DEC 12 — Although it was the 10th anniversary of 9/11, it was clear that many Afghans felt that it was irrelevant to them and their lives. I don’t blame them since, in their country, 9/11 seems to be happening every day.
“Every day, in my country, people are killed. If not by the Taliban, then by the American and ISAF forces. We are looking at 9/11 every day here,” gripes Ahmad Bilal Raghbat, my fixer in Afghanistan.
It seems that after 10 years of the United States’ presence in Afghanistan, the situation in the country isn’t much better. One would think that at least security and safety of the locals would have improved, but no. Attacks by the Taliban still happen regularly. And to be honest, this scared the wits out of me! The first few days sleeping in my room was spent… NOT sleeping!
One of the first things Bilal said to me when I arrived in Kabul was not to wander around Kabul on my own since it is particularly dangerous for foreigners. I had no objections there since everyone in the streets dressed and looked like dangerous Taliban members! You just couldn’t tell the difference.
That’s why, although central Kabul is considered the Green Zone and is safe, attacks still happen almost every week. How do you tell a Taliban from a non-Taliban? They are all Afghans and they all dress the same. And if it’s the beard that you go by to differentiate them (growing one is compulsory for a Taliban), well, most Afghans have beards.
Basically, the Taliban is just lurking amongst the locals. And when they plan an attack, all they do is pick up their weapons and head for the nearest foreign target. Heck, they are already in the Green Zone! So you can see the difficulty in trying to manage the security situation in the country.
Also, Afghans seem to be quite apprehensive about foreigners. I would get weird looks and stares whenever I walked down the streets of Kabul, and most of it felt hostile rather than curious. I didn’t blame them. Wouldn’t you be apprehensive too if for the past 30 over years, all the foreigners who have entered your country tried to shoot and kill you? They experienced that with the British, then the Russians and now the Americans.
But there was one very great consolation. And that is the fact that I am a Muslim. Bilal seemed to have made it his mission to announce to the world that I was a journalist and a Muslim. I didn’t think it was a good idea to disclose this fact in the beginning. Internet visuals of Daniel Pearl (the Wall Street Journal journalist who was abducted by the Taliban) being beheaded kept flashing in my mind! I would have preferred to be discreet.
But Bilal made the right decision. Once the locals knew I was a Muslim like them, their looks changed and smiles came my way. One shopkeeper even refused to accept my money when I wanted to pay for my Coke! It seems that Muslim brotherhood here ran deep, and I was thankful for that. Not just for my safety, but also because they had faith about my intentions coming to their country, which was to tell their story.
I digress. So now it’s back to my new strategy of interviewing and creating conversation with people on the streets of Kabul. As I had mentioned, 9/11 is no longer an issue. The issue now is the Afghans’ opinions and thoughts of the presence of foreign forces who are bringing no benefit to their country.
However, if you’ve been following the news on Afghanistan, you would be aware that US President Barrack Obama has already started a withdrawal plan for US forces in Afghanistan this year; 2014 would be the year when all governing power, including security, is handed back to the Afghan people.
Bilal and I headed to the streets again. I wanted to meet normal everyday people. And we did. We walked down Chicken Street, the main shopping area of Kabul and we started approaching people to ask them my new question: 10 years on and the US is still in Afghanistan. What do you think?
“The Americans have failed to bring peace to this country. Our own police and army should just take over,” said Fardin Khan, a retail assistant at a chic men’s clothing store.
“Of course the Americans have been a big help. But it is our responsibility to give them a hand, you know. We need to help each other to bring peace to the country. We can’t say that all the responsibility is on the Americans. It is also our responsibility to bring peace and build the country,” explained Abdul Bashir Safi, a businessman, disagreeing slightly.
“When the Americans came, people here started wearing shirts. And they also brought the US dollar!” exclaimed Zarghon Shah, a shirt store owner, who just seemed happy that his business is doing well.
“I’m comfortable. I’m poor and I only sell tea. It makes no difference to me,” said tea stall owner Shah Mohamed.
“In my opinion, it would be better for the US to leave Afghanistan. It’s better if our army and police force serve us,” said Tamim, a student.
“Afghans need to serve their country themselves. Many of us do not like foreign forces being here,” expressed Mohamed Jamel, a shoe salesman.
It’s obvious from the number of people I spoke to in Kabul that a majority of them expressed dissatisfaction with the US forces being in their country. They felt that Afghanistan needed to be governed by Afghans. And, really, the objective of the withdrawal plan by the US forces is really trying to prepare them for this.
Afghanistan has already been conducting elections and has a government headed by one of their own, President Hamid Karzai. But many Afghans are not happy with the way he is governing the country. They accuse his government of being corrupt and unaccountable. In fact, while I was in Kabul, I even stumbled upon a demonstration by the people, led by several politicians, against Karzai’s government.
The demonstration, held in front of the president’s office, was a call to Karzai’s government to sack 53 “illegal” MPs who were now sitting in Parliament. Initially, there were 62 MPs who were winners in an election that was declared illegal by the Afghan courts. However, Karzai had chosen to ignore the courts’ decision and only sacked nine of them, leaving a further 53 whom the opposition have deemed illegal.
“The president of this country, without any regards to the courts’ decision and verdict, he completely ignored all that, and with recommendation from several embassies and UN office in Afghanistan totally bypassed the syariah court in this country and implemented something arbitrary from his own pocket,” said Daud Sultanzoi, one of the rightful MPs from Ghazni province, in impeccable English.
“I’m not satisfied. My vote deserves to be counted and I will fight for it,” screamed Malak Aworang Ibrahim Khir, a local who was taking part in the demonstration.
“I’m a poor man and the Afghan government has never stood up for the poor. The government needs to follow the law!” yelled Mohamed Ismail, another local.
Despite all the intensity, it was really a peaceful demonstration whose participants were helped and kept safe by the police. In my eyes, it clearly showed the passion that the Afghan people had for their country. They knew their rights, they knew how to fight for it and, most importantly, they felt that they were ready to govern their own country.
I was getting really worked up by the demonstration and it actually had me reminiscing about home, in particular, the demonstration that we recently had in Kuala Lumpur to call for clean and fair elections which you all would recognise as Bersih 2.0. The only difference was that the one happening in war-torn Afghanistan was actually violence-free! Then, I felt a tug on my shoulder. It was Bilal.
“Did you get your story?” he asked.
“Yeah. I think I have,” I said.
“Then we should go. Sometimes, the Taliban takes advantage of situations like this to create some havoc.”
I nodded, suddenly aware of the danger and risks around me, and we left the scene. As Bilal and I were walking away, a thought entered my mind. The Afghan people may want the foreign forces to leave and they may want to govern themselves. But after decades of war and exodus, are they actually capable of doing so yet? As it is, the current government that is in place is considered a weak one where corruption is rampant. I would have to find out.
Next week: Part Three of Zan Azlee’s “Guide to Afghanistan: The Adventures of a KL-ite”. View videos of his adventures at http://fatbidin.com/afghanistan/