The End of the Kabul Spring

By Pamela Constable
Sunday, June 11, 2006

Sounds of shouting, running, smashing.

A burst of gunfire. A dog howling.

A heavy truck moving fast. A tank?

Three bursts, very near. That's a Kalashnikov.

Black smoke drifting between the trees.

A glimpse of tattered black banner held aloft.

Something's burning.

More shouts, whistles, stampeding.

Oh , God, they're right outside.

Hide the computer, hide the cameras.

Hide anything written in English.

They're going to come over the wall.

Those are notes from my reporter's notebook, made on Monday, May 29, although the handwriting doesn't look like mine. It's bigger and loopier than normal, a little shaky. I spent that day pacing an office in Kabul, barricaded behind a high wall while my Afghan interpreter reported from the streets. I grew more frightened and angry as the sounds and smells of a riot came closer.

The city was crackling with rumors that American soldiers had shot or run down innocent civilians during the morning rush hour, rumors that raced from block to block, drawing men and boys into a frenzied torrent of rage and frustration that surged through the streets like a river, searching for anything foreign to destroy.

After seven hours, when the river had spent itself and the city was quiet except for the wail of firetruck sirens, the guard took my incriminating laptop and photography equipment out of the rain barrel where I had hidden them, trundled me into a van and rushed me to a friend's high-rise apartment, where I spent the night watching TV footage of men throwing stones at U.S. troops, schoolboys lugging looted laptops and police traffic posts in flames.

I had come to love Kabul during repeated long stays over the past eight years -- even when I had to get up before dawn to wash my clothes in freezing bathtub water, even when I had to share greasy soup from a common pot, even when landlords cheated and traffic clogged and power failed, even when dust invaded every crevice and my hair turned into an impenetrable hunk of straw.

I loved Kabul because it was a capital coming to life after years of destruction, clanging and chugging with chaotic purpose after too much ghostly idleness, charting an uneasy but urgent course between old and new. There were Internet cafes and burqa sellers, Land Cruisers and donkey carts, blaring Bollywood tunes and soothing calls to prayer, young men hurrying to computer classes and little boys hurrying to Koranic lessons, women in billowing veils and others in smart black suits.

It was a mess, but it was also an extraordinary experiment in which the West had played a positive, widely welcomed role. The day before the riots, I had visited the new parliament building and watched men in tribal turbans engrossed in serious conversations with female lawyers. I had visited a bookshop and listened to a new Afghan rap song about preserving tradition while embracing change. It was one of those days when I thought to myself: This might actually work.

But two days later, when I saw the destructive fury that had devoured not only luxury hotels and restaurants but also CARE International, a down-to-earth charity whose well-digging and shelter-building projects had reached into thousands of Afghan homes, I realized how thin and brittle that veneer of progress was.

I was swept by a sickening feeling that I had been dead wrong about Afghanistan; that the cynics were right when they said it was too atavistic to enlighten and too corrupt to reform; that my own investment in hope had blinded me to stubborn facts of despair. Now, like the handwriting in my notebook, I did not recognize the city.

It had not been an easy spring in Afghanistan. To the south and east, the revived Taliban militia, once thought vanquished, was blowing up military convoys and ambushing patrols with increasing frequency and ruthlessness. Opium traffickers, angry at poppy eradication projects, were reportedly paying men to fight the government. Farmers and former militia fighters, disillusioned with the lack of services and development after four years of Western-backed democracy, were restless. There was a growing sense that despite the presence of thousands of foreign troops, the country was unraveling at the fringes.

But all that was hundreds of miles from Kabul, the heart of Afghanistan's renascent intellectual, political and commercial life, a fortified capital honeycombed with Western military compounds where foreign peacekeeping troops shopped for carpets and new wedding halls sprouted flashing neon gardens.

There were still beggars at traffic lights, but there were also thousands of well-paying jobs with international agencies, and millions to be made through construction contracts. Rumblings of political discontent or religious fanaticism were rare and brief, such as the eruption of protest that followed the discovery that a local Afghan man had converted to Christianity.

