Boarding a flight at Kabul International Airport can be a horrifying experience. Most vehicles are stopped at the outer gate and lesser mortals with neither a diplomatic tag nor the calling card of a donor agency are made to trudge a furlong, bags in hand. Snow or rain, they wade through slush to wait for their turn outside the departure area.
The terminal’s shelter-less driveway is hardly the place to hold passengers. But long, serpentine queues are a common sight. And I was no exception, returning on an Indian Airlines flight to Delhi.
Like most parts of the war-ravaged Afghan capital, the airport building is in a state of ruin and reconstruction. Electric wires and tube-lights hang precariously from the ceiling in a hall partitioned to accommodate immigration, security and airline counters. Flight delays caused by inclement weather trigger off an unmanageable rush that the skeletal staff tries to contain by cordoning off passengers until there is room to let them in.
“Stay back, your flight is late,” barked a security guard. The wait under a constant sprinkle of snow lasted a good 30 minutes, the punishing cold less discomfiting than the worry whether the inbound plane would be able to land in the failing visibility. The story had a happy denouement but not before I had survived three security checks, shrugged off the nagging clamour for bakshish and coughed up $11 as airport tax.
“So much trouble and now the tax,” protested David Hartingh, whose Washington-based firm promotes small and medium enterprises under USAID’s Afghanistan programme.
Afghanistan runs on a donor economy, struggling to salvage a civil society out of generations reared on gun-culture. Government institutions lack resources, are weak and tainted by graft. Local entrepreneurs have either shifted base abroad to escape militia patronised by warlords — a few of them a part of the Hamid Karzai regime — or are averse to set up businesses for want of security and skilled manpower. Their forebodings seem real in the face of the Taliban threat of a ‘massive’ summer offensive — a precursor to which was the February 27 attack on the US military base in Bagram during Dick Cheney’s visit.
“We have a lot of leaders but very few managers,” lamented Mohammad Halim Fidai of the Afghanistan Independent Journalists’ Association. Even expats who picked up the courage to return home after Karzai’s advent in 2002 are loath to set up businesses, he said. They find investments in real estate more lucrative. For three-bedroom apartments for its middle-rung staff, the Indian Embassy pays between $2500 and $3000. In local currency, it amounts to 1.25-1.50 lakh Afghani a month.
Metaphorically, there is enough space for India to mark its presence in Kabul, where Tajik influence is as palpable as the legacy of their military legend, Ahmed Shah Massoud. The Lion of Panjshir had New Delhi’s backing until his assassination two days before 9/11.
My journalist friend from Islamabad, Nusrat Javed, was surprised that my roaming Airtel mobile worked. His did not. The sole teashop owner at the airport accepted Indian currency but refused Pakistani notes. At Kabul Intercontinental where I spent three nights, the front office manager insisted on an advance deposit. But, he said: “We have no problems with Indians. Pay as much as you wish.”
Urdu is the spoken language of most Afghans who had spent time in India and Pakistan during the war. Others have learnt it from Bollywood films and TV serials on local stations. Wedding halls in Kabul arrange for TV sets to enable guests to watch Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi. In the power-starved countryside, villagers save money to buy generators to watch soaps.
Kabul Intercontinental’s staff-members proudly introduce themselves as Munnabhai fans: “Hum Sanjay Dutt ki filmein dekhtey hain.” One could watch Doordarshan but not PTV in the $70 per night room. In fact, Nusrat and I phoned in to participate in a Doordarshan discussion on the Samjhauta Express bombing. Our pitch: India and Pakistan should jointly combat terrorism and reconstruct Afghanistan.
Shining in contrast
That India is a friend in need, that Massoud fell to forces sheltered across the Durand Line and hell-bent on destroying Kabul’s tenuous peace, give our country an image that has come cheap for our $650 million assistance. In comparison, incidents like the one at Bagram — where the Americans have an Indian caterer — deepen suspicions about Pakistan.
Taliban-sponsored violence is a major obstacle on the road to Afghanistan’s economic recovery. Hartingh told me that a Kandahari pomegranate fetches the equivalent of the Kabul airport tax in Japan. But it’s the Pakistani middleman who reaps the export benefits. “The Afghan Diaspora can help build capacity and become their country’s conduits to the outside world,” he said. The idea makes sense. Capacity building is at the core of the Indian strategy in Afghanistan — where 30 IAS officers will shortly be assigned to ministries engaged in development work. A Haryana professor I met was on a mission to teach public administration at Kabul University.
The happy confluence is symbolised by the framed portraits of Massoud and Mahatma Gandhi at Delhi Durbar, a popular restaurant on Kabul’s Sahr-e-Nav. The Indian healing touch is manifest in the Indira Gandhi Institute of Child Health that saved an entire generation of Afghans even when mines were blowing up on the ground and bombs rained from above.