Disguises, Weddings, and Escapes
Osama’s death and the beginning of the American withdrawal are not the only news from Afghanistan. Here is a sampler of striking stories from April of this year–odd new items that deserve a somewhat extended account.
The Great Escape
It reads like a Steve McQueen/Vin Diesal movie featuring the Keystone Kops (or perhaps Klink and Schultz from Hogan’s Heroes) as prison guards.
Here’s what happened: on April 25, 488 prisoners escaped from the main prison in the city of Kandahar, through a tunnel that ran to a nearby private compound. It took the prisoners five months to dig the 1000-foot tunnel from the compound, under a highway, and into one cell in the prison. That end, the prisoners used car jacks to break a hole in the conrete floor so as to access the hole. After they had made that access hole, they allegedly covered the opening with a carpet so the guards wouldn’t notice it, until the night for the Great Escape arrived. And since the hole was just big enough for one man to fit through at a time, it took those 488 men four and a half hours to stream out–during which time no one noticed anything.
Well, it was the dead of night, to be sure, but still!
Once the escapees came out of the tunnel in that compound across the highway, cars were waiting to trasnport some of them to places a few blocks away from the prison. There, they hailed taxis to finish their getaway. Others, it seems, walked out the front door of the compound and strolled away whistling. (Actually, I don’t know if they were whistling; that part is speculation.)
Within the prison, of course, the hole came up in only one cell. The prisoners were all supposed to be locked away in separate cells, but on the night of the escape, 488 of them were somehow able to leave their cells and get to the room with the tunnel opening. Somehow, the story goes, they acquired keys.
Provincial governor Tooryalai Wesa blamed the prison break on the “negligence” of the jail’s security guards, but others, including President Karzai, conceded that prison insiders must have facilitated the plot—the guards, the prison administrators, someone. Fewer than 20 of the escapees were from the criminal section. The rest were security detainees and included several governors and district governors of the Taliban’s “shadow government,” which is now said to be nearly nation-wide.
The prison break dramatized the power of the insurgency and suggested that it must enjoy a great deal of local support. “Thousands of truckloads of earth must have been coming out of that hole, and yet nobody said anything,” mused a man who lives across the road (One cannot help but speculate this man was himself among those who saw something and said nothing.)
But wait, there’s more. This is the same prison from which 1,000 inmates escaped in 2008. That time they did it by blowing open the front gates with explosives and running out. Days after that escape, Taliban fighters seized several nearby villages and threatened to capture the city of Kandahar itself. Authorities are assuring city residents that nothing of the sort will happen this time. In fact, 72 of the escapees were recaptured within the first 24 hours of the event.
The day after this latest prison break, NATO said its forces killed “the second most wanted insurgent” in the country, a Saudi Arabian known to Afghans as Abdul Ghani, although his real name was Abu Hafs al-Najdi, except in Saudi Arabia where his real real name was Saleh Naiv Almakhlvi Day. Ghani/al-Najdi./whatever was allegedly a senior member of al Qaeda and directed a network of insurgents throughout Kunar Province, the remote area in southeastern Afghanistan that borders Pakistan’s Swat region. He was certainly killed the day after the prison break, but was he really the “second most wanted insurgent” in the country? That, to me, sounds like a moniker added to make his death so dramatic it would push the prison story to page two. In this it failed, but oh, well, Osama bin Laden has now been killed, which finally makes the prison break story old news.
Government (In)Security Forces
A second story that I’ve been following has no comic overtones. This one is simply ominous–in itself and in its implications.
On April 15, the Afghan Ministry of Defense announced that it was taking strict steps to stop militants from infiltrating Afghan security forces. What prompted them to issue this reassurance, I don’t know. Apparently there were rumors.
Sadly for the Ministry of Defense publicity department, on the very day of that announcement, a suicide bomber passing himself off a a new recruit got onto an Afghan army bus near Kabul and blew himself up, wounding ten. The following day, a suicide bomber disguised in an Afghan army uniform infiltrated an army base and killed five NATO members and four Afghan soldiers. On April 17, a suicide murderer killed a police chief in Kandahar. And a few days after that, a Talibanist insurgent wearing an Afghan army uniform made his way into Afghanistan’s Defense Ministry and opened fire, killing two soldiers and wounding seven before he himself was killed.
