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Showdown City


When I filed my most recent story for Harper’s Magazine, about problems with Afghanistan’s September 2010 parliamentary elections, I feared the article would prove outdated, since it was set to be published well after the new Wolesi Jirga first sat. I needn’t have worried. Earlier today, the Special Election Court, an extra-constitutional tribunal convened by Afghan president Hamid Karzai, attempted to disqualify nearly a quarter of the current 259 members of parliament, citing electoral fraud.

Matthieu Aikins is a freelance journalist living in Kabul. He has written for Harper’s Magazine on drug-trafficking Afghan border police and fraud in Afghanistan’s parliamentary elections. You can follow him on Twitter.

The move was only the latest drama in a saga of brinksmanship that has dragged out over the past nine months, paralyzing a legislative body that is supposed to approve Karzai’s new cabinet and a strategic partnership agreement being negotiated with the United States. The special tribunal wants Afghanistan’s Independent Electoral Commission to validate its findings, but according to someone I spoke with at the I.E.C., its chairman will refuse to recognize the court’s legitimacy. The Attorney General will in turn likely threaten to arrest members of the I.E.C., though the Wolesi Jirga has passed a vote of non-confidence in him, theoretically putting him out of a job.

Kabul is a city perpetually on the brink of crisis, lurching from the disputed presidential election of 2009, to ill-fated anti-corruption arrests, to last summer’s bank runs, to the current parliamentary impasse. At the heart of this cycle is Karzai’s fractious, corrupt governing conglomeration, which has learned, as Ahmed Rashid once said of Pakistan, to negotiate with its allies by holding a gun to its own head. The internationals, meanwhile, are hamstrung by confusion and bureaucratic inertia, requiring things to become critical before acting decisively.

A few days after returning to Kabul last week, I made my way up, Dante-like, through concentric rings of Afghan, Nepali, and Western guards, to attend a party thrown by the European Commission. There, diplomatic cherubim sipped gin-and-tonics and complained that the Afghan government was going to run out of money by the end of July thanks to an unresolved dispute over funding and corruption. Payments from the international community to the Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund, which covers government salaries, among other things, had been halted for the past three months, and the Afghan government had already started pulling money from project budgets to cover its operating costs.

The dispute, which the analyst Martine van Bijlert has explained quite clearly, boiled down to the Afghan government’s reluctance to implement a set of conditions imposed by the I.M.F. The conditions arose in the wake of last year’s Kabul Bank Ponzi scheme, which saw nearly $1 billion of public money disappear into the pockets of a set of well-connected bankers and politicians, and of the United States and United Kingdom’s insistence that the guilty parties face real consequences (instead of dubious house arrest). The idea was that Afghanistan should be held to proper standards—that when kleptocratic elites induce a financial collapse, guilty bankers should go to jail. Just like in America.

Instead, Azizullah Ludin, the obliging head of the Office of Oversight for Anti-Corruption (and the chairman of the I.E.C. back when it was overseeing the 2009 ballot), had issued a report absolving insiders like Mahmoud Karzai and Vice President Qasim Fahim of blame. “The donors should not stop giving aid for this small incident,” he said. Finance Minister Omar Zakhilwal, once seen as “our” Afghan technocrat, was now claiming that negotiations with the internationals were “a waste of my time.”

These sorts of squabbles get to the heart of the tortured relationship between the internationals and the Afghan government, whose quasi-sovereignty provides a pretext for each side to absolve itself of responsibility. With the impending U.S. troop withdrawal, the parties’ basic interests have increasingly diverged, and every incident has turned into a bare-knuckled, barely disguised struggle for leverage. Whether they’re over civilian casualties or private security companies, the disputes are a proxy for much deeper, and perhaps irreconcilable, conflicts of interest.

As the political crisis cycle spins, it’s left to Kabulis to provide a teleological narrative of life in the city. I’ve been gone since January, but quickly found myself immersed in a blur of lunches, dinners, and parties, marveling at how fast lives seemed to move in Kabul compared with the West. People getting married, or falling ill. People moving on — Westerners promoted to Brussels or Washington, Afghans to study abroad. People who’d been killed, people who’d sold out, people who’d seen terrible things.

“We are getting a little old, it’s true” my friend Saleem told me, plucking at the white hairs in his beard. At a barbecue, I saw a young NATO officer I’d thought of as chipper and optimistic the year before; her face was now drawn, and a bitter laugh punctuated her knowing anecdotes.

My friend Ruhollah, who once worked for me as a fixer, was in better shape: after falling on hard times, he’d landed a gig ferrying college girls to Kabul University and back. I laughed when he told me — he’d always been a Casanova in a four-by-four, cruising by the university in his shitbox van trying to pick up girls as they got out of classes. Now he was doing it for a living.

Then he recounted what had happened to him the Saturday after I’d arrived. That day, four bombers attacked a police station in the center of the city, killing nine people as well as themselves. While I was eating fried chicken just outside the downtown core, news of the bombing barely interrupting my meal, Ruhollah was on his way through the city to get the girls.

“When I at last arrived to pick them up, by then the road to Forushgah was blocked,” he said. “So the girls begged me to take them by the way of Bagh-e Bala. I said, ‘Girls, don’t worry, if I die you will die. If I don’t die, you won’t die. It’s in God’s hands.’

“They said, ‘No, please, we love life too much.’ They teased me and said that if they were going to die, they wanted to have ice cream first in Forushgah. I told them that I would take them, but only if they bought me ice cream, too. So we went. It was a nice day, brother.”

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