May issue 2002

By | News & Politics | Published 22 years ago

War is omnipresent. An intrinsic thread running through the fabric of Afghan life for a quarter century, it is manifest in ravaged urban landscapes, in the ubiquitous Kalashnikovs weilded by man and child alike, in the seemingly indifferent shrug of shoulders as another deafening explosion rents the quiet of a juma namaaz.

In the country’s spiritual epicentre, Kandahar, the history of Afghanistan’s endless wars is written not in textbooks, but etched in rock faces and splattered on the walls of the few structures that have survived the successive holocausts visited upon the blighted nation.

It is the eve of King Zahir Shah’s return to the country he unceremoniously exited 29 years ago. We are guests of Pir Sayed Ismail Gailani, a scion of the Gailani family of Sufi mystics who claim descent from Prophet Mohammed (PBUH).

In post-Taliban Kandahar, where the here and now is an infinitely more pressing concern than the hereafter, it helps that Ismail’s temporal credentials are as distinguished as his spiritual ones. A former commander of the mujahideen forces battling the Soviet Invaders in the ’80s, he is now the chief of the peacekeeping force of South West Afghanistan.

Ismail receives us at Quetta airport and we proceed to Kandahar early the following day. For the uninitiated, the trip is, from inception, a surreal experience, not least because of the area’s topography — a study in contrasts.

The drive from Quetta to Kandahar is a roller coaster ride. From the plains (Quetta is ringed by hills, but flat itself) we suddenly ascend to craggy, barren mountains, negotiating the steep climbs, descents and hairpin curves of which would be a test of mettle in any circumstance, but becomes an act of courage when driving on a crowded, narrow road, perilously slippery after a day’s downpour, and terrifying because of the ‘anything goes’ driving ethics of those plying the track.

From the border at Chaman, we travel in relative ease for a while on a carpeted road built by the Americans over 50 years ago, which has withstood the test of time. Suddenly, with no warning, the road ends — a legacy of allied bombs — and we are careening on unimaginably rough terrain. The landscape provides a diversion. Every few hundred yards brings a changing vista. Seemingly out of nowhere, fringing our track, appear small clusters of hills. There are mounds of red earth one moment, smooth mushroom-shaped rocks fused into hillocks a hundred yards later, and barely a few miles down, soft mud hills intersected at regular intervals by neat, concentric lines. Moonscape gives way to Mckenna’s Gold as another range of grey forbidding stone hills suddenly appear further up, only to descend just as quickly into flat terrain once again. Nature here it seems, is as quirky as the vacillating fortunes of this land.

After a gruelling six-hour journey, we arrive in Kandahar, and venture forth almost immediately — a fierce-looking band of armed war veterans, our “peacekeeping” bodyguards, following at close quarters.

I am prepared for devastation, but perhaps nothing quite readies one for what appears to be the systematic obliteration of a civilisation.

A drive through the city, once a commercial hub, is a chronicle of Afghanistan’s endless war. In a playing field in the centre of what must once have been an affluent neighbourhood, nestles a Soviet tank, left where it was abandoned two decades ago, not as a relic of war, but an irrelevant detail to be attended to in the absence of more urgent preoccupations.

Another tank captured by the mujahideen sits alongside a main road by the airport. We stop to photograph it — even as two huge explosions jolt the area. We scramble for cover and speculate about the nature of the blasts. “Probably mines going off,” says Ismail casually, a reasonable surmise given the thousands that lie like ticking time bombs across the length and breadth of the country. Later we learn there has been an “incident” involving some members of the Taliban resistance and American forces — some 2500 of whom are now encamped at the Kandahar airport, a no-go area for locals and foreigners.

Along the same road lies a downed Soviet aircraft, a symbol of another mujahideen victory. It too remains at the original site of the crash, almost like a sculptural installation dedicated to that conflict.
As we wind our way through the dusty streets of Kandahar, the story of another war unfolds — the war within. In the anarchy that followed the Soviet withdrawal and Najib’s ouster, Kandahar like the rest of the country became the stage for one of the bloodiest civil wars of modern history. The fratricidal conflict is recorded in every brick.

There is not one structure in the city that remains unscarred. Concrete is pocked with shrapnel and bullet marks. Entire neighbourhoods of traditional adobe-style homes have crumbled into little more than heaps of mud and debris, their remnants looking much like the ruins of some ancient civilisation.

