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‘On a shaky bridge’

Kabul, Afghanistan

Arif Kharandesh has big ambitions. A youth with a sensitive face, he estimates his age is 18. Lately, life has not allowed for the celebration or even counting of birthdays. In 1998, as part of their scorched earth policy through the Shamali valley, Taliban forces set fire to his hometown of Istalif. Arif fled north and fought with the now legendary Tajik commander of the Northern Alliance, Ahmad Shah Massoud.

The Taliban no longer a threat, Arif returned to scenic Istalif last spring. Once a resort area for Kabul’s upper class and famous for its blue pottery called istalifi, the charred hillside town, now in a state of hesitant revival, still bears the scars of war. Graceful eucalyptus trees grow beside blackened, terraced fields. Shops and houses remain roofless.

But some garden plots are tilled green and Istalif high school is back in session. School is a large UNICEF tent with blue tarp or dusty carpets for flooring. There are no walls or dividers. A blackboard propped beside a tent pole delineates the locale of each classroom.

“The teachers don’t have anything. Not even a home to live in,” said principal Abdul Kahar. “They have taught for three months without salaries.”

Despite the primitive facilities, Arif seems eager to soak up whatever knowledge he can acquire from the ad hoc curriculum provided by UNICEF. He loves all subjects and says that upon graduation, he wants to go to university and become a teacher, a doctor and eventually prime minister of Afghanistan.

Istalif’s young fighter-turned-scholar is emblematic of impoverished, war-weary Afghanistan -- a country perched between great expectations for a peaceful future and fear of descending into its bloody, factionalized past. Compounding Afghanistan’s fragility is its role in the global scene. Nation-building isn’t easy in a country that remains a battlefield for the U.S. war on terrorism.

“We don’t have many options right now. We are like being on the top of a bridge that’s very shaky. We either get to the other side or we don’t make it,” said Tayeb Jawad, adviser to Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai.

For many Afghans, the unspoken question is, “Will America shake or strengthen the bridge?”

It turned out to be a poignant question. Within weeks of our visit, Abdul Qadir, one of Karzai’s vice presidents, was assassinated. Earlier, dozens of civilians were reported killed in a U.S. bombing in Uruzgan province.

In mid-June, the loya jirga, or grand tribal council, convened in Kabul to choose a transitional government to replace the interim administration, headed by Western-imposed Karzai.

Amid vicious poverty

The gathering was unquestionably historic. Afghans have endured 23 years of war that cost 2.2 million lives and left the country with an array of war litter -- mines, unexploded ordnance and bomblets that kill or injure between 150 to 300 people a month.

The poverty here is vicious. Seventy percent of the population is malnourished. The average life expectancy is 47 years for men, 45.5 years for women. For the past two decades, coups, assassinations and foreign-funded civil wars have been the primary means for deciding who would rule the country. But in June, Afghans employed a political process to determine their governance.

The date for the grand tribal council -- six months after the interim administration took office -- was set in December by the Bonn Agreement, the country’s new political road map after the Taliban surrendered to the U.S.-backed forces of the Northern Alliance in November.

The terrain, however, remains full of fissures. Even as the loya jirga delegates were convening in Kabul, U.S. forces, working in conjunction with the Pakistani military searched for Al Qaeda operatives in the southeastern section of the country while in the North, two factions, once tenuously aligned in their fight against Taliban, were slogging it out for control of the territory south of the city Mazar-e-Sharif.

Afghanistan has no national military, but a patchwork of militias who owe their allegiance to regional commanders or governors rather than the central government. The 4,500-strong International Security Assistance Force operates only in Kabul, despite pleas from Karzai and international humanitarian aid agencies to expand its mandate.

In mid-May, the international community pledged $420 million to help Afghanistan create a national army, air force, border guard service and a 74,000-strong police force.

War and displacement have fragmented this overwhelmingly Muslim country made up of eight ethnic groups. “Divisions are multiple -- ethnic, sectarian, rural and urban, educated and uneducated, those with guns and those who have been disarmed,” Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid wrote in his book Taliban. “Fragmentation is both vertical and horizontal and cuts across ethnicity to encompass a single valley or town.”

The Taliban imposed an oppressive cohesion, and their removal, while undeniably liberating, has also opened up decade-old divides.

“U.S. bombing simply erased the Taliban,” said Saman Zia-Zarifi, senior researcher for Human Rights Watch. “Magically, we have now gone back to 1992” -- a time when the country was fragmented into a bewildering array of warlord fiefdoms. Fierce in-fighting among rival factions of the mujahideen, fueled by funding from Pakistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia, reduced portions of Kabul to rubble, leading some to call the 5,000-year old city “the Dresden of the late 20th century.”

