Commentary — June 23, 2011, 11:38 am

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Magazine, about problems with Afghanistan’s September 2010 parliamentary elections, I feared the article would prove outdated, since it was set to be published well after the new Wolesi Jirga first sat.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.”

Share
Single Page
undefined

More from Matthieu Aikins:

From the September 2015 issue

Gangs of Karachi

Meet the mobsters who run the show in one of the world’s deadliest cities

Postcard April 7, 2014, 5:37 pm

The Ghost Polls of Afghanistan

Election Day in Afghanistan’s hinterlands

Conversation March 20, 2014, 1:18 pm

The Prisoner: A Conversation with Omar Shahid Hamid

Omar Shahid Hamid on novelizing Karachi’s cops and gangsters

Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

March 2020

Out of Africa

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Waiting for the End of the World

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In Harm’s Way

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Fifth Step

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A View to a Krill

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Old Normal

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
The Old Normal·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Addressing the graduating cadets at West Point in May 1942, General George C. Marshall, then the Army chief of staff, reduced the nation’s purpose in the global war it had recently joined to a single emphatic sentence. “We are determined,” he remarked, “that before the sun sets on this terrible struggle, our flag will be recognized throughout the world as a symbol of freedom on the one hand and of overwhelming force on the other.”

At the time Marshall spoke, mere months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, U.S. forces had sustained a string of painful setbacks and had yet to win a major battle. Eventual victory over Japan and Germany seemed anything but assured. Yet Marshall was already looking beyond the immediate challenges to define what that victory, when ultimately— and, in his view, inevitably—achieved, was going to signify.

This second world war of the twentieth century, Marshall understood, was going to be immense and immensely destructive. But if vast in scope, it would be limited in duration. The sun would set; the war would end. Today no such expectation exists. Marshall’s successors have come to view armed conflict as an open-ended proposition. The alarming turn in U.S.–Iranian relations is another reminder that war has become normal for the United States.

Article
Waiting for the End of the World·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

1.

A man is to carry himself in the presence of all opposition, as if every thing were titular and ephemeral but he.

I rose long before dawn, too thrilled to sleep, and set off to find my tribe. North from Greenville in the dark, past towns with names like Sans Souci and Travelers Rest, over the border into North Carolina, through land so choked by kudzu that the overgrown trees in the dark looked like great creatures petrified in mid-flight. The weirdness of this scene would, by the end of the weekend, show itself to be appropriate: my trip would be all about romanticism, and romanticism is a human collision with place that results, as Baudelaire put it, “neither in choice of subject nor exact truth, but in a way of feeling.” My rental car’s engine whined as it climbed the mountains. Day was just breaking when I nosed down a hill to Orchard Lake Campground, where tents were still being erected in the dimness.

Article
The Fifth Step·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Harold Jamieson, once chief engineer of New York City’s sanitation department, enjoyed retirement. He knew from his small circle of friends that some didn’t, so he considered himself lucky. He had an acre of garden in Queens that he shared with several like-minded horticulturists, he had discovered Netflix, and he was making inroads in the books he’d always meant to read. He still missed his wife—a victim of breast cancer five years previous—but aside from that persistent ache, his life was quite full. Before rising every morning, he reminded himself to enjoy the day. At sixty-eight, he liked to think he had a fair amount of road left, but there was no denying it had begun to narrow.

The best part of those days—assuming it wasn’t raining, snowing, or too cold—was the nine-block walk to Central Park after breakfast. Although he carried a cell phone and used an electronic tablet (had grown dependent on it, in fact), he still preferred the print version of the Times. In the park, he would settle on his favorite bench and spend an hour with it, reading the sections back to front, telling himself he was progressing from the sublime to the ridiculous.

Article
Out of Africa·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

1. In 2014, Deepti Gurdasani, a genetic epidemiologist at the Wellcome Sanger Institute in England, coauthored a paper in Nature on human genetic variation in Africa, from which this image is taken. A recent study had found that DNA from people of European descent made up 96 percent of genetic samples worldwide, reflecting the historical tendency among scientists and doctors to view the male, European body as a global archetype. “There wasn’t very much data available from Africa at all,” Gurdasani told me. To help rectify the imbalance, her research team collected samples from eighteen African ethnolinguistic groups across the continent—such as the Kalenjin of Uganda and the Oromo of Ethiopia—most of whom had not previously been included in genomic research. They analyzed the data using an admixture algorithm, which visualizes the statistical genetic differences among groups by representing them as color clusters. The top chart shows genetic differences among the sampled African populations, in increasing degrees of granularity from top to bottom, and the bottom chart shows how they compare with ethnic groups in the rest of the world. The areas where the colors mix and overlap imply that groups commingled. The Yoruba, for instance, show remarkable homogeneity—their column is almost entirely green and purple—while the Kalenjin seem to have associated with many populations across the continent.

Article
In Harm’s Way·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Ten yards was the nearest we could get to the river. Any closer and the smell was too much to bear. The water was a milky gray color, as if mixed with ashes, and the passage of floating trash was ceaseless. Plastic bags and bottles, coffee lids, yogurt cups, flip-flops, and sodden stuffed animals drifted past, coated in yellow scum. Amid the old tires and mattresses dumped on the riverbank, mounds of rank green weeds gave refuge to birds and grasshoppers, which didn’t seem bothered by the fecal stench.

El Río de los Remedios, or the River of Remedies, runs through the city of Ecatepec, a densely populated satellite of Mexico City. Confined mostly to concrete channels, the river serves as the main drainage line for the vast monochrome barrios that surround the capital. That day, I was standing on a stretch of the canal just north of Ecatepec, with a twenty-three-year-old photographer named Reyna Leynez. Reyna was the one who’d told me about the place and what it represents. This ruined river, this open sewer, is said to be one of the largest mass graves in Mexico.

Cost of renting a giant panda from the Chinese government, per day:

$1,500

A recent earthquake in Chile was found to have shifted the city of Concepción ten feet to the west, shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds, and shifted the planet’s axis by nearly three inches.

The commissioner of CPB admitted that “leadership just got a little overzealous” when detaining hundreds of U.S. citizens of Iranian descent in the wake of Qassem Soleimani’s assassination.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Jesus Plus Nothing

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

At Ivanwald, men learn to be leaders by loving their leaders. “They’re so busy loving us,” a brother once explained to me, “but who’s loving them?” We were. The brothers each paid $400 per month for room and board, but we were also the caretakers of The Cedars, cleaning its gutters, mowing its lawns, whacking weeds and blowing leaves and sanding. And we were called to serve on Tuesday mornings, when The Cedars hosted a regular prayer breakfast typically presided over by Ed Meese, the former attorney general. Each week the breakfast brought together a rotating group of ambassadors, businessmen, and American politicians. Three of Ivanwald’s brothers also attended, wearing crisp shirts starched just for the occasion; one would sit at the table while the other two poured coffee. 

Subscribe Today