Category Archives: Afghanistan

Kidnapped, tortured, sold to the Americans … Pakistan’s missing persons, casualties of the war on terror

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I visited Pakistan in 2007 as then-president Pervez Musharraf’s military regime was about to fall, locked in conflict with the main political parties and with the formerly compliant legal apparatus, in particular with Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohamed Chaudhry, whose judgements irritated Musharraf so much that he had him removed at one point.

One key point of friction between the president and the courts was “missing persons”, civilians who had vanished thanks to the attentions of the secret services, who kept them in secret jails or sold them to the US for a bounty, ensuring a regular supply of detainees for the Guantanamo Bay prison camp, regardless of whether they were guilty or not.

On a sweltering day in Peshawar I met a former Guantanamo detainee hiding from the police and the secret services and in Rawalpindi I met the wife of a man who had disappeared and a lawyer fighting his case and those of several others. Their testimony was both moving and shocking.

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Pakistani lawyers protest against the removal of Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, who ordered security forces to produce missing peresons Photo: Tony Cross

You can only meet Badr Dost by appointment, since he is trying to avoid the attentions of the Pakistani security forces.

We meet him at the family home in the back streets of the city of Peshawar. But only after one of his nephews has checked that we haven’t brought unwanted company and summoned him from his hiding place.

Dost has been taking this sort of precaution since his brother, Muslim, was arrested a year ago.

Badr believes that the police would have taken him, too, if his nephews hadn’t warned him of Muslim’s arrest.

The family heard nothing from or about Muslim for eight months and the authorities denied that they were holding him.

An appeal to a Peshawar court finally forced police to admit that he was in jail in one of Pakistan’s semi-autonomous tribal agencies and bring him to Peshawar’s main prison.

They say that Muslim, an Afghan who has lived in Pakistan for 30 years, has broken an obscure law about residency in the country.

That was not the first time that he had been arrested.

After the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, Badr and Muslim, who don’t hide their Islamist sympathies, criticised the US-led operation.

Pakistani security forces picked them up and handed them over to US forces, who held them in two bases in Afghanistan, before flying them to the US’s detention centre at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.

After a year, the brothers were told that the Americans had nothing against them.

But, along with other inmates in the same situation, they were kept for another year and a half before being sent home.

His account of his detention confirms the widespread reports of abuse and torture there.

“They were kicking us with their soldiers’ boots and hitting us with their fists,” he says. “We were beaten and we were kept up awake for a long time. They were not allowing us to sleep and we were kept in isolation.”

Inmates were held in extreme temperatures, he claims, and pornography was stuck on the walls of some religious prisoners’ cells as a form of “mental torture”. Dost believes that the guards went out of their way to offend the prisoners’ religious feelings.

“The American soldiers, the MPs, they were searching us every day,” he says. “They were searching the holy book as if we are hiding something inside, but that was not true because they have searched many, many times. They were desecrating the holy book. They were touching it, they were throwing it on the ground, they were stepping on it, they were tearing it to pieces and putting it in drums of shit in front of us.”

He says that the abuse of the Koran only ended after the inmates staged a hunger strike.

On their return, the brothers published a book, The Broken Shackles of Guantanamo.

If they were expecting an apology or compensation for wrongful detention, loss of business and disruption to their family life – they were to be disappointed.

The book appeared on 3 September. Muslim was arrested – again – on the 20th.

“After eight months he was produced in the tribal area and then he was brought to central jail of Peshawar,” he says. “So right now we are suing his case in Supreme Court and hopefully he will be released. But still there are head and hands who want to black him and want to put him in jail for a long time.”

The “head and hands” Badr Dost fears are elements in the Pakistani state apparatus, who, as well as carrying on a dirty war against armed Islamists, when it suits them, carry on a lucrative trade with the Americans, who pay money for supposed “terrorists”, who will be transferred to jails in Afghanistan or Guantanamo.

Most feared of all are military intelligence, the ISI.

“It was a business,” he comments. “And they have announced if the local authorities are arresting any terrorists, so they will be awarded [for] a common man 5,000 [rupees] and a wanted man maybe millions. So even Americans were telling us that they have paid a lot to Pakistani authorities for arresting us.”

For a longer version of my interview with Badr Dost click here.

“When your dearest thing, the most precious thing in the world, is taken away, what is there left in life for me?” asks Amina Janjua, sitting in a dowdy office in Rawalpindi, the military garrison town that is practically a suburb of Islamabad – or perhaps it’s vice versa.

The last time she saw her husband, Masood, he was getting on a bus to Peshawar from their home-town, Rawalpindi.

He and the friend who was with him, Faisal Fawaz, never arrived at their destination.

Amina is convinced that secret policemen from the Inter-Securities Agency (ISI) spirited them off to a secret jail on suspicion of Islamist tendencies, taking their long beards as signs of fundamentalist tendencies.

Amina insists that Masood had nothing to do with politics.

“I don’t want to live any more,” she says. “It’s just for my husband’s sake that I’m fighting and this is the hope that is keeping me alive. I’m going to get him back.”

Her suspicions were confirmed when a released prisoner said that he had seen Masood during his period of detention.

Amina and her three children have fought hard to locate Masood and get him released.

They camped out in front of the Supreme Court and contacted other families in the same situation.

They claim to have discovered ISI “safe houses”, dotted around the country, with families living on the ground floor, while prisoners are tortured in the cellar.

“I have come to know that there are safe houses in every nook and corner of this city,” she explains. “Every street is having a safe house, where apparently there is a house, normal, and a family living but underneath there is a secret house where these persons are kept and being tortured. For years now.”

For an audio report on Pakistan’s missing persons click here.

Over 400 cases are now going through the courts, 100 of them fought by Amina’s lawyer, Shaukat Aziz Siddiqi.

Siddiqi, who is a member of the Islamic party Jamaat-i-Islami, recently won the release of Hafez Abdul Basit, who had vanished for three and a half years, detained because he has associated with someone linked to the 2003 attempts on Pervez Musharraf’s life.

“His beard was shaved off, third-degree methods were used on him,” he says. “Threats were also extended to him that ‘we will bring your sister, your mother and all your favourite members of your family, who will be raped in front of you – just listen to the voices from the neighbouring room, that we have already brought so many ladies in this connection’.”

For one month Basit was not allowed to sit, still less sleep, before being confined to a tiny, sordid cell, Siddiqi claims.

The police only admitted knowing his whereabouts after Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry told the deputy inspector general of the CID that he would be jailed himself if he didn’t produce Basit within 24 hours.

The impunity with which Pakistan’s secret services operate has its origins in the country’s violent history and overspill from the Afghan war.

Many of the armed Islamists who would like to assassinate Musharraf were trained by the ISI to fight in Indian-occupied Kashmir.

But its latest manifestations are intimately linked to the US’s “war on terror”, which has led to bounties paid for prisoners, political support for Musharraf and a ten-billion dollar subsidy to the country since 9-11.

For my reports for RFI on Pakistan in 2007 and 2008 click here.

For some of my reporting from Afghanistan for RFI click here and here.

For Afghanistan in 2001 on this blog here and in 2005 here.

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Pakistan’s Islamist parties – a legacy of military dictators and Afghanistan’s wars

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In 2007 the rule of General Pervez Musharraf was drawing to an end. His seizure of power in 2001 had encountered little opposition but his failure to tackle corruption and poverty and his support for the US’s post 9/11 War on Terror, which gave birth to a dirty war in Pakistan itself, meant that he was unpopular and under political pressure in 2007. Now the man he kicked out, Nawaz Sharif of the Pakistani Muslim League (PMLN) – not to be confused with Musharraf’s PMLQ – was coming back to Pakistan after living in exile as a guest of Saudi Arabia. I was sent to cover his return – which didn’t happen. But I was able to report on the state of the country ahead of Musharraf’s fall in 2008.

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Mounted police prevent journalists gaining access to Islamabad airport as Nawaz Sharif arrives, only to be sent back to Saudi Arabia Photo: Tony Cross

Sharif touched down, only to be sent back to Saudi, Musharraf quite rightly fearing the reception he would have received … and did when he finally returned in 2008. The press was prevented from covering his arrival, we sweated in the sun on the road leading to the airport, while TV showed footage of a visibly shaken Sharif being escorted back to his plane by police.

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Future prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani (2nd L, front row) prepares to announce that Benazir Bhutto will return to Pakistan at a hastily organised press conference in Peshawar Photo: Tony Cross

In Peshawar the PPP proudly announced that their leader, Benazir Bhutto, would soon return. She did, to a rapturous reception, only to be assassinated as she campaigned against Musharraf.

Unfortunately, the account I wrote at the time has vanished into the guts of a computer, as have others on the Palestinian presidential election in 2005 and the Turkish presidential election in 2007, but I have managed to reconstitute this report on the religious parties’ alliance, the MMA, a minority but an influential one, thanks largely to the manoeuvring of various military rulers, the failures of Pakistan’s education system and the fallout from the Afghan wars. An account of the 2008 election campaign will follow.

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Waliat Khan, who makes rabobs – a traditional musical instrument – in Peshawar. His business survived despite a MMA ban on public musical performances Photo: Tony Cross

Peshawar, September 2007

Peshawar is capital of Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), separated from Pakistan by the self-administering tribal areas, Pashtun country, like much of Afghanistan, and much affected by the Afghan war.

It has hosted millions of refugees since the Afghan Communist Party, the PDPA, took power in the 1970s and has continued to do so in the decades of war that have followed.

Since 2002 the province, and the city, have been run by an alliance of religious parties, the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal, (MMA).

Shortly after taking over, the MMA passed a law which decreed a strict interpretation of Islamic sharia law throughout the province.

Music for amusement was banned in public places, barbers forbidden to shave their customers, the two alcohol licences permitted to hotels frequented by non-Muslims were withdrawn, women were ordered to wear the burka and women’s bodies on hoardings covered up.

Musicians found ways round the law by simply moving to different places away from the authorities’ gaze, while bootleggers made it known that they would deliver booze to your door – cheaper, since they didn’t have to pay for licences.

But the law proved unpopular, as did the religious police set up to enforce it.

Anwar Kamal is a local leader of the Muslim League, PMLN, which is allied to the

MMA at national level and voted for sharia in the province.

Sitting in his comfortable home in a middle-class district of the city, he seems to regret the vote now.

“At the instructions of the present [provincial] government, you see, these people would come out on roads, stop your vehicle, pull out your cassette-player, break it there, pull out these billboards that would carry ladies’ photographs,” he says. “I’m not the one that disapproved of that but the common man also disapproved of that.”

Taking on music – a favourite amusement of all Pakistanis apart from the most puritanical of religious activists – appears to have cost the MMA and their religious police a lot of support.

The MMA claims to be more concerned about social justice than the Moslem League.

But in North West Frontier Province, and in Baloochistan, the other province where it is part of a governing coalition, it hasn’t got far in wiping out poverty.

Kamal argues that deprives it of the right to be too strict in introducing sharia.

“Islam says when somebody commits a theft crime you chop off his hand,” he concedes. “But there’s a precondition and that precondition is that you provide him an opportunity so that he can earn his own living. But if the government or the state fails to provide him that opportunity of earning, then you cannot punish him under Islamic law, that is chopping off his hand, you can put him in jail.”

Confronted by the federal government, which dubbed its actions “unconstitutional”, the provincial government has dissolved the religious police.

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Pupils at the Dar-ul Uloom-Haqqania madrassa Photo: Tony Cross

Dar-ul Uloom-Haqqania madrassa, south of Peshawar, is one of thousands of religious schools in Pakistan which take up the slack left by a resource-starved public education system.

It’s one of the biggest, with about 3,000 students, and one of the most radical.

Haqqania’s head, Maulana Sami ul-Haq, was a friend and admirer of Taliban leader Mullah Omar and sent students to fight for him.

Ul-Haq also leads a breakaway faction of the Jamaat-Ulema-Islam, the country’s second biggest Islamist party, which has split from the MMA.

“They did not go on the road that we had decided,” explains Syeed Yusuf Shah, who teaches at the madrassa and is the faction’s North-West Frontier Province general-secretary. “We made some contents but they did not even work one per cent on that contents. For example, one of them was that we will not help America. But we helped. So we showed to our nation that we would do this-this-this contents but we didn’t do even zero per cent for them. That’s why MMA is unsuccessful.”

The maulana makes no secret of his support for the Taliban fighting the current Afghan government and his contempt for Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, whose cooperation with George Bush’s War on Terror has strengthened the religious parties, especially in NWFP, most of whose people are Pashtun like the majority of Afghans.

For a fuller report of my visit to Dar-ul Uloom-Haqqania madrassa click here 

The violence of the Afghan conflict often spreads over the border.

But Pakistan hasn’t suffered the decades of civil war which brought the Taliban to power in Afghanistan.

The MMA mayor of Peshawar. Cahulam Ali, claims that gave the Taliban a mandate for sharia which his party didn’t have.

“Taliban government was supported by the people there,” he argues. “They were happy with that government. They obeyed Islamic rules but the Taliban did not impose their will on them. If you impose people here with the sharia bill in this area, people will oppose and people did oppose this bill. They say that at that time there was no gun, there was no fight between them – why do you impose us to do it?”

In areas where they haven’t won a majority, some hardline Islamists still try to enforce their views – trying to destroy statues of the Buddha in the Swat Valley, for example, threatening to kill barbers who shave of beards or bullying a woman who had acid thrown in her face not to go to an NGO because NGOs are supposedly agents of the infidel West.

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Barbed wire around the Lal Masjid after it was stormed Photo: Tony Cross

In Istanbul two brothers used the city’s Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) as a base to send madrassa students out to close down Chinese massage parlours, claiming they were really brothels, enforce bans on alcohol and other measures.

After several months the army stormed the mosque, resulting in as many as 400 people being killed and enraging the religious parties and alienating part of the population.

I visited Qazi Hussein Ahmed, the leader the largest party in the MMA, Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI), in his home in Islamabad, where he was under house arrest for his opposition to Musharraf, whom he blamed for the bloodshed.

“Nobody can understand why did he resort to the use of force,” he told me. “We can disagree with the people of Lal Masjid … but there were so many ways in which they could have been controlled and they could have been evacuated. But they resorted to very inhuman killings, indiscriminate killings of the people.”

JeI opposed extrajudicial attempts to impose sharia, he said, but insisted that the Western mind has been “poisoned” against Islamic law.

“The objectives of sharia are not understood,” he argues. “The basic objective of sharia is that man should be related to the creator and he should be God-conscious and he should have the sense that he is accountable before God for all his acts and this makes him a responsible person. We want that the life, the property and the honour and also the mind of a citizen should be protected … this can be done through persuasion and through education and through training.”

Westerners think it is simply a question of “chopping off hands or chopping off legs” but these are these are a “final resort” if people are “bent on creating corruption in society”.

The MMA’s difference with the PMLN was that they wanted social justice and disagreed with liberal, free-market economics, Ahmed said.

At national level, the religious parties don’t have enough support to rule alone and the secular PPP accuses them of being inconsistent in their opposition to Musharraf.

The MMA is also accused of whipping up sectarianism, especially against the Shia-Muslim minority, despite the presence of Shia religious parties in its ranks.

In the massive port city of Karachi, Shia politician Abbas Qulemi told me that sectarian violence was high in areas where the MMA is high, including in Dera Ismail Khan, the constituency of MMA leader Maulana Fazlur Rehman and in NWFP.

“They have miserably failed in controlling the situation there [in NWFP], particularly in the killings of Shias,” he said. “You see, lots of Talibans are there … When they go to Afghanistan they fight there, when they come back they kill the Shias and, more surprisingly, the Shias are being killed and their relatives are being arrested.”

Both the religious parties and the Muslim League gained influence under the dictatorship of Zia ul-Haq in the 1970s and 80s. A strict Muslim himself, he built them up to counter the PPP, whose leader, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, he had executed after toppling him from power, and he was a key figure in helping Islamist mujaheddin fight the Soviet-backed government in Afghanistan.

The MMA still has support, especially as opposition to Musharraf grows, but they can only hope to be part of a coalition, probably with the Muslim League which is unlikely to go along with their wish to impose sharia law. But they still exercise considerable influence on Pakistani politics and everyday life.

For an audio report on Pakistan’s religious parties click here 

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Hamid Gul, the spy who went into the cold

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Hamid Gul, the former head of Pakistan’s ISI military intelligence died on Sunday. I met him at his home in Rawalpindi in 2007 and found a man who was bitter about having been declared an enemy by the West for his links to the Taliban and other Islamists after being hailed as a hero for sending many of the same people to fight against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. History can be so cruel! I’ll post a fuller account of this visit to Pakistan on my blog at a later date.

