Photo by Natacha Pisarenko/AP
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.”
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.
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.
In the ’80s, the mujahedeen fought the Soviets on this plain, and throughout the late ’90s the Northern Alliance troops of Ahmed Shah Massoud battled the Taliban, advancing and retreating and advancing again. Many Shamalis fled, but many others joined Massoud. One September, Taliban forces spread out through the villages. They gave everyone 20 minutes to pack. Shamalis left with just the clothes on their backs, the grapes still hanging heavy on the vines. Some escaped. Most were herded onto trucks. The young men were brought to jail in Kabul, the women and children dumped in Jalalabad and the war-shattered suburbs of Kabul. The Taliban burned, bombed and bulldozed nearly every structure on the plain. They leveled the homes and the high brick compound walls surrounding the homes. They burned the vineyards and the orchards. They dynamited the wells. They destroyed even the mosques. The one in Galabanan survived only because the Taliban used it as a base.
In December of 2001, the valley was empty. Today there are people everywhere, living and farming among the ruins. Thousands of refugees have been returning from camps in Pakistan and Iran, Kabul and Panjshir. Boys herd sheep and whip donkeys laden with stones. Men crouch in the dirt along the main road, shoving fistfuls of mud into wooden molds to make bricks. Signs posted by NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) everywhere announce reconstruction projects. Most of the vines have been replanted, the wells restored. Unplaned logs poke from the ruins like primitive antennae. Every day new walls climb higher, homes are slowly pieced together.
An older man squatting beside Sandar Agha tells a story. “Ten days ago one man returned from Pakistan. He had buried all his valuables before he left. He returned and saw the destruction, the ruins of his house burying the goods that he had buried. He just died. His heart was broken.”
We talk about the difficulties of surviving here now, about the continuing drought, about how rich this land once was. Sandar Agha points to a tree stump to signify all that has been lost. I ask him if he thinks
he’ll ever be able to rebuild completely, to live as he once did.
“If the government is active, and the angels too, we will,” he says, and smiles.
If the Shamali Plain is the most dramatic example of the progress of reconstruction in Afghanistan (and an unstable one at that, still entirely dependent on the whims of angels and international donors), it is far from representative. The roads in Shamali are safe, the villages close to the capital, easily accessible to the dozens of foreign NGOs based there. More remote areas are not nearly so blessed, particularly in the south and east, where almost daily fighting between government and coalition forces and neo-Taliban militias, as well as not-infrequent shootings of foreign aid workers, has meant that aid groups have had to scale back if not abandon their work altogether. U.N. employees are now forbidden from traveling in much of the southeast.
On the record at least, American and Afghan officials alike do their best to minimize the importance of the violence, characterizing the anti-government forces as ragtag extremists capable only of making clumsy and desperate attacks before scurrying across the border to Pakistan. Recent battles involving as many as 1,000 organized opposition troops have made this image more difficult to sustain, and it remains an open secret that much of the southeast has effectively returned to Taliban control.
Beneath the fluorescent lights of the press room at the sprawling U.S. military base at Bagram, behind multiple layers of sandbagged and razor-wired machine gun emplacements, Lieutenant Colonel Douglas Lefforge explains American military strategy in southern Afghanistan. He’s a tall, pale man with cold, still eyes, dressed in desert camouflage fatigues, a black nylon holster strapped to his chest. To find and identify the enemy, Lefforge says, coalition troops employ what he calls “a defensive offense,” which amounts, according to his description at least, to patrolling the countryside and waiting for someone to shoot at them. “If you point a weapon at me, you are the enemy. You’re a bad guy. I will shoot you, and I will kill you.”
After a brief, unproductive digression into the treatment of Afghans detained by the U.S. military (“I will not handle any questions pertaining to guests under control”), Lefforge gets back on point: “Our particular mission right now is to assist with the reconstruction,” he says. “Our primary goal is to go out and establish a relationship between the people and the government of Afghanistan, and we will do that either through nonlethal civil affairs operations, or through lethal methods.”
I ask him whether continuing U.S. cooperation with local militias loyal to commanders at odds with the central government doesn’t hurt the reconstruction effort. “Not my area,” he says. Lefforge dismisses neo-Taliban offensives as “an act of desperation . . . They’re like cockroaches. You turn the light on and cockroaches scatter. But we’re taking them out one by one. We’re patient.”
