Six Days in Afghanistan – Some Reflections and Observations
by Jim Vogt
“It seemed that the Taliban wanted to destroy everything of beauty.”
– Comment by our guide Shuju in remembering the senseless destruction wrought by the Taliban in the mid 90’s in the area where his mother lived.
My wife Susan and I visited our daughter Heidi recently in Kabul, Afghanistan. She has been there for the past 3 ½ years as a correspondent with the Associated Press. Several people have asked me about the trip, and especially about what I gleaned about what is or will be happening in that country with the US continuing to be embroiled in a war there. I decided to put to writing my reflections and observations. I do so with some trepidation, remembering a quote by a writer who had just visited a third world country, that goes something like “After I spent a week, I decided to write a book, after a month, I felt I could only write an essay, and after a year I decided I couldn’t write anything because I still had too much to learn.” And as Heidi cautions, when questioned about her analysis of what’s happening in Afghanistan, “It’s complicated.”
Perhaps the most striking thing about our visit was that at no time did I feel in danger or that I was living in a war zone. Kabul is a big, bustling, somewhat dysfunctional Third World city, with all the vibrancy and frustrations of this kind of urban mélange. There were people, and sometimes animals, just about anywhere, going about the same day to day things that all of us do to get by. The one reminder of the reality of war was the extensive security, from high walls often topped with razor wire, to the security guards with automatic rifles that guarded many buildings and shops, to the pat down for guns when you entered many stores, to the restaurants that cater to Westerners that do not have any signs on the street for fear of becoming a terrorist target. When we were leaving Kabul, we actually went through six security screenings before we got into the airport entrance for the final, normal screening!
Keep in mind that Kabul and the nearby areas we visited are relatively peaceful parts of the country. Particularly in the south and east, the more heavily Pashtun areas, the Taliban are much more active and the areas more dangerous.
We were able to visit two places where incredible change and restoration have taken place since 2001. The Murad Khane neighborhood had been a garbage dump that hid a traditional center of Afghan crafts and architecture. Through the work of international donors and the Afghan people, the area has been revitalized with restored houses, paved streets, medical clinic, and a renewed craft industry. Likewise Babar’s Garden, a public park that dates back hundreds of years that had been literally wrecked in the civil war, has been magnificently restored to its former beauty. It is a place where Afghans come to relax and simply enjoy the beauty.
We were able to spend two days in the mountains north of Kabul in a small village called Istalif and in the Panjshir Valley, notable as the one area in Afghanistan that the Soviets never truly conquered during their occupation in the 1980’s.The rugged beauty of the Hindu Kush mountains was breathtaking. We hiked in to a small and very simple lodge near Istalif that for me underscores the tremendous possibilities in this country if peace can be achieved. The Panjshir still holds many wrecked Soviet tanks from their failed invasion attempts.
It was in hiking through the Istalif area that Shuju made his comment that I quoted in the beginning. During our walk, he took us through ruins of what had been his mother’s house that the Taliban had destroyed. But this village, which had been almost totally deserted when the Taliban were in power, now has about 80% of the residents returned to rebuild their homes and their lives. There is a new school and a lot of signs of hope.
But this kind of hopefulness was certainly at least balanced by the pessimism that others we talked with shared in considering what might happen after most foreign troops withdraw in 2014. While there is no longing for a return of the Taliban and they seem to have little support among the Afghan citizenry, there is real fear that civil war could return in two years. Perhaps more likely is some kind of division of the country between the south and east (the largely Pashtun areas) and the north and west parts of the country inhabited by other tribal groups, with a weak central government.
At this point, native Afghans seem to be living in the present, not worrying about a future that is at best uncertain. People are also “hedging their bets” and making whatever contingency plans they can in case the situation deteriorates in two years. As one person mentioned, he does not want to nor plan to leave Afghanistan. It is his home. However if there is not a future for his children and no opportunity for schooling, then he may have to consider leaving.
What are some of the key factors in determining the direction of Afghanistan in the future?
1. Pakistan and the direction that country takes vis-à-vis Afghanistan is probably the biggest issue. The border between the two countries, drawn arbitrarily by the British over a hundred years ago, is fuzzy at best and essentially divides the lands of the Pashtuns. It’s sometimes called Pashtunistan.
2. Will the central government in Kabul be able to get their act together? This is obviously not a thing to bet on due to the corruption that has plagued the Karzai government.
3. Will the Afghan armed forces and the national police be ready to take over security once most foreign troops leave?
4. Will Western countries continue to provide the funding needed after 2014 to assure that the both the armed forces and the development projects that are so essential have the funding they need?
I could write more, but then I might give you the impression that I am some sort of expert on Afghanistan. With only six days in the country, nothing could be farther from the truth. I hope I have given you a little glimpse into this fascinating country whose future we in the US have become inextricably linked to – for both good and ill.
NOTE: I thought some who are reading this might find it helpful to have a brief overview of recent Afghan history since it can get kind of confusing.
• 1960’s and 70’s – an era of relative peace in the country with moves toward modernization and a constitutional democracy.
• 1978 – revolt overthrows the government and establishes a Marxist government, which leads to a counter rebellion, which threatens to turn into all out civil war.
• 1979 – Soviets invade Afghanistan to “restore order” and install a new regime
• 1979-1989 – Soviet occupation and the anti-Soviet jihad led by the mujaheddin. Foreign fighters from across the Muslim world, including Osama bin Laden, came and fought with the mujaheddin. US aid to the mujaheddin, especially in the form of Stinger missiles, played an important part in the Soviets eventually withdrawing.
• 1992-1996 – Once the Soviets withdrew, the US also lost interest and the infighting among the mujaheddin eventually led to civil war that included Kabul being destroyed by rocket attacks and shelling.
• 1996-2001 – The Taliban seize control with the promise of security and stability in a war weary country. They impose a strict fundamentalist Islamic rule.
• 2001 – present – After 9/11, the US invades Afghanistan and ousts the Taliban. Karzai becomes president and the Taliban, with significant help from Pakistan, regroup and begin an insurgency to drive out foreign troops.