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DRCNet in Afghanistan

Drug War Chronicle editor Phil Smith is on the scene...

Thanks to support from the company Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps, intrepid Drug War Chronicle editor Phillip S. Smith spent two weeks doing a drug war tour of Afghanistan. Following are his daily logs and links to his seven in-depth reports from the trip.
This week's in-depth Afghanistan coverage:

    Among the forces working to sustain extremist organizations like Al Qaeda is one that policymakers don't like to talk about in direct terms -- drug prohibition.
    With opium the unquestioned mainstay of Afghanistan's economy but the government eradicating, rural Afghans are getting caught in the squeeze. Elders in a village north of Jalalabad told the story in an interview given to DRCNet this week.
    With the government of President Hamid Karzai attempting to solidify nascent national government institutions, Afghans inside the government and out ponder how to address the problem of members of the government and other powers who are involved in the illicit opium trade.
    Curiosity and intrigue mingled with worry, skepticism and even hostility last week as a European think tank's proposal to license Afghan opium growing for medical uses got discussed in Kabul.
    With Phil's Afghanistan adventure soon to come to a close, we reprint this October 2001 editorial by David Borden that closely relates to some of the topics Phil discusses in the four special Afghanistan reports published in this issue.
  • click here for last week's coverage

    October 6:

    I head for the airport in a few minutes. Kabul to Dubai to London to Atlanta to Seattle, and then 400 miles in the pick-up back to the mountains of BC. Ugh.

    I leave Afghanistan enlightened, but also confused. I have been enlightened about just how difficult everything is here -- from finding a working Internet cafe when the power goes out to driving to the nearest city -- but confused about just why, nearly four years after the US invasion, everything remains so wretchedly Fourth World. Why is the main highway from Kabul to Pakistan still pretty much a dirt track? Why has the US and the rest of the West not gotten around to ensuring that they can keep the lights on in Kabul? I truly do not understand, and no one has been able to provide me with a satisfying answer.

    in Jalalabad
    I also leave enlightened about the intractability of Afghan development issues. With the physical infrastructure in such a profoundly sorry state and with the national government only in nominal control of much of the national territory, I can see why economic development will be tediously slow. And like the NGO people and development experts, I am confused about just how to go about speeding up the process. Especially with an illegal commodity providing half the national income. If official US and Afghan policy toward opium were to actually work (which is fortunately unlikely) and the opium economy were to vanish tomorrow, the country would come to a grinding halt. How to do development when the liveliest economic sector in the country is under the board? This is a question to which no one seems to have a good answer.

    The Senlis Council proposal to license some sort of the crop seems like seems like a start. But given my knowledge of official US attitudes on drug policy, I have to assume that so reasonable a proposal will never be enacted. It would "send the wrong message," although to whom I am not sure.

    I leave here feeling like I have accomplished too little -- although I have my excuses all lined up: I was sick, too many holidays, the mysterious vanishing electricity -- and desirous of doing much more. I would like to actually see the country, but given the state of transport here, that would require an extended vacation.

    Alright, I'm gone. Next time you hear from me, it'll be from North America.

    more pictures to be posted, check back...

    October 5:

    I'm all set. I have the Ariana ticket for Friday; I have the money from Western Union. Both turned out to be incredibly simple to accomplish. [Written after an incredibly arduous effort at the DRCNet office to make a simple itinerary change -- Phil wanted to stay an extra few days to get to speak with some farmers out in the countryside and for other interviews.]

    I am sicker than a dog. After I got up early this morning to run my travel errands, I came back here and slept for about five hours. I have the cold from hell, plus fever plus muscle aches plus extreme tiredness. It just took me about half an hour to decide to get out of bed. I have no clue where I got this crud; the list of usual suspects is almost endless here: the water, the air, the food, the heat, the dust...

    Hussein, the hotel's college-educated waiter, cooked me up a deadly broth of garlic and hot peppers, and Dr. Nick, a Greek NGO guy, procured me "Flueze," a powder that you pour into hot water. It's got paracetimol and some other stuff in it. I don't know if these things are working, but I certainly slept soundly for most of the day.

