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Afghanistan Feature: Dysfunction and Dread in Kabul (Constable)

Attack on Intercontinental Hotel, Kabul, 28 JunePamela Constable writes for The Washington Post:

Kabul, a place I once called home, has become a city of security barriers and fantasy palaces.

I can’t find my old house, my old street or the bakery where I used to watch the early-morning ritual of men slapping dough into hot ovens beneath the floor. They’ve all vanished behind a high-security superstructure of barricades and barbed wire, a foreign architecture of war. Elsewhere in the Afghan capital, a parallel construction boom is underway. The slapdash sprawl of nouveau riche development has sprouted modern apartment buildings, glass-plated shopping centers, wedding halls with fairy lights, and gaudy mansions with gold swan faucets and Greco-Roman balustrades, commissioned by wealthy men with many bodyguards and no taxable income.

Both of these facades are conspiring to cover up the past, paving over the rubble and the lessons of war, distancing ordinary people from the local elites and the bunkered foreigners alike. Most tragically, they are erasing the hope and the promise of change that burst forth in Afghanistan’s post-Taliban liberation nearly a decade ago.

I was privileged to witness that awakening and to experience the exhilaration of a society being given a new chance after a generation of war and ideological whiplash. In those early years, I met Afghan exiles who had given up careers in Germany or Australia to participate in their homeland’s renaissance, and American jurists and agronomists who had come to help rebuild an alien land.

Foreigners were welcome everywhere, and a new generation of Afghans was in a hurry to catch up. In the cities, I met girls who led exercise classes and boys who took computer lessons at dawn. In rural areas, women still hid behind curtains and veils, but schools reopened in tents, and mud-choked irrigation canals were cleaned. In 2004, long lines of villagers proudly flashed their ink-dipped thumbs after voting in the country’s first real democratic election.

That optimism and energy vanished long ago, gradually replaced by cynicism and fear. The trappings of democracy remained in place, propped up by a vast international apparatus, but the politics of ethnic dogfights, tribal feuds and personal patronage continued to prevail. Government agencies were awarded to ethnic factions as fiefdoms for petty extortion. Aid money vanished into powerful pockets, and the once-moribund drug trade flourished.

The parliament became a gallery of old Islamist militia bosses and new war racketeers, locked in crippling disputes with the executive. The 2009 presidential election, a fraudulent parody, was ultimately accepted by international officials because it left the more familiar devil, President Hamid Karzai, in power as Washington prepared to ratchet up the war effort.

As corruption and malaise spread throughout the Karzai government, Taliban aggression and influence filled the void. As the countryside became more vulnerable, foreign aid projects shrank, and tea with tribal elders gave way to convoys of monster vehicles and helmeted warriors kicking in doors. As the gulf between Western intentions and public perceptions widened, Karzai made it worse by denouncing NATO bombings but ignoring Taliban beheadings, in the vain hope that his fellow tribesmen would return to the fold.

The disillusionment worked both ways. By the time President Obama ordered a high-profile civilian and military surge in 2009, hundreds of frustrated American mentors and aid workers had lost heart or left. A Western lawyer who worked with Afghan anti-corruption officials told me recently that “even the most promising few people I was training turned out to be corrupt.” And a woman working to improve rural services said, “I still have to practically force officials in Kabul to pick up the phone or visit the provinces.”

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