On a dimly lit road in Wazir Akbar Khan, the Upper East Side of Kabul, a couple of street kids gesture toward an unmarked iron gate behind which they assure us we can find what we are looking for. An Afghan guard gives us a wary once-over and opens the gate onto a dark garden at the end of which a door is slightly ajar. I open it and step into a world far removed from the dust-blown avenues of Kabul, where most women wear burqas and the vast majority of the population live in grinding poverty.
At one end of a long room is a well-stocked bar tended by a Chinese madam who assesses us with a practiced calculus. In front of her are more than a dozen scantily clad smiling young Chinese women sprawled over a series of bar stools and couches. Adorning the walls are red lanterns and large posters of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan. Nestling next to the prostitutes are several mustached, glaze-eyed Afghan men who occasionally take unsteady steps onto a makeshift dance floor to bust some surprisingly graceful traditional moves. A couple of the women titter as they gamely join in. Welcome to Kabul, as David Lynch might imagine it.
Our party of four is soon joined by several of the women, who try to make conversation, most of which consists of “Me no speak English.” Conversation is not really the point here when $60 will buy you more stimulating forms of intercourse. One of the prostitutes whispers in my ear, “You guys worry about the attacks?” She’s referring to a massive car bomb that had blown up a day earlier a couple of hundred yards from the US Embassy, killing two American soldiers, one of them a 52-year-old female reservist, and more than a dozen Afghan bystanders. I arrived at the scene shortly after the attack and found body parts that looked like fried pieces of meat and bone scattered a couple of blocks away from where the bomb had exploded.
Kabul 2006 has a distinctly fin de siècle air. The hotel I stay at plays loungey house music at night and serves beer discreetly. It also has a makeshift bunker surrounded by sandbags in the event the hotel is attacked, a reasonable precaution given that in May an angry anti-American mob shot out the ground floor windows of another Kabul hotel. Suicide attacks are now weekly events in the capital, while an economy steeped in corruption and driven by the heroin/opium trade and foreign aid enriches an elite who party into the night, taking advantage of new freedoms that under the Taliban might have earned them a reprimand from the religious police (listening to music); landed them in prison (drinking alcohol); or had them stoned to death (sex outside marriage).
The Taliban owe some of their renewed strength to the fact that they can play on the fears of a generally conservative population who worry about corrupting foreign influences exemplified by the new brothels in Kabul. A hundred miles to the south of the capital, for instance, the Taliban have recently appeared in force in nearly half the districts of Ghazni province, which sits astride the key road between Kabul and the southern city of Kandahar. Around Kandahar this past summer fierce battles raged between the Taliban and NATO forces, who encountered much stiffer resistance than they anticipated. In September I embedded with soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division at a fire base on Afghanistan’s eastern border with Pakistan. The Taliban launched rockets at the base on an almost daily basis, and foot patrols were regularly encountering Taliban forces. Three years earlier, when I was embedded in the same region with soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division, their main complaint was how little action they were seeing.
Between the rising Taliban insurgency, the epidemic of attacks by suicide bombers and improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and spiraling criminal activity fueled by the drug trade, Afghanistan today looks something like Iraq in the summer of 2003, when the descent into violent conflict began. As a former senior Afghan Cabinet member told me in September, “If international forces leave, the Taliban will take over in one hour.”
A year ago there was still some real optimism about Afghanistan’s future based on President Hamid Karzai’s popularity both at home and abroad, the flood of returning refugees and the millions of girls and boys starting school for the first time. That optimism is evaporating. In December 2005, 77 percent of Afghans polled by ABC News said their country was going in the right direction. When asked again one year later, only 55 percent felt the same way.
What went wrong? The books under review supply pieces of that puzzle. Former British diplomat Rory Stewart describes his epic walk across Afghanistan in the winter of 2001, American author Ann Jones recounts the time she spent living in Kabul as an aid worker following the overthrow of the Taliban and American journalist turned aid worker Sarah Chayes writes of the years she lived in Kandahar following the American invasion.
Chayes arrived in Afghanistan as an NPR reporter covering the war against the Taliban. She became disillusioned with the timidity of her editors and decided to embark on a new career as field director of an aid organization, Afghans for Civil Society. It was an often frustrating job: “The whole of Afghan society was suffering from collective PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).” The result, she says, was “an inability to plan for the future. Inability to think beyond one’s own needs, excessive guile.”
