Afghans fearful of Taliban return as foreign forces prepare to exit


When international forces leave Afghanistan, it will be bad for the economy, residents tell JOHN D MCHUGHin Kabul

KABUL SITS on the old Silk Road and has been a trading city for thousands of years. Walking through the ancient bazaar in Kabul’s old town, it feels like stepping back in time, to the days of camel trains and spice traders.

The narrow alleys are partially covered and the bright Afghan sun spills through in places, creating pillars of light that seem to hold the roof up.

In some sections the covering is coloured cloth, bathing the passageways in eerie reds and greens. Recycled bottles of whiskey, their labels declaring their original use and illegal provenance, sit filled with nut oil alongside bags, baskets and hessian sacks of spices.

Turning into the alley known as the bird market, the smell that assails the nostrils is a little more pungent. For hundreds of years men have sold fighting and singing birds here. Handmade wooden cages line the street, and in places are so tightly packed overhead that the alley almost becomes a tunnel. For the bird sellers, memories of the Taliban are never far away. “I have been a shopkeeper here for over 20 years,” Shirin Agha tells me. “Things are much better now than in the Taliban times. They used to come and open our cages, letting all our birds go free.”

The bird sellers joined together and complained, saying their businesses and livelihoods would be ruined if this behaviour continued. “They stopped after that,” Agha says, “but warned us not to play with the birds.”

“When I hear the birds singing, it reminds me of freedom,” says Bashir Socyal, “and that the Taliban are gone.”

Socyal grew up in Kabul during the Soviet occupation, and survived the civil war that destroyed the capital. He was studying medicine at Kabul University when the Taliban came to power, but they quickly closed the universities, and his life became about survival all over again.

The first time he was imprisoned by the Taliban it was for cutting his beard short. The second time was for possessing a copy of Terminator 2. Stopped at a checkpoint by members of the Taliban’s “vice and virtue” department, he says his nervousness betrayed him. In Pul-e-Charkhi jail the prisoners were fed on bread and water. Even after all of this, Socyal says the worst thing the Taliban did was to destroy the economy of Afghanistan.

“There was almost no economy and for me to survive I used to do difficult jobs – like during the Taliban I taught English,” he says. He even taught some of the Taliban, he says. “I worked hard for payment, for survival. I did different things during the Taliban, as the economy was very bad. I used to sell old rugs, old carpets. I would buy an old carpet and would put it on the street there and would sell it for a little profit.”

All of these things, he says, he did to keep his family alive.

LOOKING TOthe future, Socyal sees more economic troubles. “There are talks about international troops leaving Afghanistan,” he says. “They haven’t left yet but there are talks that they will leave after 2014. The economy has already gone down. The price of houses has gone down. A friend of mine who is a car seller says he can hardly sell a car, because there is no economy, so once the international community leaves Afghanistan the economy will go down.”

These fears are shared by Mujahid Safi, a successful businessman working in computers and logistics. A member of the Kunar province chamber of commerce, he is well placed to explain the concerns of the business community.

Sitting in his air-conditioned office, above a shop stocked high with laptops, printers and other high-value electronics, he doesn’t mince his words, laying all the blame at the feet of US president Barack Obama. “Since they announced they’d be leaving in 2014, business has been declining.”

Drawing a sheaf of papers from his desk, he delivers the figures. “Our business was very good in 2009,” he tells me proudly. “Our annual sales turnover in that year was $4.1 million. 2010 was even better than the previous year. It was about $5.1 million.”

But then, he says, Obama announced in 2011 that US troops would leave by the end of 2014, and the economy went into free fall. Safi’s business declined sharply, dropping 31 per cent, or $2.2 million dollars compared with the previous year.

He is angry, and he’s not the only one. Many businessmen say the US president’s announcement was irresponsible, taking no account of the effect on the fragile Afghan economy, but focused instead on the Americans’ eagerness for an exit strategy.

WITH THEfuture so uncertain, and the economy faltering, the abandonment of Afghanistan has begun, with the middle classes and business community preparing to flee. Safi admits to having started a business in Dubai, “just in case”. Many others have already bought homes abroad, and moved eye-watering amounts of money out of the country. In 2011, $4.6 billion in cash was legally exported through Kabul airport. Who knows how much more was brought out illegally, in aircraft, cars and on the backs of donkeys ?

THE INTERNATIONALcommunity too is leaving ahead of 2014. The once-staggering rents in Kabul are falling fast as aid agencies, media outlets and foreign businesses reduce their numbers or close entirely.

But not everyone can leave. On a dusty street in the suburbs of Kabul, Noorullah Noory owns a small internet cafe. He is recently married, and only 20 years old, and he says he doesn’t have the money to get himself and his wife out of Afghanistan. Not yet, anyway. But he points out he has two years left to earn it. Noory checks the Taliban’s website every day, monitoring their attacks, who they have killed and where they say they plan to strike next.

Sitting in the gloom of the room, lit only by computer monitors, he says all the young people who are educated have one idea only: to leave Afghanistan. Eighty to 85 per cent of young people believe the fighting will start again, he says. “My friends, best friends, all left, all left Afghanistan, because they are afraid of coming of Taliban.”

Tomorrow:And what happens when the Americans leave?

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