In the weeks after Lefforge and I speak, more than 300 people will be killed in fighting around Afghanistan. Police stations will be attacked by anti-government forces both in central Logar province (a few hours from Kabul and quite far from the Pakistani border) and in Paktika in the southeast — the latter by an organized group of 400 pro-Taliban fighters. In a single day, more than 60 people will be killed in separate incidents around the country — some by a car bomb, some by a bomb in a bus, some in factional fighting between regional militias, others in a skirmish between the Taliban and the Afghan army. Later, a full-scale battle involving repeated U.S. air assaults on as many as 1,000 insurgents will rage for over a week in the southeastern province of Zabul.
When I talk to Lefforge in August, he tells me the total number of American soldiers killed in Afghanistan since hostilities began in October 2001 is 30. (Well over 100 soldiers in the recently formed Afghan National Army have also been killed.) Since then, that number has gone up to 35.
Most days the power goes down for at least an hour or two, but one evening it stays off for four hours, and more unusual than that, I learn why. I am lodging with an Afghan family, sitting on the patio at dusk talking with the father when the eldest son comes home. He has been stuck in traffic, he tells us, because there was an accident near the city’s power station between two pickup trucks: one truck of policemen, ostensibly loyal to President Hamid Karzai, and another filled with gunmen loyal to Marshall Muhammad Qasim Fahim, the defense minister. Men in both trucks carried Kalashnikovs. The accident quickly became a gunfight. Two men were injured, and a stray bullet took out a crucial transformer at the power station. Thus the lights went out in Kabul.
The office of Said Tayab Jawad, President Hamid Karzai’s chief of staff, is far from the smoke and bustle of downtown Kabul. The only noise is the hum of an air conditioner struggling to fight the heat of the sun pouring in through a high, semicircular wall of windows ‰ (“Semi-oval,” Jawad jokes, “not yet oval office”) that look out on the rose gardens just outside the presidential palace, idyllic except for the M-16-toting Americans in civilian clothes patrolling the palace grounds. There are inlaid marble floors, a slightly dusty chandelier, framed photos of the president, of Massoud, and of former king Zahir Shah. On the mantle sits a bronze reproduction of a Frederic Remington sculpture labeled “Bronco Buster.” From a cement post not far from here, it is hard to forget, the Taliban hung the castrated, mutilated corpse of Dr. Najibullah, Afghanistan’s president until 1992.
Jawad, a 40ish man in a tailored Western suit, spent 20 years in the U.S., most of them as a lawyer in San Francisco. His answers to my questions are polite, circuitous and strategically vague. We discuss the challenges of governing in the absence of trained officials, the difficulties of gathering tax revenue from recalcitrant warlords who govern large parts of the country, continuing difficulties with corruption — “We are not actually operating at an optimal level” — and the need for greater foreign assistance. “We underestimated the need of the Afghan people,” says Jawad, who adds that estimates have risen from an initial $5 billion to between $20 and $30 billion, “because even the capacity to estimate how much was needed was not there.” He speaks of the importance of expanding ISAF to areas beyond Kabul, and, in the most cautious of terms, the danger posed to the constitutional process by powerful fundamentalists: “In the past this has been the case with Afghanistan, where the truly pure and loving feeling of Afghans for Islam have been misdirected for political gain.”
Notwithstanding his professional if not quite believable optimism on some issues, such as defense ministry reforms aimed at wresting military control from Fahim and his followers from the northern Panjshir Valley, and the central government’s struggles with regional warlords — “It’s a different day in Afghanistan: Now guns and violence do not bring power” — Jawad’s overall message is one of thinly concealed desperation. The theme he comes back to again and again is the enormous need for “national institutions,” without which the government cannot govern. Implicitly, Jawad is admitting Karzai’s powerlessness over the country he is charged with leading.
He ends the interview with a plea, and a warning: “The legacy of the war against terrorism depends on what becomes of Afghanistan. It’s important to stabilize Afghanistan and it’s important to do it fast. The impact of a failure in Afghanistan is just too big this time. It will not be limited to Afghanistan.” This has the rehearsed and slightly tired feel of something he’s said many times before, to many American ears.
