Kandahar's Frontier of Sorrow - Part 2

Amid the chaos, some locals would almost welcome the Taliban back. And Kabul, while safer, is walled off from the rest of the country

By Manjeet Kripalani

Editor's Note: This is Part 2 of a Reporter's Notebook from BusinessWeek's Bombay bureau chief on her recent trip to Afghanistan. Part 1 was published on Sept. 12.

I need to get to an Internet café to call my editors in New York and let them know I'm O.K., now that I've reached the city of Kandahar. Alas, the cellular company that offers international roaming service in Afghanistan -- Afghan Wireless -- says it can't help. Actually, the wireless frequency here is so limited that it's constantly used up in a mish mash of cellular, microwave, and satellite services.

The Indian consul general in Kandahar, Om Prakash Bhola, a polite, soft-spoken foreign-service officer whose last posting was sun-soaked Zanzibar, comes to my rescue. He invites me to send an e-mail from his office –- and I do. Would I also like to dine at the consulate that evening and, before that, attend the evening services at the local Sikh temple? Yes, of course.

I get my first and last view of Kandahar at night. The city isn't under curfew, but only the foolish would venture out in the lampless streets. At 7:30 p.m., merchants are still plying their trade, selling fruits and vegetables, mostly the sweet, seven-kilogram melons that Afghanistan is famous for and the nectar-like Kandahari grapes.

"GIVE US THE ROOTS."

  Dry fruits used to be one of Afghanistan's top exports until a few years ago, when lack of rain and irrigation facilities made much farming impossible. People took to producing opium instead, and the crop is expected to be much larger this year than last year's 3,400 tons, according to officials' estimates.

Some Afghans accuse Pakistan of beggaring their farmers. "The Pakistan merchants come from Quetta across the [Afghan-Pakistani] border and tell these poor farmers, 'If you have no grapes to give us, then give us the roots of your pistacho and almond trees. We can pay you more money for them,'" says one Kandahari resident.

Once fairly common in in the city, only 25 Sikh families are left now. Many fled to India during Taliban rule, but now some are starting to return. This is, after all, their home, and even with all its problems perhaps a better place to live than the squalid refugee camps in India.

SQUEALING CHILDREN.

  The Sikhs here certainly look like Afghans and speak the local language. Typically, they're small shopkeepers. Their local temple looks like any Sikh temple in India. The holy book, the Granth, is beautifully festooned with brocade cloth and flowers. The hymns and devotionals are the same, and the parsad, or offering of cooked flour with clarified butter and sugar, tastes the same as that offered at my temple in Bombay.

But this temple is crowded -- most in India are peaceful places of repose. Lots of children squeal through the ceremony. The elders later explain that Sikh children have no schools here. They used to go to local schools and were exempted from Koranic studies. Under the Taliban, they had to study the Koran, and then no school was allowed at all.

Now, Kandahar is back to forced Koranic studies, so the Sikhs prefer to keep their children at home. They've asked Sikh organizations in India for help, and Consul General Bhola hopes to oblige them. The evening at the temple fills me with compassion and, strangely, with the joy of being able to freely worship a non-Islamic faith in an Islamic country.

"TRANSIT ECONOMY."

  This is the way Afghanistan used to be in the old days –- a confluence of cultures, the crossroads of Asia. Kandahar was once a center of learning, where pacifist Buddhism and trade flourished. Nigel Allen, a geographer and expert on the cultures of the Hindukush region at University of California at Davis who has visited the region several times in the last few years, thinks Afghanistan can again succeed as a "transit economy," like Dubai.

Afghanistan is a land of mountain passes, he notes, and trade is vital. Afghans have always made money moving goods and products through the rugged terrain. A thriving smuggling business continues from the northern borders across Pakistan and China. That can be legitimized now.

Still, Allen figures that subsidies will be necessary for the land-locked country, with its remote mountain culture. That has been the case for almost a century. Only in 1919 and 1928, when under the rule of Ramanullah, has Afghanistan declined outside help. "Afghans ask me: 'When are the Americans leaving?' And I tell them, '50 years,'" says Allen. "The U.S., the U.K, and the U.N., they are the new colonial mandarins, and they'll be making the decisions." By Manjeet Kripalani

COMPROMISED?

  As the days pass and I hear ordinary Kandaharis speak, I wonder whether the mandarins in the West know how seriously misguided some of their decisions could be. The U.S. pact with the warlords has come under severe criticism from the locals, who see the feudal chieftains getting richer and richer, while the locals see none of the benefits.

I never see the American soldiers venture away from the airport. That's strange, considering that I, as a woman with my head covered, am walking in the bazaars of Kandahar, albeit with an escort. Residents whisper that the Americans are compromised when they rely on guards, interpreters, and intelligence provided by the relatives of powerful Afghan chieftans.

Wherever I go, I hear how Afghans blame Pakistan for supporting the Taliban, even now. Kandaharis also resent the arrival of the Pakistani laborers, who work on the huge road-building projects in Afghanistan. "They are paid Afghanis 400 per day, while our Afghan labor gets just Afghanis 100," grumbles my interpreter. That's because Pakistanis have the skills to build roads, and no one is teaching the Afghans how to do it.

PROUD POSTURE.

  Driving through Kandahar, my young interpreter points out a group of men in Afghan dress and turbans walking down the street. "They are Pakistani laborers," he says. How do you know? I ask. He shrugs. He can just tell.

