December 16, 2003


The Kabul Express: In the sixties and seventies it was the hippie trail that brought foreigners to Afghanistan. Two decades of war and terror later, Kabul is a nonstop rave of C-130s, NGOs, soldiers, and spooky nation-builders. The freaks are back on Chicken Street—where everything old is new again. (Patrick Symmes, December 2003, Outside Magazine)

WAY BACK IN THAT ERA OF NAIVE JOY known as the 1960s, Afghanistan was a symbol of something other than war. It was the luminous mystery at the center of Asia, a kingdom of infinite skies and peerless peaks. Kabul was the antique capital of a romantic nation, and Chicken Street, the city's enclave of hotels and restaurants, was a ghetto of global hippies and seekers. By the late 1970s, Afghanistan had become perhaps the most storied name on the trekkers' road less traveled, the famous "overland route" where strangers banded together in VW vans, sharing love affairs and mimeographed tip sheets en route to the "Three K's"—Kabul, India's Kullu Valley, and finally Kathmandu. Islam was musical, mystical, and embracing, the prices cheap, the dope wicked. Afghanistan was, in the idiom of the age, mellow.

And it will be so again.

Yes, Afghanistan. After 25 years of war and civil war, the people and politics are beginning to come full circle. In the sixties it was the hippie trail that brought change; this time it was B-52s, dropping loads of modernization, leaving foreign troops and civil schemes in their wake. Since the American overthrow of the Taliban, in late 2001, the UN and its acronymic camp of followers have parachuted into Kabul, pursued closely by the shock troops of low-rent globalization: entrepreneurs and actual tourists. The future—however tentative and fragile—is back.

"There are a lot of cultural similarities between then and now," one of the veterans of both eras, Nancy Hatch Dupree, said. "They're trying to open it up again." In 1977, Dupree, an American expat, published the definitive—and, for the time being, last—guidebook to the country, An Historical Guide to Afghanistan, a 492-page odyssey down every bumpy road of delights. A friend to prime ministers, rebel commanders, and even the Taliban, Dupree now lives in Peshawar, Pakistan, but returns often, at age 76, to oversee various organizations she has founded—like SPACH, the Society for the Preservation of Afghanistan's Cultural Heritage—and to advise the Ministry of Information and Culture.

"Travel today is about like it was in the 1960s," said Dupree. This was partly a promise, and partly a warning—the highways are in shambles, the land is still scattered with up to ten million land mines. In many ways, I'd picked a terrible moment to venture into the provinces: The country is littered with unexploded ordnance; attacks by Taliban holdouts, mostly in southeast Afghanistan, have been increasing; and even the pro-government warlords ruling the "safe" provinces have their own armies. In early October, the White House formed a "stabilization group" for Iraq and Afghanistan, a tacit acknowledgment of the "deteriorating security conditions" cited in a June 2003 joint report on Afghanistan by the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) and the Asia Society. President Hamid Karzai's government has international clout but neither the money nor the troops to back it up in the provinces. At the current rate of training, there will be only 9,000 soldiers in the Afghan National Army by mid-2004, compared with 100,000 militiamen for the various warlo— I mean "local leaders."

According to the World Bank, Afghanistan will need $15 billion in reconstruction money in the next five years, above and beyond relief aid. Meanwhile, opium has been reborn as a $2.5 billion shadow economy, twice the amount of foreign aid received in 2002 and more than the government's entire $2.25 billion budget. Last year, according to the report, one warlord, Ismail Khan, of the western city of Herat, reportedly levied $100 million in customs duties; the central government took in $80 million nationwide.

But as one veteran of the UN's de-mining program reminded me, it used to be so much worse. Just over a year ago, Taliban rockets were still hitting close to Kabul. The memory of chaos is so fresh that, in one of those undiplomatically honest comments made only on background, she said, simply, "Warlord is good." Afghans want order, and are slowly getting it. "It's too early to talk about success or failure," said David Haeri, special assistant to Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN envoy to Afghanistan. "Whether the glass is half full or half empty, there is water in it."

For many critics of America this will not be enough, but even if Afghanistan descends back into chaos--which when has it not?--there's something to be said for bringing water to a dying man.

'A Road to Afghanistan's Future': Upbeat Ceremony for Kabul-Kandahar Highway Reopening (Pamela Constable, December 17, 2003, Washington Post)

Attack helicopters circled overhead, snipers peeked from rooftops, a trench had been dug alongside the reception tent and all traffic was halted for several miles in each direction.

But despite the intensive counterterrorist precautions, the mood and message of Tuesday's ceremony to mark the rebuilding of 310 miles of highway between the cities of Kabul and Kandahar followed a determinedly upbeat script.

"We are standing on the road to Afghanistan's future -- a road to national unity, prosperity and peace," U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad told several hundred Afghan officials and guests gathered at a windy roadside spot about 30 miles south of Kabul, the capital, where construction began on the mostly U.S.-funded project in late 2002.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 16, 2003 6:58 PM
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