Five days before the next attempt on the life of Hamid Karzai, anti-drug officers in Baghlan incinerate 300 bottles of hard liquor, 94 kilograms of opium, 93 kilograms of hashish and 13 kilograms of heroin. In the afternoon, Foreign Minister Rangin Dadfar Spanta, who returned to the country from exile in Germany, says that he considers the lack of faith in democracy in his country to be his "personal nightmare." On that same afternoon, General Khodaidad, the minister in charge of the government's anti-drug policies, takes a drive out into the countryside.
Khodaidad perches majestically in a four-ton, armor-clad Toyota Land Cruiser, as he embarks on a laborious two-day tour that will take him across thousands of kilometers of bumpy country roads and steep mountain passes.
The general is visiting the governors of Sar-e-Pol and Jowzjan in the far north, near the border with Turkmenistan. Parliamentarians from both regions are also along for the ride, as the Land Cruiser climbs through the icy splendor of the Salang Mountains, through Baghlan, Samangan and Balkh, traveling along the same route taken by the withdrawing Soviet army after almost 10 years of futile fighting.
Khodaidad was part of that army, a Soviet commander from Afghanistan, fighting for Afghanistan. He knows every valley and every hiding place here, and he knows the back roads that no American Humvee will ever take. Massoud was his adversary in the Pandjir Valley, as was General Daoud, who fought for the mujahedeen and is now a deputy interior minister, and with whom Khodaidad now cooperates in his effort to eradicate opium farming. "It's difficult for you to understand, isn't it? That we now work together? But the explanation is easy: We ruined this country together, and now we must rebuild it together."
Khodaidad has brought along a lot of music. He is a short, impish-looking man with eyes hidden behind fleshy eyelids. His glasses sit so crookedly on his face that he peers through the lens with one eye and over the top of the frame with the other, while the stereo blares the love songs of Afghan pop singer Nashena.
He periodically uses his walkie-talkie to confer with the other drivers in the convoy of five Land Cruisers, which includes an armed guard of 22 soldiers. A more prosperous and more peaceful Afghanistan soon begins to unfold: the north, where the land is farmed and where there is a rhythm to life, where dromedaries graze and children play -- children who look as though they had time to play.
Khodaidad is using the trip to promote his political agenda, which mainly consists in simply showing his face. The governors he meets, with whom he drinks tea, eats nuts and kebabs and spends entire evenings sitting barefoot on carpets, say that they haven't seen a cabinet minister in their provinces in two years. "Those who never leave Kabul," says Khodaidad, "lose their connections. But what is politics in Afghanistan? Nothing but connections. Have you heard what Karzai is called? The people call him the 'mayor of Kabul' "
In Sar-e-Pol, late in the evening, Khodaidad's chief of current operations, Mohammed Ibrahim Azhar sits in the garden of the provincial government's guesthouse. One of his brothers died in the struggle against the Soviet occupiers and he lost three cousins in the war against the Russians. Azhar himself smuggled weapons and money into the country from Pakistan for the mujahedeen. Before taking his current position with the ministry, he worked for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). Once a week, he meets with ISAF personnel and Americans to discuss strategy. But he and his foreign counterparts have little to say to each other.
The Americans, says Azhar, refuse to understand that for many Afghans, there is no alternative to growing opium. "There is no market for wheat, rice, fruit or vegetables. We import all of these things, from Pakistan, Iran and China. What can you say to a farmer who makes $4,000 (2,550) per hectare (2.47 acres) with opium and only $300 (191) with wheat? A year!"
His telephone rings. His ring tone is the triumphant march from Verdi's "Aida." The people from Nangarhar are calling again. A suicide bomber blew up himself and 25 police officers in an opium field in Nangarhar that afternoon.
Three days before the next attempt on the life of Hamid Karzai, Ambassador William Wood is sitting in his large apartment in the fortress-like US embassy in Kabul. He asks the photographer not to take his picture while he smokes a cigarette. Wood arrived from Colombia last year. His knowledge of drug cultivation is extensive, but he doesn't know a whole lot about Afghanistan. His nickname is "Chemical Bill," because he doggedly champions a policy of large-scale aerial spraying of the poppy fields with pesticides to destroy the crops.
Wood says that Afghanistan's "drug tragedy" also feeds into the tragedy of terror. The ISAF countries, he says, should realize that they are losing more of their citizens to heroin than on the battlefield in Afghanistan. He adds that 2007 was a good year, all things considered, with the possible exception of corruption. All neighboring countries want regional stability, he says, adding that more than 6 million children now attend school in Afghanistan. It sounds as if he were giving a speech using McNeill's notes.
Two days before the next attempt on the life of Hamid Karzai, Najia Zewari, of the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), says that Afghanistan actually looks very good on paper. Women's rights are guaranteed under the constitution, says Zewari, and they are part of the country's future development. One-fourth of the members of parliament are women but, she adds, "the daily reality is unfortunately a different story altogether."
More nine- and 10-year-old girls are being forced into arranged marriages once again, she says. Outside Kabul, almost all women over 13 are required to wear the burqa. According to Zewari, girls do not go to school, and no one reports kidnappings and rapes. "Do not misunderstand me," says Zewari, "it's a great thing that the terror of the Taliban is over. But that doesn't mean that their rules have disappeared. Their rules are the Afghan rules."
These Afghan rules are the rules that foreigners find so difficult to understand.
The overthrow of the Taliban took place just over seven years ago. Until well into the 1990s, the warlords and the mujahedeen were constantly at war and constantly forming new coalitions. In the area around Kabul, they conducted their own version of total war. The withdrawal of Soviet troops happened less than 20 years ago. The wounds inflicted by all of these wars are still raw. The country has a great deal of history to work its way through, a great deal of suffering to digest and, most of all, a great deal of mourning to make up for.
But there are already voices -- in the parliament, in Karzai's cabinet and in the remote provinces -- that point to a new rivalry among ethnic groups, groups jockeying for power, influence and the legends of history.
Old warriors with world-famous names, like Dostum and Hekmetyar, are active once again, as old rifts spark anew between the peoples of the country's south and north. Mutual suspicions continue to grow as it becomes clear that the new era is failing to produce successes. Rival clans are already embroiled in their small wars and feuds. Afghanistan remains a combustible country, a potential battlefield where civil war is still an option -- a civil war that some are already waging.
On the day of the attack on Hamid Karzai, Mujahedeen Day, a national holiday in Afghanistan and a day of parades, three men have been lurking for at least 36, probably 72 hours, in a guesthouse less than 500 meters from the Kabul parade ground. Their accomplices have locked them into their room from the outside. A padlock is on the door to create the impression the room is unoccupied. The assassins have stocked up on energy drinks, water and crackers. They urinate into bottles and send short text messages to telephone numbers in Pakistan.
The room on the fourth floor, which offers a clear line of fire at the grandstand where the government of Afghanistan, headed by President Karzai, and the country's top generals and religious leaders, members of parliament and foreign guests, ambassadors, ISAF commanders and UN directors are about to sit down, has been rented for 45 days. One of the attackers, a Turkmen, claimed to be a carpet merchant with business at the nearby bazaar. The weapons are hidden in rolled-up carpets.
Spies for the Defense Ministry have been scanning the area around the parade ground for weeks, asking residents about suspicious activities and strangers new to the area. The police have gone into every house, inspecting rooms and looking out of windows, including the guesthouse where the would-be assassins are holed up, which they visited one or two days before the attack. But the door to the room was locked from the outside, the owner of the guesthouse tells police. The people aren't home, he says, and he hasn't seen them in a while. Why break down the door, he asks?