Impressions during a visit preceding and after the 10th anniversary of the American war on terror in Afghanistan.
As I flew from Delhi to Kabul over the daunting Hindukush mountains on October 2, my mind was filled with images of two grand old men — Mahatma Gandhi and Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan (Frontier Gandhi). How the fortunes of both lands I was flying over had changed in the last 65 years!
Under the clear blue sky, the famous Kabul roses were in bloom — bright red, pink, yellow and white. The fruit stalls were bursting with pomegranates, figs and grapes. For a moment the scenes could dull your senses into thinking these were images of peacetime. But the presence of heavily armed Afghan security forces in every streetcorner and the heavily boarded, barbed wire posts with North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) troops in Wazir Akbar Khan's high security area were a constant reminder that one was in the world's most militarised country.
Prior to the 10th anniversary of the United States-led war on terror in Afghanistan, on October 7, the number of escalating attacks in the city since mid-September — which included a 20-hour siege of the U.S. embassy and the NATO headquarters that killed 19 people — and the suicide attack on the former President, Burhanuddin Rabbani, had ensured unease in Kabul.
Located on a hilltop with a panoramic view of Kabul city, the Intercontinental hotel was attacked just a few weeks ago by a commando squad of Taliban militants. Popular with Afghan politicians and foreign visitors, its banquet hall named “Kandahar” is a popular choice for hosting wedding receptions. On the day of the attack, there were two receptions. As one checked in, one was told that the front office had now been shifted from the ground floor lobby area to the basement so that guests could be more secure. Living in war-torn Afghanistan you learnt how to carry on with life after every attack merely by tweaking the routine drill.
The two questions
On its 10th anniversary, Afghanistan is clearly pre-occupied with two questions: First, how bad will it get for them, before it gets better? Second, will the 1,40,000 foreign troops stationed in Afghanistan (1,00,000 of the U.S. troops) almost be withdrawn by 2014 following U.S. President Barak Obama's pullout announcement?
A guard at the Bagh-e-Babur, the tomb of the first Moghul Emperor, Jamaluddin tells me: “Let the foreign troops all go back — we Afghan people will fight the Taliban ourselves and defeat them — you watch and see.” Many support his view.
But there is another considered view that is also quite popular. Najiba Ayubi, Media Director, Killid Group, reflects this counter-thinking: “There is a saying in Dari, ‘rafiq e nima raan,' which means: ‘Do not be a friend for half the way.' In our culture that is not considered good. A true friend walks with you to the end of your journey. We are really afraid that the international community will wash its hands of us and leave us halfway. I really, really worry about this situation.” According to Ms. Ayubi, the Killid Group was the first free media to bloom after the Taliban regime ended. She dreads the return of the Taliban and the end of free media. “The U.S. is unlikely to leave lock, stock, and barrel after it has invested so much here. Ten years in our culture we see as an age — as if a child has come of age — it's been a long time for us and we don't want everyone to abandon us now suddenly.”
Anger against Pakistan
On the streets there is visible anger against Pakistan for recent violence. The people believe that Pakistan is blatantly supporting and fuelling the Taliban. President Hamid Karzai's visit to India and the strategic agreement got a vigorous nod from the Afghan people. There is a groundswell of good feelings for India and Indians. In fact, in many Afghan homes and over dinner there is cynicism expressed over Mr. Karzai's statement in India that “Pakistan is Aghanistan's twin brother.” “Yes, he can also add that the U.S. is our grandfather, etc, etc,” says a sarcastic youngster.
Whatever the views on Pakistan, the sentiments about India could not have been more positive on the streets and in leafy Afghan drawing rooms. “Hindostan hamaara dost hain – Pakistan hamara dushman hain,” is an oft-repeated phrase you hear from Afghan security at checkpoints, to the people on the street and in homes. The checkpoints are easy to go through as soon as you show your Indian passport. It's almost like the “common enemy” has further strengthened the resolve of Afghans to cosy up to India and Indians.
India's soft power in Afghanistan is omnipresent. Bollywood films, film stars, TV serials and cricket players are a national obsession.
A young driver, Ruhullah Mumuzai, said, “I am crazy about Sachin Tendulkar. I have four big posters of him in my room. I want to come to India one day and get his autograph. When India and Pakistan play, I watch having my heart in my mouth and I always want India to win! And I am also crazy about Amitabh Bachchan. I have not missed a single film of his.”
Echoing a similar passion for Hindi film stars is a young student, Javed. “I am a huge fan of Hrithik Roshan. I download every single one of his films as soon as it is released, including the latest Zinadagi na Milegi Dobaara.” Shah Rukh Khan is obviously a known suspect of adoration.
A popular cinema hall in central Kabul, Cinema Park, screens Mithun Chakraborty films regularly. It appears as though the original dancer in Bollywood holds a special appeal. An Indian film Fight Club is running in Cinema Park these days, one is told.
Enter Kabul's famous restaurants like Sitare Thaloy (Gold Star) after passing through three or four heavy metal doors and you will find television channels beaming the latest Hindi serials on prime time in Dari.
The only people are us and a couple of NATO officers. The underworked staff sit glued to the TV sets watching Indian soap operas. There was a time when Kabul used to shut down at 8 p.m. as everyone watched “Saas bhi kabhi bahu thi.” Today it shuts down because there is fear in the streets and most do not want to stay out late.
New Delhi's role in providing humanitarian support, building roads, undertaking development works and health projects and offering Afghan students scholarships to study in India has also helped build the groundswell of goodwill. A new phase in ties between the two countries with India training Afghan troops will begin following the new strategic agreement inked in Delhi during President Karzai's visit this month.
Indian diplomats and experts in Kabul feel a new story is emerging in bilateral ties. “It clearly jettisons the shyness that marked the relationship in terms of having troops training specially with the NATO step down of combat role and being planned by 2014,” says a diplomat on conditions of anonymity. Afghans ranged against the Taliban, by and large, look to the U.S. as a sheet-anchor in the coming years and want India, Turkey and, in some ways, even Saudi Arabia to provide the backup in this ongoing struggle against Taliban groups like the Haqqanis and others.
They also stress the need for the U.S. to having a more consistent, long-term strategy which they say they have lacked in the past. “America needs to have a clear end in view in particular about the insurgency from Pakistan,” a top Indian diplomat observes. Others hint at a stronger leadership being the need of the hour in Afghanistan so that killings of civilians, Afghans and NATO troops and high profile political assassinations can come to an end.
The 10th anniversary passes off peacefully amid unprecedented security everywhere. Under the night sky of Kabul with Black Hawks flying overhead, a young Afghan filmmaker sings, “Beeyoey ki gulzar damida ... beeyooey ki dildaar rasheeda (Flowers have begun to bloom and my beloved has arrived.”) There is undoubtedly a mood to reclaim their beautiful land and wish for an end of a 30-year conflict.
As I leave Kabul on October 9, the security woman at the airport who frisks me asks me which country I am from. I reply with a smile, “Hindustani.” She beams back and says, “Raja Hindustani!” — a popular Aamir Khan and Karisma Kapoor film from the 1990s. Language barriers between Afghans and Indians continue to be bridged by Bollywood. Will there be a lasting relationship on the political front?
(The author is an independent journalist.)