DOG DAYS IN KABUL
Karan Thapar feels that the
oppressive Afghan summer may be a portent of trouble ahead
Kabul THE Afghans have an uncanny knack of knowing when trouble is looming. They claim that they can smell it in the air. The weather, they say, is Allah's barometer. It is his way of warning his children.
Sitting in the still, silent heat of the
Inter-Continental hotel, the air- conditioning switched off and the windows sealed against the heavy dust-haze outside, you cannot help but reflect on such bazaar wisdom. After all, the winter of 1979, the year the Russian army crossed the borders of Afghanistan, was exceptionally cold. The snow had frozen along the high passes of the Hindu Kush, and Kabul shivered in the chill. Nine years later, as the Soviets begin their long march home, it is proving to be one of the hottest summers anyone can remember. The mercury has crossed 104° degrees and the capital is swel- tering.
Inshallah,' the hotel waiter murmurs, invoking God's will when I ask him if the lemonade he has brought is chilled. It is not. 'The frigidaire is not working but I can give you ice.' I am perplexed. But the paradox is lost on the waiter. Yet portents and paradoxes are what Kabul is, for the moment, all about.
For a city that has been under effective Soviet rule for nine years this is a laissez- faire paradise. The shops of Sharinau stock Levis and Sheaffer, Max Factor and bubble gum. At the little kiosks everyone drinks Coke and almost everyone smokes Marl- boro and Kent. `Go to the black market,' the teller at Pashtany Tejeraty bank com- mands. 'You will lose if you come here. Everyone goes there.' The black market is in fact the Sarai Shahzada foreign exchange market and it is perfectly legal. Here you can get 340 afghanis to the pound instead of the official 103. And the Afghan Hindu and Sikh traders will even accept personal cheques. 'They are safer,' one of them explained. 'I prefer travellers' cheques to cash but I like personal cheques best of all. I can post cheques. Getting hard money out of the country is more difficult.' Consequently, the 'black market' rate for cheques is better than that for currency. The traders have their equivalent of London's Inter-Bank Offering Rate (Libor). Foreign currency transactions be- tween them take place at margins that reflect the relative costs and dangers they are prepared to carry. For the moment the process stops at 361 afghanis to the pound, which is five and a half per cent better than any tourist or ordinary businessman can expect.
The Inter-Continental, which charges at the official rate for its tepid lemonades, reaps its reward on the Sarai Shahzada pavements at three times the amount. 'We give them a good rate,' my dealer- informant confided, 'because it is always best to keep on the right side of the government if you can.'
Elsewhere, however, the business is not so congenial. Often the portentous over- tones of tradition are more obvious than the paradoxes of the moment. The old city around Pul-i-Khisti mosque is one such 'Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, if the hunters don't get you the virus must.' place. Here crowds congregate around the open stalls selling second-hand shoes and discarded clothes. Dried-fruit vendors sit glumly, sipping green tea, nonchalantly awaiting their elusive customers. Donkeys driven by young boys, carrying unwashed vegetables, amble through the mud. And from everywhere hostile, hennaed, har- dened faces stare unwelcomingly.
The Kabul that General Robertson saw in 1840 would not have been dissimilar. It was such Afghans who slit British throats late at night and then chased their retreat- ing, hungry army through the deep gorges up to the Khyber Pass. Today they are waiting for the Russian occupying forces to depart.
The summer sun makes Pul-i-Khisti par- ticularly menacing. Tempers fray quickly in the heat, and Afghan anger turns easily to violence. I try to bargain over the price of pistachios. The big ones with the red middles are Kabul's pride. I have been told they should cost 1,000 afghanis for a kilo but what I am offered is double that price. I remonstrate. 'Go, go,' the shopkeeper shouts and he spits in disgust. 'You for- eigners are all the same. But remember no foreigner has ever got the better of us. Not even the Russians. Not even the Russians.'
Of course, life in modern Kabul is different. It has developed a sort of prisoner-of-war camp normality. There is no curfew and officially there is no danger. And there are foreigners, especially Rus- sians. 'You can come and go as you wish,' my minder had explained as he greeted me on the melting tarmac of the airport. 'But you will find that you prefer to sleep early. Everyone in Kabul does.'
He was right. By nine the city empties. Shops shut after dusk and by nightfall their shutters are fastened. Taxis charge double after eight, particularly if their customers are too delicate to bargain. Years of curfew have taught the population the virtues of evenings en famine, of television entertain- ment and of secretly listening to the BBC before turning in at ten o'clock.
'We eat early,' I was told when I received my first diplomatic invitation. 'We like it that way. Not that we're worried. It's just sensible and convenient.' In fact, by nine we had pushed away our plates, my host had belched forth his appreciation and his wife was casting fur- tive glances at her watch. It is from this defensive, edgy capital, striving to be normal, that foreign diplo- mats have decided to evacuate their depen- dants. What has added to their haste is the fact that inaccurately fired mujahedin rockets have cast a spell of terror over the city. After some of the missiles landed in foreign missions, it made good sense to get the women and children out while the going was still good. In the regime's eyes the evacuation is a case of a mishit scoring a bull's-eye. 'They're in no danger here,' I was told at the foreign office. 'But it is a good way of making anti-Afghan propaganda.' In their more reflective moments many diplomats might agree. As they sit overlooking their manicured but brown lawns, sipping Marti- nis after a hard game of squash before lunch, the children still swimming in the pool, it is difficult to conjure up the last days of Saigon. 'You know you mustn't expect the mujahedin to come marching down the street, waving banners and beat- ing drums. They're not the Vietcong. Haven't got the armour, the air power or the equivalent of North Vietnamese sup- port.' So why are the diplomats leaving now?
