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KABUL, Afghanistan — After an absence of seven years, Kabul has a different feel about it.
“Ah, 2003 was the great happy moment, “ said a senior Obama administration official. “America everywhere resurgent” with the Taliban beaten. “Now the Taliban is resurgent, and we are pouring in more troops … The Taliban have matched us surge for surge.”
The senior official, who asked to remain nameless, got it half right. Yes, the Taliban is resurgent, but even in 2003 optimism was clouded by the drawdown of assets here to fuel the war in Iraq. The great happy moment had already passed.
Still, Afghan President Hamid Karzai back then seemed to be doing well reining in warlords, and relations with the Americans were as excellent then as they are terrible today. You could drive to Pakistan then, or even Kandahar, or go out of Kabul for a picnic. Not anymore. Sensible foreigners do not leave town by car. There is a feeling of a growing siege — as if Birnam Wood were coming to Dunsinane.
Kabul has not the terrifying feel of Baghdad in its worst days five years ago. That is because Iraq was largely an urban insurrection, while this is a rural one. Despite the blast walls, barbed wire and super-security of American installations, Kabul today has more the feel of Phnom Penh when the Khmer Rouge was slowly surrounding the city, before the rockets arrived in earnest.
Restaurants are open, even though you have to go through security to gain entrance. Markets flourish. A baleful barrage balloon, anchored to a tether out near the ruined palace, keeps an eye on the city with cameras.
Of course official Americans are not allowed to visit restaurants or stroll about the town. They leave their fortresses only in well-armed SUVs in full body armor. They are allowed little contact with ordinary Afghans.
A man came up to me on Chicken Street the other day, took my hand, and asked me if I were Christian. Not a good sign, I thought. Happily all he wanted to tell me was that Muslims believed in Jesus as a secondary profit, but that the Americans were a fearful people.
He said that Russians walked around Kabul freely and openly in their day. We Americans, however, were always closed off behind our fortresses. He said many of the Russians were Muslims. He suggested if Americans became Muslim they would not be so afraid.
Mohammad Nasib, American-trained and helping to run a constructive NGO, said he’s confused about Americans and NATO. As a matter of fact he said most Afghans are confused.
“What is going on?” We are fighting the Taliban and yet the Americans are saying we are bargaining with them. Can NATO be helping the Taliban?
It’s a common rumor.
Americans say the Taliban are fractured into at least five major groups, and even more sub-groupings. In other times “you knew the phone to pick up to end the war,” said the senior official. “Now we don’t have that phone number, and this is unique in American history.”
The Taliban agrees. At least Abdul Salam Zaeef, the former Taliban who did hard time in the prison at Guantanamo Bay, agrees. He said the Taliban has no single address.
But if you look at it through Mohammad Nasib’s glasses, neither does NATO. There are more than 40 countries making up the International Security Assistance force and they do not speak with one voice. They speak different languages. They have different missions and different attitudes toward the future of Afghanistan.
Many Afghans look at this war as a continuation of the civil war going on before Americans came. It is a fight between the traditional rulers, the Pashtuns (read Taliban) and the Northern Alliance of minorities, Uzbeks, Tajiks, Hazaras and the rest. All the Americans did was reverse that situation, allowing the Northern Alliance to take Kabul, and now the Pashtuns want it back.
No one has told me they want the Taliban back. Indeed their strict version of Islam has no precedent anywhere in the Muslim world or in Islamic history. It comes from the most remote Pashtun villages, from where Taliban leaders came, and is anathema to the rest of what used to be a tolerant Afghanistan.
It is a world away from Western-dressed, clean-shaven Nasib to the dark house down a dusty road near the outskirts of town where Zaeef lives. The bearded and black- turbaned Zaeef, who was tortured, he said, by Americans and then released, has lived under a kind of house arrest here. A former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, he has become a must interview. The New Yorker’s Steve Coll called him “a much scrutinized interlocutor.”
GlobalPost’s reporter in Kabul, Jean MacKenzie, and I talked with Zaeef as darkness fell in a sort of roof garden with twittering birds. After an interruption for prayer, his line now is very much that the Taliban is simply a national resistance movement, fighting against a foreign occupation as Afghans have always fought, and really not that interested in power. But I suspect that if negotiations with the Talban should result in “reconciliation,” which means giving up the armed struggle and joining Hamid Karzai’s side, it would be only a temporary halt to the civil war and struggle for power that has been going on here since the Russians left in 1989.
MacKenzie, who has met Zaeef many times, said his line is hardening — less accommodating, more wrapped in the flag of national resistance.
An item in the local press caught my eye. A cache of explosives, smuggled into the city, had been found and confiscated. Twenty-five years ago, in a Mujahadeen camp on the border with Pakistan, I watched explosives being prepared for smuggling into Kabul.
Then it was the Russians who ruled here. I can’t help wondering. Are we the new Russians?