The Other Front [Afghanistan]
by Sarah Chayes
Nurallah strode into our workshop shaking
with rage. His mood shattered ours. "This is no government,"
he stormed. "The police are like animals."
The story gushed out of him: There'd been
a fender-bender in the Kandahar bazaar, a taxi and a bicycle among
wooden-wheeled vegetable carts. Wrenching around to avoid the
knot, another cart touched one of the green open-backed trucks
the police drive. In seconds, the officers were dragging the man
to the chalky dust, beating him -- blow after blow to the head,
neck, hips, kidneys. Shopkeepers in the nearby stalls began shouting,
"What do you want to do, kill him?" The police slung
the man into the back of their truck and roared away.
"So he made a mistake," concluded
Nurallah, one of the 13 Afghan men and women who make up my cooperative.
"We don't have a traffic court? They had to beat him?"
In the seven years I've lived in this
stronghold of the Afghan south -- the erstwhile capital of the
Taliban and the focus of their renewed assault on the country
-- most of my conversations with locals about what's going wrong
have centered on corruption and abuse of power. "More than
roads, more than schools or wells or electricity, we need good
governance," said Nurallah during yet another discussion
a couple of weeks ago.
He had put his finger on the heart of
the problem. We and our friends in Kandahar are thunderstruck
at recent suggestions that the solution to the hair-raising situation
in this country must include a political settlement with "relevant
parties" -- read, the Taliban. Negotiating with them wouldn't
solve Afghanistan's problems; it would only exacerbate them. Ask
any Afghan what's really needed, what would render the Taliban
irrelevant, and they'll tell you: improving the behavior of the
officials whom the United States and its allies ushered into power
after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
I write this by flickering light, a fat
candle at my right elbow and a kerosene lamp on my left. We get
only three or four hours of electricity every couple of days,
often from 1 to 5 a.m. Still, the bill has to be paid. To do that,
you must wait in a total of eight lines in two different buildings.
You almost never get through the whole process without hearing
an uncouth bark as your turn comes up: "This desk is closing;
come back tomorrow." Due to the electricity shortage, the
power department won't open new accounts. Officially. But for
$600 -- 15 times the normal fee and a fortune to Afghans -- you
can get a meter installed anyway.
A friend recently visited the jail in
Urozgan Province, north of Kandahar, where he found 54 prisoners.
All but six were untried and uncharged and had been languishing
there for months or years. A Kandahar public prosecutor told him
how a defendant had once offered him the key to a Lexus if he
would just refrain from interfering in a case the man had fixed.
Across the street from my cooperative
there used to be a medical clinic. When it moved to a new facility,
gunmen in police uniforms set up a checkpoint outside the empty
building. Our inquiries revealed that they were the private guards
of a senior government official. Their purpose? To serve as a
graphic warning to the building's owners not to interfere in what
would follow. A few days later, some friends of the official's
moved in. The owners had no say in the matter, no recourse. This
government official is one of the men the United States helped
put in power in 2001 and whom the international community has
maintained and supported, no questions asked, ever since.
This is why the Taliban are making headway
in Afghanistan -- not because anyone loves them, even here in
their former heartland, or longs for a return to their punishing
rule. I arrived in Kandahar in December 2001, just days after
Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar was chased out. After a moment
of holding its breath, the city erupted in joy. Kites danced on
the air for the first time in six years. Buyers flocked to stalls
selling music cassettes. I listened to opium dealers discuss which
of them would donate the roof of his house for use as a neighborhood
school. I, a barefaced American woman, encountered no hostility
at all. Curiosity, plenty. But no hostility. Enthusiasm for the
nascent government of Hamid Karzai and its international backers
was absolutely universal.
Since then, the hopes expressed by every
Afghan I have encountered -- to be ruled by a responsive and respectful
government run by educated people -- have been dashed. Now, Afghans
are suffering so acutely that they hardly feel the difference
between Taliban depredations and those of their own government.
"We're like a man trying to stand on two watermelons,"
one of the women in my cooperative complains. "The Taliban
shake us down at night, and the government shakes us down in the
I hear from Westerners that corruption
is intrinsic to Afghan culture, that we should not hold Afghans
up to our standards. I hear that Afghanistan is a tribal place,
that it has never been, and can't be, governed.
