July 23, 2003

INSTAPUNDIT'S AFGHANISTAN CORRESPONDENT, Professor John Robert Kelly of Boston University, sends a lengthy report. Overall, the picture is better than media reports would suggest. Excerpt:

Despite dozens of missteps, made mostly with good intentions, it has been the understated but forceful American influence, not the UN and the hundreds of NGOs, that has taken the major gambles here. The Americans have displayed admirable flexibility in altering tactics and strategy when necessary and achieved this dicey, delicate transition.

But read the full report, below, for context.


Monday night I explored the perimeter of Kabul—more than a sixty-mile circumference--with two companions. One is a remarkably youthful looking retired US military officer, Gary Farrell, now employed by one of the American ‘civilian’ security groups (best left unnamed) that calmly do extraordinary work to build and maintain a civil society in Afghanistan. The driver was an Afghan-American from New Jersey, Wais Faizi, a valiant or foolhardy optimist—depending on one’s point of view-- who stoically braved the worst years of the Taliban and remained to reconstruct a prominent family business shattered by at least three successive oppressive regimes over the last quarter century of this country’s misery. We were only adequately armed, automatic pistols, given the circumstances. Few westerners familiar with the doom and gloom features in America’s most prominent newspapers, from those of the astute Pamela Constable of the Washington Post, to the recent op-ed pages of the New York Times, would want to test the outer reaches of the city at late at night, especially in a vehicle as ridiculously conspicuous as our open-aired Camaro convertible—the only one in Kabul.

From news reports one might prudently assume that Afghanistan has steered even further down the road towards anarchy in the past year. Yet it would have been impossible last summer to attempt to drive even inside Kabul in the evenings, much less travel so openly outside the city at night, so in some ways things have improved immeasurably over the last twelve months. More remarkably, in our many hours on the road we were never impeded by anything more than the now omnipresent traffic jams. As we moved further from central Kabul, however, weapons were always at the ready and the driver was careful never to retrace his route. The wary know that one might drive though a remote area once without incident, due to the element of surprise, but the second pass on the same route may draw hostile fire from a small cluster of anti-government dissidents with automatic weapons.

Yet last year this little excursion would have been impossible; there was an absolute curfew of 11 PM—8 PM for UN workers—in Kabul. Worse, there was constant Panjshiri ‘police’ harassment—directed by Interior Minister Khanooni-- that deterred the stoutest from even approximating those time restrictions. To minimize this danger, the UN forbade their employees from riding in Kabul cabs: prominent NGO vehicle markings provided protection from these impromptu searches and seizures. Not even the meanest of these quasi-militia patrolmen were willing to antagonize those Western ‘Toyota Taliban’ who promised to pour billions of dollars of aid—and the customary graft—into both the UN bureaucracy and into the pockets of corrupt Afghan officials. For the rest of us unaligned ordinary folks traveling in the ubiquitous Kabul cabs, the most worrisome dilemma was that countless of these ‘cops’ were hot-heated teenaged bandits with weapons and a bad attitude.

Last summer renegade police at the ubiquitous Kabul traffic circles might stop and board my cab uninvited, gleefully tease an automatic weapon and just as suddenly disembark a without explanation a few miles down the road. It was doubtful that many were legitimate police with any official status, nevertheless the judicious travelers never asked for credentials or complained when their vehicles were searched and belongings confiscated. This summer is completely different. Petty harassment has ended. Civil order has been restored to a remarkable degree on the highways by a professional police force that efficiently—if not always quietly-- patrols the highways in slick new trucks donated by the German government and trained in the latest law enforcement techniques by the American military. Great credit for this transformation must also be shared with the new Interior Minister, Jalali, who’s been able to bring more of an ethnically balanced and representative police presence into the agency. Kabul law enforcement now moves heavily armed but astonishingly restrained crews along the teeming streets, in a manner as unobtrusive as the ISAF patrols of last year. Consequently, one sees far fewer of the once omnipresent international peacekeepers on the highways. A benefit of this increased security is that the onerous curfews have been eliminated. Drivers are free again to assault and insult each other with impunity all hours of the night while the newly-motorized Afghan police force looks on with a bemused and benign detachment—just like ISAF in days past.

