Afghanistan War: winter of our discontent


KABUL, Afghanistan — Returning to Afghanistan after a month away is never easy. I had been looking forward to it, though, if only to escape from the storm of national self-flagellation that followed the wrenching tragedy in Tucson. After a steady diet of Giffords-watching, Palin-bashing, and bilious diatribes about “vitriol in the public discourse,” I was almost ready to embrace Kabul, where violence and death are more mundane occurrences, and hence more readily absorbed.

That cavalier attitude did not survive my first 24 hours.

Meetings with friends and colleagues yielded an unremittingly bleak picture of Afghanistan’s present, and an even darker view of the future.

The Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, is engaged in a standoff with the legislature that could topple the country into political chaos; the price of gas and heating oil has gone through the roof courtesy of an embargo on Afghanistan-bound fuel tankers in Iran; violence in the south continues to rise, and almost no one I have met since I got back yesterday has a positive word to say about anything at all.

Perhaps it’s just the weather. It is bone-chillingly cold, a problem made worse by the total absence of central heating. I huddle by the bukhori in my living room — a tin can filled with sawdust and set alight with kerosene, my only means of keeping warm. One side of my face is singed from the heat, the other is nearly frozen.

At least I am no longer heating my house with diesel fuel; I’d be bankrupt by now. I cringed at the pumps during my Christmas trip home, when I was paying over $3 for a gallon of gas. Here, drivers who may clear just a few hundred dollars a month are shelling out almost $5.

And it’s all because of the ongoing spat between the United States and one of Afghanistan’s closest neighbors, Iran.

Since the beginning of December, more than 2,000 trucks full of fuel have been piling up on the border between Iran and Afghanistan; Iran refuses to allow passage, saying that they do not want the fuel to end up in the hands of their “enemy” — U.S. forces. The fuel is, in fact, intended for Afghan civilians — the U.S. military gets most of its supplies in through Pakistan.

High-level delegations, including Afghan First Vice President Marshal Mohammad Qasim Fahim, have made the trek to Tehran to try and break the deadlock, to no avail. The trucks continue to idle, fuel prices continue to rise, and anger among Afghans deepens. The target of their ire is not clear; there have been protests in front of the Iranian Embassy, but some grumble sotto voce that it all goes back to the United States’ aggressive policies towards Iran.

On the political front, the situation goes from bad to worse. The parliamentary elections in September were hardly an advertisement for good governance, but at least they were over and done with. The international community had signed off on the results, and even found something to commend in the way that the Electoral Complaints Commission handled allegations of fraud. Nearly a quarter of the votes cast were discounted — which gave at least the appearance of due diligence.

The problem is, the resulting parliament is a bit lopsided — highly critical of the government, dominated by those commonly referred to in Afghanistan as “warlords,” and ethnically skewed. The Pashtuns, who are the largest ethnic group in the country, will be under-represented in the new body, due to lack of security and resulting voter intimidation in Pashtun-dominated areas.

Karzai would dearly love to see a friendlier group, say insiders. Reportedly he first tried pressure on the election commissions, which refused to buckle. His attorney general then decided to call for the entire vote to be annulled.

Now a special court has been convened — in apparent contravention of Afghan law — to decide how fraudulent the elections really were.

In the meantime, odds are getting longer on the chances of the new parliament actually convening on Sunday as scheduled. The old legislature is gone — locked out of the parliament building after some of those who lost their seats began organizing protests around town. So right now Afghanistan is a two-branch system, with the judiciary showing very few signs of independence. Make that one-and-a-half branches, at best.

The problem for me is that I have no idea which side to root for — Karzai for doing loop de loops around his own laws, or the parliament, which will at best be an unrepresentative group seated by flawed elections, with an overly high dose of unsavory elements.

I have also been drowning in stories about violence in the south, where the “uncharacteristically mild winter” has prevented the “customary winter lull” in the fighting.

Problem is, I have heard the same story every year since 2004, when I first arrived. The south is always warm, the Taliban never take a winter break and we keep writing the same story as if it’s a yearly surprise.

It’s enough to drive one to drink, if one were not in Afghanistan, where booze is scarce. My own small reserves, brought in one bottle at a time in fear and trepidation from Dubai’s Duty Free shops, were consumed by an Afghan friend during my absence.

“Don’t worry,” he soothed me. “I’ll replace it.”

“How?” I demanded. “Where will you find it?”

“My friend is a customs inspector at the airport. He sells the alcohol he confiscates from passengers.”

So much for the anti-corruption drive.

I’ll hang on. Spring is coming, and with it, most likely, another round of troubles.

Welcome back to Afghanistan.