But that's not what I hear from Afghans.
Afghans remember the reign in the 1960s
and '70s of King Zahir Shah and his cousin Daoud Khan, when Afghan
cities were among the most developed and cosmopolitan in the Muslim
world, when Peace Corps volunteers conducted vaccination campaigns
on foot through a welcoming countryside, and when, my friends
here tell me, a lone, unarmed policeman could detain a criminal
suspect in a far-flung village without obstruction. Kandaharis
-- even those who lost a brother or father in the 1980s war against
Soviet occupation -- praise the communist-backed government of
former president Najibullah. "His officials weren't building
marble-clad mansions with the money they extorted," says
Fayzullah, another member of my cooperative.
One day I asked three of my colleagues
-- villagers with almost no formal education -- what jobs they
would choose if we were the municipal government of Kandahar.
They spoke right up. "I would want to be in charge of public
hygiene," said Karim. "The garbage piling up on our
streets is a disgusting health hazard." Abd al-Ahad wanted
to be the registrar of public deeds, "so the big people can't
just take land and pass it out to their cronies." Nurallah
wanted to be the equivalent of the FDA: the man responsible for
weights and measures and the quality of merchandise in the bazaar.
After the Soviet invasion, which cost
a million Afghan lives over the course of the 1980s, followed
by five years of gut-wrenching civil war and another six of rule
by the Taliban, who twisted religious injunctions into instruments
of social control, Afghans looked to the United States -- a nation
famous for its rule of law -- to help them build a responsive,
Instead, we gave power back to corrupt
gunslingers who had been repudiated years before. If they helped
us chase al-Qaeda, we didn't look too hard at their governing
style. Often we helped them monopolize the new opportunities for
gain. A friend of mine, one of the beneficiaries, was astounded
at the blank check. "What are we warlords doing still in
power?" police precinct captain Mahmad Anwar asked me in
2002. "I vowed on the Holy Koran that I would fight the Taliban
in order to bring an educated, competent government to Afghanistan.
And now people like me are running the place?" I had to laugh
at his candor.
Into the context of the white-hot frustration
that has been building since then, insert the Taliban. Since 2001,
they have been armed, financed, trained and coordinated in Pakistan,
whose military intelligence agency -- the ISI -- first helped
create them in 1994.
What I've witnessed in Kandahar since
late 2002 has amounted to an invasion by proxy, with the Pakistani
military once again using the Taliban to gain a foothold in Afghanistan.
The only reason this invasion has made progress is the appalling
behavior of Afghan officials. Why would anyone defend officials
who pillage them? If the Taliban gouge out the eyes of people
they accuse of colluding with the Afghan government, as they did
recently in Kandahar, while the government treats those same citizens
like rubbish, why should anyone take the risk that allegiance
to Kabul entails?
More and more Kandaharis are not. More
and more are severing contact with the Karzai regime and all it
stands for, rejecting even development assistance. When Taliban
thugs come to their mosques demanding money or food, they pay
up. Many actively collaborate, as a means of protest.
The solution to this problem is not to
bring the perpetrators of the daily horrors we suffer in Kandahar
to the table to carve up the Afghan pie. (For no matter how we
package the idea of negotiating with the Taliban, that's what
Afghans are sure it will amount to: cutting a power-sharing deal.)
The solution is to call to account the
officials we installed here beginning in 2001 -- to reach beyond
the power brokers to ordinary Afghan citizens and give their grievances
a fair hearing. If the complaints prove to be well founded, Western
officials should press for redress, using some of their enormous
leverage. The successful mentoring program under which military
personnel work side-by-side with Afghan National Army officers
should be expanded to the civilian administration. Western governments
should send experienced former mayors, district commissioners
and water and health department officials to mentor Afghans in
If the United States and its allies had
fulfilled their initial promise and pushed the Afghan government
to become an institution its people could be proud of, the "reconcilable"
Taliban would come into the fold of their own accord. The Afghans
would take care of the rest.
Sarah Chayes, the author of "The
Punishment of Virtue: Inside Afghanistan After the Taliban,"
runs an Afghan cooperative that produces skin-care products.