In some ways the analogy is tragically apt. The country now exists largely in a harsh medieval past. Once metalled roads have been reduced to rubble, electricity is not everyman’s lot, and education is a distant memory. And into this time-warp have descended the US-led forces in their stealth bombers and B-52s with their smart bombs and daisy cutters, their high-tech combat machinery.

Kandahar has been a major target of the allied offensive: it was home to the Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, and one of his regime’s most important bases.

The allies’ arrival took care of the precious little that was left in the city. The multi-storeyed Hotel Kandahar, its only four star hotel, was just one of the allied air blitzs’ casualties. Targeted and random bombing has reduced residential and office buildings along the city’s main thoroughfare to piles of rubble strewn with shards of glass; bridges said to have been sheltering Taliban forces have been destroyed beyond repair, and craters have transformed areas that were once flat into into an undulating landscape.

Yet, even amid this wide-scale devastation, there is an apparent calm. We stroll through the bazaars of the city, three women, minus burqas or hijaabs, with merely dupattas covering our heads. We attract crowds which are sometimes unnerving, but I detect only curiosity, not hostility.

The cloth bazaar, located behind the governor’s house, separated by a street and endless sandbags piled around the boundary wall of the official residence — a token attempt at security — is small and cheerful, its few shops well stocked, manned by eager salesman. But there are no buyers. I pause to take photographs. I am instantly surrounded by children asking to have their pictures taken. A flash goes off somewhere. I find I too am being photographed by a shopkeeper, who whips out a small instamatic when he sees mine.

The wares at the gold bazaar — a long row of tiny cubbyholes — comprise identical signet rings and earrings made from Persian coins hailing back to the Shah’s era. I buy a ring despite misgivings about the emperor’s countenance engraved on the coin — only to discover from the unsightly green band around my finger a few hours later that the gold is actually brass!

A few shops still stock Afghanistan’s pride: carpets. Sifting through piles of kilims — of which Karachi and Islamabad’s itwar bazaar have no dearth and more variety — we unearth a few treasures. The rest, like the industry itself, are long gone.

In the open, oblivious to any consideration for hygiene, are stacked or hung the traditional naans that are the Afghans’ staple for breakfast, lunch and dinner. And on stalls and carts are heaped mounds of saffron and chilli powder — their vibrant colours breaking the monotony of the grey and brown tones that make up Kandahar’s colour palette today.

Most thriving perhaps, is the city’s electronics market; row upon row of shops selling cassette recorders and tapes of Indian and local Afghan music from before the Talibans’ advent, blenders, juicers, etc. Clearly, music is back again, even if we hear none on the streets.

And then there are the auto showrooms, most of them essentially open-air car lots. Everyone who isn’t a pedestrian in Kandahar drives a vehicle, and the vehicles of choice are Twin Cabins, Land Cruisers, Pajeros, or Toyotas and Hondas. On Kandahar’s battered streets the state-of the-art autos strike an incongruous note.

In a shattered economy I wonder where the money is coming from to purchase what are essentially luxury items and where they are brought in from. Could these be the thousands of vehicles regularly stolen from assorted cities of Pakistan which, given the virtually nonexistent recovery rate, seem to disappear into a black hole? Certainly, most other items in local bazaars, including fruit, are brought in from Pakistan. Perhaps fittingly then, all transactions are conducted in Pak rupees — the currency commonly in use in Afghanistan.

Although the marketplaces appear crowded, Kandahar’s population, like the rest of the country’s, is sparse. While the current Afghan population is estimated at 25 million, only seven to eight million are actually in Afghanistan — surely one of history’s largest diasporas. We see gaggles of beautiful children, boys and a few girls, out on the streets, and endless men, virtually all exceptionally handsome specimens who appear to have stepped out of a Kipling novel. By contrast, women are conspicuous by their absence.

Apart from a few Kuchis (gypsies) who are traditionally not purdah-observing, the handful of women visible on the streets don the Taliban uniform designated for females: the blue shuttlecock burqa. Only the fleeting glimpse of a beringed hand with manicured, painted nails that escapes the confines of the burqa as a woman reaches out for her child in the bazaar, indicates a life behind the veil.

