Ed Warner

Veteran Journalist

Struggling Afghanistan

Posted on | April 27, 2005 | Comments Off on Struggling Afghanistan

A 3 Part Series, All Contained Here

Early reporting on the Taliban for the Voice of America

 

PART I

INTRO:  With the departure of the Taleban, Afghanistan is transformed. Freedom is on display in all kinds of ways. Yet there is an underlying fear it may not last because of the continuing warfare, factional conflicts and the uncertain behavior of foreign powers. In the first of a three-part series, VOA’s Ed Warner, who visited Kabul three years ago under Taleban rule, reports on the city today.

TEXT:  Kites banned by the Taleban are now floating over rooftops in Kabul, a conspicuous sign of the return of freedom to harshly suppressed Afghans.

And there are many other signs: women can show their faces and men can shave their beards without fear of lashing or imprisonment by the patrolling vice-virtue

squad. Music can be heard around the city, movies  viewed. Newspapers are abundant. There is a perpetual traffic jam on once deserted streets. And no more public executions or mutilations.

There is a palpable sense of relief that can be seen on countless faces. Opportunities beckon and Afghans are flocking home from abroad to seize them. Many foreigners are contributing to the new mood and the new economy of unfettered enterprise. Afghanistan is once again moving.

Still a cloud of uncertainty remains. How long can the good times last considering a fractious government whose writ does not extend much beyond Kabul and continued attacks from Taleban remnants and others who enjoy sanctuary across the border in Pakistan?

If the foreign forces, above all Americans, decide to leave, many Afghans say the feuding local commanders or warlords will once again start fighting and in the ensuing chaos, the Taleban or something much like them will return to power by promising security.

Horess Shansab is an Afghan-American film-maker in Kabul who is preparing a fictional movie of a family living through Taleban times. I am an optimist, he says, and so his film will have a happy ending with the departure of the Taleban.

He speaks for many Afghans about the future:

SHANSAB ACT

It looks to me promising, problematic, full of challenge. It is not an easy place to categorize and say it’s one or the other. There is still some instability in the south, and everyone is aware of that and worried. We are hoping that the world will remain engaged in Afghanistan, and there will be increased help and assistance because without that kind of assistance, I do not see a very rosy picture.

END ACT

Afghans must put down the gun and take up the shovel, says Safir Latifi, a Kabul businessman who has opened up an internet café aside his guest house and plans others around the country:

LATIFI ACT

Within the time of six months we will cover all major provinces of Afghanistan and we will be connecting them to the internet. The Internet is bringing unity to this country, making people talk to each other and be connected to each other, which is one of the ways we can encourage the refugees to come back to the country.

END ACT

Nothing is more important, says Mr. Latifi, than to revive the country with projects that can be seen and admired and that will provide jobs – roads, bridges, schools, housing. He thinks that is the best way of countering the armed rebellion that feeds on weakness and despair.

But Mr. Latifi, among many others, says reconstruction is going much too slowly. Above all, the crucial road linking Kabul to Kandahar in the unstable south is only now nearing completion and its surface is temporary and not expected to last.

Mr. Latifi says this is all too typical of the reconstruction effort:

LATIFI ACT

Unfortunately, the world community and especially the United Nations have not been very helpful. The U-N is a big bureaucracy in Afghanistan. This is a U-N sponsored government. Afghanistan is a test field for the future of the United Nations. So the U-N has to be very successful in Afghanistan.

END ACT 

Extremism is gone, say Afghans, to be replaced by bureaucracy. The Taleban wasted no time punishing people who ignored, say, the nightly 10 o’clock curfew. Their successors can take hours to process by hand the simplest forms.

That is no recipe for progress, contends Mr. Latifi:

LATIFI ACT

In Afghanistan we have to have rapid changes. We have to have decision making on a daily basis. We have to take a decision, execute a plan and then go and start it. We cannot wait for a project to be decided for one month, to be decided for three months, to be sent for approval to New York and then be started after two years. After two years, the need for that project will not be there.

