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  Dispatch: On the Road to Kabul

 
 
Is Afghanistan progressing and becoming more stable -- or slipping back into civil war?
By Stewart Nusbaumer

Islamabad, Pakistan -- I know someone who flew from the United States to Italy to eat spaghetti for dinner. Actually, that was me. But that's another story. Now I'm flying from the United States to Afghanistan to learn the truth. Surely truth is as important as spaghetti, isn't it?

The porter drops my bag against the wall, switches on a decrepit air conditioner that rumble-mumbles, then the television -- Seinfeld! -- hands me the room key, and in halting English asks: "Where you go?"

"To Kabul, I fly there tomorrow."

"You businessman?" Although his eyes sparkle warmth, his stare is hard.

"Yeah," I say, looking away.

And his handsome dark face spreads into a wide grin of bright white teeth. "Sure" he says in disbelief, throwing me a flat palm to slap, which I slap.

I have just flown from New York City to Islamabad, Pakistan, where I will stay overnight and tomorrow catch a flight to Kabul, Afghanistan. In Pakistan the heat is intense, the humidity is suffocating, and the poverty is pervasive. This nasty triad does a vicious job on both the body and the mind, leaving one drained, and often bored. Tonight the porter at the Paradise Inn has found a way to escape his boredom.

Truth, a simple word to say and easy concept to grasp, is constantly being hijacked for a litany of unfulfilled needs and hungry desires, which mutate our lovely truth into a trashy whore willing to stand for just about anything at anytime. Here in muggy Islamabad truth has just been stomped for excitement -- making $50 a month doesn't buy much excitement. Now the false tramp is causing quit a stir in the hotel kitchen:

"Pak chicken for the CIA agent in room 415!" the porter hollers as he busts through the door.

"CIA agent? You sure?" the chef bellows.

"Positive! Businessman cover, but I know he's CIA agent!"

"Mohammad, did you hear that? There's CIA in 415!"

The Bloody View of Afghanistan

In my room, with enthusiasm for tomorrow's trip soaring, I went online to give more content to my emotional high. Instead I was bombarded by a procession of unsettling truths, possibly false whores, most likely unsettling partial truths and partial false whores. Whatever, it was a slew of nervous warnings. Here are a few of those nasty verbal missiles.

Two bombs exploded on the road from the Kabul airport to the city, killing two. "Oh this has happened in the past," a foreigner in Kabul says, "it's no big deal." Well, it's a big deal to me. Tomorrow I'll be on that road!

A missile sailed over the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. "They were trying to hit the U.S. embassy," an American is quoted, "but they always miss." Interesting, but what do the missiles actually hit? For three months I will be living in a guesthouse near the Embassy.

From the Associated Press, "The Australian government says there is a very high threat of terrorist attacks in Afghanistan tomorrow." OK, but Australians are not known for intelligence. In my email box, an Advisory Bulletin from a private American security firm in Afghanistan: "The celebration will also include a gun salute by artillery guns and the crews are practicing that as well. So please do not be alarmed if you hear artillery fire from today up until Friday." Am I supposed to be alarmed if I hear artillery fire after Friday? Is Kabul being shelled? I wish that Advisory had said more.

Well, it's clear Afghanistan is not about to make the American Express tour list.

I plowed ahead, determined to find better news. No way. I learned that Afghanistan has one of the highest concentrations of small and light arms in the world, and most are in the possession of narco-gangs and warlords and tribal leaders with blood feuds that originated sometime in the early part of the Stone Age. I learned that Afghanistan is experiencing a robust spike in lawlessness, which surprises absolutely no one in the country. I learned that European nations are frantically rushing soldiers to Afghanistan, even faster than the bewildered French can blame the whole crisis on America -- whose movers-and-shakers, by the way, can no longer even find the country on the map. I learned that Afghanistan is alcohol dry -- now that's serious!

If I was just a tad sharper than crab grass, I would have also earned that tomorrow I should take a flight to Italy for a plate of spaghetti.

The Wall Street Journal View of Afghanistan

I was kicked hard by all the bad news, giving my enthusiasm a vicious pounding. What I needed was a new set of truths to pump me into an epistemological flip-flop and get me back on that enthusiastic track. So I ditched the wild and dubious Internet and headed straight for the bastion of pure capitalism, to that gang who can look horror straight in the face and see sweet opportunity. I'm talking about the Wall Street Journal.