    So, I'll see who I can talk to tomorrow, and then I'll crank out the Chronicle, I guess.

    The US Embassy is all in a tizzy. The Afghans managed to capture this guy who was head of the gang that kidnapped those Italian women aid workers a few months ago, so now the Embassy fears revenge attacks. They have ordered all Embassy staff to avoid the Intercontinental Hotel and EVERY restaurant in town, and they recommend that all US citizens in the country do the same. They also recommend never going out alone. They also recommend not being here in the first place. If I listened to those Embassy pansies, I'd still be in North America.

    October 4:

    Phil is safely back in Kabul from his journey outside the city. Here is a preliminary report -- it really starts to get to the heart of why the drug war in Afghanistan is an issue. Look for more in Drug War Chronicle this Friday and next. - DB

    Phil & Hakimi
    I just returned from a down and dirty trip over the mountains to Jalalabad, the last main city on the road to Pakistan, in search of the elusive poppy. I was accompanied by my driver, Hakimi, complete with AK-47 under the front seat, and Jalalabad native Abdullah, who knows the local scene. The highway between Kabul and Jalalabad is an absolute nightmare, unpaved most of the way, scraped out of the mountainside, rocky, and covered in dust, and going up and over some godawful mountains (and back down again). In fact, in some places the dust is two inches thick on the roadbed. Now I understand why those Arab guys are always wrapping their kaffiyas around their faces.

    I could go on about the road, but suffice it to say I've been on logging roads in Canada in better shape, and without the heavy truck and bus and Toyota Corolla and camel and donkey traffic. Dust so thick we had to come to a complete stop on numerous occasions. But enough...

    Phil with villagers
    In Jalalabad, we hooked up with Abdullah's relative Jawid, who directed us a couple hours north of the city into some sketchy territory in search of opium farmers. Despite the alleged sketchiness (this is eastern Afghanistan near the Pakistan border where the Taliban and Al Qaeda play), there was no sign of any trouble. We managed to meet with the elders of a district up there who had grown poppies in the past, and quite profitably, thank you! They told me that growing poppies gained them about seven times the income they got from growing food crops. The downside was that last year the government chopped it all down, so they had a big fat goose egg for a harvest. The government promised to help them, they said, but no help ever came. They're not too pleased about all this.

    Current poppy growers have been pushed further into the badlands. They told me if we went four or five hours up further into the mountains, we could find them, but that territory is getting really dangerous, so we passed.

    the trader's wares... a pound of opium
    Instead, we settled for meeting up with a Jalalabad opium trader. He was, unsurprisingly, quite security conscious. Didn't want to talk much, and certainly didn't want his picture taken or any photos that might identify his location. But he did let me take some pics of his wares. He said the two balls of opium he showed me were about 500 grams (+/- one pound), and he wanted $100 for that much. Well, I didn't have any use for a pound of opium, so I persuaded him to just slice me off a tiny sliver. Inquiring minds want to know...

    Then it was back to Kabul this morning after spending the night in the Springar Hotel in Jalalabad. The hotel has a plaque commemorating four journalists who left there in November 2001 for Kabul during the height of the US invasion, but who were murdered by the Taliban in the Kabul River gorge. That's the same place where the Pashtuns finished off a British expeditionary column (and its Indian retainers) in 1842. The Brits sent a 16,000 man force to subdue Kabul, failed, then tried to escape back to the garrison at Jalalabad. The last of them made it as far as the gorge. Only one man, a British doctor, made it out alive.

    more pictures coming here soon

    October 3:

    We're waiting to hear from Phil in Jalalabad, which reportedly has at least one Internet cafe. Phil and his guide/transport/interpreter/bodyguard took off this morning in quest of opium farmers to interview and opium fields to photograph. It's 8 1/2 hours later there, about 8:00pm at the time of this writing. There's a chance he won't be able to write until he gets back to Kabul -- Internet connectivity and electricity for that matter are spotty even in the capital -- so we may just have to wait, but hopefully we'll hear from him sooner. Phil was expecting to have to spend the night there -- though only 100 miles from Kabul, it is a six hour drive because of the quality of the road, and bandits roam the area after dark.

