Why America must get more involved - not less - in Afghanistan
AKOKOLACHA, AFGHANISTAN — Former National Public Radio correspondent Sarah Chayes went to Afghanistan in October 2001 to report on the war. When the fighting - and the news assignment - was over, she sensed her responsibility was just beginning. Feeling a growing need to stop talking about conflict and start doing something about it, she stayed to serve as field director of Afghans for Civil Society, a non-profit group in Baltimore.
Engineer Abdullah and I clambered about the wreckage of this parched village last June, a knot of elders and a gaggle of children spilling over the uneven ground. It quickly became clear that we would never know what the village had once looked like.
"I had seven rooms here," one turbaned elder with a wolf-like face asserted. "And a bathroom adjoining every room."
Abdullah and I looked at each other, then at the 10 square yards of mounded debris we were standing on. The mansion the man was describing was what he wished he'd owned, and I told him as much. The visit went on like that. No one would tell the truth about a neighbor's house, for fear of scuttling his own chances of getting a castle from the foreigners who had inexplicably arrived to rebuild the village.
The Akokolacha project has proved to be an extraordinary microcosm of the wreckage that is Afghanistan, the obstacles in the way of laying new foundations, and the key role the US has played and still plays - for good or for bad.
The parched village of Akokolacha abuts the Kandahar airport. It was smashed half to rubble a year ago when Al Qaeda forces - holed up in a bloody last stand - were pounded by US bombs. Villagers returned to find 10 of their 30 houses heaps of broken mud bricks, the desert wind softening the edges.
Last spring, the nonprofit development organization I'm helping to run appealed to the people of Concord, Mass. (where I gave a lecture) and others we approached personally for money to reconstruct Akokolacha's ruined houses. The response was breathtaking - $18,000 in private donations to build a symbolic bridge between a small American town and a crippled village in Afghanistan.
By September, we'd held several shuras - or council meetings - with the villagers. Top of the repair list were houses rendered truly uninhabitable by the bombing - we weren't doing cracked ceilings. The villagers wanted to start with the mosque and the house of a crotchety, feisty elder called Hajji Baba. Least popular was our decision to build standard houses for everyone: three rooms, a veranda, a kitchen, and a bathroom. The decision was a result of the impossibility of getting good-faith descriptions of the houses that had been destroyed.
At first, I was hurt and offended by the villagers' attitude. Abdullah has remained so. He's run rebuilding projects for 20 years and has seen boundless permutations of ingratitude, theft, and corruption. He's bitter about those of his people he feels dishonor the rest. Akokolacha's residents disgust him, and he shows it.
I'd been describing Afghanistan to friends as a society suffering from collective posttraumatic shock. Now I was seeing the reality behind the metaphor. For a quarter century, Akokolacha inhabitants have been deprived of a future, of the wherewithal to think ahead, to husband resources for later wise investment. Their destiny - appalling suffering or sudden bounty handed out for no apparent reason - has come down upon them arbitrarily, usually at the hand of outsiders. So what matters is right now. And the villagers were trying to leverage as much as they could get right now.
I learned to deflect their complaints and requests with bluff repartee. And so, despite some nagging internal misgivings, I informed them of the dimensions of their future standard houses at the shura.
Hilarious old Hajji Baba, who is toothless and wears dark glasses with one lens poked out, balked. First he insisted he didn't want a house at all unless the rooms were seven meters long. Then he tried to bargain down to six. We'd agreed on five, and we were sticking to it. We told Hajji Baba we wouldn't force him to have a house and we turned to someone else's. He caved and told us to get cracking - and he was on it like a hawk, complaining and adjusting and pitching in, and cackling and throwing tantrums. Every time I'd show up, his pout would crack into a smile; he'd let me kiss his dirt-caked hand and tease him, and he'd grudgingly agree that the work was OK.
To add irony to this crash course in aid delivery, I was caught in the crossfire of Afghan and American notions of how I should be working. An independent film crew making a documentary on the Akokolacha project began questioning my attitude: Why wasn't I more sympathetic to the villagers' desires? Wasn't I imposing my Western image of an Afghan village on them?
In my other ear, Abdullah was remonstrating in the opposite vein: "Why do you keep listening to these thieving villagers? Will you just let me run this job?"
Through it all, trenches were dug, and wizened stonemasons were deftly choosing pieces of rock to Rubiks-together into solid, mortarless foundations.
Abdullah came to me one September morning: "There's a problem with the stone for Akokolacha. Gul Agha's soldiers stopped our tractor. "
"Zu," I said, "Let's go." And we headed for our battered black Toyota Land Cruiser and the quarry that held stone needed for Akokolacha's new foundations.
The road there cleaves a dun-colored wasteland of rock and clay, hardened by the punishing sun. Only a fleet of nappy-haired camels, some sheep combing a parched field, and the patchwork tents of impoverished nomads break the monotony. Up a sandy track to a hollow in the flank of some rocky hills, we found the quarryman's son.
"Bikhi bad sarai," he said. A "very bad man" had come with a Kalashnikov-toting tough, twisted a fistful of collar under the young man's chin, and warned that no one was to take foundation stone from the quarry. The "bad man" was the nephew of Gul Agha Shirzai, the governor of Kandahar Province. The nephew and the governor's brother, it emerged, are opening a gravel plant next to the old quarryman's operation. The governor's kin had snatched the old quarryowner's contract with the US military base for the large amounts of gravel and stone it requires. And the former quarryoperator was no longer allowed to sell any stone or gravel at all.
