Thirty Days in Kabul, or Afghanistan Seen Through a Keyhole

As I finalize this article, The Associated Press (9/14) reports that the US Embassy in Kabul has been shelled by rocket-propelled grenades, and has “canceled all trips in and out of Afghanistan for its diplomats and suspended all travel within Afghanistan.”

Few here in the States have firsthand knowledge of Afghanistan. Few have any idea how the Afghan people have suffered from the ten-year invasion and occupation. Few have any sense of the absolute failure of the war – by any standard except that of generating mega-profits for certain “defense” corporations.

Haunted by this gap in my own education, this summer, I spent 30 days in Afghanistan – or more precisely, in Kabul. I was part of a small Voices for Creative Nonviolence delegation.

Nervous, Armed Men

Kabul is a city of sandbags and nervous, armed men, both on foot and in big, shiny, urgently honking vehicles. In Kabul life is lived opaquely – behind thick metal doors and high walls topped with barbed wire. Approach the airport here and soldiers will have you out of your vehicle three times and patting you down before you even turn into the parking lot.

Early on, we are told that, according to the Red Cross, the area is enduring the worse security situation in 30 years. Those with a stake in how things are dread the talked about departure of the US forces and their allies. (The US is quietly lobbying the Karzai government to agree to permanent US bases.) Some we meet prefer the devil they've come to know this past excruciating decade to other devils harder to predict, harder to identify.

Our delegation is restricted in our movements. Do we avoid venturing forth from the clipped lawns and rose gardens of our guest house compound? Hardly. But we stay inside those high walls until our driver arrives and we quickly hop in his van. Our unflappable driver, with preternatural reflexes, plunges us into what must be some of the densest, scariest, least-regulated – no traffic lights – traffic on the planet.

We're off to visit a primary school, an orphanage, a women's co-op, a photo gallery, a de-mining museum, a refugee camp. Or we see the zoo – with its pack of scrawny wolves and its flock of vultures. On one of the few evenings we stay out after dark, we attend a US Embassy-sponsored film festival showcasing young Afghan filmmakers. Our most vibrant visit is to Skateistan, an indoor skateboarding arena.

We have 40 or so meetings. We sit down with teachers, journalists, editors, social entrepreneurs and with the staff of various NGOs – internationals, Afghan-Americans and Afghans. Whether guarded or candid, perplexing or illuminating, each encounter provides a piece (a figment?) of the puzzle. We glimpse complexities and contradictions – and tragedies – some beyond our sheltered imaginations.

I journeyed to Afghanistan hoping to hear what Afghans think about Reaper drones. I think they are cowardly. Syracuse's Hancock Air Base trains Reaper personnel and, from there, some of these robotic hunter/killers are piloted over Afghanistan. Thus, the air war in Afghanistan operates in part out of my backyard. So, I thought I might meet with drone survivors. But staff at Kabul's no-questions-asked Emergency Hospital (specializing in war wounds) tell us that drone victims would be cared for elsewhere, if at all, closer to where drones prey. And where we Westerners dare not go.

Few of our contacts in Kabul seemed interested in drones. One human rights NGO staffer allowed that, yes, drones kill civilians, but – ta da! – they also destroy madrassas. I wince at this functionary's equanimity: rural Afghans may be rather less cavalier about such aerial terrorism.

A few of our meetings are inspiring. We spend an hour with Malalai Joya (her pseudonym). Malalai, a young woman barely five-feet tall, only survives by moving with her guards from safe house to safe house. She was elected to Parliament from a remote region, but was drummed out of that august body for publicizing the war crimes of several of her parliamentary colleagues. While this notoriety led to international speaking tours, it also led to assassination attempts.

Getting our directions via cell phone, we don't know where we'll meet Malalai until moments before we arrive. We enter one of those unmarked compounds on a nameless street (typical of Kabul) and are met by two armed men. One stands a few feet off, gun in hand, while the other frisks us – and has us snap photos with our cameras and write with our pens to confirm that these aren't disguised weapons.

There isn't space here to go into Malalai's remarks, or to convey the care and courage she radiates. Suffice it to say Malalai is not one of those who see their interests entwined with those occupying her country. Check out her memoir, “A Woman Among Warlords” (Scribner, 2009).

The Elephant's Trunk

Afghanistan – to begin to understand this harrowed land you must see its teeming capital. Yet, Kabul provides only an incomplete and, indeed, distorted picture of the country as a whole.

Given how tense and militarized the city itself is, we choose not to disdain whatever security it does offer. But such constraints reveal how illusory any US military claims of “progress” have been over these past ten years – despite all the hundreds of billions of dollars squandered. Not to mention all the orphans made and the thousands of limbs and lives lost.

From our glimpses of the Afghan countryside, it's clear that Kabul bears little resemblance to the hinterland. One might as well try to imagine an elephant having only seen its trunk. Or one might seek to understand the US by visiting only Washington or New York … or, for that matter, only Syracuse.

Swollen with internal refugees, Kabul is said to now have about a fifth of Afghanistan's population. Kabul's social structures are not those of the countryside. Nor do urban agendas and interests – or security issues – reflect those of the rural areas where most Afghans live.

I belabor this point because I was taken aback by how many of those we met in the capital favor an ongoing US military presence. Some fear chaos if the US leaves and its corrupt puppet government dissolves (“within three days,” as a former US Embassy contractor told us). They fear the ensuing civil war – as if for years the invader hadn't been supporting fundamentalist warlords, fostering corruption, promoting ethnic hatred, paying off the Taliban, making night raids, detaining and torturing young men … and testing its high-tech weapons systems.

Some, especially among the NGO strata, have a stake in the status quo. Why not? For now, it seems to work well enough for those with internationally derived incomes. Without the invader, such perks would vanish. But I keep wondering how rural Afghans – already savaged by the occupation and by those resisting the occupation – would see things. Confined to Kabul, how are we to know?

My few weeks in Afghanistan pound home what I already know: US taxpayers must face our complicity in the terror of US militarism. As the war on Afghanistan now enters its 11th year, we must break out of our bubbles. We must stop averting our eyes.

In early November, Ed will be one of over 30 activists prosecuted for having protested the Reaper drone by “dying-in” last April at the main gate of Hancock Air Base near Syracuse, New York. Reach him at [email protected]