It is Friday—holy day—in Kabul. Near the checkpoint barrier a woman begs, her burqa hiding her shame, but the only thing she receives is a spattering of dirt cast up by the passing trucks. The barrier lifts. Soldiers in dark green uniforms, rifles slung over their shoulders, wave me through. As I climb out of the car a thousand eyes burn into me, but I am careful not to return anyone’s gaze. Such brazen conduct from a foreign woman would be sure to get me into trouble.
Inside the house, in a marble room with a shiny new elevator that wouldn’t look out of place in a Manhattan hotel, a man in a long gown greets me like a long-lost daughter. At six feet tall, he towers a good seven inches above me. I feel my limbs wobble—his reputation is nearly as fearsome as his bushy mustache. He is Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, Afghanistan’s most powerful warlord, head of the Uzbek tribe, unofficial ruler of the north, and, as the government’s chief of staff, commander of an army of more than 25,000 men.
It is only when I tell myself I have nothing to fear that I remember the rumors that make your stomach turn and heart pound, such as the one about how, at Dostum’s command, women had been raped and their breasts cut off before they were killed during the siege of Kabul in 1991. Or the one that told how Dostum ordered 2,000 Taliban prisoners to be asphyxiated in metal shipping containers and left to rot in the desert a decade later. Or how he treated his prisoners—tying them to the muzzles of cannons before firing them into the air. Naturally, the general has always denied such stories.
I know from experience how genial a host he is, having encountered him on my many previous visits to Afghanistan. A donation of books from my charity to his children’s foundation is a wonderful excuse for a get together to talk politics.
As we sit down to tea, the general is unequivocal about the problems facing Afghanistan in the light of the withdrawal of foreign troops; David Cameron has said he wants to withdraw all combat troops by 2014.
What does the general think of the timing? “Most Afghans believe it is too soon,” he says fearing the country might disintegrate into chaos. I put to him the comments I have heard from his own soldiers making up part of the Afghan army, who complain that their equipment is inadequate. A common complaint is that the foreign armies are fitted out well (although some back home may beg to differ) whereas the Afghan army has their cast-offs. Their boots are falling apart, their helmets have holes.
Dostum is nodding gravely. “We are not ungrateful,” he insists, “but if you commit to any form of assistance, you must do it properly. You have a duty to do a good job.”
It is not just the poor equipment that leaves the Afghan army feeling despondent for the future security of their country. Many talk of a general lack of respect fueled by events, however accidental or isolated, such as the Quran burnings this February—when U.S. soldiers set alight religious texts—or tales of soldiers urinating on dead bodies. Such occurrences have turned many Afghans against those same foreign forces trying to help them.
“Why come here and insult our culture?” says Dostum. “Such events have only served to create an atmosphere of mistrust and anger. New recruits to the Afghan army have to be watched closely in case they are Taliban spies. Acts of disrespect from U.S. troops only serve to strengthen the position of the Taliban and will have made it harder to work out a peaceful solution.”
I had first come to Afghanistan after witnessing the bus bombing in London’s Tavistock Square on July 7, 2005. Having studied Islamic history in college, my rose-tinted world of Persian miniatures and Sufi poetry had been shattered by the firsthand experience of Islamic terrorism. To my mind, there were now big questions to be asked—and I wanted answers. Against the advice of friends and family, I packed my bags and bought a plane ticket to Kabul.
Luckily, the Afghans I met took pity on me. I was, of course, a woman; I was an infidel; and I was alone. My first time I stayed among the locals, venturing into the bazaars unchallenged, often donning a burqa. Having expected the worst, I found the Afghans proud and strong, as kind as they were canny, and with a nobility that seemed to me to have been all too often lost in our own society. The generosity I had received from those who owned little more than the clothes they stood up in had moved me beyond words.
I had subsequently returned to Britain armed with an entirely new set of questions about the nature of terrorism, the war, and the cultural and religious divisions between our societies, along with a sense of responsibility. I wanted to do something that would help the Afghans that was peaceful and positive. Education was at the heart of what was needed for the long-term regeneration of Afghanistan. However, more than 50 percent of the country’s children didn’t go to school at all and reading materials were a scarcity. So I set up a small charity printing books in Kabul for children with little or no access to schooling.
“Tell your government that the Taliban amount to no more than around 9,000 individuals. We know who they are and where to find them.”
During that initial visit—and in my subsequent trips to the country—I encountered drug dealers, feudal chiefs, and Taliban sympathizers, men of influence whose track records are as murky as the toxic waters of Lake Qargha. In a country where corruption is so endemic it is said to be part of the constitution, I never once batted an eyelid. After all, no one else did.
So does the general believe the Taliban can ever be defeated? “Tell your government,” he roars, letting out a great belly laugh, mustache bristling, “that the Taliban amount to no more than around 9,000 individuals. We know who they are and where to find them. Given the order, I estimate it would take less than a year to destroy their ringleaders. I have said this on many occasions.”
Dostum’s despondency at the current leadership is surprising given that he helped bring President Karzai to power in the first place, backing him in the last elections. “After the troops withdraw, his days will be numbered,” he shrugs. “In Afghanistan we say he is half-Afghan, half-American because he spends so much time in that country and even owns businesses there.”
I hesitate to ask the general his view of what he thinks will happen to the rights of Afghan women in the future, especially given his own alleged track record.
I inform him that many women have told me how scared they are of the return to a Taliban-style government. Women are concerned Karzai will seek peace at any price, and if that means kowtowing to the Taliban on women’s rights, they will do so. The general replies: “To ensure progress is made on all fronts, Afghan and U.S. leaders must ensure women are actively involved in a settlement that protects the rights accorded to them in recent years.”
His reassurances offer some comfort, but the fact is that Afghanistan remains a very hard place to live as a woman. Despite incremental improvements following the U.S. invasion that brought in new laws protecting women’s rights, oppression is still rife, particularly in the south. It is estimated that 87 percent of women suffer violence at home, and medical care is so poor that one woman dies every half hour in childbirth.
On the way down in the elevator, the sense of apprehension I might previously have felt has all but evaporated as I realize I have survived the meeting unscathed. I ask the general if he has any ideas for a future leader, a Jeffersonian figure who could build the brave new Afghanistan so many of us have been praying for. Is there such a person? Maybe he even plans to stand for office himself, I suggest almost playfully.
He shakes his head firmly. He does not want the job, but it comes as no surprise that he has someone else in mind.
It is no less than I would expect from Afghanistan’s greatest deal-maker. Let’s hope it will be his best deal yet.
Dancing With Darkness: Life, Death and Hope in Afghanistan by Magsie Hamilton-Little, £8.99. All profits go to Little Books Afghanistan.