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Kabul — running on empty

Sunday 29 April 2007, by Graham Usher

Seven years after the fall of the Taliban, Kabul is living on hope but precious little else, writes Graham Usher from the Afghan capital

Abdul-Rasoul Sayyaf’s white house rests on a hill overlooking Kabul. It is ringed with fences, guards and stone turrets, bristling with machine guns. Sayyaf was once from the mujahideen, by most accounts one of the most vicious in Afghanistan’s long civil war in the 1990s, whose men were known not only to rape women but also scalp them. He was also the commander who, in 1996, reportedly offered Osama Bin Laden haven in Afghanistan. Today Sayyaf is a member of parliament and an ally in the pro-American government of Hamid Karzai.

The enduring power of the warlords is one constant of Afghan politics. There are others.

From Pachman — Sayyaf’s ancestral village — Kabul appears idyllic. Set against the Hindu Kush range, it rises from a muddy plain surrounded by clumps of apple, mulberry and pomegranate trees. It’s only up close that you register a city ravaged by three decades of war.

In the 1970s, 700,000 lived in the Afghan capital. Today there are four million. Since the Taliban’s ouster in November 2001, the population has swelled with refugees returning from camps in Iran and Pakistan and migrants streaming in from a penurious countryside. Some, the luckier ones, live in drab Soviet-era tenements, raked by bullet holes. Others have hewn squats out of the face of the mountains. Many bed down in tents. All came to Kabul in search of jobs, peace and security. The city is buckling under the strain of dashed hope.

There are no jobs. Piped water reaches only ten per cent of the households. On any day only half the garbage is cleared, leaving Kabul wrapped in a mucous-coloured smog. Sixty kilometres of roads in the capital are beyond repair, including, inexplicably, the main drag from the airport. Electricity is intermittent.

Pushpa Pathak from Kabul municipality says he would need $3.5 billion and "ten to 15 years of peace" to render basic services to most of the people. The city budget this year is $26 million. It’s taken from an overall foreign aid package of $3 billion, much of it spent on security, including for the 37,000 NATO troops now in Afghanistan.

Few Afghans would query the allotment. "What do we need? Security, security and then better security," says Emal, a refugee recently returned from London.

2006 was Afghanistan’s deadliest year since 2001. Four thousand died, including 1,000 civilians. Of these, 700 were killed by the Taliban mostly from suicide bombs. Although NATO has managed to hold former Taliban cities like Kandahar, the Islamists are pervasive in the southern and eastern provinces. This year they are hitting the north. On 16 April a suicide bomber killed nine Afghan policemen in Kunduz, 250km northeast of Kabul. It was the first attack there in six years.

Compared to this, the capital is an oasis, absorbing on average one suicide bombing a week. But the sense of fear, of siege, is palpable. At night the streets empty like a curfew.

The Taliban’s apparently unstoppable rise hatches conspiracy theories. "How can a bunch of barefoot, impoverished Taliban tribesmen pin down the world’s mightiest armies?" asks one Afghan, who worked as a NATO translator in the south. "The answer is NATO doesn’t want to win. It wants to lose, so it can leave." Najeeb, a waiter in one of Kabul’s swankier restaurants, says the same.

"Look, everyone knows the Taliban are an operation run out of Pakistan. If the US wants to end the insurgency, all they need to do is put their hands around [Pakistani President Pervez] Musharraf’s neck. They don’t have to kill him — just choke him a little," he says, making a throttling gesture. "But they don’t. Therefore, they want the Taliban to win."

The lack of results has made the Afghans cast an increasingly jaundiced eye over a foreign occupation many once welcomed as liberation. The perception is strengthened by the behaviour of the NATO troops, especially the Americans. Last month a US military convoy was ambushed on the main Kabul road to Jalalabad. The soldiers fired back and kept firing for nearly 5km. Twelve civilians were killed, including a four-year old girl and one-year old boy. Protests erupted in Jalalabad.

Does this mean NATO should go? "No," says Najeeb, "though it’s difficult to tell sometimes whether the foreigners are here to rob us or help us". The reason is obvious. However dire the situation is in Kabul, few residents wish a return of the Taliban.

Under them, education for women was banned. Today there are dozens of girls’ schools in the city. Female students walk the lawns of Kabul University where they study, talk, relax and hang out, sometimes with men. Under the Taliban, there was no media save for that which adhered to its own pathological brand of Islam. Today there are over 100 newspapers, periodicals and radio stations and six satellite TV channels, including five independent. In a city where politicians are deemed corrupt and the police are seen as militia, the media has become the voice of Kabul civil society.

For example, last week — in true warlord fashion — Afghanistan’s new attorney- general dispatched dozens of police to the Tolo TV network to haul in a reporter who, he said, had "misquoted" him. A hundred Afghan journalists rallied to the station in Kabul in defence. The next day they were joined by others, including the Afghan disabled Olympics team. "It’s good TV. All the time they defend the rights of the people," said team captain Haji Abdul-Rahman, from his wheelchair.

But did he not support the attorney-general, the appointment of President Karzai? He laughed: "I’m not supporting anyone. I am supporting Afghans."