Mr. A (who requested that his name be withheld) is a graduate student of law in Kabul University who works for the US AID mission, As we drove toward the hotel along the nearly empty Kabul River, he pointed out the window at the swirling, densely packed, but surprisingly polite mass of people, many obviously poor but to my eye with no beggars among them, and said, “this is our problem…”
My first thought was that he meant that they or we were in peril from the chaotic torrent of trucks and cars. That seemed a good guess since many showed the scars of previous encounters. Then I thought he might have meant that we could be caught in a riot, like an Embassy car, driven by contractors from the mercenary firm DynCorps, was last month, killed four people. In that instance the latent anger of the Afghans boiled over with a crowd shouting “death to the Americans.” We might be lynched if we ran over one of the pedestrians. That also seemed highly likely. It was obvious that anger was there, just under the surface and that it could easily be set off.
The explosive mixture as at hand: Neither pedestrians nor cars paid any noticeable attention to one another. No give was offered at any point by anyone, but somehow each driver knew when he was defeated just before a collision would have happened. The men and often-burque-ed women pedestrians performed as though in a Spanish bullfight. The “bulls” tore along, dashing around or between one another when they could, diving into temporary gaps, passing on both sides without any notion of on-coming traffic or of the presumed lanes into which the road might be divided, while the pedestrians, like toreadors, nimbly dodged in and out (of if old, blind or one-legged as a number I saw were, entrusted themselves to God’s mercy).
Accidents were surprisingly few; I saw only two in a quarter of an hour. Sitting often in jams when traffic congealed with both streams head to head with one another, it struck me that if the Taliban attacked, they would have no chance to get away. Traffic may be Kabul’s most effective security force.
But I was missing Mr. A’s point. He was giving me my first lesson in Afghan politics. It wasn’t traffic regulation but the rule of law that he was thinking about. He went on: “…we have laws, very good laws, but no means of enforcing them. These people,” he gestured toward the closed and locked window, “don’t even know that we have a constitution and certainly don’t know what their rights are, while the rich and powerful, who do know that we have a constitution and laws, don’t pay any attention to them. They just do what they want and take whatever they like. And there is no one to stop them.”
I asked if this was also true in Taliban-controlled areas. Without the slightest hesitation, he said, “no. It is not. There is no corruption where the Taliban are in control.”
When we arrived outside the Serena hotel (which incidentally is owned by the Aga Khan), we were stopped by the first group of armed guards outside its battlements. They were more tightly spaced but even more impressive than those at the embassy. Blankly before us was a wall made of a 30 foot-high steel gate. As we were identified by a group of guards, the gate was slid back on its rollers. Slowly we drove in. There we were stopped by a steel poll and faced a second high steel gate.
Then the outer gate was rolled shut. There was just enough space between them for a large car. Locked securely from behind, the car was checked with a mine detector for bombs. Then the pole was raised and the second steel gate was opened. We were in, or at least the embassy armored car was in. Then the steel panel at the rear of the car was opened to reveal my suitcases which, in turn, were passed through a detection system. My little camera was particularly worrying to the security guard, but finally he shrugged and let it (and me) through.
Then to the “front desk” to register. Despite the view through the glass window of the dozen or so guards, laden with their weapons, milling around the driveway and five others more or less discretely, but with bulging double-vented suit coats, standing around the hall, everything began to seem just like a normal hotel. Except, as I scanned the parking lot, I could see that the gates were fixed to even higher concrete walls. They were, I guessed, 40 to 50 feet high. I would later have a chance to see that the whole hotel and its charming Persian-style garden, an area of perhaps ten acres, was surrounded by a similar wall of which most was capped with additional barriers or razor wire. The Serena Hotel, whatever else it may be, is a castle.
Mr. A accompanied me to my room. I thought this showed a somewhat excessive concern for my security since we were surely as safe as walls and gates and guards could make us, but his move turned out to have another meaning -- as so much in Afghanistan these days seems to have. This is Ramadan, the month of fasting, and Mr. A could not eat or drink in public so he asked, rather sheepishly, if I would be so kind as to order him a sandwich and a Coca-Cola in the privacy of my room. I was glad I did because this gave us a chance to talk rather more freely than in the embassy car which, I presume he thought was bugged. He told me that while the Shiis, of which sect he belonged, also keep the fast of Ramadan, he did not. He did not explain but from other experiences I gather this was in part his way of saying that he was a modern, educated man.
As we waited for the sandwich, he told me a bit about his life. He could not, he said, admit that he worked for the Americans. And certainly not for the Embassy. So he told his family that he worked for a private construction firm. He was afraid to visit his native province, in the Tajik area, because even a Tajik relative might denounce him to the Taliban for collaboration with the Americans. However, he said, since his wife was from the same area, he sometimes had to return, but he dreaded each visit.
I asked about his roots. His father, he said, had been a doctor who was chased out during the Russian occupation; so Mr. A grew up a refugee camp in Peshawar like hundreds of thousands of other Afghans. When the Russians pulled out of Afghanistan in 1989, his family moved back and settled in Kabul. Since Kabul has grown from a city of about 50,000 in 1980 to 5 million today, his is a common experience.
I shamelessly used our wait for the sandwich and coke to pursue our talk in the car about the rule of law. What about property? I asked. “There is no security in property,” he said. “If a person owns, for example, a house, and the local strongman wants it, he just tells the owner to get out. The owner has no choice. If he does not obey, he is apt to be beaten or killed. There is no recourse through government even if the owner has all the proper papers.” But much “private” property, he explained, is not registered. It is either what people took over during the civil wars or is owned by custom, perhaps generation after generation. Under the circumstances of lawlessness, however, the distinction between registered and unregistered property is meaningless since neither can be upheld by any authority.
This is true, he continued, even of government property. If the “intruder” is powerful enough, that is well enough connected to one or other of the inner circle, he can simply take over government lands or buildings. Then even government officials can do nothing to make him vacate. In fact, he may be a minister himself, a member of the “inner circle.” .