The Problems of Introducing Alien Concepts Like Democracy

Today’s slide show: Kabul

Mohammed Hanif, 19-year-old mechanic allegedly kidnapped by Jonathan "Jack" Idema
Mohammed Hanif, allegedly kidnapped by Jonathan “Jack” Idema

I can’t shake the Third Man parallels from my impressions of Kabul. This week’s Harry Lime is a man by the name of Jonathan “Jack” Idema, an American mercenary of sorts who was arrested several weeks ago for operating his own private prison in a posh neighborhood of Kabul. Claiming that they were working on counterterrorism operations with direct approval from the Department of Defense, he and a cohort of American vigilantes had kidnapped several Afghan men and held them prisoner for over a week, keeping them hooded, even hanging them from the ceiling by their ankles. He had befriended and duped several members of ISAF (the international force that is providing security in the capital) and, wearing U.S.-style fatigues, convinced everyone he met that he worked for the U.S. government. Ex-special forces. Real hush-hush. Idema also fooled Fox News and CBS, who both used him as an on-air “expert.”

There are so many agencies operating here, and so much cloak and dagger posturing, that it is quite easy for such a character to act with impunity. Nobody will ask a Westerner in fatigues who is carrying a machine gun what he is up to on the streets of Kabul. Even ISAF didn’t check up on Idema for weeks. The Afghan authorities rarely, if ever, question the actions of the international forces here, so a man who talks the talk can bluff his way almost anywhere. Idema traveled, heavily armed, all over the city, snatching “suspects” and bringing them back to his rented house for questioning. It was only when a member of ISAF grew suspicious that the Afghan police swooped down and arrested him. He and the other two Americans arrested with him now face up to 20 years in an Afghan jail.

I visited one of the people Idema had detained, Mohammed Hanif, a 19-year-old mechanic who was doing masonry work at a house Idema raided. He says he was kept hooded, soaked with water, and not fed for a week. He was then inexplicably released by Idema and threatened with arrest if he told anyone. He looked shaken, sitting in his shop by the banks of the waterless Kabul River. He told me that “Jack,” as he knew Idema, should be treated the way he had treated his prisoners. The experience had made Mohammed afraid of Americans. The story, too murky to explain away to the Afghan people, has been taken as a huge violation of trust at the worst possible moment.

Women in burqas hold up their voter registration cards
Women in burqas hold up their voter registration cards

Trying to figure out the truth of a story through the web of agendas in Afghanistan is nearly impossible. I visited a voter registration site, one of hundreds that have been set up around the country in a massive effort to register the country’s 10.5 million eligible voters. It is historic and unprecedented, trying to shift a tribal system to a democratic one, and I felt like I was witnessing an extraordinary display of civic virtue. The walls of the center were festooned with cartoon posters showing men and women balanced on a scale, women lining up to vote, various ethnic groups smiling broadly as they dropped their ballots into locked boxes. A line of women in burqas waited to have Polaroids snapped for their voter ID cards, and I left the room while they lifted the blue, pleated cloth to have their photographs taken, many for the first time. Some refused to be photographed, so they were issued blank ID cards with thumbprints. It was deeply moving, despite the burqas, to see all these women preparing to vote for the first time in their lives.

Later, I heard some details that complicated matters. The presidential elections have already been delayed by four months. The parliamentary elections, commonly expected to cause factional bloodshed across the country, have been delayed even further. The central government, which claims to have registered 7 million voters, is widely believed to be inflating those figures. Last month, three female voter registration workers were killed by a bomb near Jalalabad. Many women, especially in rural districts, are not allowed to leave their compounds, and a debate has arisen about whether their husbands will be permitted to cast their votes for them. There is no mechanism to prevent people from registering multiple times at different sites, and warlords/aspiring politicians (who need to collect 10,000 registration cards to be included on the ballot) are reported to be purchasing registration cards for 10 afghanis each, about 20 cents.

It is, of course, difficult to force a concept as alien as freedom of choice or freedom of expression on a country like Afghanistan. One of the most sweeping signs of liberation has come in the form of radio broadcasting. I visited the studio of Radio Arman (Dari for “hope”) and spoke with Zaid Mohseni, an Afghan-Australian returnee who, with his siblings, has financed the station. He had a golf bag over his shoulder, ready to play at the grassless, newly reopened, partially de-mined Kabul Golf Club. The station’s format is a sort of Afghan Top 40, with co-ed announcer teams, news on the hour, weather by NATO, and a claimed market penetration of 90 percent. The Top 10 is dominated by Afghan and Bollywood music, with the first American, J. Lo, entering the chart at No. 27 with “Ain’t It Funny.” At  No.1, where he has been since the station opened over a year ago, is Ahmed Zahir, the “Afghan Elvis.”

The station recently held a contest with 10 $100 prizes, and it received over 30,000 entries. The station’s revenue comes from ads, and sponsors include cell phone companies and Number One, a condom brand that has become the Afghan slang term for all prophylactics. Mohseni told me that, liberated social mores aside, the copywriters had to get pretty cryptic in writing an ad for that product.

I later met one of the underground heroes of Afghan free speech, Osman Akram, the founder of Zanbel-e-Gham (Wheelbarrow of Sorrows), a satirical magazine published secretly under the Taliban and among the first to publish openly after the Taliban fled the city in 2001. It is sort of a combination of Spy and Mad, with scathing political cartoons and articles mocking the Taliban, the U.S. forces, Pakistan, Osama Bin Laden, and just about everyone else. One cartoon criticizing the supposed new freedom of the press shows a woman in a burqa interviewing another woman in a burqa. Another shows George W. Bush standing behind a U.N. podium, his legs drawn as a Soviet hammer and sickle. Published in a mix of Dari, Pashto, and English, one editorial asked when Ghamistan (the land of sorrows) would become Afghanistan again.