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 reports, VOA’s Ed Warner contrasts Kabul today with the city he visited three years ago.
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: “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.”
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: “Women in burkas existed in Afghanistan before the Taleban, before September 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.”
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:
“The West needs to understand that not everyone is on the same timeline as the West,” says Mr. Shansab. “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?”
The main Taleban entertainment was the weekly execution or mutilation in the Kabul amphitheater. On one occasion three years ago, a large crowd had gathered – 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 human blood is shed in the amphitheater, as a frequent spectator explains: “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.”
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 zookeeper laments the loss: “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.”
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: “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.”
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: “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.”
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: “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.”
But Horess Shansab says most Afghans fear a premature American departure: “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 and rebuilding.”
In fact, says Mr. Shansab, the most important U.S. mission is to give Afghans hope and confidence for their future.