Just east of where the loya jirga delegates sat in a big white, carpeted, air-conditioned tent, debating the political reconstruction of the country, residents of the bombed-out Kartenau neighborhood struggle for the basics. The neighborhood has not had electricity or running water for 10 years. Electricity is obtained from car batteries, re-charged at the local market, and water, transported by bucket-toting children, comes from pumps on the side of the main road.

Signs of rebirth

But there are signs of rebirth. Freshly arrived nongovernmental organizations, eager to help the country rebuild, have set up offices in the central neighborhood of Wazir Akbar Khan. Shiny new vans and cheery yellow cabs, oblivious to medians and dividing lines, careen through the city’s streets, blaring Indian pop music. Schoolgirls, wearing white headscarves and black uniforms, stroll the streets.

The grand tribal council, whose female delegates numbered 200 out of the 1,501 in attendance, was the most representative loya jirga to ever convene in the history of the country. Afghanistan has had no truth and reconciliation commission, only war upon war, and for many participants, the Kabul gathering was an unprecedented airing of past grievances.

“There were courageous women calling ex-presidents criminals,” said Jawad, Karzai’s adviser.

The U.N.-brokered convention had a three-fold mandate: to elect a president, create a cabinet and come up with a legislative structure to carry the country through the next 18 months until elections are held.

The eight-day loya jirga was unable to decide on the composition of the legislature, becoming bogged down in debates over how to adequately represent a country where ethnic and tribal allegiances supersede national identity. The opening session was postponed a day while Karzai and U.S. envoy Kalmay Khalilzad quelled an effort to nominate the country’s former monarch, Zahir Shah, as the new head of government. Shah’s 40-year reign was the most stable period in the country’s recent history.

Karzai emerged as the new president but his appointment of cabinet ministers proved highly contentious. At stake was Karzai’s ability to find the strategic balance between the Northern Alliance and their political allies and the Pashtuns, the country’s ethnic majority who provided much of the indigenous support for the Taliban.

Critics of his new administration said Karzai, a Pashtun, gave too much control to the northern Panjshiris -- ethnic Tajiks and their allies.

To some, the power imbalance is reminiscent of 1992 when the Pashtuns lost Kabul to the allied forces of Tajik commander Ahmad Shah Massoud and the Uzbek General Rashid Dostum.

“The North should have learned their lesson,” said Pashtun engineer Abdul Zahir, who said that if one small region of the country again pushes too hard for dominance “things will fall apart.”

Well after the loya jirga adjourned, the Minister of Women’s Affairs remained unknown. Sima Samar, the former minister and most likely candidate, was castigated by members of the conservative religious establishment who questioned her commitment to sharia -- Islamic religious law. Death threats compelled Samar to take a less visible position as head of the country’s human rights commission.

In late June, Habiba Sarabi was appointed as the new minister of women’s affairs.

Rebuilding civil society isn’t easy in a land where political technocrats are few and far between and warlords have survived three wars. The mujahideen leaders who fought the Soviets from 1979 to 1989 and turned on each other during the bitter internecine wars of the mid-’90s are the same commanders who formed tenuous alliances in the battle against the Taliban.

Political parties are ethnically based and backed by local militias. All three major Islamist parties in the North -- Junbish, Jamiat, Hizb-I Wahdat -- have their own forces.

International power politics have directly contributed to the warriors’ longevity. In the 1980s, the muja-hideen, described by many as the United States’ proxy army during the Cold War, received billions of dollars of U.S. military aid. During the civil war of 1996, Pakistan and, to a lesser degree, Saudi Arabia sponsored Taliban aggression while Russia and Iran funded and armed the coalition of opposition forces then known as the United Front.

In its July 2001 report, “Crisis of Impunity: The Role of Pakistan, Russia and Iran in Fueling the Civil War in Afghanistan,” Human Rights Watch accused “all major factions” of committing “serious violations of international law, including killings, indiscriminate aerial bombardment and shelling, direct attacks on civilians, summary executions, rape, persecution on the basis of religion and the use of antipersonnel mines.”

The report urged the U.N. Security Council to impose a comprehensive embargo on all military assistance to Afghanistan.

Some claim local warriors are now the proxy army for the U.S. war on terrorism.

“There is a common saying here in Afghanistan, ‘The U.S. will fight Al Qaeda down to the last Afghan,’ ” said Zia-Zarifi.

In a June briefing paper on the resurgence of warlord control in Afghanistan, Human Rights Watch said the international community’s unwillingness to deploy peacekeeping forces outside of Kabul to rein in the warlords combined with the “apparent cooperation” between U.S. and local forces “left the impression among many Afghans that the warlords enjoy U.S. support.”

