Waiting for a New Day
Scenes from Afghan life in wartimeChildren dance on a flooded bank of the Kabul River, which is dry for most of theyear.
in december 2001, when the US-led coalition overthrew the Taliban, Afghans were promised a new Afghanistan. What they got instead was the Afghanistan that gave rise to the Taliban in the first place, including the same cast of characters that held power in the mid-’90s, warlords whose clashes destroyed giant swaths of Kabul and killed 50,000 Afghans in that city alone. Corrupt police, government officials, and politicians stole with impunity. Everyone carried a gun. Then, as now, lawlessness reigned.
Mistakes were made from the outset of the occupation. The United Nations chose a weak ethnic Pashtun, Hamid Karzai, to head the post-Taliban government, because he had no blood on his hands and no private army. But it also supported representatives of the Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazara, notably Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, whose men raped, scalped, and murdered women during his previous stint in power. He and another warlord facilitated Osama bin Laden’s move to Afghanistan from Sudan; now, fighting with the Northern Alliance against the Taliban, he was suddenly the world’s new best friend.
The warlords were supposed to disarm and play nice. Instead, they set about harassing the Pashtuns, the backbone of the Taliban, even though most foot soldiers had returned to their homes following the regime’s collapse to wait for a new day of peace and prosperity. When 2,200 Pashtuns arrived in Qalat, the capital of Zabul province, the hostility they encountered sent most running for the hills to join — or rejoin — the Taliban. Within two years of the coalition invasion, the insurgency flourished once again.
By 2006, Canada and Britain were sending troops into southern Afghanistan in significant numbers. At the time of deployment, the British defence secretary naively suggested they might get away without firing a shot. As it turned out, 123 of his countrymen — and 116 Canadian soldiers — have been killed in the line of duty. Meanwhile, the UN reports that 2,118 Afghan civilians died last year, up 30 percent over 2007, more than 800 of them killed by NATO and other pro-government forces.
But the death toll alone fails to reflect the war’s impact on ordinary Afghans. There’s a neighbourhood in Kabul called Sherpur, which was home for decades to some of the city’s poorest inhabitants. After the new regime came to power, its leaders — warlords-cum-government ministers, police chiefs — kicked them out and replaced their mudbrick huts with multi-storey mansions hidden behind three-metre-high gilded gates. Instead of expressing outrage, the international aid community took up residence, leaving the locals to join the thousands of Afghan refugees living in temporary shelter.
Cockfighting and kite flying, amusements frowned upon by the Taliban militia, are enjoying renewed popularity, but they’re only distractions from the country’s grim new reality. As many as 18 million Afghans live on less than $2.50 a day. Every morning, several hundred men crowd into Chawk Kota Sangi Square in the west of Kabul, hoping to be among the lucky ones selected for a day’s hard labour. Amid the ruins of the old city, the unlucky ones smoke opium from rust-coloured pipes. Afghanistan produces the world’s largest opium harvest, and almost a million Afghans now use the drug and its derivatives.
While children work street corners, veiled women squat on busy roadways, their hands outstretched for money. According to the UN, Afghanistan remains one of the most dangerous countries for women in childbirth, and one in four Afghan children under the age of five dies from preventable illness — that’s 600 every day. Clean water is scarce and health care overtaxed. Kabul has only one children’s hospital to speak of, and it operates with broken-down incubators and an inadequate supply of pharmaceuticals.
Not surprisingly, most Afghans now see soldiers from abroad as part of the problem. They do not believe that the hunt for Taliban and al Qaeda members justifies propping up a corrupt government, killing innocent civilians, and arresting hundreds of Afghan men without informing their families or laying charges. Eight years into deliverance, with billions spent in development initiatives, they wonder why their survival has only become more uncertain.