In August, I returned to Afghanistan for the seventh time since Sept. 11, 2001, to cover the presidential election in which 41 candidates were vying for the top post. When I arrived it was a lovely 100 plus degrees in Kabul, and the traffic was worse than ever. This is what happens when a city built to house 1.5 million people takes on 3 million. Unless it was absolutely necessary to take an automobile, I walked with my translator everywhere I went. It could take up to three hours to drive what was at most a 30 minute trip just two years ago.
I could not go alone anywhere outside Kabul. Wardak, Logar and Ghazni provinces, minutes to a few hours outside the city, are now under Taliban control. So all the traffic and reconstruction activity in Kabul was weird; sort of an illusion of security and progress that in reality doesn't exist at all.
I saw few to no Westerners on the streets in Kabul. We had all been warned off by the U.N. because of security threats, mainly bombings and kidnappings. When I walked around, I was stared at very hard by Afghans. Sizing me up perhaps, or considering me for a kidnapping? My mind took flights of paranoid thinking, and more often than not I stayed in my hotel when I was not out with my translator.
On my first full day in Kabul, I was arrested for taking pictures at a military checkpoint and held for a few hours, guarded by three Afghan soldiers with guns and one guy who kept offering me tea. On another occasion, my translator was arrested on his way to pick me up a day after a bombing near the U.S. Embassy injured 90 people. He was a "suspect," but in reality, they had nothing on him: it was just a random arrest. The police asked him for $200 to "buy" them lunch, and he was released.
Few people turned out to vote on Election Day, August 20th. Many were fearful of suicide bombers, and indeed there were 26 such attacks that day throughout the country. And I saw corruption first hand.
A sixteen-year-old boy told me he was voting for President Hamid Karzai so that the next five years will be better than the last. I asked him how he could vote, since no one under 18 was eligible. He had a simple explanation. The village elder called a meeting and announced his support for Karzai, commanding that all the people should vote for him, too. Then he contacted representatives of the voting commission to come to the village and register the people. Although Ahmad is sixteen, the village elder said he and many other teenagers were eighteen.
Another sixteen-year-old boy said he registered to vote in Kabul and gave his correct age. The registrar told him he must be eighteen to vote and marked his registration card accordingly. "I found the long list of candidates confusing," he admitted.
What could I say?
Interestingly, few people referred to the Taliban as Taliban. Instead they called them the "opposition." The change in terminology represented a big change in tone; few people expressed sympathy for the Taliban, but ask them about the "opposition," and they were supportive, as if you were speaking of an opposing political party instead of a terrorist group. Angered by government corruption, unfulfilled promises of aid, and the killing of civilians by international forces, many Afghans I found were and are more than willing to support something different even if it's the same old Taliban, albeit under a different name.
Related: read a review of The Khaarijee in the Kansas City Star.