by Ricardo Grassi
(IPS) KABUL -- On the flight out of Dubai, an item in the pocket of the passenger seats is a grim reminder of the mortal dangers on the ground below -- along with the laminated sheet detailing aircraft safety procedures is a brochure from the United Nations Landmine Action Service explaining how to avoid death or injury from the explosive devices in Afghanistan.
The airplane lands at Kabul, a city built -- and nearly levelled -- in a valley 1,800 metres above sea level, surrounded by mountains reaching 4,000 metres high, reminiscent of a scene from the South American Andes.
Along the landing strip are the carcasses of aircraft that were decimated in October 2001, when U.S. forces bombarded the airport to make it useless to the fundamentalist Islamic regime, the Taliban, that controlled most of the country at the time.
"We stopped trying to estimate the number of landmines," Dan Kelly, director of the Action Centre Against Mines in Afghanistan, told IPS. What is certain, he added, is that they are planted throughout the entire country, even in farmland, and each month they kill more than 100 people.
Kelly directs 8,000 Afghans involved in a widespread, ongoing effort to deactivate these fatal devices.
Kabul is an intense, vibrant city. Trucks, buses, cars, bicycles, street vendors and people pulling carts share the streets with donkeys, sheep and camels who navigate around each other while soldiers and guards carry kalashnikov rifles amidst an ongoing series of traffic jams.
They kick up an ever-present, lung-clogging cloud of dust.
Reconstruction efforts are evident, although Kabul continues to be a showcase of bombed-out buildings and missile-destroyed houses.
According to the insurance companies, this is a country at war, despite the fact that talk is of peace, and, in September, the country is to hold its first presidential elections in 25 years.
The elections are to take place a couple months before the U.S. vote that will either re-elect President George W. Bush or put his likely rival from the Democratic Party, John Kerry, in the White House.
It is the U.S. elections in November that make the Afghan vote credible, because it is believed that Bush will want to announce in his campaign effort that he "pacified and democratised" the Central Asian nation, invaded by U.S. forces shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.
The United States was looking in Afghanistan for the man thought to be the mastermind behind the attacks, Saudi national Osama bin Laden, and, on the way, sought to liquidate the Taliban regime and capture its leader, mullah Omar. Both men remain at large.
And now the war is intensifying. One clue: there are 20,000 U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan today. Two months ago there were 13,500.
Another sign is that the U.S. television networks have also returned. They left practically as soon as the B-52s had done their job, the Taliban government was overthrown, and Hamid Karzai was brought back from his exile in the United States to serve as interim president.
Karzai, widely seen as lacking political power, wants to extend his mandate -- and he has Bush's support for that aim.
"If the elections are in September, (Karzai) will achieve his goal, because there will be no mature alternatives capable of negotiating with the United States," says Shahir Zahine, a former mujahideen who fought the 1979 Soviet invasion. He is now head of a non-governmental organization that publishes three weekly magazines, two of which are leaders in national circulation.
What could postpone the elections? "If insecurity increases and the United Nations fails to complete the voter lists," Zahine, who also directs one of Kabul's top radio stations, said in an IPS interview.
In May, three workers carrying out an electoral census were murdered. The voter rolls do not include even half of the potential electorate, estimated at 10 million.
The increase in troop presence serves to prevent a civil war and to fight the Taliban in southern Afghanistan, where they remain a strong presence.
Furthermore, the International Security Assistance Force under NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) command, has Kabul under control but is incapable of ensuring law and order in the rest of the country, where warlords prevail.
Why have the U.S. media returned to Afghanistan? "I don't know why, but they think Osama bin Laden is about to be captured," says UN spokesman, Manoel de Almeyda, a Brazilian national.
That is another thing keeping Bush awake at night: he wants Bin Laden captured before the November elections in the United States.
A third "Western" dream is to allow Afghan women to be free of the burqa, the head-to-toe shroud, with its embroidered mesh that hides their eyes. Thousands of burqas are seen on the streets of the capital. Most are light blue.
Crossing the city by car, one sees many women dressed in this attire. It can be disturbing to see so many faceless humans moving about.
When asked why she wears the burqa, on woman responded: "It is my Islamic clothing. I've worn it since I was young, and continue to use it now that I am old."
"The people from the United States are in a hurry," says Homa Sabri, of the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM).
"They want (the Afghan women) to quit using the burqa immediately so that they can announce that they have given us back our dignity and freedom. But this cannot be imposed. It is a slow road until women feel secure and lose their fear," she said.
Sayed Raheen, minister of information and culture, has a similar response in a conversation with IPS: "The international community turns out to be fundamentalist when it seeks to hurry a country that is just taking its first steps."
Comments that are a bit more radical come from a European consultant who spoke on condition of anonymity.
"We are here to promote U.S. interests, not Afghanistan's," says the consultant bitterly, having resigned as an adviser to the Afghan Central Bank, where Washington has some 40 people working to set up a new banking system for the country.
"The invaders impose their capitalist economic style on a country with nearly 2,000 years of Islamic culture, one that rejects the concept of monetary interest," explained the source.
As they await Bin Laden's capture, the U.S. TV networks keep busy competing for the latest news on the torture inflicted by the CIA and the Marines on Afghan detainees at the southern military base of Bagram.
Reports of torture and abuse had been circulating since early 2002, but nothing was done until recently, when denunciations emerged regarding similar actions against Iraqis committed by the occupying forces in that country.
In Bagram, a strategic location at the foot of the Hindu Kush, forts were built by Persia's Cyrus the Great 500 BC, with the name Kapish-Kanish, by Alexander the Great, who dubbed it Alexandria of the Caucasus, and the Soviets, who built their main base there in the 1980s, withdrawing in 1989.
Now the presence is U.S. and NATO troops, keeping watch over a crucial zone for controlling the extraction and transport of petroleum in the Caspian Sea region, also of great interest to Russia and China.
The Afghan population is included on the list of the world's poorest. Illiteracy surpasses 80 percent, reaching 92 percent amongst women. But these are just estimates because it is not known exactly how many Afghans there are -- maybe between 20 and 28 million.
At Bagram, as at the Iraqi prison Abu Ghraib, prisoners were photographed in the nude and humiliated, according to the testimonies of some victims. Sooner or later, someone will put those photos in the hands of the media.
Meanwhile, growing apace is the expansion of the illicit poppy crops used to produce opium and heroin -- brought to a halt during the Taliban regime -- and the uncertainty over whether the Afghans will be able to build a strong, single state.
Afghanistan is responsible for 70 to 75 percent of the global production of heroin, a business worth $30 billion a year.
June 16, 2004 (http://www.albionmonitor.net) All Rights Reserved. Contact email@example.com for permission to use in any format.
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