Sadly, I was not able to see either the former Minister of Finance, Ashraf Ghani, or the current Minister of Finance, Omar Zakhilwal, both of whom are out of the country. Ghani, I am told, really ran Afghanistan for several years until President Karzai became jealous and decided to get rid of him. Zakhilwal, I was told, is not of his caliber but is also an able and intelligent man. As people here said – a threat or a promise, I am not sure – “next time.” 20
Always seeking balance in what I was hearing, I arranged to have dinner with the Afghanistan correspondent of The Guardian and The Economist, Jon Boone, and the correspondent for The Times, Jerome Starkey, at a little restaurant with banquets in place of tables and chairs, the Afghan style, called “the Sufi.” I was wary about going there because the name sufi means “woolen” and is applied to that group of Muslims who most closely resemble the mendicant followers of St. Francis of Assisi – and they certainly did not care much about the quality of their food! It actually turned out to be a very pleasant place – that is, after one passed through a cordon of armed guards and the metal detector -- with an Afghanesque seating arrangement on rugs with cushions. But after an hour, I began to feel my legs, tucked up underneath me, grow numb. No longer am I the man who rode a camel across Arabia! I could not be sure quite what I was eating in the dim light, but the food, very Afghan, was very tasty. Anyway, I was not there for the food but to listen to their opinions on the current situation.
Their opinions differed. Boone, an Oxford man who has been here three years, thought that any serious move toward evacuation would throw the country back into civil war while Starkey thought that a descent into civil war much less likely and that, since leaving would happen anyway, it was a good idea to begin negotiation soon. Both agreed that the current government is hopelessly corrupt and not really reformable. Boone placed his hopes on the police, which he thought would take five years to get in shape. He thought parts of the army, particularly the Afghan Special Forces, some of whose officers had been trained at Sand Hurst, were relatively sound, but only in the officer corps. The regular soldiers, he and Starkey agreed, were at best unmotivated and at worst would swing quickly to the Taliban.
Both commented on the massive flight of money, which I have discussed above. Boone remarked that the amount being exported shifted, depending on the Afghan evaluation of the length of the American commitment. He also pointed to an aspect of the Karzai policy I had not been aware of: the government goes into the market place, here literally a market place, once a week and buys up Afghan currency (Afs) with dollars. This has the effect of driving up the price of the local currency, and so enables those who want to take out dollars to buy them more cheaply and giving them a profit even before the money gets abroad. In short, Afghan government financial practice was subsidizing the flight of currency to the benefit of the inner circle and the warlords.
What do the Americans know about this? I asked. Probably everything, both men replied, but this thought led them to comment on the fact that practically no American ever leaves the Embassy compound. That was only in part a criticism as both Boone and Starkey men thought it was probably better that the Americans were less evident because, decked out in their body armor and helmets and surrounded by guards, they were not popular. Both said the most disliked were the Special Forces (aka “Special Ops”) who are believed to carry out at least a thousand raids a month (!) and often with considerable brutality and always with little regard for Afghan customs. Both remarked that until WikiLeaks published some of records, no one even here had any idea about the scale or impact of this intrusion. Both regarded these raids as a major cause of hatred of Americans and a great danger to the American strategy.
My last journalist contact was Joshua Partlow of The Washington Post. He very kindly invited me to his house – which he more or less inherited when an attack on the UN guest house induced the UN to make all of its personnel leave outlying 21 houses. The house, by American standards, was modest, but like all the buildings I entered, it mustered its complement of armed guards and the double door entry. As I walked in, I mused on what percentage of our income is today devoted to “security.” Here in Afghanistan, it must just about match the amount paid out in bribes.
As I walked into the living room, I saw a huge double bass in the corner. How wonderful, I thought, for a young reporter way off in the Wild East to have brought this monstrous fiddle with him. What a task that must have been! He must be really devoted to music. When I asked, he laughed and said, no, he did not play and did not even know where the fiddle came from. It was in the house when he moved in, perhaps abandoned by some previous occupant. Now, he said, it was just decoration.
Partlow shared the house with several other people including another Washington Post reporter, David Nakamura and, Victoria Longo, a young woman working at the UN office here. Also joining us for dinner were Keith Shawe, a English botanist who worked for The Asia Foundation, an organization that was already active in Afghanistan when I first came here in 1962, and a young Chinese-American women, fresh from working at the USAID mission in Kandahar.
To my astonishment, Partlow produced a rare bottle of wine, and powered by the unusual event, we went unraveled the Afghan predicament. Of course, that meant going over much the same ground as all my other conversations, violence, corruption, the question of how much or little the official Americans saw or understood of the country, and where this is all heading. In summary, I found that they were just as pessimistic as the better informed of my other contacts. The young Chinese-American woman, Bayfang, had worked as a reporter before joining AID to work in Kandahar. So she had experienced both the freedom of the reporters and the “security” of the officials. She remarked on how hard it was to get permission to go out of the guarded compound where, as in Kabul, all the official Americans lived, and then only in body armor and with guards. No wonder, she said, the Americans could not understand the country. They hardly saw it. The reporters, of course, used local transport, mainly taxis, and usually went by themselves to call on Afghans or foreigners in pursuit of their stories. The evening turned into a sort of college bull session. They were all pessimistic. Things are going downhill.