END ACT 

But if officialdom is plodding, private help is on the move, says George Nez, an American city planner who has worked in 19 developing countries. He marvels at the number of people in non-governmental organizations who have come to help Afghanistan rebuild:

NEZ ACT

There are over 200 NGO’s from all quarters of the world who are really stitching together Afghanistan. The NGO’s are like a big pyramid of smaller and larger units that contract with each other. The bigger ones contract with the smaller ones. That number astounded me when I got there. There are so many that are actually rebuilding in patches.

END ACT

Mr. Nez says the NGO’s are reinforcing the ill-equipped Afghan government ministries whose budgets do not compare with the funds coming from abroad.

His own specialty is roofing, the casualty of war, earthquakes and old age. He worked for three months this past summer in Wardak province, where there are frequent armed clashes.

People close to him say he was undeterred, just the kind of committed, skilled foreigner Afghanistan needs. He made tools of the weaponry shells littering the area, and he says his Afghan hosts looked out for him:

NEZ ACT

They took such care of me. I was practically locked in every night. They had a kalashnikov in every corner. They had dogs that kept me awake barking all night. Too much protection, and a lot of hospitality. Those people are so appreciative of somebody helping them.

END ACT

George Nez looks forward to seeing roofing on the large area of Kabul that was destroyed by the warlords’ fighting in the 1990’s. He says the work force is in place – Afghans who have returned from abroad and cannot afford Kabul’s sky-rocketing housing prices. So they settle for the remains of houses:

NEZ ACT

They are swarming into the slums, into the devastated war-torn parts of Kabul, for instance. They are just putting some canvas on the broken walls, even several stories up on those devastated buildings. They are building shops on the first floors, and if there is an earthquake – too bad. That is where they are absorbing the population right now. Whoever can afford to start rebuilding is doing it.

END ACT 

Much, much more remains to be done in Kabul and elsewhere. There is no city water or sewage system. People must often walk a considerable distance to fill their buckets from wells perilously close to sewage dumps. In the case of Afghans living in the huts that barely emerge from the barren mountainsides, the trip is steep and tiring.

More progress could be made, says Mr. Nez, if half the work force were not idle. The Taleban are gone, but women are treated much the same, especially in the countryside:

NEZ ACT

Women are not educated, not working in the economy, not running the schools, not running the hospitals, not running the stores, the banks – nothing. It is a country without female brains, skills. This will come, though. The school we are building is essentially for girls, and many of the other NGO’s are heading the same way – trying to educate the women.

END ACT

But as Jila Samee points out, the men will have to be educated first. Director of media relations at the Foreign Affairs ministry, she says the men must learn that bringing women into the work force is not just good for women but for Afghanistan, one of the world’s poorest countries.  

 

PART II

INTRO: With the fall of the Taleban, dramatic change came to Kabul, though certain influences linger on. If the Taleban are gone, they are by no means forgotten. In the second of three scripts, VOA’s Ed Warner contrasts Kabul today with the city he visited three years ago.

TEXT:  The Taleban were extreme, says film-maker Horess Shansab, but explainable. Indoctrinated in the  teeming refugee camps of Pakistan, they promised to bring order, however harsh, to chaotic Afghanistan and end the warlords’ destructive fighting:

SHANSAB ACT

People were longing for safety on the street, for a basic level of security, and the Taleban provided that. Of course, they imprisoned the whole population. There is no better security than in a prison, and that is what they did.

END ACT

Guarding that prison was the notorious ministry for the Prevention of Vice and the Promotion of Virtue. Its patrols scoured the streets for offenders with incorrect beards or any sign of female flesh. Even women’s eyes had to be screened, leading to an unsteady gait. They seemed to be tottering rather than walking down the street.

Punishment was swift and harsh – a lashing, a beating, perhaps imprisonment. It turned out to be dangerous even to report on the ministry, as I discovered. On my earlier trip, my interpreter and I managed to interview its deputy director whom we overheard phoning another mullah. He had just opened an ice cream store, and while the women customers were duly segregated from the men, there was a problem. The women had to lift their veils and expose their faces to eat the ice cream – a clear violation. This matter was discussed at some length until the minister finally relented – perhaps due to our presence – and made an exception of the ice cream store.