Above Mohammed Fahim Dashty’s desk hangs a huge oil painting of Ahmed Shah Massoud looking a bit like a Taxi Driver–era De Niro in a felt pakul cap. Images of the same gauntly handsome face are everywhere in Kabul: on a giant billboard towering over the hills on the northern edge of town, on the wall of the soccer stadium where the Taliban once conducted weekly executions, on fliers pasted all over the city bearing these words in English: “The Great Massoud Your Way Move Forward.” It can be hard to understand exactly which hopes the continuation of his way are meant to kindle. Massoud was not an ideologue, and not a visionary, but a warrior — the “Lion of the Panjshir” who fought first the Soviets, then rival mujahedeen, and finally the Taliban over nearly three decades without surrender or compromise.
Dashty, now the editor of Kabul Weekly, which he proudly announces is the only independent newspaper in Afghanistan, first met Massoud when still a boy. He was in the same room with him on September 9, 2001, shooting propaganda films for the Northern Alliance, when assassins masquerading as journalists detonated the explosives they had disguised as Betacam battery packs. Massoud was killed in the explosion. Dashty was severely burned. One of his light brown eyes is still cloudy. His long fingers, stained by fire, are so thin they seem to be perpetually shaking. He speaks very slowly and carefully, pausing for a good five seconds before answering any question. He has great poise, but exudes also a sense of constant distraction, of real torment stamping every thought and movement.
Of Massoud, Dashty says simply, “He was a great man.” He was Afghanistan’s last chance, Dashty believes, of uniting as a nation above ethnic and regional differences, and would never have allowed the humiliation of an American occupation. Shortly before his death, Dashty says, Massoud told a visiting State Department official that so long as a piece of Afghanistan remained to him the size of his hat, he would defend it to his death. This, Dashty hints conspiratorially, is why he was killed.
Only once over the course of a two-hour conversation does Dashty’s composure lapse. It is lunchtime, and we’ve been talking for 45 minutes. I ask him if he is hungry. Dashty slaps the desk with his open palm. “Yes!” he says. “Of course I am angry!”
I ask him if he has any hope that, in the absence of a single unifying leader like Massoud, Afghanistan will be able to cobble together some lasting peace. He pauses for longer than usual before answering, his eyes on his tightly clasped fingers.
“No,” he says softly.
Over green tea and caramel candies in his office across the street from the main CARE compound in Kabul, before settling in to the stories of the years he spent in prison under the Soviets and his years in exile in Pakistan, of the difficulties he faced working for a foreign NGO under the Taliban, and in the chaos that immediately followed their fall, Dad Mohammad Baheer tells me that his house was robbed two days after we last met. He woke in the night and found the locks forced open, his family’s jewelry and $5,000 in cash stolen. (There are no banks in Afghanistan; anyone who has any money keeps it in cash.) Even the carpets were gone. He considers himself lucky not to have woken while the thieves were still there. He did not report the crime. “The police are one with the thieves,” he says. “It would be fruitless.”
A tall man who prefers Western slacks and collared shirts to the more common Afghan garb of baggy pants and knee-length tunics, Baheer manages Kabul’s water system for CARE. A week earlier, while driving from water pump to water pump through the ash-colored rubble of south and west Kabul, in accented but grammatically perfect English, he tells me tales of neighbors’ homes robbed by soldiers and police, who often enter on the pretext of searching for al Qaeda, then take all they can carry.
Not everyone, it seems, shares Fahim Dashty’s devotion to the spirit of Massoud, whose forces occupied Kabul for four years in the early ’90s and, while battling the Pashtun fundamentalist (once funded by, now hunted by the CIA) Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and other former mujahedeen leaders, took part in the destruction of the city. His soldiers did what occupying armies do; they killed and looted. The fact that Massoud’s photos are glued to the windows of nearly every shopfront in town does not mean that his followers are any more welcome now, only that the Panjshiris are once again the ones with the guns, and few Kabulis dare tear the photos down.
