Friday, April 27, 2007

America 's Debt to Afghanistan


from a journal written when I spent five weeks in Kabul during the summer of 2005 consulting with an Afghan company that was developing an educational TV network

Just when I thought it can’t get any wilder, today I took a trip into one of the poorest sections of Kabul, a neighborhood of families from the Northern Afghanistan Panjir Valley. I was invited by my assistant, Ayoob, to attend a lunch celebrating a cousin’s engagement. He thought I would be interested in the local ceremony. Since it was Friday, the Muslim day off, the office was closed and of course I wanted to see more of the city and its people. We took off on one of the hair-raising car rides across town. I shot some video from the front passenger seat that captured the ride pretty well.

We ended up at a dead end street that climbed one of the several mountains that thrust maybe 1,500 feet up from the valley that comprises greater Kabul and divide the city into 2-3 sections. The paved road became gravel, then two hard mud ruts as we drove up several hundred feet then stopped in front of a tiny shack of a store. A half-dozen kids watched, fascinated with us while Ayoob spoke with a group of young men.

The store, which had a few packs of cookies, the ubiquitous 2 litre Pepsi and other colorful soft drink bottles, some neatly displayed plates of lentils, rice and greens, and a few household items like bleach, soap and tissues. The owner was proud to have me take pictures. The homes were cockeyed mud shacks of among the worst you could imagine. A spigot ran with water and kids played in it. The sum total of visible recreation. No soccer fields, no basketball hoops, swings.

It was on the edge of a sprawling cemetery with headstones of all shapes, from finely carved to a raw piece of field stone. There were thousands. Hardly a tree, or patch of green; just piles of dry dusty rocks with dusty paths threading between them. Green flags flew above some of the graves. Poorer ones had just a slash of green paint, which I learned are memorials to fallen soldiers of the wars- martyr’s graves which you see everywhere.

Ayoob said we had to walk from there to his cousins’ house. We struck off through the cemetery. A group of kids tagged, along, mostly boys, but some jaunty girls too, wanting nothing more than to stare, be smiled at and have their picture taken. They were quiet and polite. We climbed up a path into a group of houses that blended together in a multi-story jumble. Quite steep and rutted and impassable except by foot. Knots of tough-looking characters hid from the bright sun on the corners and in doorways; not menacing, just curious.

This was becoming the classic third-world back alley slum, I’d see in news stories about the poor and starving of Africa and India, and I was a bit concerned how far in we would hike and how bad it would get. A small stream of raw sewage ran down a narrow trench in the middle of the path, fed by pipes from each house. It was lined with old plastic bags and it was as difficult to maneuver, like an uphill mountain path, though houses clung to both sides.

Even tinier alleys zipped off and around the “sewer” path. At times we had to jump from rock to rock to avoid the sewer. The smell was pure outhouse. Yes, it had become a model of the kind of 3rd world poverty you see in documentaries made only by people braver than me—or so I thought. But here I was right in the middle, surrounded by gaggles of kids and stared at by strange, shadowy figures in doorways. I trusted that Ayoob, our driver and another of his friends weren’t leading me into some sort of ambush. My video camera rolled continually.

Finally after a couple of breaks to catch our breaths from the up hill climb, Ayoob motioned me into a patio-like area saying it was his cousin’s house. The house was mud and straw, brown—we had stepped though a time warp of 2,000 years. But it was swept clean and we walked through a dark doorway. Entering a side room was a pleasant shock. A stunning, spotless red Persian carpet was on the floor. The walls were a soft, freshly painted ochre, and comfortable red cushions hugged the wall. The ceiling had visible round wooden beams, again a soft ochre color. It was actually a design that you might pay thousands of dollars to create in the West.

Coming in from the hot sun, the thick stone/mud walls made it cool. We were much higher than the Kabul dust bowl, so the air was lovely. A large window looked down over the cemetery and beyond. Ayoob pointed to an Afghan flag about 2 km distant. It was home of Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan’s president. After the walk, it was one of the most inviting rooms I’d ever seen, and an absolute contrast to the outside in its ordered serenity. At one end was a cabinet with glass and china dishes, a few photos and a teapot.

One gentleman already seated on the floor. He was a relative, but also introduced by Ayoob as a former teacher and Dean of the Faculty at Kabul University. Ayoob warned me that professors and teachers are among the poorest Afghans, but this was still a surprise.

We had a long talk, which I video taped, about his experiences during the Taliban reign of terror, when he ran a secret school. The school room where he taught a handful of neighborhood girls from the neighborhood to read and do math was behind a hidden door in this house. The Taliban had come regularly and tried to arrest him, but could never find any evidence that he actually had a school.

