New freedom, fresh hope replace old hates after Kabul’s liberation from Taliban rule

first_imgStudied Change: Women attend a class at Kabul University after a five-year ban under the TalibanThe capacious science lecture hall in Kabul University has of late seen an effort to cover the scars of wars. Blobs of cement have been slapped over walls punctured by gunfire. Broken window panes have,Studied Change: Women attend a class at Kabul University after a five-year ban under the TalibanThe capacious science lecture hall in Kabul University has of late seen an effort to cover the scars of wars. Blobs of cement have been slapped over walls punctured by gunfire. Broken window panes have been replaced. Only the rickety doors still bear signs of the strife that had engulfed Afghanistan’s crucible of learning.But it is the presence of 60-odd women students in the class, their faces uncovered, who personify the startling changes that have transformed the tormented country in recent months. Banned from attending university, they had borne the brunt of the Taliban’s repressive rule and were forced to wear shapeless burqas.Now they are back in classes, hair covered with colourful scarves and sporting fashionable footwear, including the thickest of platform heels. They still sit separated from male students and lower their eyes when spoken to. But they titter over the bearded professor’s light jab on a mathematical formula he had just scribbled on the giant board.A demure Mursal Abdul Jabbar, 22, is all concentration. Outside the hall, she says, “For five years I had to miss classes because of the ban. I had almost given up hope of ever studying again. Now I can pursue my dream of becoming a teacher.” Her classmate and friend Leeda Din Mohammed, her hair covered with a lacy white scarf, is still angry with the Talibs. “What they wanted us to do was 100 per cent opposite to what Islam preached. We hope they never return.”advertisementUS troops confer with an Afghan soldier at Bagram air baseTill recently such talk would have been blasphemous and invited public caning. But just eight months after Kabul was liberated from Taliban rule, new freedom and fresh hope have replaced old hates and nagging fears. It is a rebirth of extraordinary proportions. Till recently, the Afghan capital looked like Beirut during the years of civil war-flattened and listless. Now it is throbbing with a new vitality.It can be seen at the Shahzada Market where once-drooping shops are now laden with fresh vegetables and giant melons. Where Amale Hamiuddin, 25, has just returned from Pakistan, his refuge for the past 12 years, and now exchanges giant wads of Afghanis stacked on a shoeshine box for dollars.It is visible with the zest with which Zahir Shah, a 30-year-old carpenter, shaves the wood of pine logs to fashion them into doors and windows. He says business is so good he doesn’t go home for days to be able to meet the orders that pour in every day.The signs of renewal are everywhere. The football stadium, which the Talibs had used for meting out public punishment, including execution, still resounds with screams. But only for the friendly soccer matches between the local clubs. Dish antennae that were banned have sprouted a top most Kabul houses and its residents can choose between a bewildering array of 90 channels, including those for music.Beneath the veneer of normality though, there are violent crosscurrents that threaten the fragile revolution. There are tussles between the centre and the provinces, the moderates and the purists, the emigres and the residents.Fridays are no longer solemn holidays when everyone woke to the wailing chorus of muezzins and headed for the mosque. Now most laze at home and watch Hindi movies. “Kabul has risen from the graveyard that the Taliban had made it into,” says 17-year-old Mohammed Idris, who models his hairstyle after Indian filmstar Salman Khan.On working days, the streets are clogged with people. “Kabul’s traffic jams are now worse than those in Delhi or Mumbai,” observes Younis Quanooni, Afghanistan’s powerful minister for education. Outside his office, armed guards keep the crowd of unemployed teachers seeking appointments with officials at bay.For Quanooni, however, the most dramatic change in Kabul is the “absence of rocket attacks and people arming themselves with guns”. He adds with a smile, “The real mullahs are back in the mosques. The fake ones have fled.”More than any other city, Kabul is the nerve centre for the resurrection that is sweeping through Afghanistan. Of the 15 lakh Afghan refugees who had flocked backed to their country after the fall of the Taliban, six lakh-or 43 per cent of them-poured into Kabul.Revival Signs: A damaged school being repaired in KabulUNHCR chief Ruud Lubbers calls it “people voting for the new government with their feet”. It has transformed the sprawling tub-shaped valley into a cauldron of myriad aspirations, lifestyles, ethnicities and ideologies which are both invigorating and intimidating.Beneath the veneer of normality, though, there are violent crosscurrents that threaten the stability. There is a struggle for supremacy between the newly installed transitional Government headed by President Hamid Karzai and the old warlords who are unwilling to give up their hold over key provinces.advertisementBetween the Pashtoon majority and the handful of ethnic minorities that have gained dominance