Afghanistan: Whose war?

KABUL, Afghanistan—The easiest way for an American to fly into Afghanistan is on Kam Air from Dubai. But it appears that only Americans fly into Afghanistan on Kam Air from Dubai. Almost, anyway.

The vast majority of passengers on my flights into and out of Kabul were white males, many with military-style haircuts and several with military tattoos. A few may be on active duty. Most probably are private security consultants. As in Iraq, contractors have come to play an increasing role in the way America fights wars.

More significant, though, is the appearance that this is America’s, not Afghanistan’s, war. Afghans are doing most of the dying, of course. But the conflict is what it is because of American (and Western) men and money.

As a city of several million, Kabul is most definitely Afghan. Nevertheless, the city’s organization—to the extent that it exists—is Western. Traffic, commerce, government, and much else revolves around foreign soldiers, diplomats, consultants, aid workers, journalists, and other outsiders who typically show up during war.

Taliban attacks in the capital are few, but no one feels safe. The airport is ringed by barbed wire; the road leading in is filled with concrete blocks and checkpoints. Travelers face multiple bag and body checks. Humvees topped with machine guns stand guard.

Police with AK-47s, barriers, checkpoints, and armed police pick-up trucks sit on street corners and in traffic circles throughout the city. Virtually every street contains at least one de facto fortress. Worst are Western embassies and military installations, which can take up entire blocks. But hotels, banks, lodgings for foreigners, and even offices of humanitarian organizations hide behind tall walls topped by barbed wire and watched by armed guards.

The Afghan government exists, and it is not without talent. Some ministers are well-thought of, but honest officials find it hard to survive politically—and sometimes literally. Few Afghans, other than those dependent on government money, have much good to say about the ruling elite, led by President Hamid Karzai.

Indeed, Kabul is in some sense the ultimate vampire city. For instance, the Afghan government does far more taking than providing. People speak of political, economic, and drug “mafias,” the most of important of which are headed by the Karzai family.

But many Afghans profit from the war. Corrupt government officials, influential businessmen who win profitable contracts, employees of Western governments and agencies, drug producers, family members and friends of the influential, and the usual sort of human flotsam drawn to money and power in a conflict. The symbol of corruption is the many “poppy palaces,” oversize homes surrounded by high walls which continue to sprout throughout Kabul.

Moreover, foreign consultants and businessmen come from all over to feed off the aid provided by the West. Some arrive as idealists and depart as cynics. Others skip the first phase. The money will buy most anything, including alcohol, in this Muslim nation.