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Clean up the Afghan government, and the Taliban will fade away.

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By Sarah Chayes
Sunday, December 14, 2008

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan

Nurallah strode into our workshop shaking with rage. His mood shattered ours. "This is no government," he stormed. "The police are like animals."

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The story gushed out of him: There'd been a fender-bender in the Kandahar bazaar, a taxi and a bicycle among wooden-wheeled vegetable carts. Wrenching around to avoid the knot, another cart touched one of the green open-backed trucks the police drive. In seconds, the officers were dragging the man to the chalky dust, beating him -- blow after blow to the head, neck, hips, kidneys. Shopkeepers in the nearby stalls began shouting, "What do you want to do, kill him?" The police slung the man into the back of their truck and roared away.

"So he made a mistake," concluded Nurallah, one of the 13 Afghan men and women who make up my cooperative. "We don't have a traffic court? They had to beat him?"

In the seven years I've lived in this stronghold of the Afghan south -- the erstwhile capital of the Taliban and the focus of their renewed assault on the country -- most of my conversations with locals about what's going wrong have centered on corruption and abuse of power. "More than roads, more than schools or wells or electricity, we need good governance," said Nurallah during yet another discussion a couple of weeks ago.

He had put his finger on the heart of the problem. We and our friends in Kandahar are thunderstruck at recent suggestions that the solution to the hair-raising situation in this country must include a political settlement with "relevant parties" -- read, the Taliban. Negotiating with them wouldn't solve Afghanistan's problems; it would only exacerbate them. Ask any Afghan what's really needed, what would render the Taliban irrelevant, and they'll tell you: improving the behavior of the officials whom the United States and its allies ushered into power after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

I write this by flickering light, a fat candle at my right elbow and a kerosene lamp on my left. We get only three or four hours of electricity every couple of days, often from 1 to 5 a.m. Still, the bill has to be paid. To do that, you must wait in a total of eight lines in two different buildings. You almost never get through the whole process without hearing an uncouth bark as your turn comes up: "This desk is closing; come back tomorrow." Due to the electricity shortage, the power department won't open new accounts. Officially. But for $600 -- 15 times the normal fee and a fortune to Afghans -- you can get a meter installed anyway.

A friend recently visited the jail in Urozgan Province, north of Kandahar, where he found 54 prisoners. All but six were untried and uncharged and had been languishing there for months or years. A Kandahar public prosecutor told him how a defendant had once offered him the key to a Lexus if he would just refrain from interfering in a case the man had fixed.

Across the street from my cooperative there used to be a medical clinic. When it moved to a new facility, gunmen in police uniforms set up a checkpoint outside the empty building. Our inquiries revealed that they were the private guards of a senior government official. Their purpose? To serve as a graphic warning to the building's owners not to interfere in what would follow. A few days later, some friends of the official's moved in. The owners had no say in the matter, no recourse. This government official is one of the men the United States helped put in power in 2001 and whom the international community has maintained and supported, no questions asked, ever since.

This is why the Taliban are making headway in Afghanistan -- not because anyone loves them, even here in their former heartland, or longs for a return to their punishing rule. I arrived in Kandahar in December 2001, just days after Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar was chased out. After a moment of holding its breath, the city erupted in joy. Kites danced on the air for the first time in six years. Buyers flocked to stalls selling music cassettes. I listened to opium dealers discuss which of them would donate the roof of his house for use as a neighborhood school. I, a barefaced American woman, encountered no hostility at all. Curiosity, plenty. But no hostility. Enthusiasm for the nascent government of Hamid Karzai and its international backers was absolutely universal.

Since then, the hopes expressed by every Afghan I have encountered -- to be ruled by a responsive and respectful government run by educated people -- have been dashed. Now, Afghans are suffering so acutely that they hardly feel the difference between Taliban depredations and those of their own government. "We're like a man trying to stand on two watermelons," one of the women in my cooperative complains. "The Taliban shake us down at night, and the government shakes us down in the daytime."

I hear from Westerners that corruption is intrinsic to Afghan culture, that we should not hold Afghans up to our standards. I hear that Afghanistan is a tribal place, that it has never been, and can't be, governed.


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