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Hamid Gul, resplendent in his medals Source: Wikipedia

 

Rawalpindi, September 2007

There is evidence of the military almost everywhere in this city next-door to Islamabad, which is home to the military and secret service headquarters.

Serving and retired officers are housed in cantts, short for cantonments, and retired General Hamid Gul lives in a spacious and well-protected house in one of them.

Gul was head of the secret services, the Inter-Services Intelligence Agency (ISI) in the 1980s. In collaboration with US and other agencies, he armed and trained the mojahedin who fought the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. During his time as ISI chief there was an rise in jihadi activity in Indian-ruled Kashmir.

But in September 2007, as politicians and lawyers face off against President and Chief of Staff Pervez Musharraf, he says that it is time for the military to get out of Pakistan’s politics.

“This new-found freedom of the press and the judiciary, I think this is a gift to Pakistan,” he says. “This is going to lead to the empowerment of people. Now the military has got to go back to barracks.”

He is scathing about Musharraf’s allies. Today’s MPs are not independent, he says, “they’re under the shadow of the army”. But he hopes that “free and fair” elections will correct this state of affairs.

Gul is brutally frank in his criticism of Musharraf, whom he believes is on the brink of introducing martial law. “That’s the only option left to him. If he’s so greedy for power – and Americans are patting him on the back to go on and do it.”

“I’m quite amazed, really,” he says of Musharraf’s determination to cling on to both of his jobs. “It was my job twice to profile him because I was once his instructor in the staff college and second time he was my subordinate, when he was a major-general. He served under me and I wrote reports on him. And good reports, too.”

Back then Gul found the president-to-be pleasant and flexible. “I think it is fear that is driving him towards this and an unnecessary encouragement from the Americans.”

But the general, who has plenty of experience of Americans, believes they may be rethinking their strategy. “They’re very clever, they keep their intentions hidden,” he says.

Most analysts think that Washington is pushing Musharraf to reach agreement with Benazir Bhutto, who is apparently seen as secular and Western-friendly. Gul thinks they may plump for Nawaz Sharif, who, he says, has emerged as “almost unmitigated number-one political figure in the country”.

Gul is not against mixing religion and politics. Pakistan was born as a political-religious entity, he says. “They cannot be separated. In India and Pakistan, that is the lesson of history. If they [the religious parties] come to power, as long as they accept electoral politics, then there is no problem.”

The general advises the US to rethink its international strategy, especially its military operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

“There is no light at the end of the tunnel that they will succeed,” he says. “Tell me, are they succeeding? If they are not succeeding, then they must change direction.”

The Taliban, who imposed a distinctly unsecular regime on Afghanistan, came out of madrassas and refugee camps in Pakistan, enjoying the patronage of the ISI. While criticising the Taliban’s dispensation of summary justice, Gul says they did some “very good things”, introducing “peace” and “justice” after the chaos of the civil war between themojahedin factions he had himself backed.

But, he says, that was all after his retirement, and he was only responsible for the mojahedin, whom everybody, apart from the Russians, loved back then.

“The Americans, and let me tell you, French, German and all the free world which was afraid of the red menace,” he says. “They were all helping us. If it was culpable and was a crime, then we were all together in that crime.”

There’s no mistaking Gul’s bitterness, as he points to a lump of the Berlin Wall presented to him by the German government “with deepest respect to one who helped deliver the first blow”. Now, says retired General Hamid Gul, the US and the European countries with whom he used to work won’t give him a visa.

First posted on RFI’s website: http://www1.rfi.fr/actuen/articles/101/article_320.asp

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Women, warlords, drug-runners and NGOs … eyewitness to Afghanistan’s 2005 legislative election in Kabul and Herat

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In 2005 I covered Afghanistan’s first post-invasion parliamentary election. Here’s my account, written at the time, of how women and independent candidates struggled to make their voices heard, despite quotas, in a contest dominated by warlords and ethnic-based politicians. In the eastern city of Herat the legacy of one of these ruthless operators lives on, despite his being kicked upstairs to central government. In Kabul a former minister claims a mafia of warlords, drug-runners and NGOs is running the country.

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A Kabul kebab restaurant Photo: Tony Cross

Kabul, 11 September 2005

At last, the freedom they were fighting for! Four years after the US and its allies toppled the Taliban, Kabul has traffic jams.

Our midday journey from the airport to a hotel in the centre of town is excruciating, as we crawl through streets packed with private cars, taxis and land-cruisers.

At the end of the war, there were comparatively few motor vehicles.

Just under a year ago, during the presidential election, there was more traffic but not this asphyxiating blockade of the city’s main arteries.

Now the smog has become thicker and the thrum of engines ticking over lasts from mid-morning to evening. Every Kabuli has been granted the democratic right to sit and curse the car in front and pump fumes into the city’s already dust-laden air, whether in his or her own car, in a taxi or in a minibus stuffed full of passengers.

Except for the beggars and hawkers, of course. Amputees, women clad in soiled and faded burkas and kids selling newspapers dodge between the cars and tap on the windows. Near the junction of Park Street and Chicken Street, where foreigners shop for rugs and antique furniture, a man dressed in rags stands in the middle of the traffic, bent under the weight of an apparently paralysed boy who is strapped to his back for the day. The man holds out his hand for alms from the oncoming motorists, as the boy lies on top of him, occasionally rolling his head from side to side, apparently oblivious to the passing traffic.

The Americans are rebuilding the road from the airport, so that visiting dignitaries have a smooth run to their main compound, which is on the way into the city.

The concrete and barbed wire fortifications around their buildings, and those around others that house foreign organisations or Afghan ministries, seem to have been reinforced, eating even further into the streets around them. It doesn’t look as if their occupants expect to leave any day soon.

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A trader makes and seels Karzai-style astrakhan hats in a Kabul market Photo: Tony Cross

The square in front of the defence ministry is cordoned off  by police … not just because a convoy of cars belonging to Defence Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak was attacked yesterday – the attack missed the minister who was out of town at the time – but also because the square is occupied by several hundred former soldiers.

We have to negotiate a passage through a barricade of bikes before we can talk to the protestors. They are some of several thousand military officers, about a third of the officer corps, who have been thrown out of the army.

These men used to belong to the various militias which were integrated into the army as part of the process which is supposed to demilitarise the country.

Having noticed that army officers’ salaries are several times higher than those of the police, the government has decided to dispense with their services.

The men, who seem to represent all of Afghanistan’s many ethnic groups, sit quietly in the dust around a van with a loudspeaker and a man on its roof, addressing them.

He climbs down and comes to talk to us.

Abdel Hafiz was a colonel. He says that the redundant officers could do the work now being done by the more than 30,000 foreign troops in a far-from-pacified country.

“We have high-ranking officers who are experienced and don’t need training. So we don’t need international forces to come here and secure our country.”

There aren’t a lot of jobs about nor spare fertile land to be worked.

“We’ve been borrowing from our friends and from our relatives, so now we are not able to borrow again. Now we’re out of money and our economic condition is getting worse.”

A crowd of about 40 men gathers as we talk. They all claim to be ex-mujahedin, who have fought either the Russians or the Taliban or both.

But the label can cover a multitude of sins. They could well have been involved in the brutality and sectarian viciousness which characterised the conflict and that means that many civilians don’t trust them.

Brought into the army by the post-war Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration programme, which aimed to find places for former fighters in a peaceful Afghanistan, they’ve now been deintegrated with little training in anything other than warfare … thousands of experienced fighters at a loose end in a country already ravaged by war.

Behind the cordon of truncheon-wielding police in front of the entrance to the ministry stands a line of soldiers, guns at the ready for use against their former officers if need be.

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A girl plays by the water pump installed by residents of Shah Shaheen, Kabul Photo: Tony Cross

Shah Shaheen is a poor neighbourhood on the outskirts of Kabul. The houses sprawling up the hillside and the dirt road that winds between them are all the same dusty colour. A new water-pump stands in a gap in the buildings, rigid and shiny against the jagged outline of distant mountains. The local people have themselves paid for its installation and would like the government to compensate them for the cost and provide other basic services.

Behind the shabby walls, in a house built around a traditional courtyard, Ghutai Khawari sits on a raised piece of ground, flanked by local supporters, with a small audience sitting in the shade provided by a colourfully-patterned sheet stretched between tall roughly-cut poles.

Khawari is a candidate for the Wolesi Jirga, the lower house of parliament which is to be elected on Sunday along with provincial assemblies.

She’s a journalist and her level of education seems to impress her audience. In a country with 70-80% illiteracy, poor voters almost always say that they want an “educated person” to represent them.

Her audience is entirely masculine, unless you count a few little girls playing in the street outside.

The men seem to have left their wives, daughters, sisters and mothers at home but they insist that they’re ready to vote for a woman candidate.

Ali, a young man who is enthusiastically moving chairs and making people welcome, speaks to us in English.

“No, it’s not important, that, it is no problem. Islam says that women and men are equal.”

Ghawari tells her audience that it would be a sin to vote for candidates with blood on their hands, a reference to the many warlords who’ve found their way onto the ballot-papers.

Earlier she told us that ending ethnic enmity is her top priority, “especially among women, where they say ‘you’re a Pashtun, you’re a Tajik’ and so on, because we’re women, we’re human, we’re one.”

She accuses the authorities of paying lip-service to helping women but not taking action.

“The government and some NGOs say they will give rights to the people but they don’t pay any attention to the majority of women, who live in the villages, in the provinces.”

She cites as examples the lack of education for girls and poor health care, which, she says leads to 1,000 women dying in childbirth every year.

To her audience she also stresses that she is running a shoe-string campaign.

“You are my only resources,” she tells them.

At least 68 seats have been reserved for women in the 249-member Wolesi Jirga, with at least two in the provincial councils, which will have between nine and 29 members.

Women’s rights campaigners are encouraged by the fact that 328 women are standing for the Wolesi Jirga. Not so many have come forward for the provincial councils, however, where the weight of tradition may be heavier.

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The ruins of a shah’s tomb, Shah Shaheen, Kabul Photo: Tony Cross

Almost all the women standing are independents. That means that, like Ghawari, they have little money, no experience and no established network.

The regional bigwigs and established politicians may have terrorised the area where they’re standing or pocketed fortunes through corrupt dealings but they have the advantage of being well-known and, through patronage, they can find support among the men of influence in the towns and villages.

Ghawari and other women candidates in Kabul say that they’ve faced no intimidation or pressure while campaigning. But, they warn, that may not be the case in the provinces, especially the rural areas.

There women risk being chased off the street if they appear in public. What’s more women can’t go into the mosque to address Friday prayers. Many, though not all, mullahs preach against female participation in public life and, even without that, tradition militates against them.

And there’s also intimidation by warlords and the Taliban.

The Asian Network for Free Elections (Anfrel) reports that the husband of one female candidate in Baghlan province was jailed for two days without charge and later sacked from his job because he helped her campaign.

One woman election worker has been killed during the campaign. Other women report death threats and accusations that they are “American spies”.

Little wonder then that 51 women withdrew their candidacies for unspecified reasons before the campaign started.

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Herat seen from a taxi Photo: Tony Cross

No-one can escape evidence of the election in Herat. Candidates’ photographs and slogan-bearing banners hang from string stretched between the pine-trees which line the streets, so that the city looks as if it’s celebrating a particularly popular festival.

Posters are plastered all over any available wall-space – on the concrete and metal umbrellas erected at crossroads to provide traffic-police with shade and on what looks like a peace monument, a structure topped with a globe and four doves which stands at one of the main road junctions.

And they’re contributing to the deterioration of the city’s historic legacy.

Enthusiastic campaigners have fly-posted their candidates’ images onto centuries-old minarets, which have survived earthquake and war but are now threatened by vibrations from a nearby road – and by electoral politics.

The long road to Herat from the airport is lined by trees almost all the way, encouraging fantasies of entering at the head of a trader’s caravan or a conquering army.

You pass through villages with traditional mud-caked buildings, past a park crowded with painted, concrete benches but no people to sit on them and over a bridge which looks down on a broad river-bed, where motorists wash their vehicles in the narrow strip of river that the sun has so far failed to evaporate.

Herat’s a relief after Kabul. Its wide, tree-lined streets are relatively clean and uncongested. There’s less dust and more visible history, most noticeably the huge and beautiful mosque in the city centre.

My translator, Hoshang, is bowled over by the city’s cleanliness and its exotic Persian atmosphere. When we see a man smoking a shisha pipe in a restaurant, he asks me what the strange object is, never having seen one in Kabul or in Peshawar, the two cities he has lived in.

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Interior courtyard of Herat’s historic mosque Photo: Tony Cross

Clearly the governor who built the present seat of local government in the mid-20th century, didn’t want the home of secular power to be completely dwarfed by the mosque. It’s a rambling complex of brick-clad buildings, about as tall as the mosque and pleasant enough to look at, even if it can’t compete with the mosque’s tile-clad walls, which were decorated by craftsmen skilled in a 600-year-old art form.

It’s easy to gain access to high officials. Sitting in the corner of a large room, as a handful of officials administer the citizens who have come to petition him, deputy governor Mir Abdul Khalq, “call me Haj Mir because no-one in Herat will recognise me if you give me the full name”, offers cups of green tea and chats affably. But he says it would be better if I interview Governor Mohammed Khair Khuwa.

Unfortunately, the governor is in Kabul today, so we will have to come back tomorrow.

Haj Mir is a grey-bearded, wrinkled, smiling man, who chats freely about Herat. It is probably Afghanistan’s richest city and he boasts of its public buildings and housing.

I ask if supporters of Ismail Khan, who preceded Khuwa as governoror, still have much influence.

“Oh yes,” says Haj Mir. “I myself am a supporter of Ismail Khan and was with him for seven years during the war.”

This takes me aback since I’d understood that it had taken quite a power struggle for President Hamid Karzai, who was finally elected last year, to dislodge Khan from running the city last year.

Ismail Khan became governor of Herat province in 2001, after fighting the Russian occupation, being jailed by the Taliban and escaping to take control of Herat as the ultra-fundamentalist régime was bombed out of office.

During his governorship, there were many complaints about his warlord ways – a heavy hand with potential opposition and harsh treatment of women in the province.

Last year, there was heavy fighting between Khan’s fighters and those of a rival warlord, Amanullah Khan, a Pashtun. Kabul declared its support for Ismail but, shortly after the fighting ended, Karzai offered the victorious governor the post of minister of power and water – a poisoned promotion which dislodged him for his power-base.

Not everyone was glad to see him go. Riots followed his removal and Khuwa, a Hazara who arrived in town with guards from his own ethnic group, was obliged to take the oath of office in front of a picture of his predecessor.

Khan left behind a mixed reputation. He dealt with critics and suspected enemies in summary fashion – the head of the officially-backed human rights commission told us that, at the official opening of the organisation’s office in the city with national government ministers in attendance, a journalist was beaten up and dragged off to jail. Just so everyone knew who was boss, as it were.

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The entrance to the courtyard of the Jamja Masjid (Friday Mosque) in Herat Photo: Tony Cross

But the ex-governor is still respected for making Herat one of the best-run cities in the country. He paid for public works and efficient administration by collecting the handsome revenue from customs duties on the frontiers with neighbouring Iran and Turkmenistan ¼ and refusing to pass any of the money on to Kabul.

Maybe it was that which inspired Karzai to conclude that the governor had to go, rather than the stories of armed tribal fighters doing as they wished on the city’s streets or women found alone with men being arrested and examined for signs of recent sexual intercourse.

But, once the rioting was over, the transition seems to have been relatively smooth.

Haj Mir seems to be working with his ex-boss’s successor and is happy to suggest that we interview the new head of security, Ayub Salangy, another out-of-towner who arrived two months ago accompanied by guards from his home province.

Of course, sending round a journalist may be the Haji’s idea of a practical joke; it turns out that Salangy is home sick today. But he agrees to see us.

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Herat’s Jama Masjid Photo: Tony Cross

Delivered at Salangy’s house by a military vehicle, we find him in his garden, meeting leaders of the Provincial Reconstruction Team, one of the PRTs, the foreign military units that carry out aid projects, leading to complaints that they have made NGOs targets of possible guerrilla attacks.

We are shown into the house and wait in a living room so generously furnished that there is a TV at either end of the room.

On a table sits a photo mounted on curved glass with blue and gold edges. It shows the lieutenant-general embracing President Karzai as he arrives for a visit to Herat.