Clearly, the Taliban legacy lingers. While Pashtun society is traditionally conservative, with large sections of women observing purdah long before the ascent of the Taliban, the veil was not mandatory attire imposed by official fiat. One of the first steps the Taliban took when they assumed power was to make the burqa compulsory, and in the years since, it has become part of the national dress, almost embedded, it seems, in the nation’s psyche. Perhaps it stems from fear — and with good reason: the day we left Kandahar, a female, teacher in one of the newly reopened girls schools sustained severe burns when she had acid thrown on her by a disgruntled supporter of the Taliban ideology. It was a chilling reminder that the danger is far from of over for both, proponents and practitioners of female education and women in the workplace.

In fact, there are few educational institutions in the city. The literacy level, even among males, is abysmal, since most educated Afghans have long fled the country, and academia, if not altogether disdained as in the Taliban years, remained low on the priority chart of even the governments’ preceding it.

We see a few primary schools, a ‘women’s welfare centre,’ and there is talk of the Kandahar University being reopened. But talk comes cheap. While restoration work is underway at the mausoleums of long past Afghan kings which have miraculously survived the country’s repeated cycles of violence, there are no overt signs that work has been initiated to repair the city’s collapsed infrastructure. Everything, it seems, is on hold until the loya jirga scheduled for June 20, which is to determine the country’s future.

Certainly, it is a historic moment: the homecoming of a man after three decades on whom the hopes of a nation are said to be pinned.

One would expect that almost exclusively Pashtun Kandahar would be jubilant at the prospect of the return to the political foreground of one of their kin in a land riven as much by ethnic factionalism as by foreign invasion.

But there is no euphoria. In fact, not even anticipation, less expectations. “‘Peace is elusive; we pray the king will restore harmony, but no one is holding their breath,” says a young shopkeeper to whom the king is an unknown commodity. Some express outright cynicism. An old man scoffs at the talk now in currency of the ‘good old days.’ “The king remained in his ivory tower, his subjects struggled to survive. Thirty years in a foreign country later, is he better equipped to deal with a land as ravaged as this, a people as divided as we?” he asks.

But there are enough royalists — or maybe just Pashtuns (75 per cent of the population) who hope the king’s presence and the proposed loya jirga will restore some ethnic balance in the corridors of power.

For most Kandaharis, the current set-up is untenable. While the Taliban are clearly their chief nemesis — “those were our darkest days,” says a vendor; a refrain echoed by many — the Northern Alliance also features high on their hate-list.

In fact, the alliance has actually been whittled down to the Panjsheri group, at the helm of which is the triumverate of Abdullah, Qanooni and Fahim, who have divided between them the key ministries: defence, interior and foreign affairs. They are viewed with suspicion, if not outright hostility. While Karzai is generally tolerated (even said to be a “decent man”), no one is under any illusion about his independence. He is seen as the “Americans’ man,” and simultaneously, as “under the Panjsheris’ influence.” While the former equation appears acceptable for the time being, the latter is not.

There are dichotomous views about the United States — sometimes harboured by the same people. While in Kandahar there appears to be a consensus that by virtue of ridding them of the Taliban the Americans have done the Afghans a yeoman service — and the promise of American greenbacks is not an unwelcome prospect either — there is unspoken anger about the indiscriminate bombing by the allied forces, and a growing skepticism about the US’ staying power, not altogether unjustified given the history.

Among the virtually homogenously Pashtun populace of Kandahar, Pakistan is viewed with less animus than in other parts of the country. There is tacit recognition of the sanctuary Pakistan has provided to the more than three million largely Pashtun Afghan refugees for more than two decades. Additionally, with the porus Chaman border and a business community entirely dependent on Pakistan for goods to trade, cross border traffic is routine. Sentiments about the ISI are an altogether different story. The agency is reviled as the root cause of many of Afghanistan’s travails.

While a semblance of normality has crept into life in Kandahar, there is not an all-pervasive sense of peace. Ostensibly the recent deweaponisation drive has succeeded in disarming the majority, but a permanent farewell to arms seems unlikely. As an American soldier of the 101st Airborne division who was recently transferred to the Bagram air base from Kandahar put it: “You can’t move in Kandahar without something being shot at you. This is a lot more relaxing.” In fact, implicit is the feeling that below the surface lie dangerous undercurrents, that could if disturbed, result in dramatic, even violent changes. But change is an integral part of life in the shifting sands of Kandahar’s turbulent socio-political landscape.

The citizens of Kandahar are prepared for any eventuality. Their resilience is as remarkable as their fatalism. It is perhaps the latter that accounts for their unstinting generosity of spirit, their amazing dignity in the face of adversity, and that which allows them to savour the moment. And for the present, given their uncertain future, the moment is all they have.