Kabul

The Crossroads

The death of Osama bin Laden will raise the inevitable question: What are we still doing in Afghanistan? The answer, of course, is that the mission in Afghanistan is about something bigger and more ambitious than eliminating Al Qaeda’s leaders—most of whom, in any event, are probably living in Pakistan, as bin Laden was when the United States finally tracked him down. No, the mission in Afghanistan isn’t about killing Al Qaeda members.

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Oqa, Afghanistan—After many day-long camel treks to petition the provincial government in Mazar-e-Sharif, the hardscrabble men of Oqa at last secured a promise: The government would send a teacher to their desert hamlet of penniless carpet weavers, barefoot firewood gatherers, and two score clay homes. Elated, the men pitched in to buy a blackboard and some chalk and dragged them into the only space that could pass as a classroom: the doorless anteroom of Oqa’s sole mosque, an oblique and teetering shape the villagers themselves had hand-molded of tumbleweed and mud. That was four years ago.

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Tone Deaf

Once the enchantment of living in a foreign country wears off, one begins to notice the small discomforts—for example, that the daily call to prayer can sound absolutely awful. I mean no disrespect; I, like many godless Westerners, quickly fell for its beauty and reliability. But I also noticed—when I could no longer speak on the phone, say—that my Istanbul muezzin had, on occasion, taken to screaming. The voice was so terrible that guests would stare out the window in astonishment, unsure of what to say.

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“The Taliban have already taken over in Kandahar! Come out onto the streets and see. There is no government there!” Or so Rangina Hamidi, the American-educated daughter of Kandahar’s mayor, Ghulum Hamidi, warned me in Kabul last month. Her remarks echoed a recent survey of 1,000 men in Kandahar and Helmand provinces. It found that 51 percent would prefer justice to be administered by the Taliban and 59 percent think the Taliban would do a better job of running the economy than the current Afghan government. Rangina gave me her father’s phone number, adding that he answers his own phone.

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The Global Imam

The leader of what is arguably the world’s most successful Islamic movement lives in a tiny Pennsylvania town called Saylorsburg, at the Golden Generation Worship and Retreat Center, otherwise known as “the Camp.” The Camp consists of a series of houses, a community center, a pond, and some tranquil, woodsy space for strolling.

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The Deal

Meanwhile, back at the war. “This is how you end these kinds of insurgencies,” General Petraeus said a few weeks ago, referring to the fact that senior officials of the Taliban had “sought to reach out” to senior officials of the Karzai government in Kabul. Pardon the impudence, but this is four-star spin.

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Arriving in Kabul the first thing that hits you is the aura and aroma of dust. It covers the capital city in a hazy sheen and, more to the point, in a distinct and powerful odor. Considering that Kabul reportedly has one of the highest percentages of atmospheric fecal matter in the world it's the sort of smell that, at least initially, strikes you in the face. It offers a useful preview of the more powerful smack of gloom that seems so evident in Afghanistan today.

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On election day, a pack of bone-thin, restless dogs wandered into the main polling center in Sheikhabad, a town in Afghanistan’s Wardak Province. A pair of Afghan policemen tried to chase them away, but the determined bunch kept returning, looking for a shady redoubt from the morning sun. Eventually the police relented, and the dogs settled down for a nap. The canines were the only visitors there for hours—not a single person had come to vote.

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“It’s like high school,” I said to Matt, “with people gossiping about who’s walking with whom or sitting in the lunchroom together.” We were in the coffee shop of Kabul’s only five-star hotel, the Serena. Matt lives there while on assignment in Kabul; I was on my longest stay to date, eight days of luxury in the midst of Afghan squalor. We’d been debriefing one another, gossiping about our fellow guests–-Ambassador Zal, it seemed, had just checked in to a room down the hall from Matt’s, while our mutual friend Tawfiq was checking out, heading to Dubai, it later emerged. I’d seen Tawfiq, a bus

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Terry Glavin, the cofounder of the Canadian-Afghanistan Solidarity Committee and a firm supporter of Western intervention in Afghanistan, tells a joke that has made the rounds in Kabul. The United Nations, sick of the corruption that is rife in the Afghan government, demands that Karzai clean things up. “Of course, of course,” Karzai replies.

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