Salangy’s assistant assures us that the commander is a good friend of the president and gives us an outline of his employer’s career, which mostly consists of Karzai begging him to go to a number of troublesome provinces, with varying degrees of success. Salangy did serve in possibly the toughest posting, Kandahar, the Taliban’s stronghold at the time that they took power and still the scene of rebel activity, including a recent attempt to shoot down the president’s airplane.

When he finally meets us, Salangy doesn’t seem too ill. But he undoubtedly has a robust constitution. He’s a buffalo in a shalwar kameez; tall and broad, his hand swallows mine when we shake. Unusually for an Afghan, he is clean-shaven and his hair is cut short, adding to the youthful appearance of his face. It’s a surprising fact here that the men who have probably seen the most combat are the men with the most laugh-lines on their faces.

At some point in his career the lieutenant-general has picked up the art which the French call langue de bois. He studiously avoids giving any interesting answers to my questions: everything will go fine on election day; there are no serious security problems in the province; recent kidnappings and violence were in neighbouring provinces and not on his turf.

When I ask if he’s worried about the way the Americans have used the PRTs, he gently makes a fool of me by explaining that the people he was talking to were Italians, since they have taken over that work in Herat and the west of the country.

Asked if he sees himself as Karzai’s man in Herat, Salangy replies that he’s happy to represent the president and central government here.

But the question seems to have touched a sensitive spot. When I stop recording, the commander declares that, if I’ll permit it, it is his turn to pose a question.

“Who told you I was Karzai’s man?” he asks.

Hoping that the answer will not prove compromising for anyone involved, I tell him that his secretary told me that they were friends.

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A group of trainee police officers pose for a photo while visiting Herat’s famous mosque

Before leaving Herat, we take up Haj Mir’s suggestion and try to see the governor. It’s a long and fruitless process which entails visits to his offices, his home and, just before we leave, the recently-built governor’s mansion in the foothills of the mountains that overlook the city.

Persian script dug into the sides declares jihad the salvation of the faithful and what looks like a kilometre of steps lead up to a self-important dome perched on a rock. One gets the impression that this building is part of Ismail Khan’s legacy.

We’re already late for the rendezvous and, after an inconclusive argument with guards and our taxi-driver about whether we will have to walk up all those steps to the mansion in the baking heat, we conclude that there won’t be time for an interview if we’re to catch the plane to Kabul. As we race towards the airport, a phone-call reveals that the governor hasn’t actually left his home.

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A young boy at work in a Herat workshop Photo: Tony Cross

Both in Herat and Kabul, voters face a huge and confusing choice of candidates.

Ballot papers the size of broadsheet newspapers carry the names, pictures and symbols of hundreds of candidates for the Wolesi Jirga or the provincial councils; in Kabul’s case 390 for the national body and 216 for the provincial one.

Some 70-80% of voters are illiterate and, it being over 30 years since the last such elections, most of the population haven’t taken part in this sort of exercise before.

Of course, there was last year’s presidential election but that was a much simpler affair since only one post was up for grabs. The difference may not have sunk in to the popular consciousness – some punters have apparently told journalists that they intend to vote for Karzai this time round.

The process would have been even more complicated if the original plan to elect district councils at the same time had gone ahead. That vote was postponed. Not to spare the unfortunate electorate the struggle with a third enormous ballot paper. It’s just that the districts don’t really exist yet. Their boundaries haven’t been drawn and their populations have yet to be determined.

On the street most people seem keen to vote but no-one has much idea how to do it. Most Kabulis seem not to have chosen their candidate. In Herat more people seem to have made their choice for both the national and provincial assemblies.

In the cities, at least, no prejudice is expressed against women candidates. Several men declare that they are ready to vote for a woman and some say that they’ve already decided to do so.

Karzai apparently intervened personally to prevent party symbols being printed on the ballot papers, although an accompanying sheet does list the parties and their candidates. This is justified by arguing that it is political groups that have brought the country to its present condition. Karzai himself, of course, has no party although he does have a network of allies. His behind-the-scenes style of politics will probably be best suited by an atomised parliament, in which he can play off individuals or groups against each other.

The ban, along with a first-past-the-post voting system, favours a personality contest and undermines the possibility of a future development of parties formed on the basis of political platforms.

It strengthens candidates who are already well-known – religious leaders, ethnic or regional bosses and warlords, none of whom can be absolved from blame for Afghanistan’s woes.

But their notoriety may backfire, in some cases at least. Soraya Daqiqi, a woman candidate in Herat, says that village elders have told her that it’s time to give a woman a chance. “After all, look at what men have done for us – Timur Lang, Janghis Khan, and that German leader, Hitler.”

Other independent candidates also believe that they may benefit from an anti-warlord backlash.

The Taliban have stepped up attacks in the last few months and say that they will disrupt the election, although they say that they won’t attack voters.

Most of the violence has been clashes between their fighters and foreign or Afghan soldiers and it has mainly taken place in the south and east, where they still operate quite freely.

But seven candidates have been killed and there has been other election-related violence.

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Nomadic kuchis, who have reserved seats and special polling stations adapted to their way of life Photo: Tony Cross

And there’s concern about the number of former commanders, many of whom have been involved in atrocities, who are on the ballot papers. Only 11 candidates were disqualified for being militia leaders before the campaign began, while human rights campaigners claim that in many areas at least half of those standing are warlords.

The internationally-staffed Election Complaints Commission says that only those who have been convicted of crimes can be excluded, which seems reasonable until you remember how difficult it is for victims to obtain justice here.

Of course, there is no clear demarcation between the terms “warlord” and “mujahed” and many violent killers have been invaluable allies to Karzai and the US.

Analysts at the International Crisis Group claims that deals were struck with some commanders, allowing them to remain on the ballot papers in return for promises to collaborate with the official disarmament process.

Nevertheless, there are no reports of candidates actually bumping off their rivals.

That may be a sign of patience, rather than of born-again pacifism. A clause in the election law has become known as the “assassination clause”. It declares that after the poll, if an assembly member dies, the runner-up takes his or her place, giving rise to fears that some frustrated candidates may revert to their old habits to achieve the victory that the electoral process failed to deliver.

The electoral law is remarkably tolerant of practices which the Asian observers of Anfrel, who know a thing or two about money politics, claim “may be regarded as vote-buying in other countries”.

They describe electoral cards being bought from voters in some provinces and mullahs being offered money in return for their endorsement (one of them boasts that his backing would mean at least 5,000 votes for the lucky bidder).

Rich candidates are able to spend large sums on fleets of vehicles, election workers and other resources, while poorer candidates struggle to raise funds.

The Afghan semi-official observers’ organisation, Fefa, says it’s disappointed that a ban on handing out gifts is only valid on election day.

The Afghan fondness for a feast may indeed prove useful in courting the floating voter. Fefa says that one candidate, who owns a hotel, has been giving free lunches and dinners “almost every day” and has hosted one lunch with music and dancing for about 5,000 people.

Uzbek warlord General Abdel Rashid Dostum proved even more generous. He invited notables in Sherbergan province to a party “in honour of his father” which lasted for three days.

One candidate told Anfrel that he was worried about what the candidates will do to recoup their outlay. “Maybe robbery or drug-trafficking. They need to get the money that they spent back.”

The Election Commission says that it can’t ban such practices because they are part of the Afghan tradition of hospitality.

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Ramazan Bashardost (C) with supporters in a Kabul park Photo: Tony Cross

 strange noise disturbs the peace of Kabul’s Shah-e-Naw Park. It’s the horribly distorted sound of a television rigged up among the trees.

Nearby is a tent, which has been occupied by Ramazan Bashardost every day since he resigned from the post of minister of planning and launched a clean-government campaign.

Bashardost is a candidate for the Wolesi Jirga and this is two days before polling day, well within the 48-hour period within which election campaigning has been banned, but he says that the video of him currently playing to a small audience is of a speech he made before the start of campaigning and so not in breach of election law.

Bashardost resigned in a row over the 2,355 NGOs which have mushroomed in Afghanistan in the war’s aftermath. The 2001 Tokyo reconstruction conference allotted them a third of foreign aid. But Bashardost compiled a list of 1,935 that he wanted to close, saying that many of them were fake, some operating for profit and not the benefit of Afghans, others just inefficient and nearly all spending most of the donors’ money on their staff salaries and operating costs rather than on the people they were supposed to help.

“About 70% of their budgets are used for administration or logistics or for a luxurious life,” Bashardost tells me. “There is NGOism in Afghanistan, like a Communist system. It is very strange that the Afghan poor people don’t have access to the directors of NGOs. I think it is more easy to meet Mr Karzai.”

When he was a minister he would send people to meet NGO chiefs.

“They returned to my office and say ‘Mr Minister, when the bodyguard is happy he took my paper and when the bodyguard is not happy he said very bad things to me and I couldn’t see the director’.”

Now he says that Afghanistan is run by a new nomenklatura of NGO bosses, UN and US officials, international military chiefs, Afghan warlords and government ministers.

“It is a very dangerous situation because $12 billion has arrived in Afghanistan since two years and the Afghan people believe that there is not reconstruction. I think that some people say ‘My life is now more bad than three years ago’. This nomenkaltura shares the money between its members and we’re losing the chance to show a good cooperation between Western countries and a Muslim country.”

Although he was educated abroad and speaks English and French, Bashardost mistrusts returned exiles as much as he mistrusts warlords, claiming that many have only returned for business opportunities and that those who are standing for the Wolesi Jirga are motivated by commercial, rather than political, interest.

Bashardost believes the multi-national mafia is also complicit in the drugs trade.

Since the US-led invasion, Afghanistan has returned to the top of the world league of opium-poppy growers, providing most of the heroin sold in Europe and much of Asia.

The ex-minister says that only one per-cent of the profits go to Afghan farmers and that local and international officials are involved in it.

“The new parliament may be a narco-parliament,” he says and slams Interior Minister Ali Ahmad Jalali and President Karzai for saying top officials, including six governors, were involved in drug trafficking but refusing to name them, let alone take action against them.

Few candidates speak as freely or directly as Bashardost. Those with dubious pasts – or presents – use portentous declarations to avoid addressing embarrassing subjects. And, in a country in which guns rather than discussion have decided political issues for so many years, new candidates lack any experience of real political debate. When faced with a microphone, most either launch into long autobiographies, give accounts of their educational qualifications or make vague statements about ending the violence and rooting out corruption in exactly the same terms that their rivals use.

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Voters in Shah Shaheen Photo: Tony Cross

18 September, election day. At the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, which is a polling station for the day, voters are encouraged to do their civic duty by music broadcast from tinny loudspeakers and banners bearing inspirational messages such as “Let’s join together to participate in the parliamentary election which is a legislative organ and one of the three pillars of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan”.

But the official enthusiasm doesn’t seem to have rubbed off onto the electorate. At 8.10am, just over two hours since the polls opened, there are few voters here, an astonishing contrast to the long queues to vote in the presidential election.

Inside the building a young election official says that it’s early yet, there’s still time, and assures us that voters have had no difficulty with the complicated voting procedure.

As he speaks, a man in a voting booth behind him is turning his ballot paper this way and that with a mystified air. He calls to an official to come and explain what he should do.

Outside two young men tell us that they have voted for Bashardost because they believe he is honest, while others won’t name their choice.

When we leave the building, SUVs have blocked off the street and armed guards stand outside the polling station. US ambassador Ronald Neumann is here.

He declares the day a triumph.

“Four years ago they were killing women with stones in the sports stadium and today women are running their separate polling places here next door to the men’s polling places.”

What does the ambassador think of the presence of alleged warlords on the ballot papers?

“I think people get to actually vote, so if they don’t want to vote for a warlord they don’t have to, they can vote for somebody else.”

So, even if a candidate has blood on his hands, he should be allowed to stand?

The tone becomes slightly less affable.

“No, I don’t think that’s a correct statement. I think what you need to understand is that this is the first time that they’ve tried to run a process by rules. And it’s a country where you don’t have full evidence, so sometimes you don’t get the result that you would ideally like, just as sometimes, in your country or mine, somebody may go free in a trial where you think they should have been convicted.”

Neumann gives the impression that, so far as he’s concerned, there have been exhaustive legal efforts to find war-criminals and that they are now over.

“The fact is that they did run a process by rules … and that’s a big, important step in the transition to building a rule-based system of law.”

More voters turn out as the day goes on but there are nowhere near last year’s number.

At Shah Shaheen nobody will tell us who their choice was, although one man says that he’s voted for a woman and a man, while the women, all clad in blue burkas, huddle in a short line at the side of the polling station.

The women at Fourth Makoryan, a middle-class district, are more assertive. Many of the polling officers and voters are elegantly dressed, some wearing smart trouser suits with headscarves.

One, who’s enjoying the sun after casting her ballot, proudly declares that she has voted for a woman candidate.

“We all want to vote for women because women are the ones who care for women,” she says.

But she’s not sure how much things will change for women after the election.

“Maybe yes, maybe no. In Kabul the women vote but in some other provinces some of them don’t vote. I hope that they all vote and the women win.”

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Traditional Afghan buildings in Dehyaya Photo: Tony Cross

In Dehyaya, a village outside Kabul, we don’t see any women. To get there we have to turn off the fine new road that the American military have built to get to their base at Bagram airfield and on to a track across the dusty plain that lies between ranges of Afghanistan’s cruelly beautiful mountains.

The stones crunch under the weight of our four-wheel drive and the dust gets everywhere – into the car, into our hair, into our nostrils.

We follow the track round a bend and find the beginning of the village.

It’s made up of traditional Afghan dwellings; huge compounds hidden behind walls several hundred metres long.

They’re covered in dried mud, made out of desert dirt, and they look as if they have grown out of this unworldly, grey-brown landscape.

As a scorching sun burns the last drops of moisture from the land, we look down a long, straight street, flanked by long, straight mud walls, heading towards a distant perspective point.

There’s not a soul to be seen; it’s like High Noon – only with more dust.

Who knows how people scratch a living out of this arid landscape but the village seems to be large, even if you take into account the size of the compounds.

One thing’s for sure, land can’t be very expensive round here.

Down the street and around a bend, we come across a petrol station.

It’s deserted, too, but there are signs of election activity – candidates’ posters have been pasted on its walls and on the sign at its entrance.

The largest is one of Abdul Rab Rasul Sayyaf.

He’s a notorious militia leader, whom human-rights campaigners have demanded be taken off the ballot paper, because of his alleged brutality during the war.

In the days of the fight against Russian occupation, Sayyaf was a friend of Osama ben Laden and mixed with the hard-line Islamists who received US funding for their anti-Communist jihad.

But, despite his dubious past, he has stayed in the running.

His position can’t have been hindered by the fact that he has recently acted as an adviser to Karzai, doing his best to keep Afghanistan’s legal system true to his severe interpretation of Islam.

A bit further down the street, and at last there are signs of life.

A small crowd of men and boys has gathered in front of the school, where voting is taking place.

As we go into the building, Hoshang suggests that maybe we shouldn’t stay too long.

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Dehyaya from the mountain Photo: Tony Cross

“Taliban fire rockets at Kabul from these mountains.”

Inside, however, all is running smoothly, if not very busily, and the polling officers say that there have been no threats or intimidation.

One of the voters is a former mujahed. He won’t name the person he voted for but says that “he is my friend from the jihad time”. But, like all ordinary voters what he wants most is peace – “No more fighting in my country”.

To get back to Kabul, we’re told to go over the mountain.

As we climb the slope, we can at last see some patches of green in the village, hidden behind some of those long walls.

When our wheels get stuck in the dirt half way up the slope, I wonder if I should duck down in the back if men with guns appear or whether they’ll see me anyway. But they don’t appear and, when the car climbs over the peak, we see an inscription dug into the hillside.

I ask if this is another call to jihad, like the ones we saw outside Herat.

Hoshang squints at the writing. “No,” he replies, “it says ‘carwash’.”

And there, just below it, is a huge car lot, the vehicles glistening in the sun, and, beyond it, the grubby bustle of Kabul.

On our return, we hear that three rocket-propelled grenades were fired from the mountains during the morning.

Two failed to explode. One of them hit a UN compound and injured one person, although not seriously.

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A photographer shows off his antique camera in Shah Shaheen, Kabul Photo: Tony Cross

 

Turnout is low throughout the country. Officials claim about 50%, some sceptics put it as low as 35% and claim that there were no votes at all in some parts of the south, where the Taliban are active.

The electoral commission says that seven polling stations never opened at all, apparently because the security services were too scared to protect them. Security worries led to a temporary disruption of the vote in many other places and there are already allegations of fraud.