He told me this slum was populated by people from the Panshir Valley up north. They are a very proud, independent people. When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in the 1970s, most of the families living here (maybe 500-600) had been living temporarily in Kabul, working, attending the University, or just visiting on business. The Soviets closed all the roads into the Panshir, stranding these people in Kabul. They had no permanent homes, so they built shacks in this difficult to reach area of the city. They were against the law to build, but basically out of reach of the Soviets. Their lives became a sad, concentration camp of an existence with no water, sewerage or electricity.

Today, it continues to be a terrible slum. There are no medical facilities or stores. Water and everything else has to be carried up the steep, rocky paths. There is very little fuel to cook with. There are no schools or transportation. Many of the people are hungry. Most workers sell things on the street making a few cents a day for the barest amount of food and clothing. One blessing is municipal electricity, but it fluctuates and is only on for a few hours a day at best.

The people from the Panjir Valley are the people of the mujahadeen; the Northern Alliance which helped the US defeat the Taliban. They were also the people armed by the US to defeat the Soviets who overthrew Afghanistan’s open and flourishing society in the early 1970s. Later they fought the fanatic warlords in Afghanistan’s civil war. They fought the Taliban for years before 9/11, with no help from the US or Europe. They were the forgotten people who harried the Soviets, and were a great influence on the breakup of the Soviet Union and the end of the cold war.

In that alone the U.S. and the world owes them a great debt.

The Panshiri then fought the fanatic followers of Gulbadin Hekmatyr, the bloody Afghan despot who made his home in Kabul and caused so much unrest and destruction in the civil war that followed the Soviet departure. With the end of the cold war, sadly, the U.S. neglected their mujahadeen friends, dropped their support, drastically weakened the Panshir and they were pused into the northern Panshir valley. This opened the door to the Taliban who put a yoke of nightmarish proportions on the Afghans. But the Panshir still kept their freedom up north and against all odds fought the Taliban as the Northern Alliance.

For years, the US provided only meager military support to the Northern Alliance. The Taliban, were locked safely away in a place few people knew how to find on a map, and the struggle against them by the Northern Alliance meant little or nothing to the US. Consistent with its historically inane foreign policy, the U.S. actually thought the bloody, draconian Talibs were good for Afghanistan. Until 9/11.

When it decided to invade Afghanistan in 2001, the US suddenly remembered its friends from 20 years earlier who helped with the Soviet collapse. If you remember, the first month of the war went very slow for the US. Critics called it a quagmire comparable to Viet Nam. No cities were conquered. The US was losing troops. Though the U.S. dropped millions of bombs on the already shattered Afghan infrastructure, they weren’t making much headway on the ground.

TheTalibs, knowing the culture and land, ran circles around the US. The Northern Alliance, still stung by the U.S.’s short memory during the Afghan civil war and subsequent Taliban takeover were a bit reticent. But when they decided to cooperate, the Taliban was beaten in a matter of weeks.

It should not be lost on any American that Afghanistan has been a comparatively peaceful place for years now. (Although due to neglecting rebuilding infrastructure, the Taliban are becoming more popular and brazen in 2007.)

It is of the utmost sadness that this community in Kabul is so destitute. I met two Northern Alliance, Mujahadeen officers. They told me they loved America, but they are poor, they had both lost their feet in a mine explosion during the Soviet war. They want to be remembered by Americans. Their children do not have a school there. There is no access for emergency vehicles. Water has to be carried from the village well, up hundreds of feet to the houses, most is carried by the young. There is no medical care. They have been shut out of Afghan government in favor of warlords who support the Taliban, even after the coalition victory.

Despite this, they were overjoyed that an American would trek up to visit their desperate village. They wanted to send a message to America through my video camera, asking them not to be forgotten. They feel a strong, soulful bond with Americans in their love of freedom and their willingness to fight for it.

They are grateful that America helped them defeat the Taliban, and want America to stay and help secure the freedom of their country. There are many enemies of Afghanistan. The Afghans have gone to great lengths to tell me that the violence this spring is not being done by native Afghans. They are orchestrated by criminal gangs of Pakistanis, Iranians, Iraqis, Arabs and others who want an unstable Afghanistan with no law and order, and jump on every opportunity to encourage the na├»ve and ignorant. The press here goes to great lengths to prove that the violence and destruction has no benefit or logic for Afghans. It is all from outsiders. I don’t know if that message is getting across to America.

The Afghans are willing to fight these forces, but they are certain it will not be against Americans. They only ask that Americans help their children and their war-injured, and help bring their people, who fought together with and did so much for America, to return just a little of the favor they so desperately need. I hope this message gets across to America.

They graciously invited me to share their meal and celebration, were proud to be photographed and interviewed. I thanked them for sharing the meal and the joy of their children’s engagement and walked back down the steep paths, in a daze, a parade of children following, still wanting their pictures taken. We passed a dozen children carrying water up the hill, in cast-off yellow jugs of brake fluid, side stepping the open sewers, climbing up the scattered rock steps.

And beautiful children they all were, indeed. If any one in America wants to help Afghanistan, to thank these people for saving the children of America, this is a place to start.

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