Afghanistan

A TIME OF HOPE

Afghans are stuggling to get back on their feet, writes SALLY ARMSTRONG

December 9 2002
Afghanistan

A TIME OF HOPE

Afghans are stuggling to get back on their feet, writes SALLY ARMSTRONG

December 9 2002

A TIME OF HOPE

Afghanistan

Afghans are stuggling to get back on their feet, writes SALLY ARMSTRONG

CLOUDS OF SMOKE RISE from the grill and swirl around the lunchtime crowd as Sadar roasts kabobs of daka (meat) and shami (ground beef) over charcoal. Sadar has operated his noisy sidewalk restaurant, Haji Rahnatullah, on Charahi Sedarat Street in Kabul for 40 years, and lately things have been looking up. “The Taliban bothered us all the time,” he says, shouting over the blare of music from his radio. “They came at prayer time, five times a day, and told us to close the shop and go to the mosque to pray.” He was averaging 20 customers a day back then—now there are more than 100 at lunch alone. “Nobody bothers us now,” he says, turning over a daka on the grill, sending another burst of smoke into the air. “Business is good, women come here for lunch, some with burkas, some without, and we’re having fun.”

A little more than a year after Kabul was liberated by allied forces, the city is awash in chaos. The real danger, apart from the occasional rocket attack, is the traffic. Masses of cars, yellow taxis and bicycles jockey for space on streets shrouded in a cloak of choking black exhaust. The concept that pedestrians have any right of way is as foreign as driving in separate lanes. The electricity randomly flickers on and off, and the telephone network, a maddening mix of seven systems that can’t communicate with each other, adds to the frustration. But Sadar is right: there’s a spring in the step of Kabul’s residents today. Women, once forbidden to appear in public by the Taliban without a male at their side, are trying to achieve some independence. About 30 per cent of them have traded in their periwinkle-blue burkas, some for Western styles, but most for traditional Afghan clothes. The movie theatres and shops are open; there’s even an Internet café at the Intercontinental Hotel.

The presence of thousands of UN peace-

keepers and Western aid workers is keeping the Kabul economy afloat and the city safe. But Kabul is one thing. The rest of this country of 23 million remains a very dangerous place. Remnants of the Muslim extremists who supported the Taliban are still active: in late October and early November they fired rockets into four girls’ schools in villages near Kabul, setting the buildings on fire. Under the Taliban, females were not allowed to attend school; the attackers left behind leaflets warning parents to keep their daughters at home. Warlords, meanwhile, still control much of the country. Forces loyal to ethnic Uzbek commander Abdul Rashid Dostum and Ustad Atta Mohammed, a Tajik, have clashed frequently in the north.

And Ismail Khan, a Tajik in the west, has 25,000 soldiers on the payroll, dwarfing the country’s fledgling army.

As President Hamid Karzai attempts to exert his control beyond Kabul, his enemies seem determined to stop him. Last week, the government revealed that a man, whom Afghan security officials say was linked to alQaeda, had been arrested on Nov. 22 with 18 pounds of explosives taped to his chest in a plot to assassinate either Karzai or the defence minister, Mohammed Fahim. “He had been trained and assigned to carry out a suicide mission,” said government spokesman Amrullah Salihi. “He had very clear links with extremist Pakistani groups.”

Karzai is determined to move ahead with his plan to build a peaceful Afghanistan. The most potent weapon in his arsenal may be the new currency now being introduced

across the country. Until recently, Afghans never took old currency out of circulation— you can still find notes from the early years of King Zahir Shah’s reign, which began in the 1930s and lasted until 1973. After years of inflation, that means it takes a satchel full of money—the currency is called the afghani—just to manage a day’s outing in Kabul. Now, in addition to providing convenience and international credibility, the new currency, backed by US$220 million in gold from the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank, could also be a blow to the warlords. Some, like Dostum and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, simply counterfeited their own cash. Others have amassed piles of money which will be worth far less when they turn it in. At the UN meeting in Bonn last December where the current administration was created, former president Burhannudin Rabbani alone was given 32 40-foot containers full of 10,000-afghani notes (worth about US20 cents each) to buy his support.

Now, when the old money is traded in, it will immediately be destroyed in Germanmade shredding machines that have been flown in for the operation. Because the old money can only be exchanged for a small

number of bills at any one time, the plan, in effect, devalues Rabbani’s money. And counterfeiters, faced with the new silvertabbed notes that are harder to copy, will at least be slowed down. “In the past, warlords issued their own money—it was anarchy, and it made real Afghan money lose its value,” says Amin Khosti, president of Kabul’s foreign exchange market. “Now all the money will be registered in the Central Bank. This can eliminate warlordism and gunmanship from Afghanistan forever.” The process of designing the note speaks volumes about the country’s volatile ethnic makeup. Panjshiris wanted their fallen hero Ahmed Shah Massoud—assassinated on

As Karzai attempts to exert his government’s control beyond Kabul, his enemies seem determined to stop him

Sept. 9, 2001, by two al-Qaeda suicide attackers—pictured on the notes, but the Pashtun majority wouldn’t hear of it. As well, there are no depictions of former kings, but there are doves—signalling the end of Taliban rule, under which the photographing of living things was banned as un-Islamic.