    In the meanwhile, some more pictures from Kabul:

    Military chopper heading for Kabul airport. Phil writes: "I'm outside the Supreme Supermarket, which caters to Westerners. Notice the security checkpoint you have to go through and the guard shining the mirror under the car. I couldn't get into the store because I didn't have my passport with me! On the plus side, I had a nice conversation with the security guard/interpreter (for dealing with Westerners), who is doing graduate work in English literature at Kabul University."
    View going up the mountain with the TV and radio antennas. This is a peak that rises probably 2000 feet above the city, though note that houses go right up the mountain. Land up there is free, so this is where poor people go. Very tough. They have to carry everything up the mountain, and it gets very cold up there in the winter, too.
    Phil on the mountain
    The red and white rocks mark minefields. This mountain top was a very hand place from which to shell the city during the intra-mujahadeen conflict of the early 90s. Also, note the wall/fortification going all the way up the next mountain, build hundreds of years ago.
    another shot of the minefield markers
    Chicken Street--Afghan rugs with topical themes. The one on the left commemorates victory over the Taliban; the one on the right the 911 attacks. (American and other readers might not like that last one, but it's there.)

    October 2:

    I have just succeeded in hiring a driver/guide/translator/bodyguard (complete with AK-47 under the seat) to take me to Jalalabad tomorrow in search of the elusive poppy. He is going to cost me about $100 a day ($75 plus expenses).

    I am supposed to fly out Tuesday afternoon. But although J'bad is only 100 miles away, the roads are so shitty it will take six hours or so just to get there, and it will take some time to accomplish the actual mission. Since people are very scared to drive that "highway" at night because of bandit activity, it is likely that I will have to overnight in J'bad. I could theoretically make my Tuesday afternoon flight if we left J'bad at dawn, but that's cutting it too close for comfort.

    Given that there are other things I still want to do, other people I still need to talk to, I now say we should keep me here until Friday (or whenever the next Ariana flight to Dubai is -- I think they only do Tuesday and Friday).

    October 2:

    The hunt for the elusive Afghan opium farmer continues. I have feelers out with several people, local Afghans and journalists, but I continue to be frustrated. After I send this, I will be heading out to check with one of them about any prospects.

    Here is the dialog I had with Ahmed, my Kabuli contact about finding the opium farmers and merchants:

    "Ahmed, I want to meet the opium farmer or the opium seller."

    "Not here in Kabul, must go outside the city. But big danger, big problem for you, Taliban man there."

    "Ahmed, big danger for you, too?"

    "No, not for me, for you. I Pashtun man, they Pashtun people."

    "Well, let's go then!"

    "I don't know where is opium man."

    "Ahmed, I have $50 for man who take me to opium man. I give to first guy who take me. I want to give to you, my friend."

    "I call my friends, my cousins. I come tell you what I hear."

    So now I'm waiting. But as I said, now I'm going to talk to another guy.

    October 1:

    The famous Chicken Street, where the global backpack trekker set came to buy hippie shit during the days of the hippie trail in the 1960s and 1970s. It's still full of hippie shit -- carpets, jewelry, boxes, clothing, as well as antique rifles and muskets, switchblades, lapis lazuli (comes from Afghanistan), and much much more.

    Be prepared to be assaulted by money-hungry merchants -- "You just look, no have to buy!" -- little beggar kids "Hello, my friend, I be your bodyguard", those blue burka women with sick babies, and mujajadeen vets missing legs from the mines, all wanting money. "Baksheesh, baksheesh"

    Editor's Note: It's easy to forget that not so long ago the tensions currently plaguing our world were not all issues. Movies as recent as the Indiana Jones series portrayed the Arab world as "exotic" for the western imagination, not exactly safe but not especially angry toward America. Phil's historical note about the "hippie trail" brought that to mind for me. Not a drug policy issue, just a thought about where we've been and perhaps again could be. - DB

    more pictures...