Thus the riots of May 29, with its virulent anti-American and anti-government slogans, came as an enormous shock, both to resident foreigners and to the Afghan officials and business owners who viewed the capital as a still-poor but rapidly evolving and relatively safe place to open a restaurant, build a house, go to the movies, follow the debate in parliament or browse in the huge open-air bazaars.

For me, the shock was personal. I realized a frenzied mob wouldn't know or care how I felt about the country, how many of its dust-choked roads I had journeyed, how many hours I had spent sipping tea with village elders. All I could do was hide and pray the rioters did not find me. As I paced inside that walled compound, listening to the riot's receding roar, a deep anger and sadness grew in me. In a place I truly loved, I feared I would never really feel safe again.

In just hours, a fatal traffic accident involving a U.S. military cargo truck had unleashed a public display of rage and resentment against all things foreign that seemed to make no sense at all. Unlike Iraq, Afghanistan was a country that had welcomed U.S. troops as liberators, U.N. officials as political mentors and the millions of dollars in Western aid that accompanied them. This was supposed to be the role model for building a modern democracy in the Muslim world. Kabul was not Baghdad.

Indeed, most city residents, such as the middle-class family that offered me sanctuary from the riots, were horrified by the violence, ashamed that it had tarred all Afghans and angry at the police for failing to stop it. Government officials dismissed the rioters as a tiny fringe, spurred on by opportunistic agitators, that did not represent the nation or its attitudes.

But the eruption of wanton fury conveyed important, if disturbing, truths about Afghanistan, its relations with the world and its ability or desire to change.

First, this is a country where for the past quarter-century -- and for long periods of history before that -- the only skill that mattered was knowing how to fight. Now, a nation of warriors has had its weapons confiscated, and a nation that defeated the British and the Soviets is dominated by thousands of foreign troops who drive too fast, eat too much and speak no local language.

Second, this is a country with closely held, traditional Muslim values that is now being insidiously invaded by libertine Western culture. Many Afghan men see human rights, women's emancipation, alcohol and pornography as not only dangerous but also synonymous with democracy. They may enjoy browsing X-rated Web sites, but they would kill a man who eloped with their daughter.

Third, this is a country so poor that most people cannot afford a radio, a midwife or a bicycle. Foreign governments, agencies and charities have created a closed, parallel universe in Kabul that sports fleets of SUVs, drives up rental rates and pays huge salaries to a few Afghans lucky enough to know English and Windows. For others with connections, the aid boom has also created endless opportunities for official corruption and graft. The jobless and unskilled, left seething on the sidewalk, see no difference between a luxury hotel and a foreign charity that digs wells for farmers.

During the rioting, my interpreter heard a tragic and telling statement shouted by a middle-aged woman in the angry crowd. He asked her why she was demonstrating against the foreigners who had come to help, and she replied, "We don't want their help. We want them to go away and leave us alone. We don't want their progress or their development. We would rather stay in the ruins just like we were before."

This strain of defiant, destructive nihilism echoed other violent episodes in Afghanistan's recent history, including the devastating bombardment of Kabul by warring militia factions in the 1990s, the scorched-earth policy of the Taliban that ruined thousands of acres of farms, the recent rise of drug gangs that thrive on political chaos, and the rash of school burnings by insurgents across the country.

Of all the details that saddened and angered me about the riots -- the charred rosebushes at the CARE compound, the bullet holes sprayed across every window in the new Serena Hotel -- there was one that affected me the most, and that seemed to pit the hopeful and dark sides of Afghanistan against each other.

Several years ago, I visited a remote town and met an elderly teacher who loved books and was struggling to inspire his students with little money, few supplies and a school still scarred from Soviet bombing. I was never able to return there, but last month I met a member of parliament from the same town and asked if he would take some school supplies on his next visit. I filled a box with books and maps and pens, wrote the old teacher a letter and taped his name and town on the outside.

My driver was delivering the box to the legislator when the rioting broke out. A group of armed men stopped him on the street and forced him to drive them around the city for several hours. They noticed the box with the teacher's name in English, and pounced on it in suspicion. One of them drew a dagger from his jacket and stabbed the box over and over again, until he was satisfied it contained nothing of value.

Pamela Constable, a deputy foreign editor of The Washington Post, served as Kabul bureau chief from 2002 to 2004.

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