In "A Virgin Market," Ann Marlowe writes, "after decades of conflict and the crippling legacies of communism and fundamentalism, Afghanistan is finally open for business." OK, this sounds better.

"The security situation is far better than the media and the $500-a-day security companies would have you believe." Her point is American companies and entrepreneurs are overly concerned about security in Afghanistan and are missing out on great financial opportunities. Right, what we need is that old gold rush fever, something to jolt us past our unfounded fears.

"Since the kidnapping of an Italian woman in May 2005, there have been no attacks on foreigners in Kabul -- no robberies, kidnappings, assaults or murders." Hey, Kabul sounds like a pansy compared to our capital, Washington.

"What Afghanistan needs to do right away is to hire a good PR firm to tell people that it's safe to come here!" Well, maybe that's a job I can work myself into. I certainly wouldn't mind making a fortune.

And my adrenaline for Afghanistan returned, until I remembered the booze problem. It is well known that sustained sobriety mutilates the mind leaving one vulnerable to all sorts of wild ideas. I email an acquaintance in Kabul.

"No, No! Foreigners drink here, actually most foreigners only drink here. Listen, even your guesthouse has a bar. You can now live your dream to live in a bar."

Too often, however, when one problem is solved this swings the door open for another problem. So I again faced what I preferred not to think. What are the chances -- I don't need an exact percentage here -- that in Afghanistan I will be blown into a thousand pieces of shredded body parts? Stories of economic Nirvana are fine, I'm all for getting rich. Living in a bar is Nirvana-plus, you can't beat that. But I'm also really close to my body.

The I-Don't-Know View of Afghanistan

So there are pimping journalists riding the blood and violence narrative -- "If it bleeds, it leads" -- private security firms hyping the negative to enhance the positive in their bank accounts -- Wall Street Journal writers stoned on free-market utopia that promise fortune in tragedy. It's really private interests and hungry desires bending facts and maiming truth. It’s the dirty whore of non-truth all over the place.

Still, one viewpoint must be correct. Afghanistan must be falling back into civil war or moving forward to a successful society. One can't ride the fence forever. It's too painful.

In my Paradise Inn room in neighboring Pakistan, I have been looking out the window at a dismal-looking building that is either half constructed or half demolished, I really can't tell which. There are piles of either construction material or removed debris, rods stick out of where the roof is going or where it once was. Two workers hammer on the rough brick wall, others sort through broken bricks of various sizes, one tiptoes on a wobbly scaffolding. I have been watching these workers for nearly a half hour and I honestly have no idea which way this building is going.

Societies are sometimes like that, it's hard to know which way they are going. Change is complicated, a drawn-out process with numerous detours and dead ends with lots of twists and turns making for a complex mix that easily obscures where you are headed. Amalendu Misra writes in Afghanistan: The Labyrinth of Violence, "Most civil war-affected societies exhibit some forms of violence, instability and chaos in their transition to peace." That is true. It is also true that most societies exhibit some forms of peace, stability, and order in their transition to war. Which is it for Afghanistan? Is it going up or down? Like the building next door, I don't know.

The phone rings. The porter is on his way up to get my bag and then the driver will return me to the Islamabad airport for my flight to Kabul. The air conditioner maintains its rumble-mumble, but the ceiling fan has grown louder; the rhythmic click-click-click as the blades swish through the air. This twirling cadence and forceful hissing brings to my mind a helicopter, which pushes my thoughts back some three decades to a time when reality was thoroughly muddled and false whores were accepted as genuine truth, to a time when the United States insisted it was building an Asian nation right up to the point that the country collapsed. I think it's good that in Kabul I will be staying near the U.S. Embassy. If Afghanistan moves strongly in the wrong direction, I just might have to sprint to the Embassy roof to catch the last helicopter out of Kabul.

Stewart Nusbaumer is editor of Intervention Magazine and is now based in Kabul, Afghanistan. You can email Stewart at SNusbaumer@aol.com.

Posted Tuesday, May 9, 2006

 

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  Live from Kabul


By Stewart Nusbaumer

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The Kabul Rumble
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"Every Missile Was a Painkiller"
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Kabul Erupts in Gunfire
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