I figured out the difference later. The Afghans pride themselves as warriors. They have wielded guns for decades, and their posture is straight and proud. The foreigners don't have that upright walk.

The new governor of Kandahar, Yousuf Pashtun, echoes such distrust and resentments: "Fifty percent of all terrorist activities here originate in Pakistan," he says in an interview in his spacious, air-conditioned compound in Kandahar –- one of the few intact buildings. "The rest is because of our inefficient systems" and because Kabul has ignored Kandahar for decades, he says.

OLD STRATEGIES.

  He adds that he would like to cut down the poppy production and build schools, hospitals, shelters for women, and orphanages. Building anything in Kandahar is dangerous, however. The first night of my trip, on the Kabul-Kandahar highway that's being built by Washington (D.C.)-based Louis Berger Inc., armed Taliban kidnapped four Berger security personnel who were guarding a camp with 50 managers and contractors. Six other guards were killed.

The next night, a woman who worked at the house where we were staying whispered that she had seen the dead or wounded bodies of young Afghan boys being brought into the city in the dark. It was a fight between Afghan tribes, but these skirmishes, I'm told, are instigated by the Taliban, trying to reassert their rule. Bit by bit, they are crossing the Pakistani border and coming into the southern flank of Afghanistan, capturing village by village, then district by district.

A former mujahideen fighter recognizes the strategy. It's what they themselves did with the Soviets, he declares. In Zabul province, adjoining Afghanistan, I'm told the Taliban have appointed their own governor and their own police chief. It's only a matter of time before they move into Kandahar. By Manjeet Kripalani

WOMEN'S RIGHTS.

  Locals distrust the Taliban, but they also remember the early days of their rule, when merchants could sell freely, and the streets were safe to walk. This new government has shown them no improvement. Children can't go to school because there's no security. Women still can't walk without the burqa, and schooling for girls is disapproved. Some people actually wouldn't mind if the Taliban returns, longing simply for safety.

Safety is one of the big concerns of the women at the conference that I'm attending, too. They also want Afghanistan's new constitution to ensure mandatory schooling for girls and equal rights of divorce, inheritance, and voting. And they want to get rid of the strict Islamic sharia law that says the evidence of one man is equal to the evidence of two women.

Most important, they want blasphemy laws that threaten a death sentence for women who won't wear the burqa to be abolished. This law is often twisted by extremist religious leaders to eliminate opposition. They also call for better security in advance of Afghan elections set for June, 2004. "If there's no security in our country, how can people participate in elections?" frets Afifa Azim, the director of Afghan Women's Network, a nongovernment organization in Kabul with 25,000 members.

LOCAL POLITICS.

  At the end of the three-day conference, the women -– some quite educated and some illiterate –- came out with their own Bill of Rights, which they will soon present to their President. Perhaps they will get those rights. The Afghans know how to fight with weapons, and maybe now they're learning how to fight with the vote.

Kandahar's former Police Chief Akrem, for one, intends to run for local elections. He comes from the Alokozai tribe, which has been loyal to Afghan President Hamied Karzai for years. His tribe is proud of Akrem, and he is reputed to be a courageous and popular patriot.

Yet, with no explanation, the former governor recently removed him from his post, installing his own man. So, Akrem is now looking forward to the election. He says he'll campaign to bring Kandahar back to its days of glory, when it was home to great estates, trees and rose bushes, and grass abundant, not this dusty, desolate place.

NATTY AND BORED.

  For that to happen, Kabul needs to engage the provinces. Kabul, I discovered later on this trip, is another world –- a functioning city virtually separated from its own country. The ministries have been rebuilt, the place is buzzing, women don't always have to wear burqas, shops sell wedding gowns, and there are parties and celebrations.

I stayed in Kabul for a few days after Kandahar, and my hotel, the Gandamack Lodge, was a beautifully restored colonial building that used to be the favorite abode of Osama bin Laden when he stayed in the city. He often visited with his fourth and youngest wife, said to be his favorite.

The international forces drive around the city in heavy armored trucks, the soldiers looking natty and slightly bored. U.N. troops are everywhere. They control the city and block off roads when important visitors like U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld come through. I remember Allen's remark about Afghanistan's new colonial mandarins. It certainly seemed true in Kabul.

"THE BACK OF BEYOND."

  The disconnect between Kabul and the rest of the country is dismaying, however. I asked a woman official of the U.N. why no one had showed up in Kandahar for the conference. She knew about it, and a delegation of senior U.N. women officers and the two women ministers in Karzai's Cabinet were supposed to attend. But people from Kabul are afraid to leave their safety zone. The Taliban target international aid workers especially, so that help doesn't get to the villages and districts in the country side.

But if ordinary Afghan women can brave the wrath of their husbands to make the long journey to Kandahar, surely the women in power in Kabul can? "Kandahar?" the U.N. official responded languidly, "Kandahar is the back of beyond. You should have gone to Herat, it's so much nicer." I have never been to Herat. Perhaps some day, I will.

There's plenty to see in Afghanistan. Kabul itself is an exciting city, and the Kabulis are friendly and relatively cosmopolitan. One day, let's hope, the Kabul River will flow freely again through the city, and gracious old European-style houses that flank it on either side will be restored, the pretty blue and yellow ancient mosques will welcome visitors, the poets will reappear. And Kabul will be the center of Central Asia again.Given what I've seen, however, it's going to be a long wait.

Kripalani is Bombay Bureau Chief for BusinessWeek

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

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