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Assignment Afghanistan

From keeping tabs on the Taliban to saving puppies, a reporter looks back on her three years covering a nation's struggle to be reborn

But hard-working survivors also thrived in the competitive new era. During the Taliban years, I used to buy my basic supplies (scratchy Chinese toilet paper, laundry detergent from Pakistan) from a glum man named Asad Chelsi who ran a tiny, dusty grocery store. By the time I left, he had built a gleaming supermarket, filled with foreign aid workers and affluent Afghan customers. The shelves displayed French cheese, German cutlery and American pet food. Aborn entrepreneur, Asad now greeted everyone like an old friend and repeated his cheerful mantra: “If I don’t have what you want now, I can get it for you tomorrow.”

The sound of the bomb was a soft, distant thud, but I knew it was a powerful one and steeled myself for the scene I knew I would find. It was midafternoon on a Thursday, the busiest shopping time of the week, and the sidewalk bazaars were crowded. The terrorists had been clever: first a small package on a bicycle exploded, drawing a curious crowd. Several moments later, a far larger bomb detonated in a parked taxi, shattering shop windows, engulfing cars in flames and hurling bodies in the air. Firemen were hosing blood and bits of glass off the street and sirens wailed. Fruits and cigarettes lay crushed; a boy who sold them on the sidewalk had been taken away, dead.

As my colleagues and I rushed back to our offices to write our reports, news of a second attack reached us: a gunman had approached President Karzai’s car in the southern city of Kandahar and fired through the window, narrowly missing him before being shot dead by American bodyguards. Karzai appeared on TV several hours later, wearing a confident grin and dismissing the attack as an occupational hazard, but he must have been at least as shaken as the rest of us.

The list of those with motive and means to subvert the emerging order was long, but like the taxi bomb that killed 30 people on that September day in 2002, most terrorist crimes were never solved. In many parts of the country, militia commanders commonly known as warlords maintained a tight grip on power, running rackets and imposing their political will with impunity. People feared and loathed the warlords, pleading with the government and its foreign allies to disarm them. But the gunmen, with little respect for central authority and many skeletons left over from the rapacious civil-war era of the early 1990s, openly defied the disarmament program that was a key element of the U.N.-backed plan for transition to civilian rule.

Karzai’s own tenuous coalition government in Kabul was rent by constant disputes among rival factions. The most powerful were a group of former commanders from the northern PanjshirValley, ethnic Tajiks who controlled thousands of armed men and weapons and who viewed themselves as the true liberators of Afghanistan from Soviet occupation and Taliban dictatorship. Although formally part of the government, they distrusted Karzai and used their official fiefdoms in the state security and defense apparatus to wield enormous power over ordinary citizens.

Karzai was an ethnic Pashtun from the south who controlled no army and exercised little real power. His detractors derided him as the “mayor of Kabul” and an American puppet, and after the assassination attempt he became a virtual prisoner in his palace, protected by a squad of American paramilitary commandos sent by the Bush administration.

I observed Karzai closely for three years, and I never saw him crack. In public, he was charming and cheerful under impossible circumstances, striding into press conferences with a casual, self-confident air and making solemn vows for reforms he knew he could not possibly deliver. In interviews, he was effortlessly cordial and relentlessly upbeat, though I always sensed the barely concealed frustration of a leader in a straitjacket. Everyone, perhaps no one more than the president, knew that without American B-52 bombers leaving streaks across the sky at crucial moments, the Afghan democratic experiment could collapse.

Instead the country lurched, more or less according to plan, from one flawed but symbolic political milestone to the next. First came the emergency Loya Jerga of June 2002, an assembly of leaders from across the country that rubberstamped Karzai as president but also opened the doors to serious political debate. Then came the constitutional assembly of December 2003, which almost collapsed over such volatile issues as whether the national anthem should be sung in Pashto or Dari—but which ultimately produced a charter that embraced both modern international norms and conservative Afghan tradition.

The challenge that occupied the full first half of 2004 was how to register some ten million eligible voters in a country with poor roads, few phones, low literacy rates and strong rural taboos against allowing women to participate in public life. After a quarter-century of strife and oppression, Afghans were eager to vote for their leaders, but many feared retaliation from militia commanders and opposed any political procedure that would bring their wives and sisters into contact with strange men.

There was also the problem of the Taliban. By 2003, the fundamentalist Islamic militia had quietly regrouped and rearmed along the Pakistan border. They began sending out messages, warning all foreign infidels to leave. Operating in small, fast motorbike squads, they kidnapped Turkish and Indian workers on the new Kabul to Kandahar highway, ambushed and shot a team of Afghan well-diggers, and then executed Bettina Goislard, a young French woman who worked for the U.N. refugee agency.

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