Several weeks on from the loya jirga national council, the streets of Kabul have an extra bustle. Whereas in January the place was deserted by 6 pm, now the curfew has been extended to midnight, and it costs only $5 to buy the password that can allow your taxi to careen through checkpoints into the early hours. The chaotic rhythms of Indian music waft over jingling bicycles and tooting cars, while chai khanas, ubiquitous teahouses, are full–as are the growing number of restaurants, frequented by the thousands of foreign aid workers and other internationals. Increasing numbers of women cross through the center of town, adorned with a light head scarf rather than the stifling blue nylon burqa. Fresh life is palpable.
But not far below the surface, the loya jirga has changed little in the country. The suave President Hamid Karzai ostensibly presides with new legitimacy over a more representative administration. But except for juggling one of the ethnic Tajik-run power ministers, the so-called Panjshiri mafia of the old Northern Alliance mujahedeen fighters remains firmly in control, not only at the top but among the practical levers of control such as police chiefs, secret service heads and army commanders.
Without his own power base, Karzai is seen by some as less a real chief executive than a liberal opposition figure against his own Cabinet–offering no apparent strategy for securing and unifying the fractious country. “The only question,” according to Paul Bergne, a former British special envoy to Afghanistan, “is whether this is because he has no interest, or simply a reasonable interest, in staying alive.” Especially with the exclusion from power of former King Zahir Shah, the majority Pashtuns, concentrated in the south, where the Taliban emerged, feel disfranchised and demoralized. Rubbing salt in the wound, pictures of the martyred Ahmed Shah Massoud, the rebel leader killed by the Taliban on September 9, adorn every checkpoint, office and street corner, and even prayer mats on sale in the city markets.
Soon after the loya jirga, Vice President Haji Qadeer, an ethnic Pashtun, was gunned down in front of his office by two assailants, who escaped easily. The United States quickly agreed to provide American soldiers to serve as bodyguards for a somewhat panicked Karzai–doubtless a prudent security measure, but one viewed as shameful by Afghans worried that their leader is Washington’s puppet. Meanwhile, public anger over continuing deaths of Afghan civilians at the hands of US rocket fire–such as the 175 casualties at a wedding in the tense southern province of Oruzgan–compelled even Karzai himself to complain. Separate UN and US investigations into the incident have been launched, amid speculation that the reports will never be released or that the most damaging conclusions–including alleged American removal of evidence–will be redacted. International troops are seen as essential for keeping the local fighting at bay, but Pashtuns bitterly question why the bulk of civilian casualties appear to be among Pashtun-majority areas in the south.
The overwhelming majority of the country’s 20 million-odd people are still poor, ill and unemployed. Basic statistics confirm that the country remains at the bottom ranking of many development indexes, whether infant mortality, girls’ enrollment in primary education (under 10 percent), annual deaths from diarrhea (85,000) or chronic unemployment, which cannot even begin to be measured.
Afghan officials–facing growing pressure from their own constituents–have been raising ever sharper alarms about the pace of aid payments. According to the US special envoy, only around one-third of the $1.8 billion in aid pledged for the year at an international donors’ conference in Tokyo has been released. Kabul earns tax revenues of less than 15 percent of its $600 million annual budget. As a result, most aid has been spent either on humanitarian needs or simply on the daily costs of government. There have essentially been no major reconstruction works that would pump funds into the economy and rebuild the country’s devastated infrastructure.
The first postwar administration in any society is inevitably problematic. Without any conditions for democracy–too many guns and recalcitrant warlords, no free press or civic institutions for independent organizing, no functioning economy–establishing a legitimate and representative administration is not easy. As the Bush Administration insists, enormous changes have indeed taken place. Whatever the problems, conditions are vastly improved from the circumstances of only a few months ago–when the country was plagued by severe persecution and increasing food shortages with seemingly no hope. Indeed, some Afghans respond sharply to any probing questions about the costs and benefits of the US intervention. “Those are questions for a Western perspective,” remarked a senior local editor. “For us, we are glad the Taliban are gone.”
Yet the risks of an unattended Afghanistan remain high. The transitional administration faces an enormous challenge, aiming to pave the way for truly democratic elections in 2004 while striving to balance conflicting and often violent local interests, and struggling to sustain international support. The core conflict, however, may be between America’s pursuit of Al Qaeda and Afghan democracy itself: The US military directly supports many Afghan warlords as allies in its effort to stamp out Al Qaeda and Taliban holdouts. Continuing that policy will have a devastating effect on efforts to establish democratic central government and a meaningful civil society. This is especially true considering that, despite US training efforts, the establishment of an effective Afghan national army is years away, and Washington and other Western governments repeatedly reject Afghan calls–recently joined by Senators Joseph Biden, Richard Lugar and Barbara Boxer–to extend the international security assistance force to major cities other than Kabul.
As a result, the government’s authority effectively ends at the capital’s edge. As a result, too, peace could be short-lived. As BBC regional specialist Behrouz Afagh-Tebrizi notes, “There is a consensus to avoid a return to war, but there has not been any change in political culture. Unless the unresolved conflict between the warlords of the 1990s is transformed into a purely political struggle, it is not hard to see Afghanistan descending back into violence.”