Resentment, though, runs high. Kabulis grumble that jobs, houses, wealth — all the spoils of war — go to former Northern Alliance commanders, most of them Panjshiris; that Kabulis, and especially Pashtuns, regardless of merit and qualifications, are excluded from circles of power, and routinely preyed upon by Panjshiri soldiers and police.
Meanwhile, Baheer tells me, only 22 percent of Kabul’s population enjoys running water. In some areas as many as 1,000 families rely on a single hand-pumped spout. In the hills, Baheer says, “There is no anything. There is no water source,” and CARE has to run water up in tanker trucks. It’s a sign of the government’s impotence that the system must be managed by an NGO — Baheer estimates that it will be at least three years before the government is able to take over. At the moment, the city can’t even provide electricity to run the pumps, which for now run on generators that burn through 1,100 liters of diesel a day.
Baheer recalls the difficulties of rebuilding the water system — some wells were blocked not only with dirt and rock, but “even the bodies of the dead.” He talks about the night a fragment of an American rocket destroyed his kitchen. No one in his family was hurt, and Baheer brushes off the damage to his home (“It was not a modern kitchen”), but the rocket destroyed his neighbors’ house, killing two people, a bride and groom. “This was the first night of their wedding party.” And he talks about his current anxiety. The water system is funded by a grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development that expires at the end of September. USAID has said it will not be renewed. “There will be no water,” Baheer says. “There will be no alternative.”‰
Late one dusty afternoon, I stroll with Babrak, my driver, through the shambles of the Kabul Zoo, past the squalid cages of pigs, vultures and undernourished wolves, through the rubble of what was once the aviary, now stinking of human shit. We pause in front of two lions dozing in the sun. A white check mark has been painted on the high back wall of their cage to indicate that it has been successfully cleared of mines. Babrak tells me how grand the zoo once was. He points to an enclosure containing four small deer. Dozens once ran through the zoo, he says, but soldiers ate the rest.
We’re ready to leave when, a few yards from the artillery-battered main building and the tiny cages labeled “MUNKY,” in which depressed-looking apes nibble at the trash littering their floors, an argument breaks out between a skinny policeman in an ill-fitting uniform, unarmed as most Kabul policemen are, and a man on a bicycle with the distinctly Asian features of the Hazara ethnic minority (who are highly discriminated against in Kabul — during the factional fighting of the ’90s, Hazaras suffered massacres at the hands of both Tajiks and Pashtuns, and authored some of their own). Their voices rise and they shove each other, but the men praying on a patch of grass a few feet away take no notice, even when the policeman whips the Hazara across the face with a switch. They leap at each other, but are separated by two men standing by. They walk out through the gates, and the fight continues in the street. Babrak and I follow. He explains in broken English that the Hazara had caught the policeman breaking into the peacock cage and had exposed him trying to steal a peacock to sell in the market.
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.
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.”
This is likely true, but Afghans would insist that it is precisely why they need more resources to help create functioning institutions. That said, the U.S. is doing a lot in Afghanistan. The administration has pumped millions of dollars into rebuilding the country’s ring-road system. USAID is building 1,000 elementary schools around the country and 550 rural health clinics, and plans to spend over $100 million on an agricultural reconstruction project. The problem is, almost everyone outside the embassy walls will agree, it’s not nearly enough.
Kunder insists that though Afghanistan has dropped out of the headlines, the administration’s commitment has never waned: “Behind the scenes, people have been working very hard. Progress has been steady, effort has been sustained, resources have been forthcoming.” I don’t remind him that, though the Bush administration authorized over $3 billion in aid to Afghanistan for 2003, when Bush got around to submitting his budget to Congress, he requested exactly zero dollars. Congress ultimately approved about $350 million, which would have been all Afghanistan received if Bush hadn’t promised another billion, which, though Kunder denies it, he presumably did because, given our entanglement in Iraq, he couldn’t afford further embarrassment in Afghanistan.
Before I leave Kunder, I ask him if USAID really plans to let CARE’s funding for Kabul’s water project expire. “Bitter experience” with past legal trouble, he tells me, has taught him not to talk to the media about grant contracts. Two days before it was set to expire, after months of lobbying by CARE, USAID agreed to renew the project’s funding.