Settling in Kandahar, Chayes lived a critical part of the Afghan story often overlooked by international journalists and aid workers, who tend to have an insular, Kabul-centric view of the country. As Chayes explains, foreigners generally settle in the capital and “live apart from Afghans in guarded compounds. They do not walk about, but are driven by chauffeurs.” Chayes, by contrast, lived with a local family, learned Pashto, kept a Kalashnikov by her bed and “loved the place.” If this is cause for a smidgen of self-congratulation, Chayes is entitled to it. Kandahar, located in the middle of a desert that broils in summer and freezes in winter, is a deeply boring, ultraconservative Afghan city that is now quite dangerous for foreigners. For most of us a week’s visit would suffice. Chayes lived there for four years.
A key theme of Chayes’s angry, very well-written book is her gradual disillusionment with President Karzai, who early in the narrative is portrayed as a possible savior of Afghanistan, “remarkably cultivated” and “uniquely devoid of brutality and arrogance.” The villain of Chayes’s story is the uncouth Gul Agha Shirzai, who became governor of Kandahar with US support in December 2001. Once in office Shirzai built his “personal power base” with no regard for anyone other than his own tribe, which received the choicest American contracts, and he would allegedly bump off perceived rivals on occasion. Yet much to Chayes’s frustration, Karzai seemed unable or unwilling to rein in warlords like Shirzai. “Instead of protecting the people from the warlords, curbing them, or removing them from office, Karzai seemed to be waltzing with them.” In January 2003 Chayes, who was close to the president’s brother Qayum Karzai, hammered out a plan of action about how to rid Afghanistan of the warlords. Item one of Chayes’s plan, which she submitted to President Karzai, was: “Begin with Gul Agha Shirzai.” Nothing happened.
The Punishment of Virtue is bookended by the murder of Chayes’s friend Muhammad Akrem Khakrezwal, a police official who was killed in Kandahar by a supposedly random suicide bombing in June 2005. For Chayes, Akrem’s murder crystallized all that is wrong with the country. He was the polar opposite of the warlords, a police chief who had served in a number of major cities around Afghanistan, who tried to work for the common good and was “the most able public official I encountered.” After conducting her own investigation of Akrem’s murder, Chayes concludes that it was not a random suicide attack but a targeted assassination. The murder remains unsolved, and we have to take Chayes’s word for it that Akrem was the selfless patriot she paints him to be. It is a bleak ending to a bleak story.
Ann Jones, an American author who has written a number of books about women and violence, arrived in Kabul in the winter of 2002: “Kabul in winter is the color of dust…dust fills the lungs, tightens the chest. Lies in the eyes like gravel, so that you look out on this obscure drab landscape always with something like tears.” Like Chayes, Jones has written an angry book about Afghanistan and, also like Chayes, she writes evocatively to illuminate another little-known world, that of poor, marginalized women in Kabul.
Unfortunately, Jones’s reading of recent Afghan history is sometimes marred by a tendency to see sinister conspiracies where they don’t exist. She writes, for instance, that the United States was initially willing to play ball with the Taliban in the mid-1990s because of energy interests eager to build a pipeline across the country from the gas fields of Central Asia and withdrew its support only because the Taliban could not provide “security” for such a project, rather than acknowledging the real reasons the United States turned against the Taliban, which were their antediluvian treatment of women and harboring of Al Qaeda. The one thing the Taliban did provide was security, which is why they had legitimacy and popularity when they came to power. And today, five years after the occupation of the country by the United States, there is still no pipeline across Afghanistan because it just doesn’t make any economic sense to build it.
Jones also recycles the trope that the CIA trained and funded the “Arab Afghans” to the tune of $800 million during the 1980s war against the Soviet Union, when, in fact, as journalist Steve Coll has shown in Ghost Wars, his Pulitzer Prize-winning account of American involvement in Afghanistan, there is no evidence that the agency had any direct dealings with Osama bin Laden and his crew of foreign fighters.
Where Kabul in Winter begins to take off is in Jones’s devastating critique of American aid to Afghanistan, which is consumed all too often by foreigners, evident in the fleets of Land Rovers and Toyota Land Cruisers that choke Kabul’s smog-filled streets. Jones wryly observes: “Afghanistan, we learned from TV, had been ‘rebuilt’ thanks to millions of dollars of international aid pouring into the country. Where was it?” In a conversation with an American education expert Jones receives a depressing answer to that question. The expert explains that 80 to 90 percent of American aid goes to US contractors to cover overhead for back offices in the States as well as housing and office space in Kabul, and perks such as drivers, R and R, imported food, furniture and alcohol.
Jones points out that in contrast to countries like Sweden, which allocates only 4 percent of its aid costs to “technical assistance” that goes back home to pay Swedes, “eighty-six cents of every dollar of American aid is phantom aid” that will line American pockets rather than go directly to Afghans. According to Jones, only France has a worse record in this area.
