Stories from Afghanistan

How Things Work in Afghanistan

By Nasir Shansab

In the weeks since my last report, two things have happened. Despite rejecting President Karzai’s budget twice, the parliament then approved it without any major changes. A person who is outside the government but maintains close contact with Hamid Karzai’s inner circle told me it cost Karzai some money. When I remarked that paying off all 200-plus members of parliament must have cost the president an enormous amount of money, he explained that Karzai didn’t have to pay off all opposing members, only the leaders who controlled them. How much, he added, was anyone’s guess.

“How can they look their children in the eye?” I asked.

After a moment of silence, he said, “People are afraid. They don’t know what is in store for them. They are tormented by the possibility of having to emigrate once again. Leaving the country without money is hard. Having some money cushions the hardships somewhat. That’s how people justify the corruption.” He smiled. “Besides, the little guy sees the big guys gobble up millions upon millions. They say to themselves, ‘If they do it, why shouldn’t I?’”

So, if you need something done in Kabul’s crowded government offices and courts, you better carry some dollars with you and be ready to part with them.

The second thing that happened was no less surprising. The Independent Election Commission had declared that the existing voting cards could not be used for the 2014 presidential election. Those were the cards that had been used during the 2009 presidential and the 2010 parliamentary elections. The commission had determined that more than one million fake cards had been distributed during those earlier elections and with those tainted cards in circulation fair and just elections could not be realized.

The commission’s decision was announced early in January while President Karzai was Mr. Obama’s guest in Washington. As soon as Mr. Karzai returned to Kabul, he declared that the country had neither the money nor the time to issue new cards. The old cards, he insisted, must be used for the upcoming 2014 elections as well. After two days, the chairman of the Independent Election Commission publicly pronounced his agreement with the president.

What magic might Mr. Karzai have used to convince the Independent Election Commission that those besmirched cards were acceptable after all? Someone told me to watch the commission’s chairman. He will be elevated to a more senior position in the government, if, he added, money had not already changed hands.

The other day, in a more mundane moment, a friend of mine and I went to the five-star Serena Hotel to experience the feel of luxury amid a dusty, dilapidated city. The hotel entrance was not particularly impressive. It was a small door cut out in a very high wall that hid the hotel behind it. I knocked at the door and a small quadrant was opened and two suspicious eyes in a young, bearded face looked at me. He opened the door. He let us step inside and searched us for, I assume, weapons. Then, he motioned us to move on toward a steel door painted in black.

Since the door was locked, I tapped at it and, after a short while, it was opened by another bearded guard. He indicated that we proceed to another black-colored steel door. That door was also locked. How could it be otherwise, I thought. Repeating the same procedure, I knocked at it, too. The door opened. The room behind it was brightly lit and the man letting us in smiled with a clean-shaven and friendly face.

We put our keys and cell phones on a red plastic tray and he guided us through an arms-detecting machine. At the other end, we received our belongings and had to go through one more door. As I opened this one myself, I realized how heavy these doors were.

On the other side, we found ourselves in front of a curved driveway and a large, covered and elegantly constructed entrance. Inside, the artfully arranged white-brown marble floor, the elaborately carved woodwork, and the round water fountain in the center of the lobby convinced us that we in fact found ourselves surrounded by five-star luxury.

The hotel’s coffee shop was a bit too dark. The server showed us to a table, and we each ordered a cappuccino. Later, I went to the glass-covered enclosure where an assortment of tarts and pastries were temptingly displayed. I ordered a layered chocolate cake which my friend and I shared.

On the way out, the weather had changed and instead of the light snow that had been falling, a slow rain came down. We rushed out through all those doors, past all those armed guards, jumped into our armored Toyota Land Cruiser and our driver merged the vehicle with Kabul’s undisciplined and chaotic traffic.

Copyright 2013. All rights reserved by Nasir Shansab.

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