June 20, 2006
The Trouble With Afghanistan
BY Roya Aziz
Rioters targeted many local businesses and shops, including the country's only five-star hotel, the Kabul Serena.
I finally got to shoot a Kalishnikov -- the Russian weapon that seems to be synonymous with Afghanistan. It turns out I'm not a bad shot. My Afghan colleagues tease me, saying I must be Afghan despite growing up abroad.
Although there is a strong foreign and local belief in the Afghan warrior lore, people here prefer peace. But while living in Kabul for the last 10 months, I've learned that peace is not just about disarmament and physical security. It's overwhelmingly about economic security.
After spending the morning at the Afghan National Army shooting ranges on the outskirts of Kabul, I received word that rioting was taking place in the city, sparked by a road crash between a U.S. military convoy and Afghan residents. Ironically, I was attending a hostile-environment training course recommended for journalists and NGO workers living in war zones.
Riots swept through the city for almost eight hours before army soldiers took control. The country's intelligence chief announced that 17 people died and 140 were injured on the day of the crash and rioting, and the government issued a weeklong 10 p.m. curfew for the first time since the fall of the Taliban.
On a drive through the city the next day, I saw that the wreckage was already being cleaned up. The destruction was substantial. Charred cars and traffic-police posts were being removed or rebuilt. Dozens of shops, NGO offices, restaurants and guesthouses had been burned and looted.
Almost a month later, and the aftermath continues. At least half of some 250 people arrested are still in prison. Relatives of the jailed make daily visits to the Kabul police headquarters for news about the release of their loved ones. Bullet holes are visible in windows across the city. To newcomers, these may look like the scars of past wars -- those of us familiar with the city can identify old versus new damage.
After living in Kabul for the last 10 months, I've learned that peace is not just about disarmament and physical security. It's overwhelmingly about economic security.
Unlike the February riots over the publication of offensive cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad and last year's demonstrations over Qurans allegedly being flushed down toilets in Guantanamo, these protests did not spread across the country, perhaps a strong indication that the rioting was spontaneous and not wholly anti-Western as the foreign press made out.
Initially, people said a drunken American soldier driving one of the military vehicles was responsible for killing bystanders and smashing several cars. Official reports blamed the crash on mechanical failure of one of the convoy trucks.
The government responsed by assigning three commissions to investigate, and President Hamid Karzai went on national television condemning the rioters as "enemies of Afghanistan." It's the standard reply following Taliban attacks. Karzai's President Bush-style talking tough comes from his media relations training courtesy of the Rendon Group, a Washington-based public relations firm. But it doesn't sit well with some people.
"Our enemy is the government," one of my neighbors, Habibullah, told me. "They can't keep us safe. Where were the police? Where was the army?"
Although Kabul has been described as an oasis of security, it's becoming more apparent to the government and its foreign backers that this oasis is nothing more than a mirage. Kabul is as vulnerable as the rest of the country, and right now, nearly every province in the country is facing a crisis tied to physical and economic insecurity, ranging from a steadily growing Taliban insurgency to unemployment and food shortages.
One of Afghanistan's oldest international NGOs, CARE, which has been inside the country since 1961, was hardest hit during the riots. Its entire compound was looted and burned down.
Despite $6 billion in aid (out of a pledged $12 billion) delivered since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, regular Afghans are experiencing corruption and poverty more than reconstruction and economic improvement.
Daily, Afghans receive news about promises of aid and new international compacts. Daily, their leaders describe financial and administrative corruption as barriers to change. But there is little accountability, and the public rarely hears the details of this corruption, because reporters rarely find out who is responsible. No one dares name names.
On one Kabul radio station, listeners call in regularly with a list of complaints -- about the lack of electricity, of paved roads, of a functioning sewage system and of other much-needed public services. Meanwhile, a local private television station creates programs on fancy homes and apartments, introducing a consumer culture that is inaccessible to most.
"People are powerless," a member of parliament, who didn't want to be named, told me. "They are constantly told that things are wrong in their lives, and no apparent solutions are in sight."
There's no doubt it's the economy, says Faheem Dashty, editor of the Kabul Weekly newspaper. "People are poor, and the're angry," he told me. "These young looters, they came from families of martyrs, civil servants and maimed men who cannot provide for their families because they are unemployed or living on less than $40 a month."
The gap between the haves and the have-nots in Kabul is starkly visible, but people in the provinces fare much worse. More than 3 million Afghans are still engaged in the dangerous opium trade as a means of survival.
The gap between the haves and the have-nots in Kabul is starkly visible, but people in the provinces fare much worse. More than 3 million Afghans astill work in the dangerous opium trade as a way to survive. There's been no real investment in creating an alternative economy to draw farmers away from this cash crop, Ashraf Ghani, the former finance minister, told me in an interview last October.
"Afghanistan lost an estimated $240 billion in infrastructure and lost opportunity between April 1978 and December of 2001," he said. "The loss has been so overwhelming that the first [issue] of the people is with livelihood."
Fighting the opium trade, worth $3 billion to the country's economy, would reduce corruption and cut off a vital source of funding for the Taliban, analysts say.
Across Afghanistan, people are asking why the government and the foreign troops are failing in their duty to protect them.
Hours after the riots began, authorities placed the Afghan National Army in charge of security. A 10 p.m. curfew was enforced for the first time since the fall of the Taliban.
Thousands of residents fled their villages in Kandahar recently, following clashes in the Panjawi district between American forces and the Taliban. More than 30 villagers died as a result of the indiscriminate U.S. bombing of homes where Taliban fighters had taken refuge.
Resentment against American troop tactics, such as house raids and village bombings, is not new. Yet in all my time here, I've never heard any Afghan express anti-American sentiments. Usually their anger is tinged with a resigned acceptance that a war still goes on here.
According to local news reports, resident are beginning to rely on private militias in several southern and eastern provinces because of a lack of proper law enforcement. This is happening even as most of the country has been disarmed through a U.N.-led disarmament program of militia groups across the rest of the country.
For most people, Afghanistan's recent history starts with the phrase "since the fall of the Taliban." But really the ravages of war here have spanned more than 20 years.
Last week, I went on a mountain hike in the northern plains with an Afghan army general who spent several years in the same mountains fighting the Red Army. As he led the way uphill, he pointed out bomb craters and spent ammunition. "I spent my youth here," he told me. "We fought so that the next generation wouldn't have to."
But this generation is still fighting, more than four years after the fall of the Taliban. And until the international community and the Afghan government tackle security, the Taliban will continue to hamper reconstruction, particularly in the south.
Roya Aziz is an Afghan-American reporter who divides her time between Kabul and California.