Afghanistan a year later

So was the war on Afghanistan worth it after all? The daisy-cutters and the cluster bombs, the misguided missiles butchering wedding parties while al-Qaida slipped away? Now, a year after Kabul fell as the Taliban left their hot dinners on the front line and ran, was it worth the killing of anything from 800 to 3 000 men, women and children?

Of course it was, said everyone I asked. They all had their grotesque Taliban tales. “Right there, bodies hanging, rotting, stinking!” said a trader in Chicken Street, the tourist trinket centre.

“I was walking with my cousin and her husband outside here,’’ said another man.
“The vice and virtue police beat them both with big sticks, beat them to pieces, blood everywhere, because her ankles showed too much under her burka.’’ He was a young Pashtun and no friend of this new mainly ethnic Tajik government, but he had no doubt that the Americans did the right thing.

There must be people who think the American-led conquest was wrong, but no one will say so. Even Pashtuns you meet from the Taliban’s own tribe — the big losers under the new regime — say the outside world had a duty to rescue them from the Taliban horror. But perhaps some lie. Perhaps you are looking right into the eye of a shaved Talib, one of the multitude who just melted away into the shadows, waiting and watching for their time to come again. Which it might, if the world again loses interest here.

As for the outside world, the first question Westerners ask is: have the women taken off their burkas? The burka was the battle flag of last year’s brief war. For the Taliban, a wisp of woman’s hair or an uncovered female foot represented an obscenity. For the West, the burka was the easy symbol of Taliban oppression, a shorthand moral justification for liberating Afghanistan, with girls’ schools shut and women forbidden to work.

So did things get better for them in this past year? Nine out of 10 women still wear burkas: those who ripped them off to swap them for headscarves are few. The burka’s ghostly outline still turns women into subhuman objects, non-persons.

Now they walk alone in the streets without the need for a male relative, but often they stay together in small flotillas, and it’s easy to see why. Drivers seem to charge at them as they cross the streets. They are jostled aside on pavements as men seem irritated by these faceless, depersonalised obstacles in their path. The pathological loathing of women by the Taliban didn’t spring from nowhere, nor has it evaporated overnight.

At the Woman to Woman centre, 20 women of all ages were sitting on the floor, all them with burkas left hanging on pegs by the door. Despite the absence of outward change, were things getting better for them now that the Taliban had gone?

There was a spontaneous chorus of cries, hands raised in the air, laughter, sighing, exclamations — my translator could not keep up with their energetic assertions that life had changed beyond recognition. This relative liberation — the freedom to walk outside for many who had never left their one room in years — was hard to imagine. “I never saw the light of day in five years!’’ one widow said.

So why did they still wear burkas? “We wear the burka because we are still afraid,’’ several said.

It is too dangerous; and besides, the psychological effect of five years of terror is not easily erased at a stroke. The truth is that the burka is the very least of their problems, mere outward garments, easily discarded. The inner scars of the way women are treated here in this darkly savage place will be harder to erase.

In September Afghanistan was a whisker away from plunging back into chaos after a bullet whistled past President Hamid Karzai. Violence breaks out often. If they get Karzai, there is no plan B, no understudy learning his lines. One senior British official told me: “If they get him, pack fast.’’

Two government ministers have been shot dead in the past few months, one probably at the instigation of Defence Minister Field Marshal Fahim, a thuggish warlord with 10 000 men of his own. But he wears a suit now and sits behind his desk talking the talk of the new multi-ethnic Afghan national army that will soon be in place to keep the peace across the land. In theory he will soon be running an indigenous, multi-ethnic army, yet the new recruits trained by various western nations have no uniforms, guns or pay.

Everything here is rumour, assertion, malicious factoid or wishful romance. On the one hand, British and American officials will tell fables of such staggeringly unreal optimism that you wonder their eyes don’t pop out and roll away. On the other there are doom merchants of every variety and faction who will tell you that the place is cursed to perpetual anarchy and mayhem — nothing can save it now or ever. The truth is that every day that civil war does not resume is a minor miracle.

With each passing week, new stalls and bazaars spring up along the roadsides up and down the country. In the rubble that is 70% of Kabul, people are starting to rebuild, making mud bricks with their bare hands. Even in the most desolate, bombed-out places, life is returning to normal as refugees flood back.

On the Shamali plain at the crossroads of Qarabak, about 100 stalls have sprung up in the past month. This tragic place was once the golden bread basket of the country, rich with vines, tomatoes, almond trees and orchards. In one battle, the retreating Taliban razed and scorched the land for a hundred miles in every direction.

Here a French charity is giving returning refugees basic shelter kits to build new houses. But the scheme is swamped by the sheer scale of need. Twenty thousand shelter kits have been provided, but 40 000 families have nothing but tents to survive the bitter winter snow.

The same story is reported everywhere, as 1,5-million refugees have poured back to ruin and desolation. Standing outside a tent in the pouring rain, I talked to two women cowering inside. They were unable to step out while strange men were near, so they called out answers to my questions to their brother who stood outside, a scarf hiding the half of his face that had been blasted away in the fighting.

It was a laborious process: he called out their responses to my (male) translator, who stood far away, relaying the translation back to me. Since their responses were short and his were long, I doubted that I was hearing much from the women themselves.

Men here have a habit of simply not listening to women. But what the young man with the blown-away face said was this: “This is what we have returned to! We were promised by the world that if we fought the Russians for you, you would look after us, but you didn’t. Then we fought the Taliban and al-Qaida, and now look at us, here on this hillside in the mud, the winter coming and our children will die of cold. Where is your help now?’’

Wherever you go, they say the same. Thanks for coming, the war was worth it, but now it is payback time. Lifting the iron heel of the Taliban was not enough. In Tokyo, the rich world agreed to stump up only a paltry $4,5-billion for Afghanistan over five years. It is a mere $75 a head per year, while world aid to Rwanda, East Timor and Bosnia was $250 a head. Why so little?

“One of the most miserable states in the world,’’ the World Bank rightly called Afghanistan. It is the fourth poorest place on earth: 95% are illiterate and 95% have never seen a doctor or nurse in their lives.

Fewer by the day now are the buccaneering freelance journalists and photographers. They are grumbling that the story has gone cold here: work is drying up. Fox News has already pulled out and the other US networks are off soon, itching to move on to Iraq. “Next year in Baghdad!’’ the journos and the old NGO hands call out cheerily when anyone leaves.

Has the Afghan story gone cold? I am not sure whether to hope or fear it. On one hand, the story going cold would mean an absence of war: no more footage of fighting men in pancake hats perched up in the mountains firing off Stingers into what’s left of Kabul. No more bleeding Afghan children and women screaming into their burkas.

But the story growing cold may also mean that the world forgets and walks away bored, looking for the next hot new war. If the West turns its back now, there will be no moral justification for any future great interventions in the name of human rights. History will write this episode down as no more than a brief, self-interested expedition to eliminate al-Qaida training camps, another bunch of outsiders fighting their own battles on Afghan soil. — Â

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