Afghanistan: Operation Freedom

A Kabul woman and child walk past a mural depicting landmines to avoid.
A Kabul woman and child walk past a mural depicting landmines to avoid (Photo: Rob Elliot/AFP).

Because of its rarity, the snow leopard (Panthera uncia) is an almost mythical animal, an incredibly beautiful big cat sprinkled with white and gray, living in the hidden valleys of the Hindu Kush. No Western researcher has seen one in a long time. Unless he has gone into Said Muhammad’s Shop No. 184 on Chicken Street in Kabul.

“Snow leopard?” Muhammad asks. “No problem, Sir.” All he wants to know is my jacket size. Then he brings out two new pelts. In the larger of the two, marbles have been placed in the eyeholes; it would cost US$1,200 and could—“No problem, Sir!”—be turned into a coat within days.

Before, the shopkeeper says, only the Pakistani ambassador used to come around. Now, a year after liberation, business is much better. About 100 snow leopards have left the country so far—tailored into caps or vests and packed into the luggage of the international peacekeeping force soldiers.

Nothing is impossible. Not in Kabul. In what used to be the home of Bin Laden’s fourth wife, the kitchen is now churning out British dishes—Lancashire style—for the guests of this first private guesthouse. There are four Internet cafes, and in the garden of “B’s place,” 24 Special Forces soldiers sit, their assault rifles hung around their necks like amulets, and drink Foster’s. One of their windbreakers says “Operation Enduring Freedom” and shows a map of Asia, stretching from Turkey to Pakistan.

One year later, Operation Enduring Freedom has brought the country more than US$1 billion in aid monies, has hurt the snow leopard population more than Al-Qaeda, and has transformed Kabul from a grim city of ruins into a noisy city of ruins—one where everyone is trying to make a buck.

The streets are as dusty as ever; only the number of vehicles has increased many times over. The traffic police, with their dusty beards, stand on podiums, as taxis, horse-carts, and United Nations Toyotas stream from every direction. Here is a bus labeled “German Soccer Federation,” there are beggars on boards with casters underneath, and here are the warlords’ caravans of pickup trucks. Fortunately, Germany has provided the traffic cops with whistles, reflective vests, and signal paddles. The city is filled with tired people, putting one foot in front of the other.

The bicycles of the national soccer team players lean against the stands at the stadium, watched by two dirty children and a disabled veteran in a wheelchair. It is a big day. For the first time in eight years, Afghanistan’s national soccer team is practicing, “wearing shorts as they should be,” says Meir Ali Azghar, its coach.

He has brought his team together for the first time. There are Pashtuns, Tajiks, and Afghans back from exile in Iran and Peshawar. The T-shirts of the players are as varied as the country’s ethnic groups. There is no money for uniforms, but, says Azghar, “We are in training for the first national match against Bangladesh.”

Azghar is a low-key but helpful 42-year-old with angular features, wearing the only official FIFA [International Football Association] Afghanistan uniform shirt. He played 35 times with the national soccer team. Today, he got up at 4 a.m. to go to work. On Wednesday evenings, he moderates a TV show, “Mirror on the City,” and every morning, armed with his small camera, he wanders through the bazaars and offices in search of scandals and misdeeds. The national coach is also Kabul’s first investigative reporter.

Just a year and a half ago, executions took place at the stadium. The condemned person stood in the goal. The victim’s family lined up in front of it and was allowed to shoot. Under the Taliban, there was no national soccer team—only some provincial teams, and their games were often controlled from above. When Kabul once beat Kandahar 3-0, Azghar was arrested on the field, led away, and beaten. “They knocked out my front teeth,” he says and points to his mouth. “And we had to play in long pants.”

When Azghar met [Germany’s legendary former soccer player] Franz Beckenbauer at the presidential palace last May, many promises were made. Azghar went home with a pocket full of business cards. The Asian Soccer Federations wanted to sponsor trips and provide uniforms. However, not one dollar has reached the stadium yet.

Azghar pays his men 90 cents a day. He earns nothing, which seems neither to surprise nor anger him. “I have an international referee’s license. I could have been officiating overseas. I did not do that so that I could keep this team together here.” Now, that is happening, with 35 men sweating and trotting around in short pants. These men are pioneers in their own country. They are not looking for new territory; they only want to make the old one habitable again.
After 23 years of civil war and promises, they have lost the sparks in their eyes.
Karte-Seh Street is the center of the blacksmith and welding trades. Men squat here among burned-out buses and the ruins of buildings, devotedly soldering oil lamps and stoves together. This is the western part of the city, where more rockets landed than anywhere else. In the midst of it all stands Kabul’s first billboard, bright blue and freshly painted: a cigarette pack over some palm trees and on top the slogan “Enjoy the taste of America.” It is an ad for a South Korean brand of tobacco.

