Guest Writings
14/02/04 Tomgram: Jon Else on America’s Afghanistan

John Else…..TomDispatch February 14, 2004

John Else…..TomDispatch February 14, 2004

At this point, Afghanistan is certainly the forgotten war and the forgotten “nation-building” project. As Ahmed Rashid, superb reporter and author of the authoritative book Taliban, has written recently in the New York Review of Books, there’s a reason why. Most of the country remains a failing non-state. Rashid recently went back to Afghanistan, essentially to retrace a trip he took in 1994-95 when he first covered the Taliban, a bizarre movement largely created by the Pakistani intelligence services and jihadis whose oppressive version of “Islam” bore little relation to anything Afghans had ever known. As he comments (The Mess in Afghanistan):

“Nearly a decade later, this past autumn, I made the same journey again. What I saw was history repeating itself -in some respects in ways that were worse than before. ‘The Taliban are gathering again in the same places from where they started, it’s like a rerun of an old movie,’ says Ahmed Wali Karzai, the President’s brother∑ Taliban fighters, I was told, are better equipped than they were in 1994. They are buying Thuraya satellite telephones and hundreds of Honda motorbikes to carry out guerrilla raids; they are also importing night-vision equipment from the Arab Gulf states.”

There are still 11,000 American troops in the country planning a “spring offensive” against the resurgent Taliban, as the Taliban are planning a “spring offensive” against them and their Afghan allies, not to speak of any foreign or Afghan workers for NGOs or the UN. In the meantime, much of the country has fallen prey to warlordism — some of the warlords being CIA-funded — and its major product is opium, grown (as Rashid tells us) in more provinces today than in 1994.

According to Ben Russell of the British Independent, “The United Nations warned last year that opium production was spreading like a cancer in Afghanistan, with the country producing three quarters of the world’s illicit opium, from which heroin is made. The UN estimates that two thirds of all opiate users [world-wide] take drugs of Afghan origin.” And this year’s crop is supposed to be larger still.

The new national government, as Jon Else points out below, controls Kabul — with the help of a NATO force of 5,000-plus soldiers — but not much beyond it. According to Rashid (whose full article shouldn’t be missed), the Bush administration has resisted any significant expansion of the NATO force into other areas of the country and “as in Iraq∑ is extremely reluctant to admit its mistakes or rectify them publicly or even make reliable information available.” The result is that Afghanistan, “the largest and most tragic victim of terrorism, is not being rebuilt.”

Kabul is a more hopeful story and at least gives a hint of what might still be possible elsewhere in the country. Else, a wonderful documentary filmmaker, has just returned from filming the recent energetic Loya Jirga called to debate and endorse the country’s new constitution. Here is his striking account of America’s Afghanistan – his trip to the U.S. embassy in Kabul. Tom

Kabul by Submarine

Flying into Kabul from the north in winter is eerily like flying into Las Vegas — the high desert, rimmed by mountains, is grey and ragged, the far-off city veiled in brown haze. Among journalists and NGOs, the folklore about what to look for on the approach is well known: Descending through 2,000 feet, over the rubble of the western suburbs, you can pick out along the side of the runway the blown up carcasses of airliners. As the plane touches down, it’s clear that they are mostly old Soviet Tupolevs — like the one we are sitting in — Ariana Afghan Airlines planes with their wings or tails shot off. Some are rolled belly-up next to burned-out armored personnel carriers and parts of a Soviet fighter jet. This is the bone yard of Afghanistan’s recent history.

We are headed for the American Embassy to interview the ambassador for a documentary film about Afghanistan’s new constitution. Driving away from the terminal, we pass under an incongruous Russian jet fighter in mint condition, mounted at a 45 degree angle over the broad boulevard as though flash-frozen at the moment of take off, rearing up over the bicycle repair stalls and little open-air butcher shops. The jet, abandoned by the Russians 15 years ago when they airlifted the last of their embassy staff out of this airport, looks like a stuffed and mounted trophy, a feat of aluminum taxidermy.

Kabul today is alive with purpose. Every morning two million Kabulis hop out of bed and hustle off to rebuild their country, to construct some as yet uninvented and unborn new Afghanistan from the ashes of brutal Soviet occupation, civil war, the Taliban’s medieval experiment in religious governance, and the American war. With help from NATO, the UN, and the U.S., this war-weary capital is lurching through its heady and dangerous first weeks of becoming an Islamic constitutional democracy, trying to embrace the Prophet Muhammed on one side and Thomas Jefferson on the other.