    Kabul street scene
    corner vendor, Chicken Street
    Senator Pierre Claude Nolin, Canada; Vanda Felbab-Brown, fellow, Belfer Center for Science and Intl. Affairs, Kennedy School of Govt, Harvard; Raymond Kendall, Honorary Secretary General and former chief INTERPOL; Prof. Gul Rahman Qazi, head of Dept. of Law and Political Science, National Center for Policy Research, Afghanistan; Hugo Warner, research fellow, British Institute of International and Comparative Law
    Francisco Thoumi, founding director of the Research and Monitoring Center on Drugs and Crime, Univ. of Rosario, Colombia; Tony White, Chief of Supply Reduction and Law Enforcement, UNDCP, 1997-2001; Guillaume Fornier, Senlis Council Afghan country manager; Dr. Ambros Uchtenhagen, Dept. of Social Psych, Univ. of Zurich, Switzerland
    conference audience
    Phil at the Mustafa

    October 1:

    Fighting continues in Pashtun country (basically the whole south and east of the country) despite the lull that everyone expected after the elections. In addition to the seven dead US troops since I've been here and the suicide bomber at the Afghan National Army base, four more US troops were wounded by a roadside bomb in Kunar province, the Pakistanis are attacking border redoubts with helicopters, and Taliban and Afghan soldiers continue to die here and there in other clashes.

    The UN has now restricted the movements of its workers in the wake of the suicide bombing -- the US Embassy folks were already basically restricted to the fort, er, I mean embassy -- and the Taliban says it has 45 more suicide bombers waiting.

    I've been having interesting discussions with a former State Department oficial who says the Taliban is essentially a spent force, but it seems like they can still bring the pain, if not regain control of the country.

    Meanwhile, a US security contractor is now reported to have shot his Afghan interpreter to death during an argument in the interior and has now hopped a chopper back to Kabul. And somebody has just discovered the bodies of 500 former communist government soldiers in a mass grave. They were supposedly executed in 1992, and some of the guys who are running for parliament are implicated in the murders, the local press says.

    October 1:

    I'm getting frustrated. It is extremely difficult to get anything done. Yesterday, the city was totally shut down for the "weekend," but the weekend actually seems to include Sat and Sun, at least as far as government and NGO offices are concerned. Ah, the three-day weekend.

    Phil Smith & UK's Andria Efthimiou-Mordaunt outside the Mustafa Hotel
    The electricity was out city-wide yesterday from 6:30am to sometime after 8:00pm. People in the city have adapted; many private homes (at least the ones with some money) and businesses have generators, but that doesn't help if they're closed, which just about everything is on Friday. I would estimate that 5% of storefronts were open. I spent hours and dollars yesterday fruitlessly searching the city for an Internet cafe that was either open or had a generator. The Intercontinental Hotel, hang-out of hotshots local and foreign, of course has generators, but when I went there during the day, their servers weren't working. After 12 hours without electricity, several of us desperate journalists went back to the Intercontintental, which is always well-guarded, and by then the Internet was working. Shortly after that, the lights came back on.

    My hotel, the Mustafa Hotel, is a hang-out for low-rent journalists (no New York Times reporters there!), and one of its selling points is its Internet access, but the owner of the hotel refuses to buy a generator so that we can have access when the power is out. He does have one generator, but it only powers some emergency lights, oh, and a section at the back of the hotel for long-term residents, who are mainly foreign contractors. Very frustrating. When I return to the hotel after this, I will let them know that I am blogging this information, and that I cannot recommend the place to anyone who has to work on deadline. Right now, I'm writing from a place that does have a generator, but it makes me wonder why I'm paying good money for the Mustafa. It's not that I want to slag them; the staff is very helpful and it's not too expensive ($30 a night, plus $5 for the Internet access), but that I want them to fix the problem.

    I am also having difficulties arranging to meet opium farmers. The NGOs with whom I was in contact earlier and who said it could be arranged are now saying it is "very sensitive." I am desperately using every contact I can think of to try to set this up. I do have some contacts with journalists who are based here, but nothing has developed yet -- and time is running out.