The heart of Jones’s book is her deeply reported description of her work trying to improve conditions for women prisoners and female hospital patients in Kabul. Dickensian is far too mild an adjective to describe the conditions that she encounters:
In the dirty emergency room…lies a young girl. Perhaps sixteen…. The head nurse stands at the foot of the bed and outlines the case dispassionately, as if the patient were not there. This girl was made to marry an old man, she says. Then he accused her of adultery because a friend of his saw her talking to a boy in the street; he told her to return to her father’s house. She hadn’t wanted to marry this husband, but to go back was to spread shame on her family, like a stain. She was afraid her father would kill her to wash it away. In this crisis, she went for advice to her neighbor, who said: Why don’t you burn yourself? So she did. She drenched her body in diesel fuel and set herself alight. The flames burned 90 percent of her skin and spared only her head, which lies now on a tear-drenched pillow in a kind of separate agony of consciousness and pain.
Jones explains that Afghan customary law, which treats women as property, underlies the self-immolations and honor killings: “Afghans themselves have a saying that names the three sources of social discord as ‘zan, zar, zamin’–women, gold and land. When Afghans name threats to social order, they name women first.” Afghan customary law is not about justice as it is understood in the West but about the restoration of social order, an order that is entirely dominated by men. And so, in disputes about family honor involving women, it is invariably a woman who ends up paying the price of restoring the social order either by being killed or committing suicide. In the western city of Herat, for instance, there were an estimated 190 self-immolations in 2003.
Herat is where Rory Stewart began his walk across Afghanistan, a country that is “an unpredictable composite of etiquette, humor, and extreme brutality.” Any British writer who writes about walking in Afghanistan does so in the shadow of the great British travel writer Eric Newby, who died in October and whose 1958 book A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush is a minor comic masterpiece, the foreword of which was written by Evelyn Waugh. A Short Walk describes how Newby, who toiled unhappily at a fashion house in London, left for Afghanistan to climb a 20,000-foot mountain in Nuristan after training for only four days by climbing rocks in Wales. Suffice to say that many things went wrong during his expedition.
Five decades later Stewart, a worthy successor to Newby, decided to walk across Afghanistan as the Taliban were falling during the winter of 2001. He chose to take a route across central Afghanistan, a region so inhospitable to outsiders, isolated and impassable that only one imperial power in history, the Ghorids in the twelfth century, seems to have bothered to secure the region. (At one point on his trip Stewart even stumbles across the remains of the lost Ghorid highland capital, the Turquoise Mountain, which was being systematically looted by locals.) Stewart takes a “long walk” in the Hindu Kush so fraught with danger that at one point he bumps into a contingent of British Special Forces who call him a “fucking nutter.” Stewart, correctly, understands this to be their highest form of praise.
Although Stewart’s beautifully written book is in a lighter vein than those of Chayes and Jones, underlying his picaresque stories of adventure on the road is a critical point that is often overlooked by Westerners with dreams of transforming Afghanistan into a place where women enjoy equal rights, “capacity building” creates viable stable government institutions and the power of warlords crumbles with the spread of “civil society.” Such dreams rarely survive contact with the religiously conservative, tribal, rural, not infrequently xenophobic societies where most Afghans live.
Stewart, a former British diplomat who served as deputy governor of a southern province of Iraq following the US-led invasion of the country, is skeptical of Western efforts to transform countries like Afghanistan into societies in our own image, a principle espoused by neoconservatives and liberal internationalists alike:
Most of the policy makers knew next to nothing about the villages where 90 per cent of the Afghan population lived. They came from postmodern, secular, globalized states with liberal traditions in law and government. It was natural for them to initiate projects on urban design, women’s rights…and to speak of a people “who desire peace at any cost and understand the need for a centralized multi-ethnic government.” But what did they understand of the thought processes of Seyyed Kerbalahi’s wife, who had not moved five kilometers from her home in forty years. Or Dr. Habibullah, the vet, who carried an automatic weapon in the way they carried briefcases?
This is a pessimistic view of what the West can achieve in Afghanistan (not to mention Iraq), but it’s a view that is informed by Stewart’s erudite knowledge of Afghan history and his extensive travels in the country, and by what has actually taken place in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban. Afghanistan remains one of the poorest countries in the world; the government barely functions, local warlords have the run of the place and much of the country is racked by violence. The best that can be said of Afghanistan is: At least it’s not as bad as Iraq. And even that could change.
The United States’ experience in both countries calls to mind Kant’s observation: “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.” Perhaps in coming years we will learn a little humility and patience about the efficacy of the wholesale export of Western democratic values and institutions into countries with very different social mores and political structures. Those Western exports have now beached on the shoals of reality from the Tigris to the Kabul River.