Ahmed Omar Rasoulin painted the poster, for he is a graduate of the art academy. “Under the Taliban, there was not much to do. I just painted shop signs and in my free time verses from the Quran or landscapes. Once, I  painted a poster for Liberation Day: Long Live the Government of the Taliban.”
And now this big commission—$1,400! Rasoulin got the job because he makes fewer spelling mistakes than his colleagues. Does he know what he wrote? “Of course. I understand English. It means that Americans smoke these cigarettes. And if we smoke them, we will taste America.” And he has another commission: to paint a small package with the big word “Pleasure” printed on it. But that is for later.

For the first time in 23 years, there is no curfew at night, and one could drive around Kabul at midnight, if there were a reason for it. But there isn’t.

At the aid workers’ headquarters in Kabul, a large poster is pinned to a wall. It was created by American security agents and resembles the circuit diagram of a major piece of electronics. It has arrows, lines of various thicknesses, some of them hatched, circles, and about 150 little boxes, each one with a name—and sometimes a photo—inside. “Relations Diagram,” it says at the top.

This is a map of the clans and networks in Afghan society. It is an attempt to diagram the allies, enemies, cousins, straw men, party followers, puppets, and courtiers and their relationships. It is only a crude approximation. Every three months, the map has to be taken down and brought up to date. It is an attempt to make the invisible Kabul, the city behind the mirror, visible. No one stands alone; each person is caught in a net of obligations, part of a struggle for power that can never be mapped out. Perhaps that is the reason why no one knows where the billion dollars in aid money went.

In Kabul, the electricity still goes out at times, and the city still resembles the Forum in Rome. Where has the aid money gone? Only Aidan Cox knows. He arrived here in January of last year from the U.N. Development Program for a 10-day visit—and he is still here. He has done research at several think tanks; he is an efficiency expert on international aid programs. Kabul seemed like the perfect laboratory: He could start at zero.

Cox is a 33-year-old Cambridge economist with perfect manners and thin, pale fingers, which he keeps busy on his calculator. He coordinates the coordinators. He works in Gul-Khana Palace, a marble building in the government complex, where the Afghan Assistance Coordination Authority, or AACA, has its offices. Outside his door stands an armored Cadillac with a Mercedes star mounted on the radiator. The minister of planning just stepped out of it, a figure wrapped in a brown blanket who hast-ily disappeared into a conference room. A little later, the assistant minister of finance arrives.

The government officials are part of the powerful Ministry of Finance, the nexus between the donors and the ministries. This is the checkpoint where the money has to land before it reaches Afghanistan. And Cox keeps track.

“$1.3185 billion have been disbursed,” he says, two-thirds of the amount promised for 2002—which is a high percentage. Germany, the Netherlands, the United States, and Ireland have even over-fulfilled their pledges. But why is there nothing to show for it? Cox goes to fetch a cup of tea and returns with more numbers. “Half the money is going to take care of the returning refugees. Many more people have come back from exile than anyone imagined. A fourth goes to rebuild the infrastructure, a fifth to finance the ministries. And the rest, 5 percent, is for internal costs.”

At Gul-Khana Palace, no one sits behind an empty desk, lost in thought, like people do in other offices around the city. The Afghans in the AACA smell of expensive management seminars and speak English with American accents. They develop reconstruction plans and try to calm impatient donors. Here, the highest salaries in the country are paid. Here is the gateway between the promised billion and the misery and dust outside. “Never before,” says Cox, “has a newly established government succeeded in creating a reconstruction plan within three months.” Some of the ministries are headed by brilliant minds. Ashraf Ghani, the minister of finance, was a star pupil at the World Bank. “But the midlevel people are overwhelmed. They are still thinking in terms of 20-year plans, like in Soviet times.”

He cannot rule out that some of the money has ended up in the wrong pockets. And not all the money has been included in the budgets yet, because the ministries needed first to repair windows, buy chairs, and hire employees. But that, says Cox, straining to remain polite, is a minor issue.