Once the currency exchange is complete, Afghans will have to be convinced to put their money in the bank. Although financial institutions have reopened in Kabul, many are still shunning them. “Afghans don’t put their money in banks,” says Peter Jouvenal, who has lived in Afghanistan for 23 years, most recently as proprietor of Kabul’s Gandamak Lodge. “They hide it, or buy gold or Pakistani rupees and hide them.”

Taxation is another alien idea the Afghan government hopes to introduce across the country. It won’t be easy: Ishmail Khan, for one, the governor of Flerat, a province in the west, collects a booty taxing shipments crossing the Tajikistan and Iranian borders, but finds the idea of paying taxes laughable. And enforcing new laws will require a competent civil service, but creating one could be the most difficult task of all. About 1,200 workers lurk about the government build-

ings—with nothing to do but collect their wages. Even issuing a driver’s licence, a basic chore, seems impossible. “You are supposed to take a test and have a licence, but nobody does,” says Jouvenal (he exchanged a packet of multivitamins for his own licence). With the roads so unsafe, he says, the situation could be improved by making driving lessons a requirement before a licence is issued. As for paying,“The presence of cars tells you they have the money,” he says. “They just don’t want to spend it.”

Money is being spent in the country’s colourful bazaars, where the biggest sales are in grainy, pirated videos of North American movies. (Many are so badly done that you can see the heads of people in a movie theatre, sitting in front of the clandestine camera operator who films the screen.) A cornucopia of meats, goats’ heads with teeth showing, fruits and vegetables, spices, jewellery, silks, pots and pans and furniture, is also available in the stalls. At bazaars outside of Kabul, arsenals of guns, from AK-47s to pump-action shotguns, are also for sale.

But it is in the capital where most of the economic activity takes place—much of it fuelled by peacekeepers and other foreigners working for the United Nations, who flock to Chicken Street and Flower Street in downtown Kabul to buy carpets and souvenirs before they head home. Foreign money is highly valued and restaurant owners are happy to take it off visitors’ hands. They will sell a party of four enough bread, tomatoes, cucumber, chicken and french fries to feed a classroom of schoolchildren— all for 440,000 afghanis ($13). Drinking is forbidden in this Islamic country, but getting a beer, a bottle of wine or, for that matter, a gin and tonic in restaurants that cater to foreigners isn’t a problem.

The influx of Westerners has also triggered a real estate boom in Kabul, with foreigners lining up to rent houses and pushing the price of shelter out of reach of most Afghans. And the problem has been exacerbated by the return of thousands of refugees who fled to Pakistan to escape the Taliban’s rule. The situation enrages people like Bakhtiyar Shoresh, an aircraft engineer with the Afghan air force. “The returning refugees have no place to go,” says Shoresh, “because the UN is paying $16,000 per month to rent the homes of wealthy people.” In fact, he doesn’t see where the international money is helping at all. “The UN claims it is spend-

To keep the nation from sliding back into warfare, officials estimate Afghanistan needs US$20 billion in aid over five years

ing hundreds of millions of dollars here,” he says. “All I see are new Toyota Land Cruisers belonging to the UN that cost more than US$50,000 each.”

To bring more foreign currency into Afghanistan, the government hopes to create enough stability to restart the country’s tourism business, which ended when the Russian army invaded the country in 1979. There are signs of progress. Three British men recently arrived in Kabul with the intention of offering week-long bus tours. But most of the country’s roads are littered with boulders and potholes, and with bandits and warlords still around, they won’t be offering tours for the faint of heart if their business gets off the ground.

The government is also putting money into restoring ancient Muslim religious shrines in the hope of drawing tourists. Qari Shawali's family has cared for the 1,400-year-old Cloak of the Prophet Muhammad shrine near Kandahar for almost 200 years. “This is one of the most respected places in Afghanistan and the Islamic world,” says Shawali. The shrine is home to a garment that Afghans believe was worn by the prophet; Shawali is now helping to refurbish the site. “Before the wars we had visitors from many Islamic countries and before that even tourists from Europe,” he says.

But more than rebuilding shrines is needed. To avoid sliding back into warfare, Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani Ahmedzai says Afghanistan needs US$20 billion in aid over the next five years to rebuild its war-shattered economy. That’s a lot more than the $4.5 billion pledged by international donors in January. Most of that money has yet to arrive, and Afghan officials say their country is running out of time. “For ordinary men and women, the key issues are, ‘Is there clean drinking water? Is there electricity?’ ” says Ahmedzai. “These are my measures for deciding what our priorities should be and where the money should go.” If the country is not rebuilt, many fear for the future. “Ultimately,” Jouvenal says, “Afghans will go back to fighting each other.” I?I1