KABUL — In a private room inside the Wiana Cafe, Mahmood Rezai snapped his hands to an imaginary beat, mimicking the actions of his favorite rap stars: Eminem, 50 Cent and Tupac. Under the Taliban, Rezai’s own lyrics — blistering critiques of social woes — would have earned him a beating, or worse. Today, he is a testament to the subtler influences of the nearly 14-year-long American presence in Afghanistan.
“I love gangsta rap,” said Rezai, wavy-haired and clean-shaven and wearing a big silver watch. “It’s like being in a desert, so very free.”
How history will remember America’s longest war will be shaped by public debates over the United States’ failures and successes and visible consequences such as the collapse of the Taliban regime and the death of Osama bin Laden. But the U.S. engagement has also affected urban Afghan society in indirect ways, seeping into its culture, language and attitudes.
It can be seen in the graffiti art that covers blast walls in some neighborhoods and the Tom Cruise-style haircuts sported by hip Afghan youth. It can be heard in the vernacular of Afghan security guards after they frisk visitors — “You’re good to go, buddy” — and the alternative American rock music that fills Kabul’s illegal underground bars.
The U.S. influence can also be seen in the threads of handmade carpets emblazoned with drones and F-16 jets. Or in the indifference of Afghan elites, grown wealthy on American military contracts, calmly losing thousands of dollars in Texas hold ’em poker games.
“I have personal freedom. I can wear what I want,” said Samira Ahmadi, an employee at a consulting firm. “Now we can have mixed parties with boys and girls, and we are going to picnics. This was all unimaginable under the Taliban.”
Yet what was once forbidden is unfolding under a cloud of history. Afghans remember the liberal 1970s, when women in Kabul wore miniskirts and jazz clubs were the rage. But those freedoms had evaporated by the 1990s. The society is still mostly conservative and tribal, many women remain subjugated, and centuries-old traditions rule. Even as they enjoy the new liberties, a question lingers among many Afghans: How long will they last?
Over the past 5,000 years, Afghanistan’s myriad invaders, from Genghis Khan to Tamerlane to the Mughal dynasties, have left indelible marks. The nation’s population is among the world’s most ethnically diverse.
In Zabul province are remnants of a fortress built by Alexander the Great, and in Herat and Ghowr, ancient minarets erected by Persian kings grace the landscape. In Kabul, the British cemetery, which houses the graves of soldiers killed in the two Anglo-Afghan wars of the 19th century, is a reminder of Britain’s ill-fated colonial experience. By the time Soviet forces pulled out in 1989, they had built apartment complexes, factories, universities and even a theater house that are still in use today.
America’s contribution may prove to be more psychological than anything else — the silent reshaping of the psyche of a society and its people, even as they view their occupiers at once with great expectations, suspicion and animosity.
Steps away from a stadium where the Taliban once stoned people to death, teenage skateboarders twist and fly off curved ramps in a cavernous gym. Seventeen-year-old Farid Wahidi rattled off the names of his heroes: “Rodney Mullen, Chris Cole and Tony Hawk” — all American professional skateboarders.
And he wants to be just like them, from the knee pads and brown Vans shoes he is wearing to his outsize ambitions.
“My dream is to go to the United States and win a skateboarding tournament, just like the ones sponsored by Red Bull,” Wahidi said with a confident smile. “I want to be as famous as Tony Hawk.”
The American military and aid lexicon has infiltrated Dari and Pashto, the languages spoken by most Afghans. Words such as “funding,” “ID card” and “contractares” are now widely used.
At Bush Bazaar, named after President George W., shops sell Chinese-made knockoffs of U.S. military uniforms, khaki trousers with thigh pockets, gray U.S. Army T-shirts and Bushnell binoculars.
“When the Soviets occupied Afghanistan, people liked to look like the Russians,” said shopkeeper Mohammad Idris, 25, who regularly sells out of black Oakley wraparound sunglasses.
“Now, they want to look like American Special Forces.”
After nearly a quarter-century of communist rule, the Soviet occupation, civil war and the repressive order of the Taliban, billions of American aid dollars have ushered in a new class of capitalists, bold attitudes and a collective outspokenness.
