“I hate this country,” said my taxi driver. “Any other country is better. I like Pakistan, I would move to Iran. Afghanistan is just not a good place.”
This categorical announcement in the midst of a bright, sunny Saturday morning was prompted by a rather nasty traffic jam. Cars were lined up to get into the swanky new Gulbahar shopping center, blocking two lanes of a busy road. It did not help that the entrance to the parking garage – the first one I have seen in Afghanistan – had room for only one car at a time.
There was a brawny 4X4 trying to get out, a scrappy Toyota trying to get in; neither was willing to give way, so roughly a dozen drivers were blowing their horns and ruining my otherwise benign mood. I made some noncommittal comment about poor Afghanistan being the war playground for the region, but my driver, let’s call him Ahmed, was having none of it.
“It’s not the English, or the Soviets, or the Americans,” he insisted. “It’s the people. They love to fight. They are dishonest. Everyone, from Karzai right on down to the smallest child.”
Just at that moment a ragged street urchin was banging on my window and threatening to fumigate the car with a foul-smelling smoke that is supposed to ward off evil spirits. I have no doubt it works – no spirit, evil or otherwise, would willingly hang around that stench. The only way to chase the boys away is to give them money – but that would require opening the window, something I was not willing to do with that smoke in the air.
I shook my head, the boy banged louder and started shouting at me. “Go back to America!” he screamed, although I cannot fathom why he thought that abuse would make me more generous. We finally got away, and Ahmed continued his tirade.
“The Taliban were better than this government,” he said. “There was law, everyone was together. There was work. There were no thieves. People did not lie. I really liked the Taliban.”
I found this astonishing. I have heard many Afghans wax poetic about the bearded fundamentalists, but most of them were bearded fundamentalists themselves. Pashtuns, the country’s largest ethnic group and the raw material from which most of the Taliban came, often reminisce with tears or laughter about the “good old days,” when nobody locked their doors at night and no one dared to step out of line.
Even the modern young “dudes,” with clean-shaven faces and stylishly gelled hair, will give the Taliban a grudging approval, if only because many Pashtuns these days feel permanently aggrieved with the way the Taliban were cut out of the government in 2001.
“The Taliban were not worse than those warlords,” they grumble, referring to the men of the Northern Alliance – many of them named as war criminals by Afghan and international human rights groups for their actions during the civil war of the 1990s. The Northern Alliance helped the Americans chase out the Taliban in 2001, and were rewarded with high-level positions in the government.
Half of the Parliament is now made up of familiar, if unappetizing, figures from the war years. But Ahmed was definitely not Pashtun. He looked quite distinctly Hazara, a minority ethnicity that has a long and complicated history with the Taliban.
“Were you in Kabul during the Taliban?” I asked. “Wasn’t it boring?” The Taliban banned most forms of entertainment, including television, movies, chess-playing, kite-flying and music. They also roamed the streets with wire whips, looking for men whose beards were too short, women whose heels were too high, or anyone who looked a bit too free.
The all-enveloping blue burqa, still a frequent sight on Kabul streets, was de rigueur for all females over 12. “Yes, I was in Kabul,” he answered. “And no, it wasn’t boring at all. Now it’s boring. Poor people have nothing, warlords are getting rich, and the police will let a murderer go free for 500 afghani (about $10).”
I was starting to get depressed. I am far from an optimist on Afghanistan, but even I thought he was going too far. Ahmed, however, was not finished.
“I used to be a policeman myself,” he said. “I served in Uruzgan. I left when I realized that everyone of them were crooks.” I was not ready to give up. “What about women?” I asked. “Under the Taliban they could not work or go to school.”
“Yes, that’s true,” he conceded. “It was probably boring for them.”
Then he smiled and gave an expressive shrug; I understood that he felt that the distress of the distaff side was a small price to pay for stability. I wonder how many Ahmeds are out there – the vast majority who have not benefited from the new kleptocracy, who are sickened by the corruption in the government, the venality of the police, the absence of anything they can identify as law. If, as prominent authority David Kilcullen says, “a counterinsurgency is only as good as the government it supports,” then we may have already lost. It’s not a comforting thought.