DEC 19 — Arriving in Afghanistan in September, and especially on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, it would be foolish of me not to expect anything to happen. On my first full day in Kabul itself I had already stumbled upon a huge street demonstration opposing President Hamid Karzai’s government.
And now, I was told by Ahmad Bilal Raghbat, my fixer, it was also Massoud Day weekend. It’s actually the 10th anniversary of the death of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the great Muhajideen general who fought against the Russians and then the Taliban. He was assassinated by the Taliban two days before the 9/11 attacks, and that date is now a national holiday.
The morning of Massoud Day, I woke up early and waited for Bilal to come pick me up. I hopped into his car as soon as he pulled up and we sped off into the city.
“There will be lots of people gathering at Massoud Square to pay tribute to him,” said Bilal as he drove without regard of any traffic rules, as is the case with all Afghan drivers. “Security is going to be tight so it might be difficult for us to get in.”
I just nodded as my fingers gripped the dashboard in fear. "Funny. I come to a war zone willingly but I’m scared of dying in a traffic accident!” I thought to myself.
We drove around and around and what Bilal predicted was true. Every road that was an entry point into Massoud Square was blocked by the Afghan National Police (ANP) and the Afghan National Army (ANA). Only cars with designated permits were allowed to drive in. So we parked the car in a nearby residential area and continued by foot.
As soon as we arrived at the square, we could hear the sound of hundreds of people chanting and music playing. It was obvious that Massoud is definitely a national hero and revered by all Afghans, which is surprising since Afghans are known to be very tribal. Massoud himself was a Tajik, and not part of the majority Pashtun tribe. Yet, here we saw all Afghans paying tribute to him.
I walked around the square (which was a really a roundabout with a tall monument in the centre) observing and filming the people. Many came bringing flowers and wreaths, and they all carried pictures of Massoud. The cars that were given permission to drive into the square were really parade vehicles that were decorated with flowers, black flags and huge portraits of Massoud.
It was a very loud affair indeed and the Afghans all looked very passionate, even on the verge of anger. Personally, the atmosphere felt almost like a protest or demonstration. And this got me thinking if Massoud was really someone who represented unity, nationalism and independence for the Afghan people. His spirit might even be a catalyst for Afghans to reject the foreign forces now occupying their country.
Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed that there were several curious Nato ISAF soldiers who were inside the nearby military compound peering out and snapping pictures with their mobile phones. I signalled to Bilal that I wanted to start interviewing the people. He came right over and started working the crowd.
“Today, I am here to celebrate the great Ahmad Shah Massoud. All Muslims, not just Afghans, were upset when he was killed,” said Gulahmad Zahid, who had just laid a wreath near the base of the monument.
“Massoud left behind the idea of freedom and the idea of the liberation of Afghanistan,” said Syed Ahmad Zubair.
“Massoud brough syariah to Afghanistan. And he never differentiated between Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks or Hazarats. He fought for a united Afghanistan,” said Nasir Ahmad Kawandee.
Throughout the entire time we were at Massoud Square, I noticed that Bilal had a very disinterested look on his face. He didn’t seem excited nor did he seem bored. He’s an Afghan and I wondered why he wasn’t as worked up and passionate as these other Afghans who were all around me in the square. So I decided to pick his brain and ask him about.
“I do see Massoud as a hero. He was a great general and even served as a minister in the Mujahideen government but I think it’s overdone,” he told me.
I couldn’t understand why. If he served the country well and was a hero, why not celebrate him?
“What this day should be called is Martyrs’ Day as there have been many great Afghans who have died for the country. The politicians are using Massoud to manipulate the people and stir their emotions,” he said.
But still, I didn’t see anything wrong with that. All countries have their own heroes who help ignite nationalism and patriotism among its people. But I guess Bilal was entitled to his opinion.
“Do you know, some politicians of Tajik ethnicity are even taking advantage of Massoud being Tajik and trying to get votes that way,” Bilal added. “To me, it just reflects how selfish Afghan politicians are and they don’t really care about the country.”
Now that struck a chord in me, especially after the last few days of interviewing Afghans on the streets of Kabul and hearing how they all wanted the foreign forces to leave Afghanistan so that their own people can govern the country. If they were so intent in wanting to be independent, did they actually believe that they were ready to govern themselves?
Independence is actually an important subject since US President Barrack Obama had just announced that he would be gradually pulling out foreign troops from Afghanistan until 2014, when everything would be handed to the Afghan government. One of the most important aspects of an independent country is the ability to maintain the safety and security of its people.
I had the opportunity to speak to Sediq Sediqqi, the spokesperson for the Ministry of Interior Affairs. I wanted to find out if he felt that the ANP were adequately trained to take over security matters in Afghanistan once 2014 arrived. Corruption is actually rife among the police force and many local Afghans don’t trust them. And this includes Bilal who is very vocal about it.
“These policemen aren’t educated and if you offer them a little bit of money, they get blinded by it,” he said.
Somehow, I doubted it was a direct affect of their education level. From my observations, Afghans had tremendous pride. They were proud to be Afghan and they were proud of their history. And this carried over into their jobs. When they were given uniforms and responsibility, they took it with a lot of heart. Unfortunately, being a policeman did not mean you could pay the bills and feed your family.
“It’s true that the average policeman makes very little in terms of salary. And that plays a big part in the rampant corruption throughout the country. It’s hardly their fault. On the government’s part, we’re slowly increasing their pay so they can make a decent living,” explained Sediqqi quite frankly.
The corruption problem needs to be solved as quickly as possible since Afghanistan needs to make sure that they have a reliable police force come 2014. But Sediqqi is optimistic that his government, and his ministry, will be able handle the transition of power.
“Aside from the pay increase, we have also set up a few police training centres around the country. ISAF is also playing a big part in this and I’m positive by 2014, Afghanistan will be ready,” said Sediqqi.
Next week: Part 4 of Zan Azlee’s “Guide to Afghanistan: The Adventures of a KL-ite”.View videos of his adventures at http://fatbidin.com/afghanistan/