in the new dispensation. There are tussles for jobs between the new emigres and the old residents. Between the new religious moderates and the old purists who recently staged a comeback by banning the screening of Hindi movies on national television. Then there are those who want the Americans to stay and others who want them booted out promptly.Pakistan is trying to stir disgruntled warlords in a bid to make fresh inroads. But it is an uphill task.Afghanistan is at a dangerous cross-roads again. A wrong turn could easily spell anarchy. The tension is palpable in the Presidential Palace, which resembles a medieval English castle with its turrets and rounded stone walls. The ageing King Zahir Shah, who ruled for 40 years before being deposed in a bloodless coup in 1973, returned in April from exile and now occupies a portion of his former palace.Shah has made it known that he is back as an ordinary citizen and has no intentions of reviving the monarchy. But already there are whispers of palace intrigues among the ambitious younger royalty to regain political power.A stone’s throw from the King’s quarters is the office of Karzai, the suave but beleaguered President. Wearing his trademark green-striped Uzbek robe, the balding Karzai is easily among the best dressed leaders of the world. But in the rough and tumble of Afghan politics, his urbanity may be a drawback. Though elected with a resounding majority at the Loya Jirga or meeting of the traditional council of tribal leaders in June, Karzai has trouble asserting authority over most of the provinces.Karimullah, 18, a mujahid, tries his hand at farming in GardezThe President vehemently denies western media criticism that he has been reduced to being the “mayor of Kabul” (see interview) but it is apparent that he is under siege. With the threat to his life increasing following the recent assassination of the powerful Jalalabad warlord Haji Qadeer, Karzai was forced to entrust his security to the US armed forces.Now unsmiling, heavily armed Marines surround him wherever he goes, adding to the image of his growing isolation. Outside, equally fierce looking soldiers from the International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) patrol the streets of Kabul to keep the peace.Despite them, a powerful bomb exploded in the market on September 5 killing 30 people. Simultaneously, Karzai escaped an assassination attempt at Kandahar. A prominent Pashtoon leader complains, “The problem is that Karzai is soft and makes too many concessions.”It is already beginning to tell. In neighbouring Lowgar province, dominated by Pashtoons, the tribe to which Karzai belongs, his nominee for governor, Munshi Majid, faces stif f resistance from the local warlord, Fazlullah Mujadedi.advertisementEmbattled: A heavily guarded Delili, governor of Paktia, has his hands full tackling the maverick Pakistan-backed warlord, ZadranWhen Munshi Majid went to take charge, Mujadedi, brandishing his Kalashnikov, reportedly told him, “If you occupy that post, this gun will be up your butt.” While Karzai is yet to sort out Mujadedi, another of his governors for Paktia province, Raz Mohammed Delili, faces a revolt from the maverick warlord Pacha Khan Zadran.The swarthy Zadran, a Pashtoon, had ironically been propped up by the Americans to harass the Taliban in the southern provinces during the recent war. Upset that he wasn’t made the governor, Zadran defiantly questions Karzai’s legitimacy and has even launched rocket attacks on Gardez, the dusty capital of Paktia, killing 38 civilians since April. Delili is now surrounded by loyal guards armed with Kalashnikovs and grenade launchers who accompany him wherever he goes. Since the province borders Pakistan, Delili accuses Zadran of being backed by the ISI.Indeed, Pakistan is trying to whip up disgruntled warlords in a bid to make fresh inroads into Afghanistan. Most Afghans resent Pakistan for nurturing Al-Qaida and bringing ruin to Afghanistan. Happy with the unexpected turn of events, India has started cultivating powerful Pashtoon leaders to expand the fair degree of clout it already enjoys in Karzai’s Government.The need is to reconstruct the country on an emergency footing but aid has so far only trickled in.Last fortnight, Indian Ambassador Vivek Katju set out by road to distant Paktika province where he was greeted with a 21-gun salute. The startled Indian delegation mistook it for an attack. Karzai’s main worry is the growing lawlessness in Afghanistan.In Lowgar province, Haji Badam, 45, who shifted to his ancestral house with his wife and 10 children from Pakistan after living there as a refugee for 22 years, already doubts the wisdom of his move. He has a battered Toyota Landcruiser in which he ferries passengers from his village to the capital, Pol-e-alam.But Badam now lives in constant fear of highway robbers after they killed a close relative of his. He plans to head back to Pakistan if things don’t improve. Worried about rising crime, Karzai now plans to request the multinational ISAF to guard provincial capitals as well. Businessmen are sore for other reasons.In Gardez, Azizullah Amanullah, a dealer in used cars, looks like an Arab sheikh with his fleet of gleaming white Toyotas. But he is glum because business is down. Under the Taliban, he says, he paid a flat rate of 20 million afghanis (roughly $500 or Rs 24,000) as tax for importing a car via distant