Commander Frank Merriman, public affairs officer for U.S. Central Command, said he could not give details about the relationship between U.S. forces and Afghan fighters, saying there was no “blanket policy” regarding regional commanders. “It depends on the individual,” he told NCR. “There are some who are clearly not friendly to the United States. To those that are, we would support them to the degree that is the political process.”

Warlords in the tent

Terry White, press officer for the State Department, conceded the danger in Washington’s Afghan policy and described the warlords as “people who are still very powerful.”

“If you choose a path that forces the warlords out of the tent” then there could be problems down the road that would require greater intervention from the United States, he said in a telephone interview. Washington wants the reconstruction of Afghanistan to be an “Afghan solution,” with the international community playing a supporting role.

“What we hope to do is persuade all the major players to put down their weapons of the past so they can be a part of the reconstruction of the country,” White said. “The international community is not going to pump money into them if these guys act they way they did before.”

Zia-Zarifi said the Special Independent Commission for the Emergency Meeting of the loya jirga, an all-Afghan agency responsible for setting the rules of participation in the loya jirga process, succeeded in partially screening out warlords. But in the final stages of delegate selection, he said, U.N. representative Lakhdar Brahmini and U.S. envoy Khalilzad “strongly urged” the commission to include regional commanders and provincial governors, many of whom are warlords.

Their presence at the loya jirga drew sharp criticism from fellow delegates. By the second day, there were reports of intimidation.

“People are scared,” said Tajwar Kakar, former deputy minister of Women’s Affairs.

Said Ishaq, owner of Kabul’s Silk Road Guest House, was frustrated. “Professor Sayyaf has 2,000 armed men and he is sitting there [at the loya jirga],” he said. During the mid-’90s, the Saudi-trained former academic Abdul Rasul Sayyaf levied brutal assaults in battles with the minority Shi’ite Muslims in Kabul.

Eager to invest

Ishaq, a British Afghan, returned to Kabul after 16 years in exile, eager to invest in his homeland. But investment, he says, depends on political stability. “We need neutral, professional people, with no history of fighting, to run the country,” he said.

According to Jawad, political expediency necessitated including former warlords. “Many of them were elected,” he said. “The loya jirga is not a parliament but a tribal gathering of people coming out of war, which means there are a lot of people you don’t want to invite to dinner.”

Ideally, Afghanistan should pursue its two phases of reconstruction -- building the peace and serving justice -- simultaneously, Jawad said. But “ground realities” prevent that. Unlike Bosnia, Afghanistan cannot engage in nation-building unencumbered be-cause of the war on terrorism. Fighting terrorists and rebuilding a country are “two policies on parallel tracks and they sometimes contradict each other,” Jawad said.

“We are tired of war,” said Anisa, a mother of three who recently returned to Kabul University to finish her degree in medicine. The same sentiment was once expressed by Massoud, the Tajik commander that Arif Kharandesh, the boy from Istalif, served with. On Sept. 9, 2001, Massoud was killed in a suicide-assasination by two Moroccans with possible Al Qaeda links. In the mid-’90s, at the height of mujahideen infighting, National Geographic asked Massoud what he would do when the war ended.

“Read Persian poetry,” he said, “then go somewhere where there are no damn mountains.”

Photos of the ruggedly handsome Massoud are plastered all over Kabul. In death, he has become, for some, a symbol of the country’s quest for a national identity. Kabulis say that had war not intruded upon his life, he would have become an architect.

Claire Schaeffer-Duffy, a freelance writer living in Worcester, Mass., traveled with a 19-member interfaith delegation to Kabul in June. The trip was organized by the San Francisco-based human rights group Global Exchange.

Comparison chart
Source: CIA World Factbook

Area: 647,500 sq km

Population: 26.8 million

Infant mortality rate: 147 deaths/1,000 live births
Life expectancy at birth: 46.2 years

Total population: 31.5%
Male: 47.2%
Female: 15%

Gross domestic product: $21 billion
Agriculture: 53%
Industry: 28.5%
Services: 18.5% (1990)
United States

Area: 9.6 million sq km

Population: 278 million

Infant mortality rate: 6.76 deaths/1,000 live births
Life expectancy at birth: 77.3 years

Total population: 97%
Male: 97%
Female: 97%

Gross domestic product: $9.9 trillion
Agriculture: 2%
Industry: 18%
Services: 80%

Related Web sites

Catholic Relief Services

Human Rights Watch: Afghanistan

Islamic Relief Worldwide

National Catholic Reporter, July 19, 2002