    I'm working various angles on the opium farmers/merchants. I've got people working on it. The kind of response I typically get from the Afghans is: "Not here in city, must go outside, very big problem, very dangerous for you, Taliban man." Then I say, "Very dangerous for you?" Then he says "no" and I say, "Let's go."

    Another difficulty is the horrendous state of the roads. I am basically limited to the immediate Kabul area because it takes all day to go about 100 miles -- and these are the national highways. The US and the international community has been here for nearly four years now. I don't understand why they can't build a goddamned road or get reliable energy supplies for the Kabul city. If this is supposed to be nation-building, I have to say the Western powers are doing a pretty shitty job of it.

    I would ask the US Embassy about it, but they, too, now seem uninterested in talking to me. The nice press officer with whom I was in contact has now decided I don't qualify as a person from a recognized media organization, so no press briefings, and while he said he was trying to arrange for me to meet with the narcs and the security guys, nothing has come of that.

    Meanwhile, people are waiting for the parliamentary election results, and the interior minister has resigned, saying that the government is failing to act against people in the government linked to the drug trade, especially some provincial governors. It's a tough nut for the Karzai government -- if he acts against those people, he weakens his own government; if he doesn't, he helps to build a narco-state.

    This is a real issue, one that was much discussed at the symposium: What do you do with these powerful people tied to the drug trade? There is strong sentiment among leading Afghan legal and political figures to arrest and try and imprison them, but there is also support for the idea of reintegrating them into society. It reminds me of South Africa after the end of the apartheid regime: Do you go for the war crimes model or the truth and reconciliation model? Do you try to throw them in jail, or do you give them amnesty (especially if they'll put their fortunes into developing the county)? I'll write about this issue for the Chronicle next week.

    October 30:

    Three feature reports from Phil, and a commentary by Dave Borden, all in this week's Drug War Chronicle.

    Thursday, September 29:

    No post from Phil today, because he has been busy preparing this week's issue of Drug War Chronicle. The issue, which is posting here tomorrow morning, will include three Afghanistan feature stories:

    Amidst a burst of publicity and news coverage ranging from Kabul TV to the New York Times, drug policy thinkers, researchers, and political figures from around the world mixed with Afghan government officials, treatment and addiction specialists, law enforcement representatives, interested Afghan citizens, and representatives of neighboring countries at a three-day conference in Afghanistan this week.

    Most Afghan opium ends up not in the west but in neighboring countries like Iran and Russia. Representatives of those countries attended this week's conference in Kabul and promised to bring the idea of buying the nation's opium supply for the medical market back to their bosses.

    Afghanistan has its share or more of drug addiction. But the nation of 25 million people has a mere 100 treatment beds, and a lone needle exchange program sitting on a dusty side street in Kabul relies mostly on volunteers to help stem a looming epidemic of HIV and Hepatitis in the city's injecting population.

    With the conference ended, Phil will be spending the next week or so out and about in Kabul as well as the countryside. We are anticipating getting some fascinating stuff back. So stay tuned, and don't forget to check back tomorrow to read those articles (as well as our usual reporting) in full.

    Wednesday, October 28:

    The suicide bomber didn't get me -- alive and well. Didn't hear the bomb (it's a big city), but the sirens are blazing now. Latest reports say 12 dead, half of them Afghan soldiers, 28 wounded. The Taliban is taking credit. Makes sense. The city is actually pretty safe; such incidents are rare. It's different out in the countryside, especially the south and east, but I ain't goin' there. Seven US troops killed here since I've been here, but all out in the badlands. I may go north in a couple of days; it's supposed to not be so bad. This kind of stuff wasn't supposed to happen now. The expectation was that the violence was connected to the electoral campaign that ended last Sunday.

    on the streets of Kabul...
    Nothing coming tonight. I was working on the Chron, but that's been disrupted. The hotel I'm at is full of freelancers and some of them just got back from trying to get to the bomb site. They didn't get there, ISAF and Afghan Army checkpoints stopped them, but now they're all jazzed and wanting me to check various sites to see if anybody else has any better photos. Also, these guys are reporting gunfire in the night on the way back here. I didn't hear it, but it could be the start of some excitement here. There have been rumors that Al-Qaeda guys snuck in the country in the last few days... Anyway, difficult to work right now. That means I have to get up and crank all day tomorrow.

