Taking a stroll through the parks and bazaars of Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital, after many years covering the war in the south and the east of the country, could have been both terrifying and liberating.
I was conscious that there was certainly a very real threat from suicide bombers and the “spectacular” attacks that garner international headlines, but in reality I found that after following US troops patrolling IED (improvised explosive device) infested orchards in Kandahar or climbing mountains swarming with Taliban fighters in Nuristan and Kunar, Kabul actually felt like a different, much safer world. For the moment at least.
Kabul is the beating heart of Afghanistan. It is the centre of politics and commerce and culture, the place to which all roads here lead. This is why the Mujahedeen battled the Soviets so hard here in the 1980’s and why the Taliban fought so desperately to capture it during the brutal civil war that followed.
Now, though the Taliban know that while they cannot hope to reoccupy the city while international forces are in the country, keeping up attacks or at least maintaining the threat of attack, accomplishes two objectives. It acts as constant reminder to the politicians and public in the West that their troops should leave – and it reminds Afghans that once the foreigners are gone, the Taliban will be waiting.
It is true that the violence is still much worse in the provinces than in Kabul, but the Taliban, and their allies, the Haqqani network, are regularly able to bring fear and death to the very heart of the capital. This is quite a feat, considering the thousands of Afghan police and soldiers stationed on the streets, and manning the checkpoints that ring the city.
The Mayor of Kabul
Yet as the city holds it breath, waiting for the next assault, one man refuses to give up on Kabul.
It is the city’s mayor Muhammad Yunus Nawandish, who is dedicated to putting capital back on its feet after so many years of destruction and decay. Ddubbed “the builder of Kabul,” he bluntly explains why his job will not let him relax – even for a minute. “The Kabul city is destroyed. It has to be rebuilt,” he says.
His commitment to that process is astonishing – as is his bravery in the face of considerable danger to his person.
He spends hours every day on the road, inspecting infrastructure construction projects, badgering suppliers and contractors, keeping the pressure up on his officials.
He is renowned for his hands on approach, fond of turning up unannounced at building sites and catching municipal staff unawares.
He is also dedicated to fighting corruption, particularly tackling what he calls “the land mafia,” which makes getting anything done in Kabul so difficult.
With warlords illegally grabbing land for development, often for putting up their own absurdly extravagant houses, the mayor’s determination is admirable, but very dangerous.
“Because the fight against corruption and the land mafia is not so easy, I purchased a piece of land for my grave,” he says, without a trace of fear.
The hard road ahead
But if things are bad now, the potential for even worse is on the horizon. In 2014, two major events will occur that threaten to undermine Kabul’s achievements of the last 10 years. President Hamid Karzai will come to the end of his second term in office and is currently barred by the constitution from running for a third term. If (and some believe it is still an ‘if’) he follows the rules, then elections will bring a change of leadership.
But the last poll in 2009 was widely condemned as fraudulent by observers both domestic and foreign, and if the then runner-up, Dr Abdullah Abdullah, is to be believed, things will not be that different this time around.
“My hope was, my wish was, post-elections last time, that we all might have learned lessons. But unfortunately there we haven’t seen any sign of positive change,” he says.
When pressed on why, he is quick to lay the blame on his political adversary: “I don’t see the political will in the current leadership of Afghanistan, with President Karzai. There are areas where people are so fed up with local government, that they prefer Taliban.”
It may seem surprising to hear a senior politician, albeit one in opposition, admit that things have become so bad. But it is no surprise to Abdul Hakim Mujahid, the former Taliban envoy to the United Nations, and currently the grandly named first deputy of the High Peace Council. He says the reason is straightforward.
“From the very beginning the problem is the manipulation of power,” he says. This process, he adds, has been made much worse because it has excluded the Pashtuns – the ethnic group to which many Taliban belong.
It is a claim I have often heard in Afghanistan. And there is some truth to it. Since the Taliban were toppled in 2001, and the subsequent Bonn Conference laid out a structure for rebuilding Afghanistan’s political future, the Pashtuns have indeed been sidelined.
The other major event set to affect Kabul in 2014 is the departure of the US troops by the end of that year. Often cited as a definite and final point of US withdrawal, it is actually slightly misleading, as US troops have already been leaving for the past few months following the scaling down of “the surge” as it is known.
But certainly, by the end of 2014 all conventional troops are scheduled to be out of the country. This means that as troops leave, some bases will be handed over to the Afghan army, and others will close.
Considering the Taliban have been able to project such huge control and fear over the population during the height of the US troop deployment, it seems almost certain that this influence will increase, and large swathes of land will fall to the Taliban again during 2013 and 2014. Kabul is particularly at risk as the Americans withdraw from Kunar, Laghman, and Kapisa provinces. Kabulis can read a map and know that this will open up a short and direct path from the insurgent’s camps in Pakistan, and make attacking their city so much easier.
No country for old men
Afghanistan is a country of the young. Three quarters of the country’s population is under 30, and the average age is just 16.
Speaking to young people, they initially speak of their hope for the future, but within a few minutes they usually mention leaving the country.
“All the young people, the masters degree, the bachelors degree, who have studied, passed their time in education, one idea they have. They are leaving the country,” says Noorullah Noory, a young man who owns and runs a small internet café in Kabul.
“My friends, best friends, all left Afghanistan, because they are afraid of coming of Taliban.”
Indeed, it is a sad fact that despite 11 years of development projects in Kabul, and billions of dollars poured into the economy, there are still very few places for young people to go and relax.
One of the few is Skateistan, an NGO that uses skateboarding as a hook to hook to bring children and teenagers into their education programme.
According to its founder, Oliver Percovich, “the reason that we do what we’re doing is to build trust.” This means reaching out to the youth of Kabul, regardless of social class, ethnicity or gender. Remarkably over half of Skateistan’s pupils are marginalised street kids and nearly 40 per cent are girls.
“The biggest problem is that there is very little communication between different ethnicities,” Percovich explains, “and everybody is trying to solve problems by throwing financial capital at something that actually requires basic trust.”
Young skateboarder and Skateistan instructor, Madina Saidi, puts it more poetically. “When I skateboard I’m feeling like I am a bird,” she says. But she too fears for the future: “If the Taliban come, I will leave my country.”
Sadly, just a few days after I interviewed her, the children of Skateistan were caught up in a suicide bombing. Madina had just stepped into a building, and escaped the blast. But five of her friends were not so lucky, and died in the explosion.
2014 and beyond
In two years time, the people of Kabul will again watch a superpower’s troops pack up and leave.
As they withdraw, much of the aid money that has kept this country afloat for the last ten years will go with them. That could totally undermine the already fragile confidence of the Afghan business community; several company bosses – and not a few politicians – are known to be quietly planning their departure.
As for Kabul, whether the Taliban could actually retake the capital after 2014 is still open to question. But as we found, most people here expect them to try.
With worsening security and a government losing legitimacy, all-out civil war is a very real threat.
If that happens, the progress the city has made in the last decade could again be thrown into reverse – and this time it might never recover.