EDITOR’S NOTE: This article appears in the October 11, 2004, issue of National Review.
Nothing like hot dust in one’s face and the roar of a low-flying helicopter gunship to make a man feel alive. The last time I heard that sound in Afghanistan was in 1987: A patrol of Soviet Mi-24s were spitting gunfire at the house in which I was hiding with a mujahedeen convoy, in a village near Kandahar. This time, though, the sound of gunships–these decorated with the American white star instead of a Soviet red on the side–did not make me duck. On the contrary: The sound of helicopters in Kabul is now hopeful evidence of the foreign presence giving Afghanistan its best chance in 25 years.
#ad#True, the signs of the war with the Soviets and the civil war that followed are still everywhere: debris of old jets at the airport, carcasses of government buildings, posters instructing pedestrians how to recognize various types of mines. This is still a city under pressure, and security is tight.
Even so, it’s an improvement since my last visit, shortly after the fall of the Communist regime in 1992. Kabul was then still at war. Troops loyal to the defense minister, Ahmed Shah Masud, were fighting it out against those of the prime minister, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. They converged around the municipal zoo, where monkeys saluted, Soviet-style, if you pointed a Kalashnikov at them. The Intercontinental Hotel, a Kabul landmark, was a dark shell on a hill, riddled by RPG rounds.
This time, I collected my e-mail in the business center of the now-rebuilt Intercontinental. It’s a functioning establishment with giggly American girls in the bar, a cellphone shop, and a soon-to-be-completed swimming pool. From there I set off to pay my respects to the former king, Zahir Shah, whose presence back in his royal castle is seen by many Afghans as a symbol of a return to some kind of normality. In the slum that is Kabul today–the city was first destroyed, then overpopulated with refugees–the palace is a time capsule, with spacious courtyards and old plane trees evoking a grander past. The picture of a modest retiree, Zahir Shah did not fight to be restored to the throne and seems satisfied to play the role of godfather–”Father of the Nation”–to the new regime, which is, in a way, a pity. For such a particularly diverse culture as Afghanistan’s, a constitutional monarchy could have provided a focus of national unity instead of stirring the factional passions that are rising in anticipation of the presidential election, slated for October 9. Still, at 90 Zahir Shah is one of the few Afghan leaders in many a decade with a fighting chance to die of natural causes, which is saying something.
His presence is not the only evidence of a city returning to life. If you can call it progress, the BBC World Service is broadcast on local FM radio, there’s a “John Kerry for President” cell in Kabul, and you can buy Fahrenheit 9/11 on DVD before its release in the U.S. (My copy cost $3 and promptly malfunctioned.)
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