The VOA report of this incident infuriated the Taleban who denounced my interpreter as an informer and subsequently jailed him briefly for a different offense. Another reporter who related the episode was threatened with death. It was one thing to criticize the Taleban apparently; it was quite another to make light of them.

Today the Vice-Virtue department has been turned into the General Statistic Office, but the Taleban influence may still linger. We found no one willing to talk about working in that illustrious precinct. Who knows? The Taleban might some day return and resent any disparaging remarks.

Afghans say this partly explains why many women continue to wear the full covering of burkas. Add to that the taunts of men when they see an exposed face and also the force of tradition.

Film-maker Horess Shansab says the Taleban are not entirely to blame:

SHANSAB ACT

Women in burkas existed in Afghanistan before the Taleban, before 9/11. It is a very traditional, tribal society, and in certain parts of the country, burkas were normal. It will take time for education to take hold, for people to slowly change. It will not happen over night. You will not see women in short dresses in Afghanistan any time soon.

END ACT

Mr. Shansab adds that westerners should not press too hard for rapid change. Afghanistan has to take its  time. This he learned when he tried to convince a 35-year old man in the countryside not to keep having children. How could he make a decent life for them all? But I need them to provide for my old age, the man replied. They are his social security:

SHANSAB ACT

The west needs to understand that not everyone is on the same timeline as the west. If it does not, if it fails to understand that, it will only create resentment, ill will and mistrust. I have traveled in parts of Afghanistan where I feel time has stood still. How can I try to force upon the inhabitants of that village views that have evolved in the last two thousand years?

END ACT

The main Taleban entertainment was the weekly execution or mutilation in the Kabul amphitheater. A large crowd had gathered on this occasion – women at a distance. Enthusiastic Afghans urged us forward: “See! See!” they shouted. We saw – two hanged men with bills stuffed into their mouths and ears, signifying their crimes involved money.

Today no blood is shed in the amphitheater, as a frequent spectator explains:

AMPHITHEATER ACT – fade from Dari to English

They cut off the hands of criminals and executed them. Whether it was right or wrong, they did it. Now it is different. Games take place here, including buzkashi, in which teams on horseback try to push the carcass of a goat or a calf through the goal.

END ACT

A portrait of Afghan President Hamid Karzai gazes  benignly down on the proceedings.

Many more animals are now on display at the once threadbare Kabul zoo, but the chief attraction is missing. The majestic blind lion Marjan, who like Afghans had survived shot and shell over the years, died soon after the U-S liberation. His passing was mourned by many Afghans who attended his burial.

A zoo-keeper laments the loss:

ZOOKEEPER ACT – fade from Dari to English

The lion was sick for a long time, and two veterinarians came from England and America, but we were unable to save him. So we buried him in the graveyard for animals. China replaced Marjan with a pair of lions and other animals.

END ACT 

Landmines are not as prevalent as they once were but still claim lives and limbs in Kabul. Some areas of danger are fenced off, but not all. A man on the outskirts of the city says he lost a leg when he stepped on a mine:

LANDMINE ACT – fade from Dari to English

My life is very sad. Before when I had all my body, I was active and could do whatever I wanted. But now that I am disabled I cannot do the work I used to do. I do not get enough money from the government to live on. There was no work during the Taleban rule, but now people who are able to work can.

END ACT

Under the stress of war and deprivation, Afghans have sought refuge in their ethnicity, which leads to tensions.

Horess Shansab recently visited an orphanage in Kabul to do some filming:

SHANSAB ACT

I was greeted warmly at the door by the kids, mostly boys, ages about eight to 12 years old. And when I went further into the orphanage, the first thing they asked me was I a Tajik or a Pashtun? And that, of course, was a very scary moment for me because they are the future of Afghanistan, and one has to pay great attention to how they see themselves, how they see others in Afghanistan.

END ACT

He replied we are all Afghans, but he is not sure the message got across.