Apparently anticipating a wave of enthusiasm throughout the land, the electoral commission made a last-minute decision to bring forward the start of the vote an hour. Unfortunately, the decision didn’t get through to all voting officials, some of whom arrived, bleary-eyed, at 7.00am or later, to find impatient voters waiting for them or to hear that some had already given up.

Piqued, perhaps, by criticism of the small number of candidates banned from standing, officials took another 28 off the ballot paper during the week before the vote. Human rights groups weren’t mollified, claiming that they weren’t the roughly 150 warlords and thugs that they had in mind.

And, unfortunately, the list of these late removals was either not posted up at many voting centres or put in a position which hardly anyone saw. Even where it was visible it was meaningless to the illiterate majority of voters.

To add to the confusion, two candidates were put back onto the ballot, one because he had been confused with someone else of the same name.

Now the votes have to be gathered in, using donkeys and helicopters to bring them down from the most remote mountain villages. Definitive results are not expected for at least a month and the absence of debate and clearly defined political camps makes it difficult to guess what the Wolesi Jirga will look like.

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A Kabul street Photo: Tony Cross

Robert Kluyver, a fluent Dari-speaker and former UN worker who has set up the Foundation for Culture and Civil Society and also represents George Soros’s Open Society Institute, believes there are three main reasons for the low turnout. Many candidates were unknown and discouraging political parties added to confusion about what they might stand for, many hopes that were raised by last year’s presidential election have already been disappointed and in some areas, especially the cities, there’s suspicion that the results were rigged in advance.

“While a lot of candidates were ex-fighters, either mujahedin or Communists, I think that there will be a strong presence of civil society.”

But he believes that the parliament will be weak.

“With this low voter-turnout they will lack the political legitimacy they need. This parliament doesn’t have any clearly defined functions. Thirdly, the parliamentarians won’t have any experience in conducting parliamentary affairs and I think that there will be a strong tendency for the parliament to be bogged down in local issues, for example about schools and hospitals in particular districts, because that’s very much how the candidates now see themselves, representing the interests of their local community.”

He believes that, although most Afghans are sick of religious interference in politics, there will be a bloc of representatives who will push a hard-line position on issues such as sharia law.

And what of the question that voter after voter raised during the campaign – the warlords’ hold on the country?

Saman Zia-Zarifi is the deputy director of Human Rights Watch. Being of Iranian origin, he can speak Dari and has come to observe the election along with a team from the high profile US-based group.

He says that most voters had to choose between unknown candidates and notorious ones.

Zia-Zarifi is bitterly critical of the election complaints commission’s failure to strike “warlords, former military commanders and human-rights abusers” from the ballot.

“It created a certain amount of confusion and even questions about the political nature of this process,” he says and concludes. “It remains to be seen if the Afghan electors have achieved what the electoral commission failed to do.”

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Ethnic powerbroking, warlords and corruption in Afghanistan’s ‘fairly democratic’ 2004 presidential election

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After three years in power, Hamid Karzai – or his Western sponsors – decided it was time that Afghans should have the chance to directly elect him, or an alternative of their choice. Although they were the majority of the population, women’s voices were not really heard in the campaign. Outspoken candidates and activists faced death threats and other intimidation. And the real decisions were made in traditional Afghan power-broking, usually along ethnic lines, away from the few elections rallies and media debates. And, of course, there were widespread accusations of corruption and dirty tricks on polling day.

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A soldier and a civilian show they’ve voted on polling day 2004 Photo: Tony Cross

Kabul, Loghar, Panjshir Valley 3.10.04 – 12.10.04.

A huge image of Ahmed Shah Masood looks out from the front of  Kabul airport.

The Mojahedin leader’s assassination just before the fall of the Taliban has made his portrait an icon for post-Taliban Afghanistan and helped legitimise the political influence of those who fought at his side, first against the Russians and then against the Taliban.

Two almost simultaneous flights arrived from Dubai this morning. One was run by the state-owned Ariana, the other, which we were on, by Kam Air, an airline apparently run by an Iranian businessman reported to be a friend of Russian president Vladimir Putin and Uzbek warlord (and presidential candidate) Abdel Rashid Dostum. A lot of Kam Air’s staff speak English with rolling Russian accents.

Along with Afghans in pakools and shalwar kameez, loaded with bundles of scruffily-wrapped, Gulf-bought goods, both planes delivered a troop of journalists arriving to cover the presidential election.

The airport wasn’t even open when I was last here in 2001. We arrived by road and left on a UN light aircraft from Bagram.

There are other changes.

Many more Kabulis seem to have cars now, giving rise to a lot more pollution, at times combining with the ever-present dust to hide the mountains that surround the city. Beggars slip between the cars to solicit drivers or passengers. They’re often children in rags; sometimes they’re adults who’ve lost a limb to a landmine, or some other weapon; some have lost both legs and slide between the vehicles’ wheels on low carts which look like modified skateboards.

In town there are some Western-style shopfronts, a cut-out muscle-man advertising a gym, quite a lot of mobile phone shops. Western civilisation has brought its own places of worship to this devout land – one shopping mall has been built and another one is under construction.

Another innovation is the bulky concrete blocks which jut far out into the street, forming protective walls around US, UN and international security force compounds in anticipation of attacks, particularly against promised disruption during the election period. The armed guards on the gates are a long-standing feature of Afghan life.

I see fewer women on the streets. Immediately after the fall of the Taliban, nearly all women wore the burkah, or chadri as I’m now told it should be called. There were hundreds of women-beggars, asking for charity because their husbands had been killed and they had been banned from working or remarrying (this last still applies).

Now I see few women, except on the markets. Many of those I do see are totally covered, others just wearing headscarves.  A new habit has appeared of hitching up the front of the chadri onto the top of one’s head to allow conversation or freer movement. It seems to contradict the point of the thing. A local paper interviews girls who are regularly abused because they don’t cover their hair sufficiently.

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Women civil servants count the votes Photo: Tony Cross

Soraya Parlika has changed. She now wears a smart green suit and has a stylish haircut. She receives us in the headquarters of the All-Afghan Women’s Association in central Kabul. In 2001, she met a stream of Western journalists at her home. There are no other journalists here today.

We were all interested in her then because she had stayed in Afghanistan under the Taliban, hiding in safe-houses, had spoken up for women’s rights under the mojaheddin rule of the early 1990s and had been jailed under the pro-Soviet régime, despite a family history intimately linked with that of  the Afghan Communist Party.

She’s not standing in the presidential election and now the news-media are queueing to talk to the one woman candidate, Masooda Jalal.

Parlika says that, after the experience of the loya jirga when 10 women, including her, stood for vice-president, she isn’t running in this race so as not to split the women’s vote.

“They did name a woman as vice-president of the loya jirga but that was a symbolic gesture and I don’t accept gestures.”

She refrains from directly criticising Jalal. “Maybe she wants to represent the interests of Afghan women,” she says – but she adds that there is little serious difference between the 18 candidates.

When asked if women will participate in the election, she says that, although it’s an advance that they have the vote, many will just follow their husbands’ orders.

In any case the election was rushed and “we don’t have much time to change people’s mentalities before the election”.

And that’s a big job, starting with the incumbent president.

“I think it’s clear that Mr Karzai will win and he hasn’t said a word about women. How can you change his mentality?

“At the same time, for the future we have to work, not in the towns but in the rural areas, with men and women, to talk about the importance of women participating in society. But we need a lot of time for that and this election has been organised very quickly. Some people don’t even know what an election is and why it’s important.”

As dusk falls and the call for prayer echoes in the little garden below the window, Parlika tells us that the centre in which we’re sitting has been attacked nine times in the last 10 months and that she herself has been attacked four times.

 

The world’s press is nearly coming to blows for the chance to interview Masooda Jalal, in the groundfloor flat which is serving as her headquarters.

It takes a long wait and a lot of wielding of elbows to get to see her. As we talk to her, a TV cameraman bursts into the room and films the proceedings.

Jalal’s replies seem well-rehearsed, if rather evasive. Like all the other candidates, she promises to tackle corruption and put “professionals” into key posts, although what professions they should hold is never specified. Like the other candidates, she avoids mentioning warlordism and the soaring production of opium.

She also avoids any specific mention of women, until asked.

A male candidate, Abdul Latif Pedram, nearly got himself disbarred for blasphemy for saying that women should have the right to divorce and that maybe polygamy should be banned.

Why hasn’t she raised these questions?

“I raised it (sic) in emergency loya jirga,” she replies. “I put it in my programme and announced as a presidential candidate: I said that, if I get the success, the women of Afghanistan will participate in the leadership of Afghanistan, in decision-making power, equally to men and the women will be participating in designing national strategies and country-wide policies equally with men and, equally with men, they will be present and participating in the implementation of foreign policies.”

Jalal manages to keep a straight face as she assures us that she will win, if no-one tampers with the election result.

“I am welcomed by Afghanistan people with flowers, not with rockets. No security problem I have. I have gone into the hearts of people; they like me.”

She claims to have had no threats of violence and says that she travels without bodyguards.

Why is her experience so different to that of activists like Soraya Parlika?

“Well, maybe because she was … well …” Jalal hesitates and says the word interrogatively, if not insinuatingly, “… a Communist? She was a highlighted figure of Communist government in the past. So maybe she has personal problems with other competitor groups, political groups.

“But I’m an impartial person and I’m not a member of any party and I have no enemy in Afghanistan and throughout the world.”

But, despite apparently enjoying a completely unique popularity, Jalal does have critics. Some of them say that she is in fact close to the Panjshir Valley-based Jamaat-e-Islami party. And some say that she was encouraged to stand simply to forestall the complaints that would have come from outside Afghanistan if no woman had entered the presidential race.

It’s estimated that two-thirds of Afghans are women, over 20 years of war having culled the male population. But the weight of tradition is likely to prevent women making use of this numerical advantage.

This is a society so conservative that girls who’ve returned from Iran pine for their lost freedoms. NGOs report that women have been imprisoned for leaving abusive husbands, refusing to marry their parents’ choice of husband and trying to remarry after becoming widows.

Anyone who questions these practices can expect virulent opposition in high places, as Latif Pedram found out.

A television appearance in which he questioned the justice of polygamy and the ban on women divorcing without their husbands’ permission apparently caused a storm of protest. That’s according to the Supreme Court, at least, which went on to accuse him of blasphemy and try to get him struck off the ballot-paper for challenging the Islamic republic’s sharia law.

The bid was unsuccessful. Pedram is still standing. But he accuses his rivals, and notably the Karzai camp, of sabotaging his campaign, attacking him and his co-workers while he travelled the country in search of votes and even of tying to kidnap him.

Pedram is a tall, courteous man, whose campaign posters break with current international practice in making him look considerably less handsome than he is in real life. He has had a chequered career, ranging from poetry to politics, from Maoism to working with Northern Alliance leader Ahmed Shah Masood.

He lived in France for some time and picked up faltering French to go with his faltering English.

His programme opposes “needless and unbridled privatisation” of assets such as banks, roads and railways, calls for free education for all, a campaign against narcotics and laws to stop violence against women and children. He has attracted some support among young voters with a proposal for a ministry for youth. He also advocates non-alignment. Even though the manifesto makes the mandatory promise to work with the “the world community … against all forms of terrorism and extremism” and accepts that capital and free markets are “an undeniable reality”, one guesses that Pedram is not Washington’s favourite candidate.

He shrugs off the pressures that he’s come under.

“A woman is working, when she comes home, she is under the orders of her husband, her husband can hit her because she doesn’t have full rights. That’s why I accept this risk.”

But the profound conservatism of Afghan society, especially on the status of women, brought down one reforming king and played a major role in bringing down the pro-Soviet régimes.

Pedram accepts this and that his support-base, mainly urban middle-class youth, is narrow but insists that he’s not running to win but to help create a movement that can work for change.

As we leave, I ask him who sent the bouquets of flowers that lie on shelves behind him. He looks slightly embarrassed and replies: “Supporters, maybe ladies.”

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A training session for Fefa election observers Photo: Tony Cross

 

Akbar Khan, who’s fixer/translator for my French colleague Valérie Rohart, hasn’t registered to vote. “Not while my country’s under occupation,” he says. I’d expected this reaction to be widespread but most Afghans seem keen to take part in their first-ever election by universal suffrage.

That’s certainly true of most of the educated middle class.

Mohamed Nyazi, who has set up a monitoring group called Free and Fair Elections in Afghanistan and pronounces its acronym, Fefa, apparently without even thinking of football, almost blushes as he explains how much he hopes that everything will pass off well.

“We have some difficulties, some problems, because in Afghan society the situation is not good,” he says. “We have economic problems, also. But we’re happy for this election because this is the first election and this is an experience for going to democracy. We will see these problems but we will pass these problems and we hope in Afghanistan there will be free and fair elections in the future.”

Professor Kazeem Ahang, at the journalism faculty of Kabul University, is also enthusiastic, even though he believes that Afghanistan is still largely feudal and that there will be tribal and ethnic pressures on the poll.

He proudly declares that he has registered and seems puzzled that most of his family didn’t bother, on the grounds that the result is a foregone conclusion.

And the professor will probably not exercise his newly acquired right. He’s been invited to visit the US and is desperately trying to find a flight out. If his efforts prove successful, he won’t be here on polling day.

Election workers in the country say that they have some work to do to convince peasants that the whole thing isn’t fixed in advance and that its outcome could affect their lives, but on the streets of Kabul only a minority of people say that they’ve refused to register. Most are proud to have done so and ready to declare their voting preference.

Indeed, as incumbent Hamid Karzai apparently boasted when challenged on the suspiciously high registration figures, many Afghans are so keen to vote that they have registered several times.

No-one knows Afghanistan’s population, war having pushed census-taking off the agenda for many years, but it’s believed to be about 27 million. The UN initially estimated the number of eligible voters at 9.8 million. When registration figures reached 9.9 million they revised that figure to 10.5 million. By the end of the registration process the figures apparently showed pretty much every potential voter had registered.

Only 41.3% of those registered are women, although they form the majority of the population, and diplomats claim that the figure is as low as 5% in some parts of the south, where prejudice and insecurity have militated against female participation. The same diplomats say that Hazara women in the north were at first forbidden by local leaders to register but then changed the men’s minds on the grounds that the Hazaras would be outvoted by other ethnic groups if they didn’t.

So the figures look dicey, an impression confirmed by American journalist Christian Parenti, who has managed to buy two polling cards, although how he would convince a polling official that he’s Afghan is unclear.

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A traditonal Afghan compound on the road between Kabul and Loghar Photo: Tony Cross

There are signs of reconstruction as you leave Kabul going south. Long stretches of timber-yards seem to be doing business supplying, among other things, scaffolding. There are some large and vulgarly decorated houses just built or under construction. But vast areas of the city, perhaps most of it, have yet to be rebuilt; whole stretches lie in bombed-out ruins and others seem to have always been shabby and down-at-heel.

On the road to Loghar province, you soon pass into semi-desert, with occasional bursts of cultivated land. Stretches of land are pitted with little flags, which signify the presence of landmines. A mine-clearing team is working in one large field.

And there are miles of dust; wasteland dotted with traditional Afghan buildings. Viewed from outside, the architecture is one of the least attractive in the world – a long wall made from mud-bricks faced in brown-grey mud, often with a small tower in one corner and buildings in another. The building material is fragile, which is unfortunate given the country’s history.

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A guard at Mohamed Aslam Masood’s campaign headquarters Photo: Tony Cross

Behind the walls, these houses are more pleasant. There’s usually a garden, although its plants are all tinted grey by the ubiquitous dust, and the one-storey homes have windows which let in plenty of light and sprawl to accommodate an extended family.

In such a building, protected by armed guards, we find Mohamed Aslam Masood, lounging in a corner of a bright living room, receiving the heads of villages stuck out in the wilds of Loghar.

He’s been sent here to represent the Karzai campaign and seems confident that he has the province sewn up.

“Here we have people from all over our province, Pashtun, Tajik, Uzbek. We are all like brothers,” he declares, as mobiles trill, their rings ranging from music to birdsong. I cannot see the distinctive features of an Uzbek among the dozens of people in the building.

Six election workers have been killed in the province during the campaign, some UN vehicles have been blown up by landmines and gunmen have shot at registration centres, but Masood assures us that everything is running smoothly here.

The villagers ask if the campaign will provide transport to ferry voters to the election centres. There are only 25,000 centres spread out across this sprawling, mountainous country, necessitating a long and difficult journey for many voters.