The road leading southeast from Kabul looks fairly unremarkable — an unpainted ribbon of asphalt no wider than an L.A. side street. A few miles southeast of here it gives way to a rutted dirt track that leads all the way to Kandahar, about 300 miles away. Here, the highway sits at the base of a wide, flat valley, surrounded on all sides by craggy mountains the same color as the crumbling mud ruins that line the road, so heavily bombed that they more resemble geologic formations than any structures conceived by humans. Alongside the highway are all the usual features of the central Afghan landscape: hillside cemeteries bristling with the green flags that mark the graves of martyrs, the occasional herd of camels or rusted Russian tank, the low-slung tents of Kuchi nomads, rocks painted red to warn of minefields. Electric poles stretch along the valley floor, but no wires hang between them.
Today, though, this narrow stretch of tar and stone will be the excuse for a grand and intricately staged performance: The president is coming.
Standing in a small paved enclosure with 18 journalists and a guard of half a dozen Afghans armed with M-16s, Roy Glover, a plump, friendly public affairs officer from the American Embassy, explains why we’re all here. Bush promised Karzai that the Kandahar leg of the ring road would be paved by the end of the year; USAID is now devoting about 30 percent of its budget to getting the job done. “This is just to show that there has been progress on the road,” Glover says. “There’s an impression in the international media that nothing is happening here.”
Several hundred Afghan police officers with Kalashnikovs fan out into the hills. Some line the road, others disappear behind rocks and clumps of trees. Another couple dozen Afghans — better fed and much better equipped than the policemen — loiter nearby. About 100 flak-jacketed Americans with assault rifles are scattered about as well, a combination of Special Forces, the State Department’s elite security unit, and Karzai’s personal bodyguards — private sector mercenaries contracted by the State Department to protect the president.
After a two-hour wait, a helicopter appears from behind the mountains, a Black Hawk. It circles the valley twice before five more helicopters appear behind it. In each one, a gunner leans out the open door. All of them land but the Black Hawk, which flies low and menacing around the perimeter of the valley. If this is a show of progress, it is also a show of something else.
The journalists are bused a couple miles down the road to the work site, where a dump truck filled with asphalt, a couple steamrollers and a few laborers in orange vests await. Karzai follows in a convoy of Land Cruisers, two of them with Americans on their roofs clutching heavy machine guns. Police armed with Kalashnikovs and rocket-propelled grenades line the road. The tar is still wet, and sticks to the journalists’ shoes.
Jim Kunder, beaming, is never far from the president’s side as an engineer gives Karzai a tour of the site. The president takes a few hurried questions from the eagerly huddled press, most of them in Dari, all of them apparently innocuous. We’re herded back onto the bus, herded off again, and a grinning Karzai answers another minute’s worth of questions (“I was very happy to see the road. I was very satisfied . . . ”) before hustling back into his helicopter and flying off.
In the president’s absence, Kunder and the engineers stage an impromptu press conference. Kunder sunnily explains that though only about 7 percent of the road has been paved, most of its length has been graded and de-mined. Thanks to the heightened police presence, there haven’t been any recent security incidents. (Road construction was halted for weeks earlier this year after a mine-clearance crew was attacked: One man was killed and eight injured. Since the Karzai photo op, 12 more people, including road crew workers, police and soldiers, have been killed on the road.)
After four or five questions, Roy Glover interrupts, his voice amiable but urgent: “The security detail has to leave now, so if we don’t leave, we don’t have security. I recommend we leave now.” And we do.
It must be the shiniest room in Afghanistan — a beauty school concealed behind the well-guarded gates of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, like a scale model of a Western salon, complete with lighted mirrors, swiveling chairs, shampoo sinks, gleaming countertops, shelves lined with sleek, multicolored plastic bottles of hair spray, gel and something called Vavoom Beam Shine Gloss. The school — Beauty Without Borders, it seems to be called — is the result of a collaboration between an aged American expat and a stylist from New York. Vogue provided start-up money; a handful of big cosmetics companies were happy to pitch in.