Some visitors to Afghanistan say they detect a growing animosity toward foreigners. A Muslim from Sierre Leone says you can tell they don’t like us by the way they look at us. Maybe, but looks can be deceiving.

A proud Afghan, especially if he is an official, can appear imperious at first as if he may be facing combat. But with a little patience he soon relaxes and out come tea and geniality.

Some Afghans resent Americans and want them to leave such as noted scholar Abdul Shakoor Rishad:

RISHAD ACT – fade from Pashto to English

In Afghanistan, as we see it, there is no security, no central government. America has revived the old colonial policy and has not brought peace to Afghanistan. Americans deal with Afghans hostile to the national interest of Afghanistan. They must review their Afghan policy.

END ACT

But Horess Shansab says most Afghans fear a premature American departure:

SHANSAB ACT

They realize that without the Americans, there would be bloodshed on the streets within 48 hours. There would be war. So the American presence is very critical in Afghanistan – not only American military presence but American assistance with reconstruction, rebuilding.

END ACT

In fact, says Mr. Shansab, the most important U-S mission is to give Afghans hope and confidence for their future. 

 

PART III

INTRO: Although the Taleban are removed from power, they continue to fight the government that replaced them. They are abetted by Pakistani sympathizers, and other foreign countries also complicate life for Afghans and undermine their efforts to achieve a viable peace. In the last of a three-part series, VOA’s Ed Warner describes the outside pressures on a divided Afghanistan and its response.

TEXT: Overthrowing the Taleban has brought freedom to Afghanistan but a shaky government. A new constitution is being written and elections are scheduled for next year, but underlying forces are shaping events.

Basically, the same groups that fought one another after the Soviet withdrawal and in the process destroyed much of Kabul, are back in power. It is said that only the international presence keeps them at peace and barely that, since fighting recently broke out between two warlords in the north.

There are now plans to expand the international force under NATO to other parts of Afghanistan, which urgently need more security.

Interior Minister Ali Jalali, a former top official at the Voice of America, is in charge of the nation’s police, some 100 thousand who are not altogether reliable. Mr. Jalali recently broke up a band of robbers in Kabul who were in police uniforms with police vehicles.

He says there are three basic threats to Afghanistan which are intertwined: terrorist attacks from tribal bases in Pakistan, a soaring drug traffic that was partly suppressed by the Taleban and factional fighting among Afghan warlords.

These threats, he says, reflect not so much the strength of the dissidents but the weakness of the Afghan government:

JALALI ACT

National institutions are now not matured. Some are not there. We have to build state and national institutions that will replace influence by individuals. Unfortunately, in many areas, things are influenced by powerful individuals. So therefore, until we build our state and national institutions, we will have these problems of turf fighting, fight over territory, fight over influence in different areas. These will have to be dealt with very cautiously, and we cannot change things overnight.

END ACT

Pressing for change, Mr. Jalali has earned a reputation as the government’s most active minister. He is gradually replacing uncooperative local officials, most recently in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, scene of clashes between rival warlords. President Karzai is regarded as well meaning but slow moving, while some ministers are charged with corruption.

Afghans say if Mr. Jalali chooses to run for president, he could win. But he is not sure he wants to. He is busy enough in his present job, receiving calls night and day from the provinces. Because of the work load and security concerns, he rarely gets to   restaurants or ceremonial functions and travels in an armed convoy even to the nearby presidential palace.

He says what makes his job tougher is foreign interference, in particular the zealots who come out of schools or madrassas in Pakistan determined to kill Americans and Afghans working with them. Many of these jihadists fight in Kashmir as well as in Afghanistan, crossing porous borders with little trouble.

Scholar Abdul Shakoor Rishad agrees that enemies from outside are his country’s main problem:

RISHAD ACT – fade from Dari to English

If there were no foreign interference, if there were no encouragement of those working against the Afghan national interest, Afghans have the capacity to solve their own problems themselves. Foreign countries control various groups within Afghanistan. If these ties can be cut, there will be national unity in  Afghanistan.