Safety on the roads is another matter entirely. Kabul now resembles any frantic western metropolis with impenetrable traffic jams, but with the added annoyance of horns permanently locked in full sonic splendor. Chop shops must do a mighty business customizing auto horns to deafening decibels, but brakes, shocks and drivers training are still apparently optional. Additional vehicular hazards are introduced by the absolute lack of traffic signals and the kamikaze habits of both pedestrians and drivers. Intersections are now maintained by a few beleaguered and completely ignored traffic directors struggling against all odds just to maintain life and limb through their shift. Tens of thousands of additional civilian vehicles—easily double or more added in the last year-- constantly clog the roads at all hours. The foot patrolman nowadays makes an effort to keep the streets clear by confiscating the license plates of drivers who park or stand on busy streets. Redemption of the impounded plate is easy enough and quite practical since the miscreant driver is only expected to treat the patrolman to a street corner meal to rescue his tag. While a cynic might note that a little carefully applied graft still affects wonders in Kabul, this is a still a remarkably gracious and typically Afghan solution...try to get your car out of impound in Boston this effortlessly or cordially.

Still, Kabul is hardly yet a tranquil vacation resort. Warlords still prevail in many provinces, the south is still a handful. Right here in Kabul a bomb with 25 minutes left on its timer was found 100 feet from my home near Chicken Street just yesterday afternoon. A source at Joint Operations (Intel) informed me that this was just one of 36 safely discovered before detonation in the last few days. Firefights and skirmishes are not uncommon, but are now very vocally blamed by Afghans on ‘outsiders’ like the Iran-based renegade Hekmatyar, Al Qa’eda, Pakistan’s ISI or ‘insiders’ like Defense Minister Fahim. Just last week, Fahim’s thugs provoked a firefight in front of the American Embassy (pulling pins and rolling grenades to the front entrance) but were quickly eliminated by American snipers protecting the perimeter. The fact that the Kabulis publicly applauded this action is invigorating proof of the transformation of the culture into a meaningful civil society. This is also further evidence that the Panjshiri stranglehold on the interim government has fast lost traction with the populace. Kabulis have already lived through a reign of terror by the Panjshiri mob in the 1990s, a miserable era that lead to the Taliban’s surprisingly warm welcome into Kabul. Bombings and attacks are considered as personal affronts to the notable progress achieved through the hard work of the citizens themselves—with little help from NGOs. Terrorism is viewed as a mark of the increasing frustration and desperation of the reactionaries still operating here. They’ve lost their main chance; now all the Islamofascists can do is to try to temporarily disrupt an increasingly civil society strongly committed to stability and peace.

A few may possibly yet harbor some residual sympathy with the radical religious tenets of extreme Islam, but the lack of mosque attendance in the city indicates the vast majority is happy with the development of a more secular society. Peace has broken out in a big way in Kabul and its environs, many Afghans have assured me. It doesn’t take too much convincing; the evidence of a new civil society is everywhere. Still, after 17 years living between the mujahideen military stronghold in Peshawar and Kabul, I wouldn’t be foolish enough to expect too much too soon. The dusty inferno of this Kabul summer may hold some unpleasant surprises, especially on the cusp of another Loya Jirga, but there is optimism everywhere and this society gives the impression that it is committed to making it all work despite the future trials yet to be endured. Those who disparaged the American efforts in Afghanistan have seriously underestimated the constructive changes wrought in this city in such a brief period. Despite dozens of missteps, made mostly with good intentions, it has been the understated but forceful American influence, not the UN and the hundreds of NGOs, that has taken the major gambles here. The Americans have displayed admirable flexibility in altering tactics and strategy when necessary and achieved this dicey, delicate transition.


(Professor) John Robert Kelly PhD
Chararhi Siddarat, Kabul