New twist in the Afghanistan
story By Ricardo Grassi
KABUL - On the flight out of Dubai, an item in
the pockets of the passenger seats removes all doubt
about the airplane's destination: along with the
laminated sheet detailing aircraft safety procedures is
a brochure from the United Nations Landmine Action
Service explaining how to avoid death or injury from the
explosive devices in Afghanistan.
lands at Kabul, a city built - and destroyed - in a
valley 1,800 meters above sea level, surrounded by
mountains reaching 4,000 meters high, reminiscent of a
scene from the South American Andes.
landing strip are the carcasses of aircraft that were
disemboweled in October 2001, when US forces bombarded
the airport to make it useless to the Taliban regime
that controlled most of the country at the time.
"We stopped trying to estimate the number of
landmines," Dan Kelly, director of the Action Center
Against Mines in Afghanistan, told IPS. What is certain,
he added, is that they are planted throughout the entire
country, even in farmland, and each month they kill more
than 100 people.
Kelly directs 8,000 Afghans
involved in a widespread, ongoing effort to deactivate
these fatal devices.
Kabul is an intense,
vibrant city. Trucks, buses, cars, bicycles, street
vendors, people pulling carts, and donkeys, sheep and
even camels have to navigate around each other and
soldiers and guards carrying Kalashnikov rifles in an
ongoing series of traffic jams. They kick up an
ever-present, lung-clogging dust cloud. Reconstruction
efforts are evident, although Kabul continues to be a
showcase of bombed-out buildings and missile-destroyed
According to insurance companies, this
is a country at war, despite the fact that talk is of
peace, and, in September, the country is to hold its
first presidential elections in 25 years.
less than a month, US-led coalition forces claim to have
killed more than 80 suspected Taliban fighters and
detained 90 others in the southern province of Zabul.
About 20,000 US-led coalition forces are currently
hunting Taliban and their allies in the al-Qaeda
terrorist network, mainly in south and southeastern
Since early this year, more than
320 people have been killed and more than 250 others
injured in different attacks and clashes across the
country, including a number of aid workers, and most
recently 11 Chinese working on rebuilding a road in the
The elections are to take place a couple
months before the US vote that will either re-elect
President George W Bush or put his likely rival from the
Democratic Party, John Kerry, in the White House.
It is the US elections in November that make the
Afghan vote credible, because it is believed that Bush
will want to announce in his campaign effort that he has
"pacified and democratized" the Central Asian nation,
invaded by US forces shortly after September 11.
The US was looking in Afghanistan for the man
thought to be the mastermind behind the attacks, Saudi
national Osama bin Laden, and, on the way, sought to
liquidate the Taliban regime and capture its leader,
Mullah Omar. Both men remain at large.
the war is intensifying. One clue: there are 20,000 US
soldiers in Afghanistan today. Two months ago there were
13,500. Another sign is that the US television networks
have also returned. They left practically as soon as the
B-52s had done their job, the Taliban government was
overthrown, and Hamad Karzai was brought back from his
exile in the US to serve as interim president.
Karzai, widely seen as lacking political power,
wants to extend his mandate - and he has Bush's support
for that aim.
"If the elections are in
September, [Karzai] will achieve his goal, because there
will be no mature alternatives capable of negotiating
with the United States," says Shahir Zahine, a former
mujahideen who fought the 1979 Soviet invasion that
lasted for 10 years. He is now head of a
non-governmental organization that publishes three
weekly magazines, two of which are leaders in national
What could postpone the elections?
"If insecurity increases and the United Nations fails to
complete the voter lists," Zahine, who also directs one
of Kabul's top radio stations, said in an IPS interview.
In May, three workers carrying out an electoral
census were murdered. The voter rolls do not include
even half of the potential electorate, estimated at 10
The increase in troop presence serves
to prevent a civil war and to fight the Taliban in
southern Afghanistan, where they remain a strong
presence. Furthermore, the International Security
Assistance Force under NATO (North Atlantic Treaty
Organization) command, has Kabul under control but is
incapable of ensuring law and order in the rest of the
country, where warlords prevail.
Why have the US
media returned to Afghanistan? "I don't know why, but
they think Osama bin Laden is about to be captured,"
says UN spokesman Manoel de Almeyda, a Brazilian
That is another thing keeping Bush
awake at night: he wants bin Laden captured before the
November elections in the US.
dream is to allow Afghan women to be free of the
burqa, the head-to-toe shroud, with its
embroidered mesh that hides their eyes. Thousands of
burqas are seen on the streets of the capital.
Most are light blue. Crossing the city by car, one sees
many women dressed in this attire. It can be disturbing
to see so many faceless humans moving about.
When asked why she wears the burqa, on
woman responded: "It is my Islamic clothing. I've worn
it since I was young, and continue to use it now that I
"The people from the United States are
in a hurry," says Homa Sabri, of the United Nations
Development Fund for Women. "They want [Afghan women] to
quit using the burqa immediately so that they can
announce that they have given us back our dignity and
freedom. But this cannot be imposed. It is a slow road
until women feel secure and lose their fear," she said.
Sayed Raheen, minister of information and
culture, has a similar response in a conversation with
IPS: "The international community turns out to be
fundamentalist when it seeks to hurry a country that is
just taking its first steps."
Comments that are
a bit more radical come from a European consultant who
spoke on condition of anonymity. "We are here to promote
US interests, not Afghanistan's," says the consultant
bitterly, having resigned as an adviser to the Afghan
Central Bank, where Washington has some 40 people
working to set up a new banking system for the country.
"The invaders impose their capitalist economic
style on a country with nearly 2,000 years of Islamic
culture, one that rejects the concept of monetary
interest," explained the source.
As they await
bin Laden's capture, the US TV networks keep busy
competing for the latest news on the torture inflicted
by the CIA (US Central Intelligence Agency) and the
Marines on Afghan detainees at the southern military
base of Bagram.
Reports of torture and abuse had
been circulating since early 2002, but nothing was done
until recently, when denunciations emerged regarding
similar actions against Iraqis committed by the
occupying forces in that country.
In Bagram, a
strategic location at the foot of the Hindu Kush, forts
were built by Persia's Cyrus the Great 500 years BC,
with the name Kapish-Kanish, by Alexander the Great, who
dubbed it Alexandria of the Caucasus, and the Soviets,
who built their main base there in the 1980s,
withdrawing in 1989.
Now the presence is US and
NATO troops, keeping watch over a crucial zone for
controlling the extraction and transport of petroleum in
the Caspian Sea region, also of great interest to Russia
The Afghan population is included on
the list of the world's poorest. Illiteracy surpasses 80
percent, reaching 92 percent among women. But these are
just estimates because it is not known exactly how many
Afghans there are - maybe between 20 and 28 million.
At Bagram, as at the Iraqi prison Abu Ghraib,
prisoners were photographed in the nude and humiliated,
according to the testimonies of some victims. Sooner or
later, someone will put those photos in the hands of the
Meanwhile, growing apace is the expansion
of the illicit poppy crops used to produce opium and
heroin - brought to a halt during the Taliban regime -
and the uncertainty over whether the Afghans will be
able to build a strong, single state. Afghanistan is
responsible for 70 to 75 percent of the global
production of heroin, a business worth US$30 billion a