This afternoon, the opening ceremony takes place in the garden outside the ministry. Rows of white folding chairs stretch between the rosebushes. Bottles of Pepsi and plastic cups rest on a table set for the reception, but the wind keeps nearly blowing off the paper tablecloth. A couple of camera crews linger, a handful of print journalists, and no less than six men with Kalashnikovs. The first class of students is here, well-coiffed women wearing gold bracelets and glossy violet lipstick, glowing with pride beneath silk headscarves. A relative of the king who spent the bad years in California and is rumored to have his eye on the presidency shakes hands all around and grins from ear to ear. Habiba Sorabi, the new minister of women’s affairs (who has been decidedly less confrontational than Sima Samar), attentively smiles and nods. The American organizers ask the students to each plant a geranium in honor of the school’s corporate sponsors. Minister Sorabi kneels in the flower bed and plants one too. The organizers present her with a gift bag brimming with products donated by MAC, Paul Mitchell and Revlon.
“We’d just like to thank you,” says the stylist from New York, a thin and chipper blond woman of about 50, “for giving us this opportunity to come here, because it helps us a lot in our lives.”
The morning begins with a drive. I am alone in a car with one of CARE’s drivers. Two Afghan women employed by the NGO follow in another car behind us. They’re showing me another project, a job training and food distribution program for impoverished widows raising children on their own. We drive out to the west of the city, past the bomb-ravaged traffic circle — 360 degrees of dramatically collapsed concrete buildings, some of them still functioning as government offices despite the wreckage — that marks the end of the relatively intact city center and the beginning of the miles of outlying ruins. The old city wall climbs a hill to the left like a chain of broken teeth. We pass the zoo, through block after block of crumbling ruins, past bombed-out mansions and the shattered remains of a high school that once catered to Kabul’s elite. Just before the old Soviet Embassy compound — a half dozen boxlike apartment buildings, deprived by artillery fire of windows and outer walls — we turn down a mud-brick alley, an open sewage channel running through the center of the dirt road. Behind a door in a high wall, we find a bright garden of flowers and vegetables, and just off that, a small unlit room in which about 30 women squat in a circle, taking turns stirring a beige, viscous substance with a huge wooden spoon. This is their vocational training — learning to make candy to sell in the bazaars.
I ask them how their lives have changed since the Taliban left. An older woman, her face a map of creases, smiles a toothless smile. “Everything’s better,” she says. The others chime in and nod in agreement: There’s more work, their children can go to school.
“We’re happy not to wear the burka,” one woman adds, and they all laugh. But stacked in the back of the room are dozens of burkas, like blue ghosts, folded and inert but still somehow eerily alive.
I ask them if anything has gotten worse since the Taliban left. They all shake their heads, no. But when I ask if they are still afraid of being attacked in the streets, they all gravely nod. Pressed further, they complain about skyrocketing rents and tell a tale of a woman leaving home uncovered and having battery acid thrown in her face. Some Talibs never left, one woman says, “they just shaved their beards.”
Before I leave, the widows present me with a bag of their candy. One woman, blushing, asks me to take her to America, and they all begin talking at once, worry-lined mouths pulled wide into smiles. The translator can’t keep up, and summarizes. “They ask you to build them a factory,” she says, “so all of them can work.”
We drive down crowded side streets to another class in District Six, a Hazara area, through markets where plastic buckets, propane tanks and the gutted and flayed cadavers of sheep hang from the ceilings of mud-walled shops. We turn up another still narrower alleyway divided by another and still fouler-smelling sewage trench clogged with shit and crumpled plastic bags. Boney, wide-eyed children, their faces dark with dirt, press themselves against the walls to let our car squeeze past.
I am led up a steep mud staircase and into another tiny room, this one filled with rows of women sitting before hand-cranked sewing machines. They are learning to make tote bags, flimsy nylon things with knockoff Reebok and Nike labels. It’s a class in sweatshop labor. The women stare up at me, nothing on their faces but blankness and fatigue.
The women’s teacher, a thin, jumpy man, asks if I have any questions. All the questions I prepared, that I asked the other women earlier in the day, suddenly seem indecent, stupid, cruel. I shake my head, do my best to smile.
A woman sitting at the front of the room with a wide, heavy face and angry eyes, raises her hand and speaks. “I have a question for you,” she says. “My husband is dead. I have small children. We are very poor. Our life is very hard. What should we do?”