The answer is no, the president’s campaign doesn’t have enough money for that and they must find their own transport. The villagers receive this information with remarkably good cheer.

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Faisal Olek Mujadad makes his entrance Photo: Tony Cross

There’s a respectful buzz and everybody gets to their feet, as a huge man, dressed in grey from his turban to his well-used shoes, enters the room. His authority over everyone here is almost tangible but he wears it casually, smiling and shaking hands with joviality. He’s introduced – Faisal Olek Mujadady, the former governor and former mojahedin commandant of the region.

He says that he has given up the gun, having resigned from the army three days ago, and clearly has a career in some other branch of public service lined up.

As the commandant merrily assures us that the province will vote Karzai – “after 25 years of problems, we’ve had two years of peace and brotherhood” – a younger man, bearded and fresh-faced and dressed in white, enters and takes a seat.

This is mullah Ghulam Rassool.

“Mullah dangerous, mullah Taleb,” the commandant says in English and grins. The cleric giggles.

His links with the former Taliban régime haven’t prevented the mullah being given responsibility for the Karzai campaign’s publicity in Loghar.

Indeed they might have helped. He says that the province’s religious leaders sent him to see the president to negotiate the price of their support. It included a commitment to build several madrassas here, to stamp out “prostitution”, which they claim is rife, and to gain the release of Afghan prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.

The mullah is pleased because two prisoners have already been freed, one of them being the former Taliban minister of frontiers, Naim Kuchi.

Mullah Rassool seems to be one of the “moderate Taliban” with whom Karzai has been discussing. One suspects that the definition of the much-abused adjective in this case is “ready to deal with the president”.

The mullah’s puritanical politics don’t prevent him talking to Valérie or being a rather jolly fellow. He giggles when pressed to give a straight answer to a question and when interrupted by the commandant for perhaps being a little too nostalgic when asked how the current state of affairs compares to the previous régime.

“To start with the Taliban government was not bad,” runs the acceptable version. “But afterwards foreign governments came and interfered in our country and terrorism took place.”

The reference to foreign countries presumably indicates Pakistan but, considering that its security services, the ISI, virtually created the Taliban, it’s not clear when “afterwards” began.

When Valérie asks the mullah if he received money from the Karzai camp, the commandant interrupts: “You see, she understands that for the mullahs everything’s a matter of money!”

The mullah giggles again and everyone present feels free to laugh – once the commandant has cast the first disrespectful aspersion.

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Drivers of the highly decorated lorries that travel between Pakistan and Kabul Photo: Tony Cross

At a crossroads down the road, villagers seem to confirm Masood’s confident assessment. The occupant of a van sent from Kabul to hand out Masooda Jalal posters claims to be doing well but everybody who’s ready to reveal their voting intention says that they will vote for Karzai.

Isah Gul is typical.

“I will vote for Karzai because he is a Pashtun and a good person,” he says.

Why are Karzai’s ethnic origins important?

“Because I’m a Pashtun, I will vote for a Pashtun.”

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The road to the Panjshir Valley Photo: Tony Cross

The Panjshir Valley is different.

The drive from Kabul takes several hours, along a good road through the Shomali plains, once the garden of Afghanistan, now largely reduced to a dustbowl, and up into the mountains where the road deteriorates.

As you approach the valley the road improves again and the landscape changes. Jagged rocks from steel-grey mountains tumble into a shallow, green river which races along beside the road. You pass by orchards, climb up a mountain to look past twisted war-wreckage down onto cultivated fields; in one two cows lock horns as a herdsman looks on.

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Welcome to the Panjshir Valley Photo: Tony Cross

The entrance to Panjshir, which was recently declared a province, is effectively a frontier-post. Visitors must stop at a gate made from scaffolding sanctified by a massive billboard of the region’s most famous son, Ahmed Shah Masood, to be checked by armed guards. A decorative tank-shell greets you once you have passed through the checkpoint.

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Abandoned ordnance on the road to the Panjshir Valley Photo: Tony Cross

On the way we passed a collection of dilapidated tanks and other heavy weapons lying about on a dusty plateau, the fruit of the disarmament programme which involved buying the various factions’ arms off them.

Just down the road from the frontier, we pass another collection of heavy weaponry, ageing but in better condition and lined up neatly between some buildings under construction and a board explaining that these structures are a gift from the people of Japan.

As I reach for my camera, Akbar says: “Don’t take photos!”.

It could land us in trouble. These weapons are supposed to have been handed back, too, he says.

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Panjshir Valley villagers Photo: Tony Cross

The small town of Roha is the home-town of Hamid Karzai’s chief rival, Yunus Qanooni, we’re told. He’s a Tajik and one of the leaders of the Panjshir-based faction of the Northern Alliance, who accumulated enormous power after 2001, exploiting the reputation of Ahmed Shah Masood, their record of resistance to the Russians and Taliban and, above all, the weapons and fighting-men which they brought with them to Kabul to take control of the new government’s key ministries.

Qanooni himself became minister of education, not as crucial  a post as that taken by fellow Northern Alliance chief, Mohamed Fahim, who grabbed defence, while keeping his own militias in reserve. But Karzai seems to have manoeuvred Fahim out of the election calculations, while Qanooni is relying on the Tajik vote to provide a power-base during and after the vote.

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A Panjshir Valley shopkeeper and hiss friend show their loyalty to Ahmed Shah Masood Photo: Tony Cross

Small shops made of wood or converted goods containers line the road, a partridge in a cage often standing in front of displays of cheap goods. Qanooni’s poster is on display in many of them – but so is that of another Tajik candidate, Abdul Hafeez Mansoor, who is playing the ethnic card more blatantly.

As in other rural areas, many inhabitants are strangely reticent about their voting intentions.

“I will vote for the person who fulfils my conditions. He must be a Muslim and an Afghan and must defend our country,” says one man who is pushed to the front of the crowd. These supposedly personal demands are voiced with surprising regularity, leading one to suspect that the speaker has heard them at the local mosque, rather than from listening to the voice of his own reason.

Some of the younger men say that they will vote for Qanooni, “… he’s a Muslim, he was a mojahed, he’s a good person”. Older men explain that they will wait for the shura, the exclusively male meeting of village leaders, to declare its voting preference.

A young man is introduced as Barayolai, a mojahed.

What are you doing now? I ask.

“Now I’m still a mojahed,” he says and lets out a wheezing laugh.

Taken aback, I ask whom he’s fighting now.

“If anyone comes, like al Qaeda, like foreigners, we’ll gladly fight them.”

Is there a risk of that?

“Yes, for sure. Why not?”

But when asked if he has fought any al Qaeda, Baroyalai says that they daren’t come into the area.

His candidate of choice is Qanooni.

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A tank serves a peaceful purpose by Ahmed Shah Masood’s mausoleum Photo: Tony Cross

On a ridge sticking out into the valley, surrounded by bare mountains with a view into the fertile area below is a disused tank, stripped of its paint, its barrel pointing into the air, shirts drying on its body.

They belong to a small group – a gardener, a stallkeeper, guards – who make their living at the tomb of Ahmed Shah Masood, whose dark green, plastic-looking roof shines in the sun against the bare, hard creases of the mountains.

Inside, his grave is decorated with dark cloth, gold and silver coloured streamers and Arabic inscriptions. Two men come in and kneel to pay their respects.

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Ahmed Shah Masood’s tomb Photo: Tony Cross

The chief guard on duty, Mekhuer Ahmad, is a man in his 30s, fair for an Afghan and blue-eyed, dressed in battle fatigues but quietly spoken. He was a guard for the guerrilla leader and believes that everything would be better if he was still alive.

“He was completely opposed to the Americans, so if Ahmed Shah Masood was alive there would not be American soldiers in Afghanistan.”

He says that he has nothing against the international force, Isaf, but has nothing but contempt for the Americans.

“The Afghanistan people hate them,” he says and goes on to blame the US for conflicts all over the world, although the only example he actually names is Palestine.

 

Mekhuer Ahmad has a low opinion of President Karzai, too.

“In the beginning we offered to be his bodyguard. But now he has taken on foreigners,” he says, and indeed at yesterday’s Karzai rally in Kabul, security during the three and a half hour wait for the president was assured by a group with pistols on their hips and machine-guns in their hands, whose spokesperson was an elegantly-coiffed American blonde and whose personnel was largely made up of pink-skinned men with shades and goatee beards.

Ahmad accuses Karzai of being pro-Pashtun rather than pro-Afghan and says that he wants a president with the interests of the whole country at heart. He, too, seems to favour Yunus Qanooni.

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Traditional dance at Hamid Karzai’s election rally in Kabul Photo: Tony Cross

Pulling into Kabul after dark, we have to stop alongside the lines of lorries that have been banned from entering the city for the week before polling, for fear of a repetition of last week’s lorry bomb.

The vote takes place in less than 36 hours and many people registered in Kabul are coming into the city, while others, registered elsewhere, are leaving. Another sign of concern over security – armed police check each car, opening all the doors, checking out the passengers and looking under their legs and behind them for weapons and explosives. It’s not ultra-thorough but it’s methodical enough to cause a traffic-jam which seems to be accepted with reasonably good humour by drivers and passengers.

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A bridge over the Kabul river Photo: Tony Cross

The solidity of Stalinist architecture didn’t prevent the former Soviet Cultural Mission, which is behind the former Soviet embassy, from being shelled into a wreck of concrete, metal and dark holes where rooms used to be.

It wasn’t reduced to this condition during the war to drive out the Russians but after it, when the liberators fought it out among themselves. The artillery of Abdel Rashid Dostum fired from mountains on one side of Kabul and the artillery of Ahmed Shah Masood fired from mountains on the other side, many shells falling short and destroying liberated buildings or killing liberated Kabulis.

A few kids hang around outside the destroyed building, along with a grey-bearded man, who says that his name is Abdul Hafar and that he is a refugee returned from Pakistan. He takes us through a hole in the wall into what must once have been the cultural centre’s garden.

On the left of the gap through which we climbed are toilets hammered together out of wood and UN High Commission for Refugees plastic covering. On the right is a tent, the ground covered in cheap carpets, clothes and cushions neatly piled to one side, which has served as home to Abdel Hafar and six relatives for the last two and a half years.

Children with scars from infections on their faces stare at us, other men gather round and women come out of homes set up inside the dilapidated building to hang their washing in the polluted air.

Abdul Hafar says that he fled to Pakistan during the war, after helicopters of “the enemies of Afghanistan” shot up his home.

Was it worth fighting that war? I ask.

His answer is equivocal.

“The situation is better than in Taliban times. For a year we’ve had peace in Afghanistan. But I’m not sure that it will last because we had war for 25 years. The new generation has grown up in a country at war so everyone has mental problems, no-one is used to peace.”

As he speaks, the throbbing of military helicopters passes overhead.

One wouldn’t have thought it possible to live in the flattened streets around the ex-embassy. But, in a site where just a few shards of building are left standing, some families have rigged up tarpaulins and plastic sheets to make their homes.

Gul Haidar has lived here for seven months. Under the Taliban his father was arrested after neighbours claimed that he had a weapon in his home. He was released but, following a tip-off that they were coming for him a second time, the family fled to Pakistan. His father lives in this ruin with the rest of the family now and Gul Haidar tries to scrape a living as a street-hawker.

Is life easier here or in Pakistan?

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Buildings creep up the side of the mountains around Kabul Photo: Tony Cross

“It is the same for us. It is hard here and it was hard in Pakistan.”

Gul Haidar, who originally came from the Panjshir Valley, says that he will vote for Yunus Qanooni.

There’s another refugee camp right by the vast football field which stretches out in front of Kabul stadium, where Karzai held his election rally and where, a few years ago, the Taliban carried out public executions. Some government buildings are nearby.

Here tents have been pitched in neat lines or stretched over half-destroyed buildings. Detached lorry cabs and other twisted war-wreckage stand in the midst of the dwellings. A cobbler sits at the side of the road with a group of men around him.

We’re not the first visitors, it seems.

“For the last three years, lots of journalists and people from the UN or the Afghan government have come here,” says Ismail Khan, who introduces himself as the camp’s agent. “They interview us but they don’t help us.”

He supports Karzai, whom he credits with bringing peace and stability to Afghanistan but he believes that the refugees have been neglected by the government.

“I think he wants to bring unity to Afghanistan, too. But ministers drive by every day. They see us but they do nothing for us.  What have we done wrong? Our children get no education. When they’re older, they’ll disturb the country. We don’t want this kind of life.”

Another man, Mir Ahmed, has been here two years, since returning from Afghanistan.

“We came back because we saw that there was peace.” Then, like most of the refugees we talk to, he adds: “We were refugees in Pakistan; now we are refugees in Afghanistan.”

Most of the men here say they will vote for Karzai. But, when a van from the Qanooni campaign pulls up and starts distributing posters, the political debate steps up a notch. People start grumbling about ministers who have “built themselves six houses and done nothing for us”.

A man with one leg, one of the tens of thousands of Afghans handicapped in the decades of war, limps up to our taxi as we leave. Earlier he wouldn’t say anything but now there’s no stopping him.

“At the beginning of the transitional government Karzai said he was going to pay 3,000 afghani per month to the handicapped,” he yells. “Now he’s going to pay 300 afghani. What can we do with that?

“These ministers coming back from abroad have salaries of 50,000 or 80,000 per month. If Karzai can give that to his ministers, why is there no money for the poor?”

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Men queue to vote on polling day in Kabul Photo: Tony Cross

The next day is polling day. It’s a freakishly grim day, unusually cold for the time of year, the sky a gloomy sort of yellow-grey. At 7.30am the streets are eerily quiet. A public holiday has been declared, so no-one’s rushing to work. Traffic has been banned, except for Kabul-registered taxis. As we climb into one, my interpreter, Jamshid, who has already taken a taxi to meet me, says that the driver asked him:

“You know why it’s like this today?”

“No.”

“Last night one of the candidates made a deal to sell Afghanistan to foreigners. Allah is angry.”

There’s already a long queue at the mosque in the Wazir Akbar Khan neighbourhood, which today serves as a polling centre. Men tell us that they’re delighted to vote. A smaller queue of women forms at a side-building where they can lift their chadris in private and be checked against their polling cards.

But, as we leave, we’re stopped by an excited group of off-duty soldiers. They thrust their thumbs towards us and shout something.

“Look, we voted half an hour ago and already the ink has washed off.”

It’s true that their hands show no sign of the ink-mark that is supposed to stop multiple-voting.

They proffer their voting-cards which have been stamped.

We stop an Uzbek man coming out of the mosque and get him to rub his thumb with spit. The mark starts to go, although it doesn’t vanish altogether.

At other polling stations the queues are equally long and the enthusiasm as great – one man is carried out of the centre by two friends; despite their help, he’s short of breath, but he pants out an explanation, that he and his wife have flown in from the USA just to vote, he fell ill on the plane and wouldn’t allow that to stop him taking part. But the report of the fading ink has begun to spread. It’s happened at many centres in Kabul and, it seems, throughout the country. Angry men claim that this is a plot to allow people with several voting cards to use them all.

All the candidates, apart from Karzai, leap on this opportunity to demand that the poll be called off. They or their representatives gather at the house of Satar Sheerat, an intellectual who is standing although without much hope of massive support. Apart from Karzai only Masooda Jalal is unrepresented. From her headquarters, she declares that she’s boycotting the poll but won’t have anything to do with her competitors for second, third or whatever position.

A mob of journalists gathers in the garden, as UN representative Manuel da Silva and EU envoy Francesc Vendrell come and go. Da Silva declares that the Joint Electoral Monitoring Board won’t call off the vote and the candidates continue their meeting. The press’s impatience grows and for a moment it looks as if the first casualties of the day will be from our ranks or those of the security guards who are obliged to use physical force, but happily not their weapons, to prevent us storming into the meeting room.

Finally, Sheerat and some of his temporary allies appear on the patio to read a declaration. They detail a number of minor complaints, such as Pakistanis allegedly posing as Afghans at one polling station, and claim that the ink crisis makes the poll untenable. They call for a boycott, although most of the morning is already over and it’s difficult to see how they can communicate the order to their supporters throughout the country.

In the middle of a little clump of reporters, one candidate, Amayan Shah Asufi, launches into a bitter attack on the probable winner.

“The drug-traffickers have an interest in the election of Karzai, because he’s a weak personality and his authority doesn’t go beyond Kabul city,” he says.

Asufi claims that some government ministers and some provincial governors are “directly involved in drug-smuggling” and that drug-money has been used to reelect Karzai.

