What can one expect from an undergraduate student of Afghan origin living in California? Identity crisis, teenybopper mores,
college pranks and carefree existence fit the prototype. An introspective odyssey back to Afghanistan may also be foreseen, but little beyond that.
Said Hyder Akbar - son of Fazel Akbar, Afghan President Hamid Karzai's former spokesman and a former governor of Kunar province - is a young man made of different mettle. Meticulous record-taking of annual visits to his father's homeland has yielded a book that must be treasured for its political acuity. Come Back to Afghanistan is a lesson in engaged and unbiased reportage; all other accounts written on post-Taliban rebuilding pangs pale in comparison.
Hyder's first encounter with "the country that is constantly on the verge of falling apart" was in May 2002. Paved roads and electricity were rarities and the obliteration of physical infrastructure was ghoulish. Qualified Afghans hedged their bets and did not return from foreign perches. Although people were desperate for peace and national unity, warlords such as the self-proclaimed "Amir of Southwest Afghanistan", Ismail Khan, cooked their own morbid stews. Landmines threatened and Pakistan worked against its western neighbor's best interests as usual. In the backdrop was the 17-year-old author's insecurity about "not being Afghan enough" (p 27) and journeys offering multiple rediscoveries of a fragmented self.
Shortly after his arrival, a Tajik guard subjected Hyder to frisking just because he was Pashtun. Having hero-worshipped his family friend and legendary mujahideen commander Abdul Haq, Hyder painfully discovered his posters torn down in Kabul by supporters of the new national hero, Ahmad Shah Masood. The hotel that housed him in the capital had a huge multi-story crater from a missile hit. Locals had seen enough rockets to become desensitized to the unceasing attacks and counterattacks in the limbo left by the fall of the Taliban. At the presidential palace, Hyder met the barbaric General Rashid Dostum, noting that "his presence underscores the ethical muddiness of this time. Even the most outrageous characters are trying to curry favor with the new government." (p 42)
In Kunar, his father's native province, there were men aiming to kill Fazel Akbar but posing as followers. Several factions had a furious interest in keeping this border region lawless. The interim government was dominated by Masood's Panjsheri Tajiks and lacked a popular mandate. Many believed the loya jirga (grand council or consultative assembly) of June 2002 to be controlled by US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, who compelled King Zahir Shah to accept a ceremonial post. Delegates at the jirga who spoke out against warlords and misuse of Islam were removed and jailed. Heated debates took place on the floor on "Death to Russia!" or "Death to Pakistan!" Hyder found that the world was not transformed by the jirga. Women were allotted only two ministries in the new cabinet and many still shielded themselves in the burqa (a veil worn in addition to a headscarf to cover their faces). In Kunar, for women even to be in a public place was severely intimidating.
Vice president Haji Qadir's assassination in July 2002 put paid to Karzai's plan of luring warlords away from their fiefdoms with desirable offices in the central government. Qadir was supposed to be a test case. The nation's true power and strength emphatically lay in the countryside, not in the presidential palace. Important governmental information from the center had to pass through the barrier of provincial suzerains who ran communication networks devoting bandwidth to their own propaganda. The September 2002 assassination attempt on Karzai in Kandahar prompted a comment from the president that lax security-forces recruitment in the provinces had to be changed. Hyder wondered how he could follow through on such impossible tasks. Bereft of a team of like-minded advisers, "how can one man rein in the warlords or force the regional militias to disarm?" (p 105)
Hyder's second stint in Afghanistan was in the summer of 2003. With war in Iraq taking center stage, Afghanistan was once again "abandoned half-finished". (p 123) The Karzai government swam against the tide of centuries of Afghan history by trying to strengthen domestic tax collection from the parsimonious provinces. American bodyguards for the president, initially meant to be a temporary measure, became a permanent arrangement. Karzai's Gul Khana palace sported wartime windows pitted by bullet holes, yet to be replaced. Reconstruction lagged throughout and speculation was rife that the US$1.3 billion that poured in from donors was used to purchase Toyota Land Cruisers and posh houses in Kabul for foreign aid workers.
In Kunar, ex-communists who fought on the Soviet side and massacred thousands in the resistance era, resurfaced in new avatars to pose challenges to Fazel Akbar's governorship. "Ninety percent of Kunar's troubles are caused by its proximity to Pakistan." (p 217) An influx of insurgents from across the border, operations of US troops and attempts by the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) to undermine the Afghan government were thorny issues. "America needs to choose: either keep Pakistan happy, or build a stable Afghanistan. It will be impossible to do both." (p 160)
When American soldiers talked with the masses, they sounded arrogant, "often failing to appreciate the intensity of the nation's past". (p 169) Kunaris considered them tense, alarmist and over-cautious newcomers unworthy of trust. Targets alleged to have Taliban or al-Qaeda connections, albeit innocent, "hole up in their houses, hoping that suspicion will just disappear, their silence all the while increasing the risk of a raid by the US forces". (p 187) The torture and death of a civilian, Abdul Wali, in US detention dealt a further blow to US credibility in Kunar. A second assassination bid on Fazel Akbar revealed how development and security were intertwined. Paved roads would have prevented laying of mines to blow up government vehicles.
Hyder's last stay in Afghanistan was in the summer of 2004. Chaos was rising and a sense of futility and exhaustion set in. "Good news seemed secondary when lined up against the bad." (p 262) Mukhalafeen (oppositionists) simulated disorder in Kunar to chase away Fazel Akbar. The central government could hardly handle itself, unable to establish command over the capital city, not to mention the vast Afghan outback. Government personnel were trading opium on the black market, re-enacting the familiar "narco-terror state". Commanders would slip into Pakistan, purchase hundreds of Kalashnikov assault rifles and then present the guns to the disarmament authorities to bag incentives for turning in weapons. Tricksters skillfully manipulated US troops to settle private scores. Hyder asks in exasperation: "Is what is going on now war? You can't really call it peace." (p 280)
Registration tallies for the October 2004 presidential election served as unofficial censuses and provoked tensions for being likely bases of determining ethnic representation for the 2005 parliamentary polls. Pashtuns were on edge, believing that the Panjsheris were purposefully undercounting them to hand them the short end of the stick. Ill-treatment of prisoners at the US base in Asadabad, Kunar's capital, remained amid angst over secrecy and framing of the guiltless. The Americans were rumored to be trading aid for intelligence. "The line between militarism and humanitarianism has been blurred." (p 288)
Before departing for California, Hyder went to Osama bin Laden's former home near Jalalabad. At Tora Bora, residents had made a shrine for the Arabs who died fighting the US flush-out operations. People brought deaf and blind kids to the mythologized cave complex to get healed by its "spiritual force field". Al-Qaeda Arabs were far more popular in the area also because they built wells and funded welfare projects, an enterprise the Americans have failed at comparatively.
Hyder concludes by avowing that the George W Bush administration's storyline that Afghanistan is a "success" does not square with the facts. The big question this memorable account evokes is less whether Afghanistan will rebuild institutions and stability and more whether it will be allowed to do so by carnivorous neighboring states and home-bred war profiteers. The daunting challenge for the international community is to ensure that the blatant foreign interference that destroyed this once-vibrant society is permanently consigned to irrelevance.
Come Back to Afghanistan: A California Teenager's Story by Said Hyder Akbar. Bloomsbury Publishing, New York, November 2005. ISBN: 1-58234-520-1. Price: US$24.95; 339 pages.