The Public Humanist

The Law of Unintended Consequences: A Tale of Two Afghanistans

2003. Into the Post-Taliban Void

BamiyanOne never knows what to expect when flying into Kabul International Airport and making one’s way into the bustling capital of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. On my first trip to Afghanistan in 2003 I found the city streets filled with bandolier swathed Northern Alliance fighters, the lamp posts decorated with the ribbons of cassette and video tapes that had been symbolically ‘executed’ by the Taliban moral police, and more burqas than a Taliban ‘Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice’ policeman could shake an iron rod at.

As I walked Kabul’s streets with a ten-year-old ‘shadow’ who offered to be my bodyguard, however, I notice some tentative signs of progress in ridding this town of its brutal past. Barber shops had sprung up everywhere (the Taliban had enforced ‘Muhammad-length’ beards), internet cafes had begun to appear, and one could see the occasional beauty shop (or ‘house of harlots’ as they’d been known under the Taliban). I even found one hotel run by an Afghan-American from New Jersey with a Hoboken accent that served a passable pint of beer.

Butthat was not all. Making my way north out of Kabul and over the towering HinduKush mountains to the town of Mazar i Sharif I found a Northern Alliancegeneral named Dostum who refused to release his 3,000 Taliban prisoners of war.Allowing me rare access to his prisoners who were kept in a Medieval fortressprison, he told me to give a message to the American president. “Tell him notto make me release them. The (Afghan President) Karzai has told me to set myprisoners free. But if I do they’ll be up to their old mischief. Better to keepthem here so they don’t wage jihad.”

Hearingthe Taliban prisoners’ sad stories of being in the wrong jihad-place at thewrong war-on-terror-time I could not, however, help but feel sorry for them.The days of the Taliban were over after all. Democracy was triumphant inAfghanistan and Bin Laden’s legions of ‘evil-doers’ were being ‘smoked out oftheir caves’ across the globe from the southern Basilan Island in thePhilippines to the Pankisi Gorge in Georgia’s Caucasus Mountains.

2005. Signs and Portents.

In 2005 I returned to Kabul and found that the gun-toting Northern Alliance troops were gone. In their place I found hundreds of Afghan National Police wearing crisp new uniforms. They were mostly trying to control the mass of newly purchased Toyota Corollas that had come to fill the already swarming streets of the capital. Walking through the clouds of car fumes and camel dust I also noticed countless ‘Roshan’ cellphones in the hands of Kabulis. But nothing could prepare me for the sight I encountered right down the street from the former Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice.There, in all its glory stood a newly built Afghan Fried Chicken restaurant.

And that was not all. I could not help staring at ‘naked’ women shyly venturing out without burqas on for the first time in years, video stores stocked with boot-legged American movies, and photography and cell phone stores on every corner. Clearly technology was marching hand in hand with democracy in Afghanistan to expunge the very memory of  the Taliban technophobes.

Later I photographed a passing bus filled with turbaned villagers with the words“Give the Love” painted on the side in English. Elections shmalections! What more proof did one need that the War on Terror had been successful in this country than Afghans ‘giving the love’ and talking on their cell-phones as they dined on AFC?

But for all the pride I as an American felt in my country’s remarkable success in bringing fried chicken, cell phones, DVDs and the internet to Afghanistan,there were several clouds on the horizon that threatened to rain on the picnic.As I haggled for carpets on Kabul’s famous Chicken Street I was told that some foreigners had recently been blown up on this very street by a suicide bomber.I soon collected similar stories of random bombings by ‘dead-enders’ in otherparts of the capital. Hearing the accounts of occasional girls’ school burnings in the Pashtun south (the Talibanare ethnic Pashtuns) I tried to pass them and the bombings off as sour grapes.

ButAfghans were nonetheless concerned, including Dostum the ‘Taliban Slayer.’ Imade a journey north to the Northern Alliance general’s base and was surprisedto find myself driving on a beautiful ribbon of newly laid asphalt that madethe pot-holed roads of Boston seem like so many Third World donkey paths.Clearly the occasional suicide bomber could not compete with such tangiblesigns of progress, I told myself.

“Thebombers are undermining everything the Coalition is trying to do here, fromroad-laying to hearts and minds campaigns.” Dostum warned after I commented onthe road and his newly emptied prison. “Suicide is alien to our culture. TheTaliban, including those whom I was forced to release so they can reorganize,are learning it from someone. Neitherthe anti-Soviet mujahideen fighters nor the Taliban ever resorted to blowingthemselves up!”

Assuring Dostum that the ‘die hards’ wouldnever wreck the inevitable progress in Afghanistan I promised to return in twoyears to see if the Taliban had given up their jihad and taken to eating atAfghan Fried Chicken.