While the candidates insinuate that this is all fraud by the Karzai camp, the fault seems to lie with UN trainers. Ill-prepared election officials have used ink that was supposed to stamp polling-cards to stamp hands, others have failed to shake before use, others just haven’t made sure that the ink is properly applied.

Pakistani author and journalist Ahmed Rashid, perhaps the best-known authority on the region, strikes an I-told-you-so note – he blames the cock-up on the unholy rush to hold this election before the country was ready for it.

“It should have been postponed one or two years,” he says.

The excitement caused by this bungling obscures the fact that the day goes off with no apparent violence in Kabul.

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Véronique Rebeyrotte of France Culture and Valérie Rohart of RFI on the way to the vote count with the ruins of the former royal palace in the background Photo: Tony Cross

 

The day before polling day rockets were fired on the city from the mountains overlooking it but no-one was injured. Harassment of election-workers during the campaign was more serious, with about 30 of them being murdered.

But the Taliban have failed to carry out their threats, posted in “night letters” on mosque walls, to attack every one of the candidates, to punish villagers taking part in the vote and to disrupt the poll itself.

There are relatively few reports of violence on polling day: we hear of rockets killing three children in Helmand province and hitting two polling stations before voting began, of about 32 people, government forces and guerrillas, being killed in fighting in the south and of two attempts at suicide-bombings being foiled in Kandahar province.

Vickram Parekh, an analyst at the International Crisis Group’s modest office in Kabul, believes that the Karzai government has isolated the die-hards by negotiating with so-called “moderates”, while convincing the Pakistani army to finally put aside any sentimental or tactical attachment to their former proxies and hit them hard in the tribal areas along the frontier. The Pakistanis perhaps also had their own reasons for ending the no-go zone in these provinces, which has lasted since the British Raj, in the context of sectarian and religious violence in cities like Karachi and has even threatened the life of President Pervez Musharraf.

The Taliban also seem to have lost a lot of sympathy among the population, even in the Pashtun areas which were their power-base when the movement began.

The politicians’ anger over yesterday’s malfunctions isn’t shared by most people on Kabul’s central market. Hardly any of them want a rerun and most believe Karzai will be reelected.

Relief at the lack of disruption predominates at the press conferences called by election observers.

Fefa outlines a number of abuses and calls for a mechanism to be set up to look into the candidates’ complaints but  says that the “ink problem” was solved in most places by 9.00am, thanks to the work of UN officials.

Fefa also notes a violation of a ban on campaigning on the day by supporters of Hamid Karzai in Gardez, Yunus Qanooni in Jalalabad and Masooda Jalal in Herat.

The organisation’s observers seem to have been made unwelcome at polling stations in refugee camps in Pakistan, where there were 1.5 million potential voters. They were prevented from entering some voting centres. In others their IDs were taken, or documents to help their work were torn up or they were taken out of the centres as the ballot boxes were sealed, which might give rise to some suspicion.

But, Fefa president Mohamed Nyazi regards these problems as minor ones and declares the election “fairly democratic”.

International observers seem to be even more ready to judge the abuses of secondary importance.

The Organisation of Security and Co-operation in Europe’s representative Robert Barry says that in some areas observers and agents were not allowed to enter polling stations; responding to claims that election officials sometimes went into the booths with voters to tell them how to vote, he says that they were urging but not forcing the electors to vote a certain way.

But the OSCE still declares that nullifying the election would “put into question the expressed will of millions of Afghan citizens who came out to vote, carried out voter registration and manned polling stations despite great personal risk”.

Barry does admit that there could still be problems.

“There’s a famous quote by Joseph Stalin that says: ‘It’s not who votes that counts, it’s who counts the votes.’ So we have to wait for the count to be complete before we make an overall assessment.”

The judgement seems to have been made, however.

Organisers know that a rerun would be practically impossible because of the oncoming winter, which will render much of the country inaccessible, never mind tricky questions like how it would be paid for, whether election workers would have the stamina to go through it all again or whether the population would be ready to turn out to vote again.

Nobody’s even mentioning the possibility of a second round which, according to the rules, has to take place if the leading candidate gets less than 50%. One gets the impression that this didn’t enter into the pre-poll calculations, it being assumed from the start that Karzai would clear that barrier in the first round.

And, of course, there are international considerations. Karzai is Washington’s man. The Bush administration doesn’t want a failure before the US presidentials, nor does it want to further discredit its plans for an election in Iraq in January.  The other power-brokers seem ready to tolerate a certain amount of bungling and jiggery-pokery in the hope that some semblance of stability will follow.

Many election observers seem genuinely concerned not to pour cold water on the enthusiasm of voters who did turn out, even if some of them turned out more times than they were entitled to.

But what about those votes which were cancelled out by the double or treble votes of the multiply registered, or the stuffed ballot boxes, or the intimidation by local armed leaders?

In many other countries these practices would have been declared impermissible. What is the acceptable level of malfunction or fraud and how does it vary between countries?

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Outside Kabul stadium before Hamid Karzai’s election rally Photo: Tony Cross

At first glance, the Afghans have had an American-style presidential election, minus the electoral college, fortunately, and the international consensus now seems to be that this is real democracy. Thus Jack Straw, the foreign minister of a country which doesn’t elect its head of state, was second only to George Bush in congratulating Afghans on electing theirs.

But is the Western way the only way? If Afghanistan developed its own form of democracy without outside instructions, would it be in the way agreed in the post-invasion conference at Bonn?

Isn’t it possible to adapt the shura and the jirga, most obviously by the participation of women, to provide an expression of the interests and will of the majority of the population?

In any case, the real campaigning  wasn’t public debates and election rallies, which the candidates reluctantly got round to holding in the last couple of days, it was deals with warlords, provincial bosses, former Taliban and religious leaders, whose decisions on whom to support filtered down to tribal elders and village shuras.

Probably only one candidate stood with the expectation of winning. The other big players hoped to gain enough support to be strongly placed for the after-poll carve-up, usually by becoming the de-facto representative of an ethnic group and/or a region.

So traditional habits live on and will continue to do so. Afghans have chosen their president by universal suffrage but armed militias, corruption, ethnic and regional factionalism and deal-fixing behind the backs of the people continue to flourish, like the opium poppies that Karzai has promised the West to uproot.

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War, what is it good for?

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A handicapped man working at a polling station during Afghanistan’s 2009 election. Photo: Tony Cross

In principle, I’m not a pacifist. Faced with the brutality of those in power, of state terror, of armed occupation, one has the right, even the duty, to resist.

But, when you see the results of armed conflict, you have to ask yourself if it’s worth it.

Of course, the vast majority of wars are not just. They are fought for the sake of privileged minorities and justified by lies. They are declared – although nobody seems to formally declare war any more, they just go ahead and do it – by old men who have lived full, if not honourable, lives and fought by young people, who, in general, think they are immortal, although I imagine a few hours on the battlefield strips them of that illusion.

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Wrecked ordnance overlooks the Panjshir Valley, Afghanistan 2005. Photo: Tony Cross

When we arrived in Afghanistan in 2001 (see earlier post) we were greeted by women in burkas begging – their husbands had been killed in the wars, they had been banned from working under the Taliban.  Liberation for them meant the right to go out on the street and ask for money to support their kids.

And then there were the hundreds, thousands, of people – men, women, children – missing limbs; some were former combatants, many the victims of bombardments or landmines. Some had been lucky enough to have been fitted with artificial replacements by the Red Cross. Many more had not, were unable to work, some in permanent pain.

On a training course for working in war zones, I and several other journalists were taken to a French army centre for training in demining.

A young, working-class bloke showed us the best way to get out of a minefield if you find you’ve stumbled into one. And he showed us the various types of mine and cluster bombs, including small explosive devices that are dropped from airplanes and left lying on the ground. They look like toys and children often pick them up. Of course, they’re killed or maimed for life.

“I’m a soldier and I have to accept discipline,” he told us. “But, if anyone ever tells me to lay one of these saloperies, I’ll refuse, whatever the consequences.”

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Jordanians dig the grave of a young man killed when a US jet fired on the bus in which he was travelling out of Iraq, 2003. Photo: Tony Cross

Arriving in Baghdad in 2003 (article to be posted), we saw bullet casings lying on the roads, crowds looting shopping malls, US soldiers guarding the oil ministry but not much else. A man outside the Red Cross headquarters told me he urgently needed medicine to stay alive and was disgusted with my useless and evasive reply.

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Israel’s separation wall between Jerusalem and Ramallah; Photo: Tony Cross

In the Palestinian Territories I saw an Israeli tank point its gun turret at an old man and a toddler, barking orders through a loudspeaker system (kids later stoned the tank), a roadblock where every Palestinian man was lined up in a field as if the Israeli soldiers on the road above them were about to open fire, men and women queueing at checkpoints as Israeli soldiers questioned their right to move around their own land, the separation wall – a scar across the landscape.

Shortly before we arrived in Afghanistan, our colleague at Johanne Sutton had been killed entering the country from the north.

In 2013 Ghislaine Dupont, whom I had known since I had started work at RFI, and Claude Verlon, with whom I had worked in Pakistan, were killed in northern Mali.

Shortly before that Claude had sat near me in the canteen. “When are we going to work together in Pakistan again, Tony?” he asked. I said I was going there soon to cover another election.

A week later he and Ghislaine were dead from a bullet to the back of the head.

As I and my colleagues stumbled through an Afghan valley, believing that we were going to be shot, I thought of the people who loved me and asked myself how I could have been so irresponsible towards them. I’ve since heard other people who have been in similar situations describing the same reaction, so I suppose that it’s a kind of psychological defence mechanism.

Anyway, afterwards you’re unbelievably happy to be alive and determined to get what you can out of life. And death doesn’t seem so abstract any more – yours or other people’s. It’s the end. Not so easy, when you don’t just know that intellectually but feel it in your being, to risk your own life … or think of taking someone else’s.

So, should you be thinking of starting a war, please think of all the individual lives that it will end. The people who die will not enjoy the benefits you say will come from the conflict – not just the soldiers who are, after all, combatants, not just the journalists who’ve chosen to go where the story is, but also the local civilians who are caught in the crossfire, who step on a landmine or are hit in a drone strike.

And this is a challenge for all of us who would like to see the world radically changed.

The rich and powerful are ready to do anything to hold onto power and they infect their opponents with their own brutality. Anyone wishing to change systems, overturn states, topple ruling classes has to be ruthless, ready maybe to sacrifice a generation or two for a better world. Those who die along the way will never know that better world. And the liberators risk becoming corrupted by the struggle – by the absolute power that flows from the barrel of a gun, by learning to live with the injustices they or their comrades are bound to commit sooner or later, by the fear of traitors and spies that can become the fear of all critics.

I realise none of this is any more original than the headline I’ve chosen for this posting. And maybe I’ve known it all along. But, now I’ve seen the effects of war, I feel it, too.

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Eyewitness: Afghanistan 2001 after the fall of the Taliban

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After waiting in the northern Pakistani town of Peshawar for a couple of weeks, I was part of a convoy of hundreds of journalists who crossed into Afghanistan as the Northern Alliance and the US toppled the Taliban.  We crossed countryside littered with the refuse of war and, on the road from Jalalabad to Kabul, were robbed at gunpoint in an isolated valley. Kabul itself was tense and under curfew as new masters took over under the watchful eye of the West. Here’s what I wrote on my return.
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The royal palace outside Kabul, in ruins after decades of war. Photo; Tony Cross

Torkham frontier post, 16 November 2001

It’s six nights after the Taliban quit Kabul. Pakistani border officials have taken a break in the middle of stamping the passports of hundreds of journalists who arrived in convoy this afternoon.

It’s ramadan and they must pray … and break their fast.

Darkness has descended and we buy our first, but by no means last, meal of kebab from a scruffy restaurant in the village that surrounds the post.

Finally the formalities are over and the convoy lines up in front of the huge black metal gate that closes the frontier.

Just as we’re about to leave, camera flashes go off a few hundred yards away. The Taliban have released the last journalist they’ve been holding, a Japanese who’s received little publicity in the West.

Thanks to our driver, Assad, who is always keen to be ahead of all other cars, we’ve actually paid a guard to let us be first out of Pakistan. Now we find ourselves at the head of a convoy about to enter a country at war. And I’m in the front passenger seat.

A week ago, Radio France Internationale’s Johanne Sutton was killed, along with two other journalists, when they were caught in fighting in northern Afghanistan.

The gate slides open. In front of us is a mojahed on the back of a pick-up truck, aiming a rocket-launcher straight at our windscreen. Around him are 20 or 30 others, armed with Kalishnikovs.

“Boom!” he says and laughs.

Fortunately, they’re on our side. They’re our guard, supplied by Jalalabad’s new security chief, Haji Zaman, whose representative in Peshawar, Engineer Mohammad Alim, has organised the convoy.

As we drive gingerly across the line, more mojaheddin appear, mostly young and apparently stoned.

There’s a long wait, as a TV crew transfer equipment from a lorry to buses and cars. Photographers snap the mojaheddin, journalists interview them. I file a report. Then we’re off along a well-maintained road (“The Taliban built this,” says our interpreter Kamal) past newly-built petrol stations whose pumps glisten in the headlights. They’re the last modern ones we see in Afghanistan and must have been built to service the powerful smuggling operations whose bosses backed the Taliban in the hope that the ultra-fundamentalist militias would impose some degree of unity on the country.

Jalalabad under new rulers

After the fall of Kabul and a couple of days of tension, four rival Pashtun warlords have just reached agreement to share power in Jalalabad.

The new governor is Haji Abdul Qadeer, the man who in 1996 handed the city over to the Taliban, allegedly in exchange for a bribe of as much as ten million dollars cash plus a guarantee that his assets and bank accounts in Pakistan wouldn’t be frozen. The deal was reportedly brokered by Islamabad and Saudi intellligence boss, Prince Turki al Faisal, now retired from his post after failing to persuade the Taliban to hand over Osama bin Laden.

In the warm Jalalabad night, some journalists are welcomed into the Governor’s palace. Others, including ourselves, go on to the only known hotel, which is already overbooked, thanks to a convoy which arrived two days ago, and which is raising the prices of its grubby rooms by the minute. We get a room, thanks to a Danish TV journalist, who’s moved to a better one but has been unsuccessful in her attempts to hand back the keys to the one she has vacated.

Jalalabad is a city stuffed with guns. Truckloads of mojaheddin circle the space in front of the Governor’s palace, piles of rocket-launchers and ammunition resting on the tailgates. Others walk around in the morning sunshine, Kalashnikovs slung over their shoulders.

Inside the palace guards in Soviet-style uniforms and US-style trainers slouch at the doorways, making no effort to stop anyone enter.

A delegation of tribal elders have arrived to congratulate the new incumbent. Mohammed Dulah, from Chapathar village tells us that he used to be a commandant in Gulbuddin Hikmetyar’s Hizb-e-Islami. He’s calm but venomous when he pronounces the name of Burhanuddin Rabbani, who’s still officially recognised as President by most of the world and who has been making portentous declarations about the future of the country since the Northern Alliance took control of Kabul.

What right has Rabbani to promise elections in two years time? Dulah wants to know.

If Rabbani remains in power, the Northern Alliance will make the same mistakes as it did in the early 1990s, he says, referring to the period when mojaheddin factions waged a bloody internecine struggle for power, at vast cost to the population in terms of lives and living conditions. Dulah wants a leader who is “a true Muslim who will work for Afghanistan” and who’s chosen by the whole country.

And, now that the rest of the world is again discussing Afghanistan and US President George W Bush has declared war on the Taliban and Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda, what should foreigners do for the country?

“We want them to reconstruct our country and then go back to their own country.”

Engineer Mohammed Alim also wants the Americans to help reconstruct Afghanistan, although, when asked if that means paying for the process, he says, “Not necessarily.”

Alim, who organised the convoy from Peshawar, is a handsome man, with the classic Afghan aquiline features and thick, black beard, laughlines around his eyes and a smart Western jacket worn over his shalwar kameez.

He speaks fluent English, which helps in the new role that he has assumed of spokesperson for Jalalabad’s new Security Chief, Haji Zaman.

Earlier a rickshaw driver had told us that Afghans are sick of seeing armed men on the street.

“The Taliban were bad but at least there was security under their rule,” is a refrain that we’ll hear again and again from Afghans who remember the chaotic early 90s and fear that they will return.

Engineer Mohammed Alim smiles charmingly and reassures us that security is already improving.

“It will be controlled in one or two days. Yesterday was good, today is better and by tomorrow will be best.”