Herat. Now he says, “Every local commander thinks he is a king and demands tax.” So he has to cough up 50 million afghanis to various warlords. It means he has to raise the price of his cars, pushing them beyond the reach of most buyers.Barring a token allegiance to Karzai, the major warlords operate independent of him. In the resource-rich Herat province, Governor Ismail Khan’s demeanour is almost presidential. The irascible Abdul Rashid Dostum, whose troops control the Balkh region, is a law unto himself.He continues to fly his own flag and print his own currency. In the high mountains of the Badakshan region, Burhanuddin Rabbani’s writ holds sway. In the verdant Panjshir valley, the forces of the legendary Ahmed Shah Masood now headed by Marshal Mohammed Fahim, Karzai’s defence minister, rule. Karzai has no independent base and US support alone is the source of his power.New Games: Once used for punishments, Kabul Stadium now hosts soccer matchesFortunately for him, with Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar still at large, the US and its allies retain a sizeable military presence in Afghanistan. The joke doing the rounds in Kabul is that Karzai had the two spirited away to a safe hideout to ensure that America stayed. The chances of the Taliban regrouping are slim. Apart from the enormous resentment among the local population against their excesses, the US bombing effectively destroyed their firepower. But the threat remains.America still appears serious in wiping out the remaining Al-Qaida and Taliban troops. Around 5,000 US troops are stationed at Bagram air base, 45 km from Kabul, along with a multinational force. An equal number of US forces are stationed at Kandahar. Every other minute, menacing-looking Apache Longbow choppers lift off on a mission against Al-Qaida forces in the vast mountains of the south.Colonel Roger King, spokesperson for the US armed forces, argues, “Our success is not based on finding specific individuals. It should be judged by the absence of largescale terrorist attacks since September 11 and the fact that apart from having a friendly Government in Afghanistan we now have the terrorists on the run.”For Karzai though, disgruntled warlords are only one of his many problems. In their misguided zeal of taking Afghanistan back to the idyllic age of the Prophet, the Taliban perpetuated the purges that characterised Pol Pot’s rule over Cambodia. They turned their back on modernity, drove out intellectuals and professionals and destroyed the country’s economic infrastructure. To get out of the morass, Karzai has brought in some of Afghanistan’s most talented professionals. Among them is Anwar-ul-Haq Ahady, the governor of Da Afghanistan Bank, the country’s central bank. Ahady, a poised Pathan in a pin-striped suit with doctorates in political science and finance from prestigious American universities, was aghast at the state of Kabul’s banking system. When he took charge in March, there were only three computers in operation. The electronic banking machine system he got installed collapsed within a day and technicians had to be flown in from Belgium to repair it.New Dreams: Though the economy has been shattered, many in Kabul hope that the reconstruction will create jobsAhady discovered that afghanis, the official currency, continued to be printed at a press in Switzerland by the erstwhile government in exile headed by Rabbani. Dostum printed another set in Russia. Over the years, the afghani had become so devalued that people carried notes in gunny sacks for the smallest transaction.Estimates are there are 14 trillion afghanis in circulation. Ahady is now getting fresh currency printed at a German press. The new afghani would be equivalent to 40,000 old afghanis (or about $1), considerably reducing the need to carry wads of notes to the market.Equally pressing is the need to begin reconstructing the country on an emergency footing. Although the coalition against terrorism headed by the US had committed $4.5 billion in aid to Afghanistan for this year, so far they have given only $850 million. The statistics of want are staggering.There is a 25 per cent shortfall in schools for the estimated three million students. Of the existing 5,063 schools, at least 70 per cent need urgent repair. An example is the Loghamani High School in Chariker village near Kabul which is housed in a row of tents and broken down thatched huts. The sun beats mercilessly down on the 1,200 students. A turret of a destroyed tank lies nearby and is a reminder of the troubled past.Years of drought and fighting have also seen Afghanistan’s agricultural production plunge below subsistence levels. The fertile Shomali valley was till recently the frontline between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance forces. Last year, we put ourselves at unnecessary risk by walking through minefields to witness a firefight at close quarters between the two forces.Returning to the scene of the battlefield last week, we found the houses that the soldiers had used as firings posts abandoned. But there are signs of revival. This summer, farmer Abdul Wassi, 25, planted his first crop of beans and corn in five years. His lush green fields are an island in a sea of brown wastelands. They are a symbol of Afghanistan’s fragile revival.- Photographs by Dilip Banerjeelast_img read more

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