2007. The Anus Horriblis

For all my optimism, by 2006things had taken a terrible turn for the worse in Afghanistan. What had startedout as a timid series of no more than twenty suicide bombings the previous yearhad devolved into a full fledged terror campaign. While I tried keeping trackof the specifics of each and every bombing as part of my research, I lost countafter one hundred.

Byyear’s end the number of suicide bombings in the Afghanistan conflict, theso-called Forgotten War, had soared to a sickening 139, ranking it second onlyto Iraq in. This from a country that had not seen one suicide bombing againstthe Soviets during ten years of brutal occupation. Clearly something terriblewas happening in Afghanistan, and I traveled there in April to see if I couldunderstand this process of radicalization.

As Iwas driven from the airport, I put aside my fears of bombers and began to relaxa little, for it was not hard to notice the increasing signs of positive changein the country. There were more women on the streets without burqas than ever before, more Corollas,more ‘Roshan’ cell phones, and even a few newly constructed steel and glass‘sky-scrappers’ in downtown Kabul.

But mydriver did not consider such positive signs of change to be as noteworthy asthe numerous sites of suicide bombings that we passed on the way into town.Convinced that a pint at my Hoboken friend’s hotel would calm my fears, Idropped by his bar to say hello. I was told that he had recently been killed bythe Taliban for serving alcohol and allowing his hotel to become a ‘den ofinfidel iniquity.’

Hisdeath troubled me as much as the blast marks on the road where humans who weretrying to rebuild their lives after twenty five years of war had beenincinerated by suicide bombers. For in some ways the brash Afghan from NewJersey had personified the ‘inevitable’ progress that I had envisioned for hiscountry.

Butfor all its sad symbolism, I quickly found that his death was only the tip ofthe iceberg. It became apparent thatthere were two stories to Afghanistan. One was of progress in the center andnorth of the country that I had noticed on my previous trips. The other wasprovinces being lost to the resurgent Taliban in the Pashtun south. While I hadcome to think of the ribbons of asphalt the Coalition were laying across thecountry as conveyor belts of freedom, I was saddened to learn that suicidebombers were using them to drive up from Kandahar, the Taliban’s spiritualcapital, to Kabul to carry out their deadly missions.

Andthat was not the only Coalition contribution to Afghanistan’s future that wasbeing used against it. The technophobic Taliban, there very ones who had‘executed’ television sets and banned the ‘infidel’ internet on August 25, 2001were now making snuff films of their beheadings ‘spies’ and ‘collaborators.’ Iwas told that these videos were now selling like hot cakes in the south andthat the Taliban had even taken to down-loading streaming versions of them ontheir internet sites. That’s right, Taliban internet sites!

Thiswas not the Afghanistan I had envisioned. I asked Afghan National Directorateof Security officials what had gone wrong. Where were the distinctly‘un-Afghan’ suicide bombing, beheading, and horror films coming from?

Lookingat me like I was an idiot, one NDS official made it blindingly obvious where hethought the problems were coming from. “They come from Iraq of course; we’reseeing the first example of the ‘Iraq effect’ in our country.” The problems, Iwas told, began when Iraqi insurgents like Zarqawi began shipping theirmotivational videos of beheadings, IED Improvised Explosive Device attacks, andsuicide bombings to the down-but-not-out Taliban. Inspired and funded by theirpowerful Iraqi counterparts who wanted to open a second front, the Taliban hadeagerly adopted the foreign horror tactics which clearly seemed to work. Somuch for technology and globalism being on our side.

ByJune of 2007 the number of suicide bombings in Afghanistan has surpassed lastyear’s level (over 50 so far) and the first Explosively Formed Projectiles, adeadly form of IED that has killed or maimed hundreds of Coalition troops inIraq, have begun to appear in the Afghan theater of operations. While no onefrom the US military forces I met in Afghanistan would say so, the sad realityof Operation Iraqi Freedom is that it seems to have inspired the Taliban to newlevels of savagery. It has provided a demonstrative effect that now threatensall the signs of progress that I thought were unstoppable in thislong-suffering country.

As Idrove through Kabul on my last day in the town last month I noticed that theAfghan Fried Chicken store was empty. While it may have just been a slow day,for me it was depressing and a tacit acknowledgement of failure. It reminded me that unlike the Iraq-obsessed Americanpublic, Al Qaeda and the Taliban had clearly not forgotten the ‘Forgotten War’in Afghanistan.

Forphotographs of General Dostum, burqa-less women, ‘innocent’ Taliban prisonersand Kabul see my website; a slideshow of my journeys can be found here.

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