Robbed at gunpoint

The road from Jalalabad to Kabul must be one of the worst in the world. We had arranged to travel this gritty, bumpy wreck of a route with another car containing a Polish TV crew but, on one of the rare stretches of tarmac, they left us behind.

Now we are bumping slowly along a surface ravaged by two decades of war, listening to our driver, Assad, tell us how he fought the Russians from the mountains alongside the road.

I’m in the front passenger seat. Jean Piel, who works for RFI’s French service and other French-language news-media too numerous to mention, Médard Chablaoui, our sound engineer, and Kamal Nassar, our interpreter, are in the back.

There’s plenty of evidence of the war: bomb craters, twisted wrecks of military vehicles and checkpoints.

Five young men run out of one of these, waving their arms for us to stop. We do so. They seem very agitated and four of them are carrying Kalashnikovs.

As I open the car door, I hear the sound of a gun’s safety catch being taken off.

They wrench open the other car doors and pull us out of the car. Then, encouraging us with shouts and blows from their gun-butts, they drive us across the road. All except Assad, that is. They keep him by the car with a gun to his head.

We are taken into a shallow ravine, across rocks, over a stream.

When faced with probable death, you think at 1,000 knots a minute. Is this the real and definitive end ? You can’t kill me, I’ve got a mother who loves me! How can I have put my family in such a situation? Or are they taking us hostage ? I don’t think I could survive many Afghan winter nights in the mountains.

You realise that they’ve known nothing but war all their lives and that to them your death would be as banal as the change in the seasons. But you remain strangely calm. You don’t panic.

I can’t move as fast as the others, thanks to the after-effects of being run over on a Paris street a year ago. At one point I stumble on a rock. At first I think that I’m going to suffer the fate of the weak and be shot for my physical shortcomings. But the boy beside me, he can’t be more than 18-years-old, stretches out his hand and helps me up. In doing so, he finds my wallet and takes it. I reach out to him, thinking that I could say “Take the money but leave my papers,” but realise that I don’t have the language skills and that he has a Kalashnikov.

They take us well away from the road, behind a huge rock which completely conceals us from view. At that point we’re all sure that we’re going to die. Jean Piel tells me later that he will always remember my face, pale and drawn.

Then they frisk us. A boy frisks me and, when he finds nothing, I think that I’m going to be killed because the little bastard who’s already taken my money wants to keep it all for himself. I point at him. The frisking ends. We find ourselves up against the rocks that lead up into the mountain, the robbers between us and the way back to the road. The one with no gun is doing a shuttle between us and the road.

Through Kamal they tell us to stay here, that if we move they’ll kill us, and turn to run away. As they go, the one who appears to be the leader, turns, rubs his thumb and forefinger together and says : “Paise, Paise.” Money, money. Is this to sneer at us or to reassure us that we won’t be killed if we do what we’re told.

There’s silence once they’re gone. Then we start to discuss how long we’ll stay there, if we should resist if they come back to kill us.

After ten minutes, we hear Assad shouting from the road.

We run towards the car, me the slowest again. This time I don’t regret my slight disability, since I still half-fear that we will shot as we approach the road.

Once in the car, we start telling each other what we’ve lost, money, cameras, Méd’s mobile phone. Jean has suffered worst, they’ve taken his bag and it had his contacts-book in it.

Then we realise that we’re still alive.

Assad didn’t tell them that we were journalists; he told them that we were with an NGO. With amazing courage, if not foolhardiness, he said that he didn’t have the keys to the boot and so saved our clothes, some of our money and all our working material. Although he had the worst experience, he seems the least shaken up.

Assad flags down a carload of Afghans and asks them to stay with us on the road, which they do. We stop at the next checkpoint and the armed men there tell us that they’ll go after the robbers if we pay them. We decline the offer.

Further along the road, on a large bend, a pick-up truck full of men is parked, with one man standing beside it, like a vulture perched on a branch.

Once we’re past them, our Afghan friends pull up beside us and tells us that those were robbers, too.

We pull into a village and are mobbed by kids, some of whom throw stones at the car.

The two-and-a-half-hour drive into Kabul passes in a state of shock mixed with paranoia. Méd thinks the Afghans who are with us want to rob us. I thought that we would be killed at the checkpoint. Every figure at the roadside seems menacing.

Kamal seems particularly shaken by the experience. Later he tells us that this is the second armed robbery he’s been through. The last time the robbers opened fire, killing his friend and putting him in hospital with two bullets in the leg. Kamal is 22, the same age as the fighting.

Night falls as we climb up into the mountains that mark the border of Kabul province. The descending sun picks out the pock-marked surface of the rocks, throws long shadows from high peaks, fails to reach all the way into deep valleys. It’s a  landscape created by an angry god; a suitable backdrop for trauma.

Bad news in Kabul

The next day at the huge but shabby Intercontinental Hotel, I overhear people saying that four journalists have been killed.

I ask one of them, who’s with the BBC, about it. He says that the killing took place today on the Jalalabad-Kabul road. I tell the others. They’ve heard the same from French journalists.

It sounds strangely like a distorted account of our own experience. I stick my mike into a crowd and record a man, speaking English with a slight but unplaceable accent, saying,  “… he came towards us saying, ‘Go back to Jalalabad, the Taliban are shooting journalists’ … we decided to go further, towards Kabul. On the way to Kabul, three youngsters, around 20-25-years-old, wearing camouflage jackets, carrying Kalashnikovs, they stopped us, they pointed guns to our heads, they taked all our stuff, our cameras, our passports, they dragged my driver outside, they pushed another journalist outside of the car, they checked all of our pockets and everything, then they were pushing us …. ”

The four who were killed were Harry Burton and Azizullah Haidari, who worked for Reuters, Maria Grazia Cutuli, of Corriere della Sera, and Julio Fuentes, of El Mundo. They were beaten, stoned and shot at close range. It was at Sorubay, where we were robbed.

The gloomy reception area of the Pearl Continental is the place to pick up the latest rumours and, sometimes, a bit of the truth. The first journalists to arrive are staying here and the UN holds twice-daily press conferences, in an unsuitably laid-out room, in front of whose entrance stand three plastic buckets collecting the water that  leaks from the ceiling. At the hotel door a man in uniform gives the revolving door an encouraging push when foreigners enter but is less welcoming when it comes to his compatriots.

Yesterday evening we were met in the crowded carpark by France Inter journalist Fabienne Sintes who had left Jalalabad ahead of us. Her interpreter, Abdul, had found a house for us to rent.

Our temporary residence belongs to a doctor who’s fled to Germany, leaving an old man in charge. Like the houses around it, it is modern, spacious, with marble floors, the home of a typical Kabul bourgeois, although a litle down-at-heel after being uninhabited for so long. On our first night many of the windows were missing, thanks to an American bomb which fell in the next street. They’re replaced the next day but that, and the primitive heating we buy, only does a little to make the cold Kabul night more tolerable.

The first filmshow for seven years

The day, on the other hand, is sunny and the sunlight shines on a big crowd outside the Cinema Bakhtar in the centre of town. The morning show is already underway. It’s the first for seven years, cinema having been one of the sinful practices repressed by the Taliban’s religious police under the guidance of the Department of the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. The 700 places were quickly sold and the crowd is waiting for the next showing. Some will have to wait for the one after that.

Foreign journalists are allowed to queue-jump, although the theatre is so full that we can only catch a glimpse of the film, a tale of mojaheddin heroism in the struggle against the Russians. The term Commandan features prominently in the soundtrack.

Sound engineer Hasem Qarim explains, at length and in a roundabout Asian style, that he kept the spools hidden from the Taliban, that he managed to keep the studio open with a skeleton staff, that there had been censors before the Taliban and that he hopes there will be a democratic and broad-based government now so that there can be free media for people to explain their lives. He also wants to show foreign films “which will teach people how to live”.

Kamal seems puzzled when I ask him what the cinema’s name means.

“In the West cinemas’ names often mean something other just the name,” I explain.

“It’s just the cinema’s name,” he says … but later he adds, “It’s the old name for Afghanistan.”

There’s dust everywhere, lodging in your throat and making everyone cough. Kabul city centre is full of Soviet-style official buildings, a scruffy street-market, a corner whose railings are covered with traditional carpets for sale (a blur of maroon as you pass in a car), oily shops selling hardware, electrical goods or car and bike parts, the compounds of UN agencies. In one square  money-changers clutch huge wads of the nearly-valueless Afghani. A modest meal for three at the hotel costs over a million, waiters and shop-owners can count dozens of Afghani notes in seconds with a lightning counting technique which looks like a card-trick. All buildings of any importance have at least one armed guard. That includes the cinema.

As the fact that the Northern Alliance has won permanent control of the city sinks in to the Kabuli consciousness, pictures of Ahmed Shah Masood appear everywhere. A poster-sized one placed on an easel greets you as you enter Intercontinental’s dingy foyer, like a flash of colour pasted onto a black-and-white photo. Soon practically every vehicle in town has a picture of the commander praying tacked inside its windscreen or attached to its bonnet.

A fighter for women’s rights

Stay on the street for any length of time and you’re approached by a beggar, often a child in rags with skin darkened by dirt, malnutrition and the effect of living outdoors, or a woman, who is probably one of the thousands of widows left in charge of a family after her husband died in the fighting, or after stepping on a landmine, or just from hunger and poverty.

Under the Taliban she was forbidden to work. She was also ordered to wear the burqa which she still wears. It covers her whole body down to the calves which are covered by trousers; her face is covered by a lattice, a cloth version of  the screens over harem windows; all you can see of her is her hand, a claw protruding from a bundle of rags that says something in a language that you can’t understand. It’s relatively easy to refuse to give when you can’t see the beggar’s eyes.

Word gets round the press corps that there’s been a demonstration  of women to reject the burqa. Very few journalists knew it was taking place. Now everyone wants to find the woman who organised the rally.

Soralya Parlika is being interviewed by a televison crew when we arrive at her flat. We don’t have an appointment but we are ushered into a room to wait to see her. There’s a woman in attendance, who I believe is a servant, and an old man with a complicated turban, bright blue eyes and a white beard. He’s Soralya’s father, Mohammed Harif. He’s deaf and his face has the uncomprehending look of those who don’t hear the hubbub of everyday life.

As we wait, some American journalists arrive and join the queue.

The flat is not very spacious, in a building which is relatively modern but scruffy on a housing estate which resembles cheap municipal housing in Britain.

But this is, or at least was, housing for the privileged. Kamal tells us that the flats were built for civil servants and officers “under the Communists”.  As we approached, we had to drive round a huge hole in the road, the result of a US-British bombing raid. There’s a playground on the other side of the road.

Parlika eventually appears. She’s 57 but, unusually for Afghanistan, looks younger than her age. She wears a headscarf, but leaves her rather pale-complexioned face uncovered. Despite her welcoming smile, she gives the disconcerting impression of gazing anxiously at a spot just over her interlocutor’s shoulder. She’s the second or third Afghan woman I’ve seen who isn’t wearing the burqa.

Kabul’s new rulers had refused to allow the demonstrators to march through the streets, saying that they couldn’t guarantee their safety, an assertion which excites a certain amount of scepticism on Parlika’s part. Between 100 and 200 women turned up nevertheless and held a rally, where they lifted up their burqas, most of them baring their faces but keeping their hair covered.

Parlika insists that the rally was not about the burqa and that there was no obligation on participants to remove it. The real aim was to demand that women be allowed to play a role in post-Taliban Afghanistan: that they should be allowed to work and to be educated, and that they should be represented at meetings about the country’s future and in any new government.

Her own history goes back to the late 1970s, when, after studying economics at Kabul University, she started working for the women’s section of the Democratic Party of Afghanistan. That led to a one-and-a-half-year jail term under Hafizullah Amin (“a brutal man”), the second president from the Khalq Communist faction who was killed when the Soviet Union invaded in 1979.

She went on to head the Afghan Red Crescent but gave that up in 1992 when the mojaheddin rolled into town. Liberation from Russian rule didn’t mean women’s liberation. During the ’70s women in Kabul, at least, had access to education, employment and, if they wanted, Western dress. But in 1992, Burhanuddin Rabbani, who at the time more or less controlled the capital, publicly recommended that Kabuli women wear the burqa. Parlika established an underground women’s movement.

I ask if women are rejecting an Afghan tradition when they reject the burqa. She concedes that some Afghan women have always worn it. “But women who were educated, women who were going to school, university and who were working, they didn’t wear burqas. It was only women whose husbands were fanatics or chose to do so voluntarily.”

So why do so many women continue to wear it now that they don’t have to?

She replies that many would feel unsafe without the burqa, that it’s warm and that, after years of being forbidden to work, they are poor and don’t want to expose their shabby clothes.

As yet, most of the women who are ready to work with Parlika are from what’s left of the educated middle class, the women who would fill the jobs that she’s demanding in education, healthcare and the administration of the country.

One of the Americans asks if she believes she could have accomplished as much as she has if she had been married.

Parlika talks generally about the condition of Afghan women.

The journalist insists and Parlika generalises again.

Someone suggests a different phrasing for the question and Parlika generalises again.

Try as they might, my colleagues can’t get a straight answer. Is the question too personal ? Is there something we’re not allowed to know? Or is it just easier to confront male prejudice in California than in Kabul ?

The Intercontinental’s antique television can now show the broadcasts of Kabul Television. The pre-Taliban presenters, a man and a woman, have been brought out of their forced retirement. The woman wears a headscarf but, fortunately from a televisual point of view, no burqa. The content is principally news – there’s plenty of that – and landscapes with accompanying music.

The Kabulis want more than the two hours a day that Kabul TV offers, however. Satellite dishes knocked together from old tin-cans appear outside shops, their repeated logos adding an Andy Warhol touch to street-life.

Other vices that Kabulis can once again indulge in after a five-year ban are getting a shave, listening to music, flying a kite and keeping pigeons.

And girls can now go to school again. The Taliban ban was never fully effective. Soralya Parlika was among those who ran secret schools where girls could pick up some education.

Gul Mohammad Ahamdi is the president of Sorbach, an NGO which runs 95 schools in Kabul. They teach over 7,000 children one of the local languages, maths and the Koran.

Kulhana Chadi school, in a battered area of Kabul mainly populated by the Hazara ethnic group, isn’t easy to spot. It’s a mud building like the houses around it. You open the door, which has been cannibalised from a goods-container, and you enter an empty store-room. Steps at the back of the store-room lead up to a landing with three dusty rooms off it.

They’re the classrooms, all packed with girls who stand up and sing out a greeting in unison as you enter. The nine teachers are all women – scarves not burqas, a bit of make-up, even – the teaching techniques seem to entail a lot of reciting by rote. The girls sit on the floor, some have cheap notebooks, others slates. They won’t be learning computer skills any day soon.

Outside a woman in a burqa draws water from a well. Inside a teacher explains that classes have been operating for about a year. The building is provided by a relative of one of the teachers. The immorality that it sheltered  had to be concealed from the most zealous Taliban but some local commanders knew about the schools and tolerated them, if the area that they controlled was far enough away fom the religious police headquarters.

Ahamdi himself was often taken in for questioning. He says that he received many threats to his life under the Taliban. “I gave my son the name of the person he should contact if  one day I didn’t come home.”

And to what use will this education be put ? When asked, virtually all the girls say that they want to be doctors.

If war has scarred Kabul, leaving whole swathes of the city as rubble, it’s also marked many Kabulis for life. 97 per cent of Afghan children have lived through violence. Unicef officials say that the majority of under-16s have been traumatised by the war. 65 per cent have experienced the death of a close relative.

In every street you come across men and boys on crutches, or, the lucky ones, with artificial limbs. Their agility is remarkable, though never remarked on in a country where such an accomplishment is commonplace. Whole hospitals are devoted to trying to repair the damage done by left-over ordinance, especially the landmines that have been planted all over the country. Demining experts say that 735 square miles of land is dangerous.

And then the US and Britain launched a bombing campaign. In the formerly wealthy area of Wasir Aqbar Khan, UN demining expert, Ross Chamberlain, stands in front of a wreck of concrete and twisted metal and tells the assembled journalists, “We brought you here to show you a good example.”

Chamberlain says that the building that stood here was the headquarters of  a Taliban police commander. It suffered a direct hit, although nobody knows if  the principal target was home. A building next door was partially destroyed. A number of pro-Taliban Arab volunteers are reported to have been inside. They all died.

In a wry Australian accent, Chamberlain tells us to look behind us. A line of trees partially conceals the Indira Ghandi hospital. “So they had to be spot-on, if they were wrong there was going to be a big problem.”