At a time when reconstruction is perhaps Afghanistan's highest priority, no one can legally obtain stone for foundations. That's because there is a lucrative market in stone crushed into gravel that Gul Agha is cornering for himself.
"Only with a written order from Gul Agha can I give stone," explained the white-bearded quarryman.
"Zu," I said to Abdullah. "Let's go see the governor."
Gul Agha - literally "Noble Flower" - Shirzai was governor of Kandahar Province in the early 1990s, and so much mayhem and rapine flourished on his watch that much of the population welcomed even the draconian Taliban, which banished him and his ilk. The one fear consistently expressed by Afghan refugees during last year's war was that the end of the Taliban regime would bring back warlord rule.
Gul Agha returned to Afghanistan in November 2001 as part of the US "southern strategy" to compliment its reliance on the Northern Alliance. Military pressure on Kandahar was needed as well as the patient negotiating tactics of Hamid Karzai, now transitional president. So Gul Agha's men, together with several Pakistani Army officers, were inserted just south of Kandahar.
When the Taliban were ready to surrender, Mr. Karzai asked Gul Agha to remain outside the city with his troops - at the very airport that Akokolacha abuts. But Gul Agha, accompanied by his US and Pakistani advisers, advanced on Kandahar militarily to take it from Karzai. He was threatening exactly the kind of civil strife that has brought Afghanistan to its knees over the past decades. Forced to give in to this blackmail, Karzai named Gul Agha governor.
In its hurried effort to support "the government" and consolidate even the most superficial stability, the international community has funneled its aid to the region - overt and covert - almost exclusively through Gul Agha. As a result, a fatalism is growing among Kandaharis and international actors alike who fear that Gul Agha is, in fact, "the" government, that his hold on power is acceptable, and that there will be no recourse against him. He treats the province as his personal property, enforcing his will at gunpoint.
At Gul Agha's compound we drank in the scene: Open-backed trucks sporting bunches of rocket-launchers strapped to the struts like metal bananas. A flock of petitioners never straying far from the gates - only swinging, as if at anchor, to avoid the butts of his soldiers' Kalashnikovs. Those soldiers wear US Army fatigues, and in the eyes of Kandaharis, they - and their rude, often criminal behavior - are part of the US military presence here, as is Gul Agha himself. The abundance of guns and soldiers are a mark of raw power. And the exercise of power remains inexorably personal in Afghanistan. That is the significance of the constant press of petitioners around Gul Agha's gates. To settle the most elementary grievance, or to obtain a routine authorization, citizens must see the governor in person.
Eventually we were let into a low-slung white-washed building where we stopped to see the chief of staff who had his own press of petitioners. One wiry old man was positively begging - kissing his fingertips and touching them to his own eyes in a gesture of submission - saying he'd come three days in a row, please give his opium back. The official insisted without a glance that opium is illegal.
"Why is it illegal for me and not for Hajji Abdullah?" the old man asked. Hajji Abdullah is a wealthy businessman reputed to be the biggest opium dealer in the province. At that very moment he was meeting with Gul Agha.
We were directed to the governor's private quarters across a small park - an oasis of green in parched, dust-swept Kandahar. Rows of eucalyptus trees shade the lawn where, in a touch of medieval pageantry, an antelope ambled.
At length, Gul Agha emerged flanked by Hajji Abdullah. Gul Agha, the "Noble Flower" who is a great, hairy bear of a man with thick black locks of hair sticking from a white bandage wrapped around his head. He'd been grazed in the recent assassination attempt on President Karzai.
After the gush of friendly greeting, I brought up the question of the stone for Akokolacha.
"You can't have any stone. We're building a cement factory," he said, then smiled broadly. "Let me give you some advice: make your foundations from brick, with cement for mortar."
We tangled politely for 10 minutes, and I finally wrested a promise that he'd send a delegation with us to find another source of stone near Akokolacha. But there is none, as the provincial chief of mines and industry discovered when he drove out with us. So the chief ordered the old quarryowner to provide stone to our tractors.
Akokolacha has a new mosque now, and all but two houses are up; some families are moved in - complaining, though, that without glass in the windows it's too cold.
The old quarryoperator did not fare so well.
Two days after he sold us our stone, a dented white station wagon pulled up next to our car, a hand proffering a note out the window. It was the quarryman's writing: He was in jail. Gul Agha himself had gone to the hillside and told his soldiers to take him away.
We were frantic: Descriptions of Gul Agha's jails are chilling. We pulled all the strings we could - from Kandahar elders to Amnesty International. A week later he was released - mercifully, unhurt.
This is warlord government, and it is crippling Afghanistan's hopes for a future. And the international community is honor bound to do something about it.
Afghans look to the international community, and the US in particular, as a force that can push their leaders toward a more democratic and professional governing style.
Odd as it may sound, the US presence enjoys a large measure of popularity here - but it is conditional on Americans getting more involved, not less, using their influence to limit the devastating effects of warlordism.
It's time America shoulder some responsibility for the consequences of its actions and begin actively promoting the values it claims to cherish - even in faraway Afghanistan.