    It's kinda morbid the way these guys get all excited at the prospect of some blood and guts. But they're all looking for the pic that's going to make their careers. War photo-journalists, just like the good old days in Central America.

    Tuesday, September 27:

    I am not well. Must have eaten bad kebab somewhere. Not well, but not bedridden. Sorry no pics, no time, off to conference soon; I'll send some tonight. For today:

    The Senlis Council yesterday officially unveiled its report on the feasibility of licensing Afghan opium production for the legitimate medicinal market, but UN and Afghan anti-drug officials didn't wait to read the study before dismissing it. In yesterday morning's newspapers, Afghan Counter-Narcotics Minister Habibullah Qaderi was quoted as saying, "As far as the licensing at this moment is concerned, I am saying no. I'm not in favor because it jeopardizes the whole of our effort. There would be anarchy in the country now. It would create a lot of problems."

    entrance to conference site
    (Senlis Council banner to upper left -- click here for hi-res version
    Similarly, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime has rejected the proposal, according to a Reuters report. There is already a sufficient supply of opioid pain medications to meet global demand, UNODC said. It also argued that buying farmers' crops in a legitimate market would not be economically viable and that such a scheme would "send the wrong message" to Afghan farmers.

    Nonetheless, the symposium has excited significant attention in the Afghan press (and beyond), and the opening press conference was very well attended. Senlis Council head man Emmanuel Reinert professed to not be overly concerned over initial negative responses from the Afghan and UN drug fighters, suggesting that they might want to actually read the report before dismissing it and that it could serve as a point of departure for further discussion.

    In the meantime, my reporting on the extent of harm reduction activities in the country has been criticized by an advisor to the Counter-Narcotics Ministry, who says I have understated the extent of such activities here. I have offered to meet with him so that he can educate me on the errors of my ways. We'll see if he replies. The sting of the criticism is somewhat alleviated by the knowledge that guys like that are actually reading what I write.

    Now, it's off to day two of the conference.

    Editor's Note: Given the profound level of poverty afflicting this country, it seems irresponsible for officials to flatly dismiss a possibly viable option for licit economic opportunity. Australians, among others, get to grow opium for the legal market in opiates. Why can't Afghans? It's especially troubling coming from an agency of the UN, on which Afghanistan's government is dependent for critical support -- drug war intimidation is everywhere. And let's get real -- opium is the mainstay of the Afghan economy. That message speaks louder than the government or the UN ever will.
    - Dave Borden (comfortably at home in Washington)

    September 26:

    On the outskirts of Kabul, down a dusty side road, lies the Nejat Center, one of the only drug treatment and harm reduction centers in the capital city, and indeed, the whole country. An outgrowth of a program begun across the border in Peshawar, Pakistan, in 1991 to deal with what would become millions of refugees fleeing factional violence in Afghanistan, Nejat opened its Kabul facility in 2003. It still deals primarily with refugees, this time Afghans returning home as the violence has subsided who developed serious opium and/or heroin habits as they rotted in Pakistani refugee camps for years.

    Nejat Center, Kabul
    At Nejat, Dr. Tariq Suliman leads a small team of doctors and social workers (many of them volunteers, some of the social workers graduates of his program) who bring addicts through a comprehensive rehabilitation program beginning with a one week detox followed by a second week of orientation and then a month-long rehabilitation program. During the program, clients are taught not only to resist the lure of opiates but also social and job skills, such as learning to weave carpets or make shoes, and some will even be able to get small loans to open small businesses. (Unsurprisingly, when small businesses often consist of a cardboard or wood shack and whatever the product is, the overhead to open and operate a small business in Afghanistan is very small.)

    According to Dr. Suliman, there are 60,000 drug addicts in Kabul, a city of 3 million, but his program can only handle four beds in detox and perhaps 20 people in the rehab program. The number of drug addicts in the country as a whole in unknown, said Suliman, because no one has ever tried to count them. Still, he said, opiate addiction is rife across the country.

