, Hajji Abdul Qadir, was assassinated last July), Samar was asked to step down because her outspokenness riled the fundamentalists — former mujahedeen like Fahim, the Pashtun Islamist Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, and Bernahuddin Rabbani, the president of Afghanistan in the years that Massoud’s troops held Kabul — who control many of the important posts in the transitional government, and most of the gunmen around Kabul.

The leading fundamentalist party newspaper once labeled Samar “the Salman Rushdie of Afghanistan.” “It got very serious,” she says, though there’s humor in her green eyes when she says it. “They wanted to kill me. ISAF interfered and I had Turkish soldiers around me for three weeks.”

She is not making the fundamentalists any happier in her current job — advocating for the rights of women, struggling to bring past atrocities to light, pressuring the government to intervene to fight abuses by gunmen loyal to the fundamentalists. Karzai, she says, is committed to human rights, but “We don’t have law and order yet. Even in Kabul with the ISAF, there are a lot of atrocities.” Many of them were enumerated in a July Human Rights Watch report: robberies, extortion, murders and false arrests, threats and assaults on journalists and independent politicians. She took much of the heat for that report, though she had nothing to do with its preparation.

“It is much worse than the report they wrote,” Samar says, and though she is quite willing to go into detail about how, I will not do so here. She stops herself at one point. “Don’t write all these things,” she laughs. “They will kill me.”

 

IN THE COMPOUND

Sitting on a dusty plastic picnic bench in the meager shade offered by one of the few trees on the grounds of the U.S. Embassy compound in Kabul, Jim Kunder, the acting head of USAID in Afghanistan, assures me that “the reconstruction effort is working, bottom line.” Just behind us is a razor-wired wall; a hundred yards or so to our right and left, sandbagged machine gun nests. Embassy staff live behind these walls in converted shipping containers and are rarely allowed out of the compound. (In early September, the government imposed “a mission-essential-only travel restriction” on embassy employees.)

Kunder is a jocular and intense white-haired man with something of the manner of the president of a Southern Baptist university. More than once he begins a sentence by assuring me he doesn’t mean “to slap a smiley face” on the situation, and goes on to explain that the reconstruction is, given the circumstances, going well. The U.S. has spent about $600 million so far (though about one-fifth of that went to emergency assistance like distributing food and blankets, not to reconstruction), and Bush has pledged another billion dollars in aid (about the amount we spend each week in Iraq), though a good portion of that will be spent on the military, not on reconstruction.

The U.S. has delivered only a small fraction of the amount the Afghan government says it needs to have a chance at stability, and it doesn’t even come close to approaching the World Bank’s more modest estimate ($10 billion to $15 billion over five years), but Kunder assures me that “there is only so much foreign aid that the institutions of this country will absorb on a sustainable basis. It is not an excuse, it is a fact of life in this environment to know that there is only so much aid you can dump in without distorting the economy or spurring corruption.”

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