END ACT

Abdul Kaliq Fazil, a leader of a newly formed political party, the National Unity Movement of Afghanistan, says outside forces could be countered by the revival of monarchy, a rallying point for all Afghans:

FAZIL ACT

Our royal family is a symbol of national unity. They are able to bring Tajiks, Uzbeks, north, south, west all together and create a nation because Afghanistan was a nation. But during the war because of the interference of neighboring countries, this national unity was destroyed. Now we want to rebuild our national unity.

END ACT

But King Zahir Shah, now approaching ninety, is largely symbol, remembered fondly by many Afghans for presiding over years of relative peace from 1933 to 1973.

While Pakistan is a major concern for Afghans, they do not overlook Russia and the brutal Soviet occupation that led to so many of the current troubles.

At a recent hearing of a Kabul human rights commission, director Lal Gul described the plight of young Afghans who were sent to the Soviet Union -sometimes with their parents’ permission, sometimes  not – to be educated free of charge. With the Soviet collapse, they were abandoned and left to their fate.

Mr. Gul says they were often exploited, beaten, jailed:

GUL ACT – fade from Pashto to English

The history of Afghanistan is full of pain. One major painful story is the fate of thousands of children – boys and girls – who were sent to the Soviet Union during the invasion of Afghanistan. We want the leaders of Afghanistan and the world to hear their voices.

END ACT 

Several women attended the hearing whose children are missing somewhere in Russia. One woman said it is 23 years since she has heard from her son.

MOTHER’S ACT – fade from Dari to English

I do not where he is. I do not have a telephone number or an address. My son was in second grade when I took him to the orphanage because I could not take care of him. From there they sent him to the Soviet Union. I want the Afghan government or the United Nations to bring him to me, dead or alive. I want to know what happened.

END ACT

How to free Afghanistan from foreign involvement? One notion is to put the government in contact with all Afghan elements, good or bad, including the Taleban and urge them to give up fighting and come home again.

With this apparently in mind, former Taleban foreign minister Mullah Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil has been released from U-S custody and according to reports, is opening negotiations with other Taleban who are considered to be moderate. That could eventually lead to Taleban participation in the Afghan government and hopefully end or at least reduce the fighting.

Wadir Safi, a law professor at Kabul University, says by shedding foreign connections, a genuine Afghanistan can emerge:

SAFI ACT

Unfortunately, leaders, parties, members do not have fully the Afghan character, and they cannot transfer it to the Afghan new generation because they have been in Pakistan, in Iran, in other countries. Now they are not even themselves aware of the pure Afghan character. Unfortunately, we have lost our Afghani values here.

END ACT

Easier said than done to recover these values, says Jila Samee, media director at the Foreign Affairs ministry. The long years of war have taken their toll. She finds Afghans have trouble concentrating, as if they are bracing for the next burst of gunfire. Being on edge leads to distraction.

Though venturing outside more than before and filling jobs in government offices, women, she says, still tend to walk with heads bowed as if they are unsure of their status and wary of the future. Emotional problems, suppressed during wartime, seem to be surfacing in a period of relative calm.

There is an authentic Afghanistan, says Interior Minister Ali Jalali. It will surmount its troubles and hold together.

JALALI ACT

Even during the civil war, you did not see even a single instance of secessionist movement. People were fighting for Kabul because they thought Kabul is the center of a country. So they wanted to have a share in the central government. Now many international organizations surveyed the country and found the overwhelming majority of the people want a strong central government.

END ACT

By way of contrast, you can leave Afghanistan for the Persian Gulf – cities of opulence sprung from the desert. And you think, if only Afghanistan had oil.

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"Master of Narrative"

~Ted Lipien


This website contains the collected works, recent articles and continuing blog posts from veteran journalist Ed Warner who has been reporting for more than 55 years. Ed wrote for Time Magazine from 1958-1982 and wrote, edited and reported for the Voice of America from 1983-2005. He continues to freelance today and his articles have appeared in The American Conservative and on AntiWar.com and other news websites. More...

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