    It's not just drug treatment. Nejat also includes a harm reduction component, with an active needle exchange program, as well as condom distribution. With AIDS a rising problem, both are critical to the effort to get a grip on the epidemic. And while the inpatient treatment program is limited to men, the center's outreach programs also target women and children, a population typically neglected not only in drug treatment programs but by Afghan society as a whole. The silent, unseen part of the Afghan population, women are expected to be behind the walls of home and not out on the street.

    This is a brief introduction to Nejat and harm reduction in Afghanistan. Look for more in Drug War Chronicle this Friday.

    Some pictures sent by Phil on Monday, September, 26:

    rehabilitation group, Nejat Clinic
    Anti-drug artwork, Nejat: picture on left has man wrapped up in evil opium tendrils, picture on right has father smoking heroin while his family cries.
    Young girl in front of buildings destroyed in 1990s fighting between various mujahadeen factions. (After they drove out the Russians, they fought among themselves, making the Taliban an attractive option for war-weary Afghanis.)

    Sunday, September 25:

    Today we went to the Nejat Center, a drug treatment and harm reduction center on the outskirts of Kabul. It has detox, inpatient treatment (for men), outreach activities (for men and women and children), and also does needle exchange and condom distribution. They lack money, no surprise. The head doctor says there are 60,000 addicts in Kabul, but they have fewer than 20 beds. I'll do a feature on this place this week.

    I have nice street scene pics and nice pics from the center, but this connection is so slow right now it hadn't sent it after 10 minutes. I'll try again in the morning -- provided the power is on and the server is a little quicker.

    Saturday, September 24, 2005:

    Today I went to the US Embassy to check and hopefully speak with the press officer with whom I have been communicating. He wasn't there and won't be there until Monday. But just going to the embassy was quite eye-opening. It's well down a pretty much blocked off street with multiple checkpoints and lots of soldiers of all stripes -- Afghan military, US military, ISAF forces, and oddly enough, British mercenaries doing security for the embassy itself. It is hidden behind high steel walls topped with concertina wire, much like many of the US embassies I've seen in other zones where the US is "lending a helping hand," such as Mexico and El Salvador. These facilities have the aspect more of an armed compound or a fort than an embassy.

    US Embassy in Kabul
    Interesting politics here. They just held parliamentary elections on Sunday; the results aren't expected for maybe another three weeks because some of the ballots are coming in by donkey or camel from really, really remote places. But interestingly, Karzai went against the recommendations of the UN and US and made the elections non-partisan. People had to vote for individual candidates instead of candidates representing a party. The thinking is Karzai did this to weaken any organized opposition in the parliament, but that may not have worked. The Northern Alliance guys, headed by Yunus Qanooni, think they are going to form the biggest bloc, and they will be a problem for Karzai, who booted a bunch of them out of the government in December. Karzai himself seems to be seeking to build a Pashtun coalition, and boy does he have some strange bedfellows: former Taliban, the Khalq wing of the Afghan Communist Party, and former Pashtun mujahadeen groupings.

    Karzai last week also made noises about ending the US military presence here, as well as criticizing US air bombing campaigns, and demanding that US troops not raid Afghan homes without prior approval from the Afghan government. The top US military leaders here soundly rejected the notion that they were no longer needed, declared the air campaigns essential, and totally neglected to comment on Karzai's complaints about home invasions. The thinking is that Karzai needs to firm up his Pashtun base and is doing so by being a little anti-American.

    I'm scheduled to meet up with Andria Mordaunt in a little bit; we'll see what she's got cooking. She said she should be able to get us a meeting with Afghan harm reductionists. Who woulda thunk there was any such critter?

    More later if possible -- I will send things when I can because the power and thus the Internet connection are not reliable.

