Warlords and criminals rife in a city weary of corruption


The war in Afghanistan sparked by the 9/11 attacks on the US is 11 years old. The UN-mandated International Security Assistance Force is winding down its operations and expects to have almost fully withdrawn by the end of next year. JOHN D McHUGH, in the first of three articles, reports from the capital city of Kabul

EXAMINING THE work on a multimillion-dollar road project, the short man with the neatly trimmed moustache pointed and said: “I can see cracks here.”

“Don’t worry, we’ll plaster over them,” came the reply, without a hint of irony.

That exchange, brief as it was, encapsulates the entire failure of the war in Afghanistan to date: shoddy workmanship, failure to acknowledge the problems and a constant effort to hide mistakes and present an untrue facade.

Kabul is the centre of all power in Afghanistan; the seat of government, the economic hub and the touchstone of security. Whoever controls Kabul controls the country. This is why the Soviets’ opening gambit in their almost 10-year occupation was an attack on the city, and why the Mujahideen fought so hard to dislodge them from it. It is also what led to the brutal fighting in the subsequent civil war that almost destroyed the city.

The man with the neat moustache is Muhammad Yunus Nawandish, the mayor of Kabul. Dubbed “the builder of Kabul” for his work in co-ordinating its reconstruction, he is renowned for arriving unannounced at ongoing projects. To understand what is happening in the city, I spend the day travelling with the mayor. He is surprised because he is a “high-profile target”. Many people want him dead, and his black 4x4 is an inviting target for an improvised explosive device (IED) as it forces its way through the snarled traffic of Kabul’s cratered roads.

The mayor’s biggest battle running the city is not balancing the books, but battling corruption.

“When I became mayor of Kabul I announced a 24-item programme for Kabul city. The first point was fighting against corruption and the land mafia,” he says. This has brought him into conflict with criminals and warlords, many of whom illegally grabbed land, much of it belonging to the city. The mayor is determined to get it back, regardless of the extravagant “poppy palaces” built on the plots. Nawandish insists he will fight them until the end. With no trace of fear in his voice, he says: “Because the fight against corruption and the land mafia is not so easy, I purchased a piece of land for my grave.”

Corruption is endemic in Afghanistan. In 2009 the presidential election was widely condemned by the international community for being massively fraudulent.

With no contender achieving a clear majority, president Hamid Karzai and his main rival, Dr Abdullah Abdullah, were set to contest a run-off. But with just a few days to go, Abdullah pulled out of the race, saying it was impossible to expect a fair outcome. Meeting Abdullah is difficult, as he too is a man who many would like to kill. When I do meet him, he is sitting in the rose garden of his marble-clad home. Kabulis know it as the “White Palace” – it is beautiful, but defended like a fortress, with concrete barriers and armed guards protecting the entrance to the street.

Abdullah is dressed in a white traditional shalwer kameez, with a western-style jacket over the top. He says he doesn’t believe the presidential elections due in 2014 will be any different than 2009.

“My hope was – my wish post-elections last time – that we all might have learned lessons, but unfortunately there we haven’t seen any sign of positive change.” And he is clear about whom he holds responsible. “I don’t see the political will in the current leadership of Afghanistan, with president Karzai.”

In 2014 Karzai comes to the end of his second term in office and is barred by the constitution from running for a third term. However, no date has yet been set for the election and, with security deteriorating in the provinces, it is hard to see how it can take place. There is concern that Karzai may declare a state of emergency, suspend parliament and remain in power indefinitely.

One woman who is determined to stand against him is Fawzai Koofi. She is a member of parliament and an activist for women’s rights, and she has been fighting since the day she was born: she was left out in the sun to die by a mother who wanted a son. She has also survived several assassination attempts. The last one saw her car riddled with bullets from machine gun fire as she huddled over her two daughters in the back seat to protect them.

But Koofi is not intimidated. She will run for president, she says. “We need new faces of politicians to come forward,” she tells me in rapid-fire English, hands gesticulating in an attempt to communicate her ideas faster.

Koofi’s commitment to women’s rights drives her in politics, but she worries about the future, with Karzai reaching out to the Taliban and calling them his “brothers”.

“Women’s situation in Afghanistan is very much linked to other issues in Afghanistan: to democracy, to freedom of speech, to freedom of media,” she says. “I think Taliban will try to undermine this.”

Citing the recent murder of a woman accused of adultery, she says: “They’ve gone to some of the most horrible types of violence, including shooting a woman dead in front of everybody’s eyes, without any kind of trial.”

Karzai’s attempts to broker talks with the Taliban make many uneasy, both in Afghanistan and in the West. But others support them, saying the war cannot be won on the battlefield. Abdul Hakim Mujahid, former Taliban envoy to the United Nations, and now a member of the High Peace Council, believes in talks. Mujahid is tall and imposing, and when he speaks, in English, his impressive intellect is on display. In traditional Afghan style, he insists we drink chai before we began the interview: “We must both be prepared, before we do battle.”

Mujahid explains the ongoing crisis in Afghanistan: “From the very beginning, the problem is the manipulation of power.”

The Pashtun people, the ethnic majority, have been excluded from power since the Taliban was toppled in 2001, he says. “I think the Taliban will not try to grab power unilaterally here in Afghanistan,” he says. “The only solution will be national participation in power.”

US secretary of state Hillary Clinton, in describing the US’s efforts to reach out to the Taliban for reconciliation, said: “This is not a pleasant business.” And yet they have pushed ahead with their efforts, leaving many Afghans aghast at the mere hint of a Taliban return.

In a more utilitarian house than most, with the ubiquitous blast walls and armed guards, I meet Amrullah Saleh. He is the founder of the National Movement, a pro-democracy and anti-Taliban political party. He is also the former head of the Afghan intelligence service. Vehemently opposed to what he calls a “policy of appeasement” towards the Taliban, Saleh says: “Just four days ago, the Taliban beheaded 17 people in the southern province of Helmand for having a musical party with two women. Perhaps it is banned in Islam, sure. But where in Islam it is said that you just cut their heads and chop it off?

“Why the West is saying we talk to the Taliban?” he asks, clearly infuriated. “What if the Taliban beheaded 17 Americans? Will the Americans still be pushing for reconciliation?”

John D McHugh is an Irish-born freelance photojournalist and film-maker who has worked extensively in Afghanistan since early 2006.

Tomorrow: Can the Afghan economy survive international withdrawal?

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