Well, partly because it will embarrass the government. But partly because that is what the logic of all the portents and paradoxes points towards. After all, the Afghans are no less twitchy themselves. The sound of a car backfiring can make people stop and look around. (Allah's warnings can take many shapes and sounds.) Even the road past the people's palace, the site of President Najibullah's office and the central committee building, has been barred to non-authorised traffic. The innumerable security checks as you drive through the city centre are conducted with perceptible care and caution. Boots and glove compartments in Kabul have been known to carry bombs before.
If the truth be told, the rockets and the sun have got everyone preparing for the worst. For the Geneva peace accords have not restored calm. They have in fact added to the tension. The two questions everyone is asking are: 'What will happen next?' and, 'What will it mean for me?' That, surely, is the warning of the freak weather. That, too, in different ways, is why the Inter-Continental waiter cannot be bothered to switch on the refrigerator, why the 'black market' prefers cheques to currency, why the pistachio merchant is short-tempered and why diplomats finish their brandies by nine.
The answers will probably emerge pain- fully. To begin with, General Zia's death and the completion of a fifty per cent withdrawal just days before have added to the uncertainty and unpredictability. Fear that Zia's loss could undermine the mu- jahedin, whose greatest supporter he was, may in the first instance hasten the ex- pected bloody denouement between its forces and the Najibullah regime.
The mujahedin realise that they have until November, when Pakistani elections are due, before major changes in Islama- bad's Afghan policy become apparent. They also know that till then pressure from America and the caretaker administra- tion's own need to court Washington will make for continuity rather than change. The next few months could therefore see an escalation of the Afghan civil war, with the mujahedin determined to strengthen their internal position before the Pakistani succession is resolved. In that respect the Soviet 50 per cent withdrawal, completed on 15 August, offers the best opportunity.
That, too, was the barely hidden subtext of George Shultz's message when he met the mujahedin leaders at Zia's funeral: 'You know how much we admire you.' Then he added, 'We will do all that we can to see that you succeed.'
But neither the Russians nor the regime will be a pushover. The argument that once 50 per cent of the Red Army has gone home its remaining soldiers will be too vulnerable to keep for long is commonly dismissed. The Soviets are not spread thinly across the ground. Instead, they are located in six secure provinces, two in the east and four in the north, with solid defences and little risk. They could stay as long as their masters wish.
Furthermore, Zia's death could encour- age them. If what they consider Pakistani infringements of the Geneva accords con- tinue, in particular the training of and
supplying the mujahedin, they might attempt cross-border retaliatory strikes. Or they might just try to stall, suspend or re-schedule the rest of their withdrawal.
Even someone like the new Afghan prime minister, a man chosen because he is supposed to carry credibility with the population, will not pooh-pooh such fears. When I met him in his huge office, a lonely figure in a grey suit behind a vast confer- ence table, refusing to talk English despite the fact that his staff proudly boast of their master's knowledge of the language, Mr Sharq found it difficult to be diplomatic. If Pakistan continues with its interferences, that will suggest they are the ones not applying the Geneva rules. And one side cannot accept the agreement alone. I want you to consider why we invited the Soviet contingent to our country. It was because we were invaded by foreign countries. That invasion must stop if the contingent is to fully return home.' In fact after 15 August the schedule of remaining withdrawals is almost unknown. The Kremlin is under no further commit- ment except to remove its last soldier by 15 February. Will it do so in dribs and drabs, which may be easier because no single strategic position will thus become sudden- ly vulnerable? Or will there be a long pause and then a hasty midnight flight back home? The latter would keep the mujahe- din guessing and, if executed at the onset of winter, catch its fighters and their supplies on the wrong side of the snows. And what happens then? To be honest, no one really knows. The regime's well- armed troops, said by its officials to num- ber 400,000 but put more realistically at 150,000 by diplomats, could hold out inde- finitely against the mujahedin's 70,000 fighters provided they have the will to fight. After all, the mujahedin are not only divided but traditionally prone to switch allegiance if the price is right. And with Zia gone, they may by the new year be suffering the effects of being orphaned.
The outcome could depend on the atti- tude of ordinary Afghans in cities and towns. Who will they support and how? If the regime falls it will probably be a result of its own dissension and divisiveness brought on by mounting urban demoralisa- tion. In 1929 it was a tribal uprising, spontaneous, chaotic and nine months long, which toppled the reformist King Amanullah. An urban equivalent could see off President Najibullah in 1989.
The only prediction the Afghans them- selves are prepared to make is that when and if the last Russian is out they will sort out the rest themselves. 'After all, this is an Afghan problem and it's about time we were left to resolve it on our own' is a common refrain in Kabul. The world prob- ably agrees with that sentiment. But his- tory points out that it could also be a recipe for carnage, looting and mayhem. Afgha- nistan's long, hot summer may only just have begun.