Kabul has been eerily quiet for days. There are few cars on the streets, and many more police checkpoints than usual. Trucks full of army soldiers occasionally snarl traffic, but movement around town is quick and easy for the few foreigners who are not locked down.
Restaurants are all but empty; even the venerable Gandemack Lodge, where what passes for Kabul international society comes to rub elbows with already famous or up-and-coming journalists in an atmosphere of 19th-century frontier colonialism, had most of its tables available on Monday when I was last there — although the wood-paneled bar downstairs seemed to be doing a brisk business.
A pall of apprehension hangs over the city. Everyone seems to be braced for a storm.
This is the “holiday” atmosphere of Asht-e-Saur, otherwise known as Mujaheddin Victory Day, commemorating the 1992 collapse of the communist regime of Dr. Najibullah.
For some, it is the anniversary of the great and glorious day when the brave Afghan fighters known in the West as the Northern Alliance finally defeated the Soviet-backed government forces and established a mujaheddin government free from foreign domination.
For many others, it was the start of one of Afghanistan’s darkest periods, when the various commanders and political factions who had united in an uneasy alliance against the Soviets turned their guns and rockets on each other in a bloody power grab that tore the country apart.
Kabul, the capital, had survived the nine-year Soviet intervention all but intact. The major violence occurred in the south, in the areas of fierce Pashtun resistance, like Kandahar.
But once the mujaheddin began their battles, Kabul began to crumble.
Gulbuddi Hekmatyar, technically but reluctantly the prime minister in the new government, squared off against Ahmad Shah Massoud, the defense minister. The two rained rockets down on Kabul, killing many civilians and scattering others.
There were atrocities galore, including the Afshar massacre in 1993, in which thousands of civilians, mainly from the Hazara ethnic group, were killed, raped, or imprisoned. Other factions have other tales, including the oft-told “dance of death” in which warlords allegedly drove nails into their captives’ skulls, stimulating the nervous system into paroxysms of movement.
Many present-day Kabul residents cannot recall the civil war years without a shudder, when the city was divided into armed camps, almost street by street.
“We had to cross militants’ lines even to buy bread,” said one young reporter. “Some warlords would not let you bring food home if you belonged to another ethnic group or political faction.”
Another Afghan, who was a child at the time, remembers the years with boyish excitement. Every night was a fireworks display.
“We could go up to the roof of our house wand watch the bombs falling,” he said. “All the guys did it.”
But in the morning, he remembered, his mother would begin calling all of their friends and relatives, to ascertain who had died during the night’s mayhem.
So, while the mujaheddin claim credit for saving Afghanistan, and demand impunity for any possible crimes they may have committed during the chaos of the civil war, others see little reason to honor them.
Malalai Joya, the young firebrand politician, was outspoken in her denunciation of the mujaheddin at the Loya Jirga in 1993. She called on them to face trial for their crimes, a demand that has been echoed by many in Afghanistan, including the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, in their 2005 report: “A Call for Justice.”
Joya became a legislator in 2005, and continued her excoriation of the mujaheddin until she was expelled from parliament in 2006 ad forced into hiding. She now spends most of her time outside the country.
Asht-e-Saur, which falls on Thursday, almost always brings out the worst in Afghans. Portraits of the late Ahmad Shah Massoud, the widely revered National Hero, whose billboards in Kabul outnumber those of the president, are routinely defaced by those who remember Massoud more as a warlord and less as the country’s savior.
In 2008, during the traditional military parade at the Eid Gah Mosque to mark the occasion, President Hamid Karzai narrowly escaped assassination, in a well-organized plot that the Taliban lost no time in taking credit for.
The next year there was no celebration for Asht-e-Saur. In 2010 there was a small parade inside Ghazi stadium, but Karzai judiciously chose that particular moment to visit Bhutan.
Now all eyes are on the presidential palace, wondering what will happen this year.
The Taliban have made no secret of the fact that they intend to try and disrupt the day as much as possible.
The insurgents have been making their presence felt throughout the country over the past few weeks, with a major prison break in Kandahar that freed hundreds of fighters, the assassination of a prominent police chief in the same city; attacks on foreign and Afghan troops in the eastern part of the country, and a brazen attack on the Defense Ministry in Kabul.
While the U.S. forces and the Afghan military publicly sought to downplay the violence, the general impression in Kabul is that the Taliban are on the offensive.
“It is going to be a very bad summer,” said a source inside the Interior Ministry.
It has already been a fairly disastrous spring, and the horizon is not looking all that bright.