    Friday, September 23, 2005:

    I made to Kabul this morning and, man, this place makes rural Mexico look like Europe! Kabul ain't so nice despite its spectacular setting amidst huge mountains. Everybody uses diesel instead of gas (almost everybody), so there's lots of diesel smoke, and then there's the dust. Dust, dust, dust. The sky over the city is a hazy brown, but I don't know how much is pollution and how much is dust. I was in a park this afternoon and some kid kicked his soccer ball so it got stuck in a tree. When they threw rocks at it to try to knock it down, every time a rock hit the tree, a big cloud of dust would puff out. Also, nobody takes credit cards and there aren't any ATMs. It's a good thing I cashed a lot of money before I came.

    I'm pretty dingy after this mind-numbing journey:

    • Tuesday � drive 400 miles to Seattle (from eastern British Columbia)
    • Wednesday � Fly from Seattle at 11:00am PDT to Cincinnati to London, arriving at Gatwick at 8:00am Thursday local time.
    • Thursday � Fly from London to Dubai (it looks like one gigantic megamall and is priced accordingly; I could have gotten a hotel room... for $150), get there at 8:00pm, layover until 6:00am Friday morning.
    • Friday � Leave Dubai at 6:00am, arrive in Kabul 9:00am local time. It's now 6:00pm local time.
    So... I slept for about 3 hours flying across the Atlantic (thank goodness for sleeping pills, and praise the lord for a flight empty enough for me to grab a three-seat bench at the back of the plane). Wow, I think that was the last time I slept... I'll take another sleeping pill soon and crash out probably until morning. I am beyond jet lag at this point.

    war and more war in Afghanistan
    Today (Friday) is the weekend here, so many places are closed. I will try to start going to government and NGO offices tomorrow, although I expect Marco Perduca and Andria Mordaunt to show up then, too. The conference starts Sunday at the Intercontinental � Kabul's only five star hotel � which was guarded by American soldiers in armored vehicles, guns at the ready, when I got there. They have a huge "No Weapons" sign with a circle and slash over a machine gun, but I guess it doesn't apply to the ISAF (International Security Assistance Force). My hotel also has the "no weapons" sign, and it has barrel-sized concrete barriers to prevent a car bomber from rolling right up into the lobby.

    My Dari vocabulary is expanding rapidly � from two words to about six words in one day! That's just one of the languages they use here.

    I've heard the muezzin � the Islamic call to prayers � several times now, the first time in Dubai just before dawn. It is Friday; that's the big go-to-the-mosque day.

    Women here are conspicuous by their absence. At any given moment in any given location, probably 80% of the people on the streets are men or boys. Lots of women still wear the head-to-toe blue burka with veil. Looks pretty weird and reminds me somehow of Dune. There must be young women who have adopted Western styles � I see their portraits in the photo studios � but I haven't actually seen any of them.

    It is a land of many hats. There's those little white skull cap things and there's this flat pancake kind of a hat that the Tajiks (the Northern Alliance dudes who actually run the government) wear, and there's a sizeable percentage of guys wearing Arab-style kaffiyas, and the Afghan soldiers with their peaked baseball cap thingie, and the ISAF soldiers with their combat helmets.

    Phil Smith
    And it's a surprising ethnic mix. There are a lot of Pashtuns (that's what the Taliban were), and Tajiks, and the occasional blue-eyed Nuristani (reputed to be descendants of Alexander the Great's invading army circa 330 BC), and a bunch of Chinese-looking folk. They're the Hazaris, who live in the mountainous and really inaccessible interior. Then there are Kirghiz and Uzbeks, although they are mainly in the North. Warlord General Dostum is an Uzbek, warlord General Ata Mohammed is a Tajik; they wage occasional battles for control of Mazar-i-Sharif and the lucrative cross-border trade, which of course includes opium and heroin.

    People look at me funny here, even though I have my hair in a ponytail and about a week's worth of beard and mustache. Boys on bicycles laugh and say incomprehensible things to me. Maybe they're making fun of the ferengi (foreigner), but I just grin back at them.

    If you can make anything bloggable out of this, go for it. More tomorrow.

    - Phil

    P.S. The hotel I chose because it has wireless also has almost daily power outages. Today, after the outage ended, the wireless came back up, but it is incredibly slow even though we're getting a very strong signal.

    more coming soon...

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