Great changes have taken place: Everywhere, children are going to school. “Three million children in school, 685 new schools established, 8 million new schoolbooks distributed.” And the newly vaccinated herds, the retrained teachers—OK, you don’t notice all that on the streets. It cannot be photographed and does not show up in the accounts. But those things are decisive. That is why Cox is here.

First impressions are often wrong, and it is only with a second look that the radical changes become evident. $3,200 of the $1.3 billion, for instance, went for the yellow Toyota Corolla that is parked outside the national stadium, where the soccer team is practicing. The money came from the German Society for Technical Cooperation, and the ADAC [Germany’s equivalent of the AAA] sticker is still affixed to the rear window of the car.

The engine revs, and the car lurches forward. Hasina Mhboob sits behind the wheel, taking a driving lesson. This is the car in which the women of Kabul learn to get around alone.

Mhboob is the first Afghan woman who plans to get a driver’s license. This is remarkable, for until now, people either bought a driver’s license for a couple of dollars, or drove without one. And women did not need drivers’ licenses, because, ever since the Soviet withdrawal, driving was strictly forbidden to them.

Mhboob is a petite woman with long, purple fingernails, and her handshake feels like the touch of a butterfly. She loves engines. She wanted to be an engineer. Then the Taliban came. She secretly studied English, and in the spring got a job at Medica Mondiale, the German women’s aid agency.
For three months, she studied the rules of the road and the traffic signs; things that most people in Kabul don’t even know exist. Her teacher carries with him a letter from the ministry, which says that women have the right to drive. However, heads still turn in Kabul when people see a woman behind the wheel.

“We can solve our problems by driving,” says Mhboob, speaking in the plural. “We can move around by ourselves, go shopping alone, and decide for ourselves where to go. And we will prove that women can do anything, because they can even drive cars.”

She says she is getting married soon. Married to a cousin. “Love?” “Maybe in the future.” The marriage has been arranged. And then, Hasina Mhboob—the first Afghan woman to receive a driver’s license, a modern Kabul woman, with her scarf shoved way back on her head—says: “That’s the way it should be; my mother knows best, she knows what I ought to do.”

Donor countries are happy about the Ministry of  Women in Kabul, newly painted and buzzing with life. There is a kindergarten and classrooms with traffic signs and anatomical charts on the walls. In the offices, people are knitting, drinking tea, and providing legal aid. The ministry is like a decompression chamber—not a tool to advance women’s rights. It is a ministry without power, a burqah, under which women may do whatever they want, so long as it doesn’t bother anybody.

Like a tired lioness, Tajwar Kakar sits at her desk in the ministry. Asked how things are, she answers by narrating her life story. She seems to have lots of time. Kakar is the deputy minister for women’s affairs in Afghanistan.
Kakar was in Kabul in 1979 when the jihad against the Soviet army began. She was the leader of the mujahideen in Kunduz, and she wore a burqah only to hide weapons, or to slip by her “Wanted” posters undetected. “Sultan” was her code name.

She was betrothed at 12, and by the time she finished high school, she had five children. When the Islamists began to throw acid in the faces of women not wearing a burqah, Kakar organized a scout troop to protect them. Ten years later, she led an army.

She talks and talks. Kakar would be the right woman to crack the resistance to educating girls, which is still common among Pashtuns. She has always fought, for her school, for her country. She was feared because she showed no fear. As minister, she would have been too dangerous. She is tired, tired of all the time she has. In today’s Kabul, she feels superfluous, like the East German
dissidents felt after the Berlin Wall came down.

She met Bin Laden once, in 1988. “He was with some American soldiers and sat silently in [former Afghan President Burhanuddin] Rabbani’s office,” the man who later would be president of the Northern Alliance. “These guys have come back, Rabbani and the like,” she says. That hurts and tires her. She stood up in the Loya Jirga [the traditional Afghan Grand Assem-bly] and pointed at the warlords who had murdered, raped, and destroyed. “These guys are peaceful as long as American jets are flying overhead. But we cannot call on the Americans to help whenever there are disputes.”

She knows the Quran better than many mullahs. When a Talib leader tried to give her orders, she countered with the appropriate sura. The Taliban minister of religion once said: “If this woman goes on for another two years, there won’t be a Talib left.”

Three times, she traveled to Kandahar to convince Mullah Omar that girls, too, should go to school. The Taliban leader did not receive her. “But I did get his permission. The girls’ school was about to open.”

When? “On Sept. 11, 2001.”