Why America must get more involved - not less - in Afghanistan
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.