That outspokenness is most visible in Afghanistan’s free-wheeling independent media, largely created by American funding. Under the Taliban, the press was shackled. Now, it’s among the most liberated in the region, often unafraid to criticize government policies and expose wrongdoing.
“If these freedoms stop once again after the Americans leave, people will remember this period as a golden era for the freedom of speech and freedom of media,” said Najibullah Amiri, chief editor of Salam Watandar, a U.S.-funded network of radio stations across the country.
Rezai, the rapper, practices another form of outspokenness. American rap and hip-hop lyrics inspire him, he said, because “Afghan society faces many of the same problems as in America.” His own lyrics, in Dari, are about drug abuse, high unemployment, child labor and violence against women. “Through rap, we are protesting against the inequalities in Afghanistan,” he added.
Conservative Afghans, however, chafe at the new freedoms. Racy Turkish soap operas and the country’s version of “American Idol” are seen as Western imports that dilute Afghanistan’s centuries-old ethos. Fashionably dressed women, their uncovered faces glowing with makeup, are often derided as un-Afghan or prostitutes.
“The Americans are leaving behind a mess,” said Idris, the shopkeeper at Bush Bazaar. “They brought Afghans living in the West here, and together they are spreading foreign culture among Afghans. The television shows are spreading immoral values. Our culture has been changed.”
Nowhere is this more apparent to Afghans than with the rise of the ultra-rich, created largely by U.S. military and aid contracts, and the rampant corruption it has fueled. Around Kabul, the signposts of the wealthy are everywhere: million-dollar mansions, opulent weddings and luxury cars. Hummers are popular. The rich spend money at will in a country where the average income is about $425 a year.
On a recent night, several Afghans and Westerners huddled inside a house transformed into a dim underground bar called the Venue. The song “Getaway Car” by the Los Angeles band Audioslave filtered through the room, followed later by a dose of Frank Sinatra. Conversation, over $5 cans of beer, turned to Kabul’s high-stakes, secret — and illegal — poker scene. In one cash game there was said to have been at least $30,000 on the table.
“I know all those guys who play at that game,” said an Afghan who spoke with a laid-back California accent after years of working with Americans as a consultant and interpreter. He won $6,000 the last time he played, he boasted.
In a recent game, whose participants asked not to be identified, an Afghan restaurant owner declared “All in!” He shoved about $2,000 into the pot and quickly lost, bringing his total losses for the evening to around $8,000.
“I don’t care about losing money,” he said matter-of-factly. “I’m here because I love playing poker.”
He pulled out a wad of $100 bills and bought in for another $1,000.
At the Wiana Cafe, six young women and seven men huddled on cushions, smoking from hookahs and chatting. Couples held hands while others clapped to loud American pop tunes, acts that were both banned under the Taliban.
Underneath their Western patina, though, they had existential questions about what the United States will be remembered for. With most U.S. forces departed, the country remains politically dysfunctional and mired in conflict, with the Taliban revitalized and the Islamic State emerging. And in the minds of most Afghans, there’s little evidence of the billions the United States has spent on development projects.
“If Americans continue to support Afghans after their withdrawal, democracy and civil freedoms will be their legacy,” said Ahmadi, the consulting firm employee.
And if they don’t, the “legacy that Americans are going to leave behind is war and mayhem,” said Hadi, an amateur actor who uses one name. “They are not leaving anything like what the Soviets left.”
With most U.S. military outposts closed and fewer American soldiers and contractors around, fewer stalls at Bush Bazaar are selling American products. They have been replaced by goods from China, India and Dubai.
Haji Tor Muhseini sighs when he looks at his racks of unsold American goods: Pop-Tarts, Quaker oats, Heinz barbecue sauce, Arizona iced tea, Texas Pete hot sauce and Uncle Ben’s long grain rice.
He senses the curtain drawing on an era, much like what happened more than two decades ago. Back then, there was a Brezhnev Market, named after the Soviet leader, in downtown Kabul, he said. It closed soon after the Soviets left.
“Perhaps all this will disappear, too,” he said.
Mohammad Sharif contributed to this report.