Here in Kabul, from where the war that Osama bin Laden started is run, there were no sounds of celebration as the news of his death hit the street. Instead, an already-high state of alert against terrorist attacks that has left many foreigners confined to their homes has been ratcheted up another notch.
One of the few who told me straightforwardly of their satisfaction with bin Laden’s killing was Ahmad Wali Massoud, a brother of the mujahideen leader Ahmad Shah Massoud. Ahmed Shah was slain by an al Qaeda suicide bomber on September 9, 2001, in an attack that many say they think was coordinated with 9/11. The theory is that the U.S. would have turned to Massoud to fight the Taliban after 9/11. Ahmad Wali, a leader of the peaceful opposition to the Karzai regime, said he feels a sense of closure as his brother’s death is avenged.
He said he also hopes bin Laden’s slaying might make Mullah Omar, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the Haqqanis, and other terrorists hiding in Pakistan distrust the Pakistani government, fear U.S. strikes, and perhaps move back into Afghanistan. But he warned that “the culture of terrorism will not disappear overnight, it will take decades.” And, more immediately, he said, if something is not done about Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, known by its acronym ISI, terrorism will continue in Afghanistan.
The deafening silence suggests just how beside the point bin Laden, and even al Qaeda, have become here. The insurgency now has little to do with al Qaeda and everything to do with the way the U.S. has empowered thieves and drug dealers and slimeballs of every stripe here. One Afghan friend, Rangina Hamidi, told me today, “Why should Afghans cooperate with Americans when you are supporting the biggest warlords here?” Rangina is the American-born and -educated daughter of the mayor of Kandahar.
Afghans have also been their own worst enemies, standing by as their friends and relatives despoiled the public realm.
Some of the most adamantly pro-Afghan foreigners I know are now saying things like, “We have to set up an independent organization, because if foreign donors give [aid] to the Afghan ministry it will all get stolen.” Even as Afghan and American officials try to figure out how to sort out the bad loans at the heart of the Kabul Bank scandal, rumors swirl around the other big private bank, Azizi Bank, and its real-estate development projects. And apparently treasures in the new Herat Museumwhich isn’t open to the public yetare being sold even as you read this. It’s no longer clear whether foreigners are saving Afghanistan for the Afghans or from the Afghans.
The southern provinces are where the make-or-break struggle for Afghanistan’s Pashtuns is taking place. Gen. David Petraeus claims progress. Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province, is one of a number of more secure provincial capitals and areas supposed to be turned over to Afghan control in July. Yet the mobile phone network there is closed from 3 p.m. till 9 a.m. dailyswitched off from Kabul by the two biggest Afghan mobile phone companies, AWCC and Roshan, in response to threats from the Taliban.
In Zabul, Senator Zalmai Zabuli, the province’s member of the upper house of parliament, told me on Sunday that economic conditions are improving. Yet he also mentioned that the local mobile phones had been shut down for several days, one signal that the Taliban spring offensive had begun. Provincial Reconstruction Team commander Air Force Lt. Col. Andy Veres suggested that I encourage Zabuli to visit his constituents. “I have not been to Zabul in one year,” Zabuli admitted with no apparent chagrin. “But I keep in touch on the phone.” Until recently.
One of the other capitals to be turned over to Afghan control, Mazar-i-Sharif, was until a year or so ago as safe as you get in Afghanistan. I’ve walked alone all over town without drawing much attention. But on April 3, a mob of thousands of locals stormed the local United Nations office, killing seven staff members. This although Governor Ustad Atta has a strong grip on governance; this despite the presence of two large military bases a half hour or less in either direction. One, ironically, is a training center for the ANCOPS, Afghanistan’s elite civil order police, who are supposed to be experts on crowd control.
Mohammad Ramizpoor, a law professor in Kabul and an advocate of free-market economics here, explained to me, “In 2001 to 2005, there was very good motivation for libertarian ideals. After that, youth lost their way and trust in democracy and the rule of law.”
Just a few hours after the news that U.S. forces had killed bin Laden, a student at Kabul’s elite private American University told me, “As an Afghan and a Muslim, it is very bad news for me. And there will be many Osamas in the future.” This at a school that would not even exist were it not for the U.S. presence here. It developed that he wants an Islamic emirate in Afghanistan, not democracy, which is “Western.” Asked why brave Arabs are dying daily for democracy, he says they are “brainwashed.”
Maybe now that bin Laden is dead we can pack up and go home with some honor, and leave the Afghans to their devices. Let them make of their country what they will. My expectations are not high. This is a get along-go along culture where individualism isn’t well developed. That includes an individual moral compass. Afghans almost always cave when there is a chance to make a moral stand. Usually, they say it’s our fault.
People are afraid to show that they are happy bin Laden is dead, former MP Daoud Sultanzoy told me from Ghazni. They dont know if some extremists are watching them. And there is no one to protect them from the extremists, because the United States is empowering the people who protect the extremists. Sultanzoy is an American citizen. He lost his seat in disputed parliamentary elections last August in which he was both accused, and accused others, of vote-stealing.
In Afghanistan, heads we lose, tails you win.