But, he adds, there were more bad examples than good ones.

It seems that death discriminates against the poor. There’s no rubble at the second site we visit, just piles of dirt and dust, leaving a perfect view of the mountains that overlook the city. A bomb has obliterated the home of a family of ten, who were in it at the time. Only the mother survived and she stands on the site weeping and recounting her story to the microphones.

“The bomb was probably aimed at the military post on the hill,” says Petere Lesueur, who’s technical adviser to Afghan Ordinance Consultants which is working with the UN. “A possible last-minute malfunction of the guidance unit and it’s probable that that ‘s what happened.”

Ross Chamberlain estimates that 30 civilians have been killed in Kabul by US bombs, a non-combattant death-toll which he considers to be fairly low compared to other military campaigns. He’s found no evidence of the use of  cluster-bombs in the city, although these packages of death and injury have been used elsewhere in the country.

“But there’ve been lots of 500-lb bombs,” many of which have yet to explode.

The mines and bombs left behind by successive campaigns kill ten to 12 people every day.

What fighting?

Kabul’s electricity is cut off, causing the price of generators to soar as journalists comb the city for the power they need to file their stories and keep warm at night.

The current remains off for over 24 hours and it’s soon reported that this is no ordinary power-cut. It appears that a key power-station has been hit during heavy fighting between the Northern Alliance and tribal fighters at Sorubay after the Alliance sent 200 troops from Kabul to secure the road to Jalalabad. Roadblocks at the outskirts of Kabul prevent reporters visiting the scene.

Pashtun chiefs, who have have each taken control of their small parcel of territory, are defending their right to make the law on their own patch, especially against the Tajik-dominated Northern Alliance.

The local chiefs’ power was curtailed under the Taliban to please the transport mafia, which objected to paying countless tolls as they travelled through the various fiefdoms along their way. Now, as we found out, robbers and other toll-collectors are reappearing. Ordinary Afghans fears of a return to lawlessness and faction fighting are being realised.

The following day, with power returned, I ask Northern Alliance spokesman Abdullah Abdullah whether the fighting has ended.

“What fighting?” he asks.

Check in your weapons at the door

One evening I go with Assad and Kamal to their favourite restaurant, which is a converted cinema. As we wash our hands by the entrance, a pick-up pulls up in the dark outside. About a dozen armed men in pakool hats and combat fatigues jump off it and lope past us into the restaurant.

Most of them leave their weapons at the door, as if they were checking in their hats and coats. The visitor can inspect a pretty array of arms, including a machine-gun with a bandolier of bullets ready to be fired. It looks strangely home-made, as if it had been cobbled together out of tin-cans like an African toy. Kamal says with distaste that this must be the party of “some commander”.

The evening meal starts early because it’s ramadan and the Afghans are desperate to break their fast. In any case, you can’t linger over your meal because curfew begins at 9 pm.

A television crew which has paid a security official to accompany them at night says that there are roadblocks, manned by nervous youths, at very regular intervals. The guide knows the password, which changes every night, and whispers it to whoever’s in charge of the road-block. There not always sure that the jumpy militiamen are ready to wait for this formality to be enacted.

Kamal and I walk down our street in the sunny Kabul afternoon. He stoops and picks up a small lump of blackened metal. “Mortars,” he says. Recognising ordnance is one of those handy skills that young Afghans have all managed to pick up.

We pass a group of men in khaki uniforms that look as if they’ve been left over from the Russian occupation. They’re police. We talk to the officer, a plump man squeezed into an undersized uniform decorated with colourful regalia.

He tells us to be careful at night; that there are still Taliban hidden in the city, or, to be precise, foreign volunteers whom the Taliban didn’t tell about the withdrawal. They woke up Tuesday morning to find themselves in a capital controlled by the enemy. The Northern Alliance reportedly shot some of them on the main street as soon as it arrived, but others have managed to find householders who hide them for money.

They try and sneak out of the city at night and there are sometimes shoot-outs with Northern Alliance fighters. Occasionally we hear a shot at night.

The next day, AFP reports that Kabul residents have spotted a group of American or British soldiers occupying a house in the city. They reportedly only go out at night, to hunt down Taliban or Al-Qaeda members.

When we unsuccessfully try and see Northern Alliance Interior Minister Yunas Qanooni, we ask the advisers who receive us about this story.

There are no US or Bitish soldiers in Kabul, they say, but, when pressed, say that “American security experts from the Pentagon” are “collaborating with the Northern Alliance against terrorists here and throughout the country”. It would be “difficult to say whether they might be in Kabul”.

Are there any Taliban left in Kabul ? I ask.

No.

So why is there a curfew ?

“For reasons of security. We haven’t collected in all the arms yet. Besides, we’ve had a curfew here for the last 22 years.”

Why break the habit of a lifetime ?

A Taliban defector

Mollah Alhaj M Khaksar glances nervously over his shoulder at a Northern Alliance minder as he responds to our questions. He wears a black and yellow turban, a western suit-jacket over a traditional shalwar kameez, and a gold watch which can’t have come cheap. His bushy beard only partially conceals a chubby, boyish face. Bearded men in turbans sit around the walls, watching the interview, which is videoed for posterity, or maybe so that Kabul’s new masters have a record of what the mollah is saying.

At ten o’clock last night Abdullah Abdullah presented Khaksar, who was the Taliban’s deputy interior minister, to the press and announced that he has defected to the Northern Alliance.

Khaksar himself claims to have been in contact with the Alliance for two to three years, although he is vague as to whether those contacts were in a ministerial capacity or, as I think he would like us to believe, because he was an agent of Ahmed Shah Masood.

Before seeing the mollah, we were ushered through a garden decorated with spent Russian mortar-shells into one of Wasir Akbar Khan’s spacious modern houses, where we waited in the company of men who claimed to have been prisoners in Kandahar, where the Taliban are still holding out.

For the interview we had to cross the road to another house. While two Northern Alliance leading lights haven’t bothered to turn up for appointments with us, Khaksar is, so to speak, on tap, since his primary function is to be publicised.

He has appealed to other Taliban to come over to the Alliance and says that, in the time-honoured Afghan tradition, defectors should be offered places in a new government or, at least, at the forthcoming conference in Bonn on the country’s future.

Khaksar says that he split with the Taliban over their conduct of the war and calls for an end to the influence of foreigners on the country’s politics.

He is referring are the Arab fundamentalists, like Osama bin Laden, whose influence over the Taliban leadership and alleged arrogance in their dealings with local people has created massive resentment.

It also meant dissent in Taliban ranks. Some journalists have tried to find differences among “moderate” and “extremist” Taliban but the movement showed no signs of disunity when it came to mistreating  the Afghan people.

One could perhaps distinguish between those who opportunistically went along with Taliban policies in order to keep administrative jobs or positions of influence and those who sincerely wanted to impose their own interpretation of Islam on the country. But who is more morally reprehensible, someone who imposes the burqa, illiteracy for women, amputation for theft, stoning for adultery, execution for homosxuality and so on because he thinks that it will lead humanity to paradise, or someone who collaborates with these practises in order to stay out of  trouble? Is it worth making the distinction?

There is another division in the Taliban ranks.

It’s between those who back the foreign fundamentalists’ project of imposing Taliban-style rule on the whole Muslim world and those who are only concerned with what happens within the borders of Afghanistan.

Naturally, the latter view would appeal to pragmatists and careerists, but also to commanders who are realistic enough to know that they can’t beat the US’s military might and to those who believed that the Taliban could bring unity and stability to Afghanistan, a view which was apparently shared by Islamabad and Washington at one time.

My guess is that Khaksar falls into the pragmatic category, especially if he’s been secretly backing both horses for a couple of years. Today he plays on the hatred that much of the population has for the foreigners who came to pursue jihad in Afghanistan. Although they have come from all over the world, they are now all referred to as “the Arabs” and are loathed to such a degree that our sound engineer Méd, who’s of Moroccan origin, doesn’t dare let on that he speaks Arabic.

“These foreigners were the main reason that our country has been destroyed,” says Khaksar.

Khaksar doesn’t refer to Pakistan, whose secret services set the Taliban up in business, or to the CIA, which backed this policy and encouraged the arrival of the first foreign jihadis during the war against the Russians. Nor does he mention Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states whose wealthy citizens provide the finance for the Islamic NGOs which became more influential as the Taliban became increasingly isolated internationally.

In the light of his distaste for foreign influence here, I ask him if US influence over the Northern Alliance worries him, especially since Washington is currently bombing Afghanistan.

The US says that it only wants to wipe out the “terrorists” in Afghanistan, Khaksar replies.

“When the terrorists are finished, we will see what we will do.”

Rebuilding a shattered capital

The mayor of Kabul, Bahawi Mohaiuddin, tells us that bombings by “our American friends” have added to the accumulated rubble that he needs to clear up in order to reconstruct the capital.

We meet Mohaiuddin, a slim, genial man in his 40s who speaks slightly eccentric English, on the morning that he takes over the post.

“I haven’t even had time to resign from my old job with the ICRC,” he tells us.

Mohaiuddin was Deputy Mayor in the early 90s and left the post when the Taliban took power. He inherits a city in ruins.

The city’s power comes from areas which are not fully controlled by Kabul, as we all learnt during the power cut. Many of the poorer areas don’t have power or water.

Some of the poor areas don’t even have buildings. In the early 90s rival factions of what’s now the Northern Alliance fought it out for control of the capital.

Stand among the ruins in the Hazara area in the west of the city and people will point to the mountains on either side and say, “Gulbuddin Hikmetyar’s guns were on that side and Ahmed Shah Masood’s were on the other and the shells fell here.”

The figthing lasted from 1993 to 1995 when Hikmetyar allied himself with the Hazaras to try and seize control of the country. The revenge exacted by Masood’s men is said to have been brutal.

Warlords have also reduced an attempt at town-planning dating from the early 1990s to a distant memory.

The plan forecast a population of two million people. But over half the population has fled – the poor to refugee camps inside Afghanistan, or in Pakistan or Iran, the better-educated to Europe and the US. Meanwhile, they’ve been replaced by refugees from the fighting in the central Shomali plains. Mohaiuddin puts the present population at a million. Its transitory nature, added to the destruction of war, means overcrowding.

“In my own house only 35 per cent of the people who slept there last night actually lived there,” he says.

Kabul used to have a park. No more. Various commanders took a fancy to the area and built homes on it. The possession of guns ensured that there were no problems with planning permission, nor with the supply of water and elecrticity. Other people hired gunmen to be present during the city engineer’s visit.

“Now the muinicipality has the problem, how to destroy that. If we destroy it, that is a lot of money to waste. If we do not, we cannot do our plan.”

Despite the urgency of the tasks that he faces, Mohaiuddin has to run the city without money or trained personnel. The Taliban emptied the coffers when they left town. Many city employees hadn’t been paid for months before that.

Those that were left, that is. The madrassa graduates mistrusted anyone who had been through higher education. One by one, the city’s qualified personnel found themselves accused of being communists and driven out of the country because, like most of Afghanistan’s elite, they had received some of their training in Russia.

What do the Afghans expect of the future?

“The future depends on what the people do. But the point is now that there is a little bit of liberty for the people, before people couldn’t talk freely,” says Abdul Fatah, who has a stall in front of Kabul’s cinema. He writes official letters for the illiterate or semi-literate.

Although there’s guarded optimism, it’s difficult to find anyone who has much confidence in the Northern Alliance. Everyone looks back nervously at the infighting  and anarchy of the early 90s.

Sayjun, an unemployed Pashtun, says that he wants a multi-ethnic government. But would he have said that when the Pashtun-dominated Taliban were in power ?

Most people seem to hope that foreign pressure will keep their new leaders in order and that the Americans, when they’ve finished bombing them, will help reconstruct the country and then go away and leave them in peace.

It’s difficult to fthink of any occasion in Afghan or American history which justifies such optimism.

Hopes for peace, fears for the future

Mohammed Ahmed, a doctor whom we meet in the hotel car park in Jalalabad, seemed more independent-minded. He complained about the lack of equipment and medicines at the hospital where he works (“we don’t know how to help people”) and told us that he hasn’t been paid for four months.

“They [the country’s new rulers] came before and they did the same thing before. They will give us nothing … You will have a new king and he will do his thing and then you will have another.”

So who can bring peace for the people of Afghanistan ?

“I think that no-one can do that, just the people of Afghanistan … The British and the French and the Americans, they built their countries by themselves, no Afghan was there to work for them. The Afghans have to make their country by themselves. No-one will help you.”

A deserted prison

Kabul prison is several kilometres out of town, in country that is practically desert. You turn off the road to Jalalabad, pass through a mud village with shops housed in old goods-containers, the cast-offs of the transport mafia.

The car kicks up more and more dust and, as we cross a flat plain, Kamal shifts uncomfortably in his seat.

“This is the first time I’ve been here. This is where my father was killed,” he says.

He’s mentioned before that his father was executed “under the communists”, to be precise under the second Khalq President, Hafizullah Amin.

Now I venture to ask why he was killed.

“Because he had political ideas.”

What political ideas ?

“He was a Maoist.”

Kamal says that thousands of political prisoners have been buried in the ground over which we are driving. Sometimes so many were buried at the same time that bulldozers were used to dig the graves.

A bunch of armed men meet us at the prison. They’re the guards but they have no one to watch over now. The  gates are wide open. When the Taliban left town, they let all 12,000 prisoners go free.

“They were our own people. They lived where we live,” says the guard who shows us around, a man in his 30s with scruffy clothes and a friendly face.

Given the fact that many of the prisoners were political allies of Kabul’s new masters, the altruism may have been born of the instinct of self-preservation.

There are seven cell-blocks, all surrounded by a wall with gun-turrets looking out onto the dusty nothingness around the jail.

We go into one block. Rubbish is strewn all over the place, papers, broken desks and plastic gloves. There’s an exercise yard, with a small garden in the corner. Inside are the large cages into which the common law prisoners were packed.

Upstairs there’s a corridor with individual cells off it. Their occupants had decorated the cells with huge graffiti of sayings from the Koran or quotations from poets. On the pink-painted walls of one cell, there are idyllic tropical seascapes, an open Koran and a squadron of fighter-planes attacking a convoy of motor vehicles. This is the political prisoners’ wing.

Around the corner the bottom half of a leg is lying amid the rubbish. An artificial one. A landmine victim or wounded fighter was in such a hurry to leave that he left his artificial limb behind.

Through the windows we can see walls pocked with bullet-holes. They date from the factional fighting of the early 90s, when the rival militias came into the prison to fight. The guard says that this happened many times.

Two rooms are clean and painted white and bright, like a surgery.

“This was where they tortured people,” the guard explains. The tortures including beating people with metal-wighted cable and emasculating them by crushing their testicles.

Many thousands of people were executed here, says the guard, and many died under torture.

Was this just under the Taliban, or under all régimes ?

“It was the Taliban … We don’t see anything like this in the world before.”

Leaving via Bagram

Thanks to the US-British bombings, it’s not possible to leave via Kabul airport.

The UN agencies run flights from Bagram on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. They’re much in demand, despite the fact that insurance costs have put the price of a seat up to 2,000 dollars. God help the freelancers! Places are not available to Afghans, so Kamal and Assad have to drive back to Peshawar along the road on which we were robbed.

“Take the new road,” the ICRC officials told us. “The old one’s mined.”

There’s more dust, more desert along the route and walled homesteads without a sign of life. In the distance, there’s a larger town, whose mud buildings are difficult to distinguish from the countryside. The mountains brood at the side, dry and brown except for small patches of snow right at the top.

At one point the car veers off the road ahead of a bombed-out bridge going over a stream. We go down a twisted track to the side of the stream, where the shell of a tank lies half in the water as if it had been demobilised earlier this morning. The car goes under another broken-up bridge, across the stream and back onto the road.

There doesn’t seem to be much left of Bagram. An empty foxhole by the airport gate with an escape path leading back into what’s left of the village. We wait outside the locked airport gate and a  group of Western soldiers appears on the other side, a few metres away. They won’t answer when I ask who they are. A man from the BBC says that their Americans and that the Brits who were reportedly here have already left.

There are two small aircraft on the runway, waiting to take us out of Afghanistan. Our plane has to circle above the airport six times to gain the necessary height. It turns on its side and we see the wreckage of the airport itself, then the leathery sides of mountains lurch towards us, then away as we pull up and head for Islamabad.

For more on Afghanistan between 2001 and 2009, click here.
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