When I arrived in Kabul, Afghanistan, on May 15, Hajji Sahib, our gray-bearded, all-around administrator, who always picked me up, wasn’t outside the airport building.
Due to reasons of insecurity, it is considered an essential security precaution to be received at the airport by someone one knows.
In fact, the American embassy has ceased picking up incoming embassy personnel and guests by car. It now flies them by helicopter from the airport to the embassy.
For a moment, I felt a sense of abandonment. I thought of taking a taxi, but hesitated as I had been warned from riding a taxi alone. A number of people had been kidnapped while riding taxis alone.
I decided to give Hajji Sahib some more time in case he was running late. After awhile, I moved away from Kabul’s burning sun and placed myself under the shade of a tree and thought about what to do if Hajji Sahib didn’t show up. I deliberated whether I should call a friend to pick me up. Dropping that idea, I decided to hire a taxi. At this moment of need, the many warnings didn’t appear too daunting.
The taxi was an old, dirty Toyota Corolla. Despite its age it zipped effortlessly forward as the driver forced it in a daredevil pace through the dense, chaotic traffic. He parked in front of the large, dark-gray steel door of my compound and asked for 500.00 Afghanis. Since I didn’t have local money on me, I told him I would pay him as soon as I went inside and got the money from the office.
To my surprise, no one answered the door. I called out to the guards to open the door.
Nothing moved inside. I walked to the second, smaller entrance on the side street but got no answer there either. As I was trying to climb the 10-foot wall, just enough to see whether there was someone there, the taxi driver came to me asking in a loud, almost terrified, voice for his money.
I looked around and noticed a growing crowd watching my trying to get access to my property. I walked back to the main entrance and began pounding against the steel door. No one opened the door. The large compound was encased in silence.
The spectacle of me running from one entrance to the other and banging against the massive doorways and all the while followed by a pleading and progressively disintegrating taxi driver was attracting growing numbers of passersby. Even some shopkeepers from the opposite side of the street had left their shops and joined the crowd to watch what would happen.
I offered to pay the taxi driver $15. At the present rate of exchange, it amounted to 1,000 Afghanis. I thought the additional 500 would compensate him for the delay that my inability to enter my home had caused him. The driver seemed satisfied. He took the money, ran to his car, and drove off.
I now was alone on the walkway. The large crowd that had assembled on the opposite side of the street had focused their eyes on me, studying me, wondering why no one opened the door and what I would do about it.
The truth is, I felt lost and couldn’t decide what to do. As I deliberated about my next move, a young man approached me, stretched out his had and said, “I’m your neighbor.”
I shook his hand and said, “I’m sorry. I don’t come here often and haven’t met you.”
“That’s alright,” he said, “My father knows you. He asked me to assist you. Please come to my office. It’s not safe for you to be out here alone.” As if being in a trance, I went to fetch my luggage. He stopped me and said, “My servant will bring them in.”
I felt a distant trepidation. Following someone without knowing him to his office in Kabul where kidnapping at gunpoint had become a frequent occurrence, could go badly wrong.
His office was in a tall building on the other side of the street opposite my compound. We climbed the stairs to the third floor and entered an apartment. His office looked out onto the street and my property on the other side of the street. I looked through the window and saw Hajji Sahib, surrounded by several guards, speaking and gesticulating with our legal advisor, a law professor from the Law School of Kabul University.
My neighbor joined me at the window. He smiled. “They’re there,” he said. “They’re all there.”
Today is my 22nd day in Kabul. I still have no access to my house and stay with friends.
Yet, I am almost happy about this nightmarish situation. It exposed me to a completely new reality. I saw for the first time how government officials engage in chicanery to force bribes out of petitioners.
These are not the big payoffs foreign and local contractors pay high government officials, about which I have often written. These are small—and not so small—amounts that change hands a thousand times—and more—in the overstaffed government offices.
I also learned a lesson about the people in Kabul.
During my previous visits, I had been advised never to walk the streets of Kabul, also for fear of the numerous kidnappings that regularly happened here. As a result, I had rarely walked the streets and always drove about in an armored car.
Since my two friends, who took me in and assisted me in trying to solve my dilemma, didn’t own cars, we always traveled in taxis. As long as we negotiated the cost of the trips in advance—Kabul taxis have no meters—the drivers happily zipped in murderous speed through the chaotic traffic that they had to fight daily and to its bedlam they also contributed amply.
Most drivers were friendly and possessed a good sense of humor. Their sharp criticism of the government’s ineffectiveness and disregard for the citizen’s need was often softened with a tinge of congenial humor. We also went shopping and did so without carrying arms or being followed by armed guards.
This does not mean that Kabul is safe at all times. Tragic attacks happen regularly, taking lives and leaving behind the wounded. However, the vast number of people in the city are hardworking, peaceful, yes, even friendly.
The terrorists are a small but dangerous minority. The fact that most foreigners avoid Kabul’s streets and remain behind layers and layers of security parameters and heavily-armed guards reflects the sad truth that the terrorists have driven a wedge between the locals and the foreigners who have come to help them rebuild their country. And that is one of the reasons that the American $100-billion-reconstruction effort has been such a disastrous failure.
While the donor representatives hid behind their fortifications, Afghan government officials and foreign and domestic contractors used the lack of oversight to pocket enormous amounts of money.
The most important insight I gained during my forced sojourn outside my own compound was my first encounter of officialdom below the political leaders.
One problem people face that government divisions are centralized to an extreme degree.
Only the cabinet-level heads of departments can approve or disapprove petitioners’ requests for services. The line of petitioners waiting to see the head of the department grows longer and longer with the passing of time and the public must pay whoever promises to clear the way to the boss. Mohammad Farid Hamidi, Afghanistan’s attorney general, who, as other department heads, has concentrated all authority in himself, proudly confirms that people have to wait at least two months to see him.
Like most government high officials, Afghan Attorney General Hamidi is hiding behind four layers of security checks and drives around in armored cars followed by a line of vehicles packed with armed guards.
Government leaders’ expensive cars, their extravagantly furnished offices, and their overblown and costly security apparatus are in such disconnect with the reality of the average Afghan that I would consider the leadership’s excesses as tacky if they were not a grave and unwarranted intemperance that the international community—principally the U.S.—pays for.
I have often written about the Afghan government’s corruption and its disregard for the Afghan people’s needs. I have also criticized the donor community for its gutless indifference of how the Afghan governing elite handle money. I will not repeat myself here.
However, when NATO and donor representatives meet the Afghan delegation in Warsaw and Brussels, I hope they will look them in the eye and remember how those men squander the money they receive from the international community.
Not every member of the Afghan delegation may be corrupt. Perhaps none of them are corrupt. But as a group, all of them represent a corruption-ridden government that, with its sleaze, and callousness drives its people into the arms of the Taliban.
has maintained homes, business interests and dual citizenship in both the United States and Afghanistan for the past three decades. To read more of his work, CLICK HERE NOW.
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