We wind though the noisy, exuberant city, teeming with guns and bourkas. The infrastructure is still ravaged. There is little reliable electricity, water, sewage disposal, gas, or garbage collection. Kabul feels like a huge, dusty campground version of New Orleans. At night, in the swirl of smoke from a hundred Kebab stands and 10,000 little generators, it looks like Blade Runner on happy pills.

Past the rug shops on Chicken Street, and the flower stands on Flower Street, past the FedEx office and the Emergency Hospital for Victims of War, past the spot where the Taliban hung President Najibullah’s bludgeoned, bullet-ridden, and castrated body from a traffic control tower in ‘96, we arrive at the first checkpoint on the way to the American embassy. This unmarked frontier is patrolled by heavily armed Afghan soldiers and police. The sandbagged checkpoint sits behind razor wire and chicanes at the desolate edge of what appears to have once been a good-sized city park, now brown and dusty. Still several hundred yards from the embassy, we are now in the Dead Zone, silent and colorless, negotiating one guard post after another, driving slowly past blast-deflecting gravel piles as we approach. There is no big bronze plaque outside announcing “The Embassy of The United States of America,” but in the last 50 yards along the concrete wall leading to the main gate, there are signs in English and Dari every few yards reading “No Stopping.” Last May in a chaotic five-minute firefight, American soldiers dug in behind this wall shot to death three soldiers of the new Afghan army who had mistakenly stopped their vehicle across the street and stepped out carrying weapons.

Finally, after the friendly and talkative Marines body search us, Rocky the K-9 sniff-searches our van, and another Marine checks the undercarriage for explosives, we surrender our passports to a chipper young corporal from Georgia at the last gate. This portal is, in fact, a bunker: 10,000 pounds of concrete, gravel, and timber from which the soldier peers, flanked above and behind by sandbagged machine-gun emplacements, the final entryway into America’s diplomatic compound. A sentry draws back the accordion tire-spikes, and we enter the grounds, past a roaring 30,000 watt diesel generator which produces the only completely reliable electricity in this neighborhood.

Inside, the Kabul embassy building is unglamorous and cramped like an oversized old concrete submarine. It is high on the State Department’s list of dangerous and “most extreme hardship posts.” The staff doesn’t get out much, and almost never without an armed escort. And who can blame them? Last summer, two Americans from the embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan died in a grenade attack during Sunday morning church services just beyond the embassy wall. Americans you meet in Kabul all seem to describe our embassy as some variant of “the saddest place in town,” but it will have to do until the new Embassy now under construction is finished.

Outside, in front of the forlorn building, on what once was a lawn, are a dozen gleaming-white steel shipping containers. It is in these windowless, 8-foot by 17-foot, shrapnel-proof ConEx boxes lined up in the inner circle of the inner circle of the American diplomatic hamlet, that the embassy staff spend their nights. Here, at the center of an eighth of a mile of concentric fortifications, the American Ambassador sleeps in his own private shipping container.

Ambassador Khalilzad is, as it turns out, very smart and rather candid, an enthusiastic and inquisitive diplomat apparently eager to engage the world. It seems like madness, his enforced isolation from the streets of Kabul, from those two million equally eager, enthusiastic, and hopeful people who live and work just beyond the outermost checkpoint. But who can blame the Ambassador? Someone lobbed three rockets into Kabul just the night before we met him. Al-Qaeda made mincemeat of our soft embassies in Africa and someone has more than once tried to blow up our Baghdad embassy. If he were living in a welcoming 1960s-style embassy, or in a guest house like the rest of us, he would probably be dead.

The central government has only marginal control outside the capital, and a guerrilla war simmers in the south, but Kabul is fairly safe as Afghan cities go. Certainly, it is no Baghdad. But this is still the Baghdad “Green Zone” problem, even if writ small. At least here, the US has linked arms with NATO and the UN. By all accounts many Afghans are happy to have American personnel in their country. But while American journalists, NGOs, contractors, and even a few loony tourists walk the streets in relative safety, the embassy staff can realistically do little but retreat into the fortress, into the big tin can, isolated from the pulse and life of everyday Afghanistan. Security trumps everything. Mao Zedong said his guerrillas should swim “like fish among the population.” In some sad and desolate sense, our diplomats in Kabul have been forced by the lingering combined might of al-Qaeda, the Taliban, various Afghan warlords, and persons unknown to move among the population of Afghanistan in a submarine.

Jon Else is a documentary cinematographer and director whose films include Cadillac Desert, Sing Faster, and The Day After Trinity. He teaches in the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley.

Copyright C2004 Jon Else

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