Here were four deadly security breaches in one week and three of them involved insurgents successfully impersonating members of the Afghan army and police force. Clearly, the Talibanists were out to prove that they permeate the indigenous security apparatus the U.S. and NATO are trying to create in Afghanistan, and also that they are capable of striking anywhere, at any time—right inside the Ministry of Defense, right inside an army base, right inside the police headquarters of a major city.
Pile this on top of the prison break and the picture looks pretty disturbing. What does it matter how many soldiers are in the central government’s Afghan National Army if you don’t know which of your recruits are on you side? That, of course, is the doubt the insurgents hoped to plant. And they succeeded.
In response to the deadly impersonations of Afghan national security personnel, Kabul police clamped down on markets selling police and army uniforms. Selling such clothes is now illegal. Tailors have been forbidden to make outfits resembling uniforms. One tailor was arrested for this crime, but he pleaded that he wasn’t sewing new uniforms, only repairing old ones.
The Afghan senate has called for the resignation of Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak over the security breaches—but he’s already on the chopping block because of the prison break and because, according to Karzai, he and the Minister of Finance are too close to the Americans.
Ban on Big Weddings
The government is considering banning big, fat Afghan weddings because these extravagant ceremonies are ruining families. The big weddings are potlatch-like competitions among upper-class families to show off their wealth. Those who win such competitions end up garnering status and power, provided that can come out the other side still solvent.
The competitive-wedding phenomenon reflects the emergence of “power-brokers” as the new elite of Afghan urban society, replacing “warlords,” who formed the upper crust in the period that followed the Soviet withdrawal. Warlords emerged because Afghanistan was in a state of violent, nationwide anarchy, and the men who prospered in that environment were all the guys who were good with guns and could accrue the largest following of other guys who were good with guns.
This new elite, the power brokers, have emerged because, in the cities at least, what counts now is not how good you are with guns but how good you are at dipping you fingers into the river of “reconstruction money” that has been pouring into the country—a by-product of the American intervention and the Western attempt to restore, stabilize, and democratize Afghanistan. Those who prosper now are the men (and women) who understand the politics of reconstruction aid and have the necessary skills and moxie to worm their way into the bones of the new West-engendered bureaucracy. Having prospered, however, these folks still need to win status in Afghan society. There, traditionally, “lavish hospitality,” or even “reckless largesse” is the mark of a truly worthy lord. And that’s why the thousand-guest weddings have become all the rave.
As with all such trends, however, the competition at the top percolates down to competition at lower levels (just as, for example, competition for high-priced New York commercial real estate drives up the price of skyscrapers which eventually drags upward up the price of all real estate, even a one-bedroom fixer-upper in Hoboken. )
That is to say, the richest and most powerful of power-brokers have a vested interest in proving themselves against other richest -most-powerful-powerbrokers. Their competitive weddings are epic galas meant to keep tongues wagging in wonder for generations. But the next tier down of rich-and-powerful-powerbrokers have rivals in their tier; and they too therefore come under pressure to throw the most extravagant weddings they can manage, to shame their rivals and gain status against them. And so it goes, filtering down, until it affects all the social layers of urban Afghan society.
As a result, young men have to risk financial ruin in order to get married, and some end up endlessly postponing their marriage, even after they have gotten engage, so they can save enough to cushion their wallets against the sticker shock of lobe.
The bill to tame the big-fat-wedding craziness would restrict weddings to 300 guests and limit spending to 250 afghanis per guest (around $5). By setting such limits, the bill would of course help promote social egalitarianism, at least until the rich- and less-rich find another way to square off in recklessly lavish hospitality contests. On that score, then, the bill seems like a good thing. The ban would, however, put a dent in the wedding industry, which is a big business in Afghanistan. (Kabul alone has more than 70 wedding halls.) In fact, it is one of the few industries not related to drugs or “development” that is really on the rises. What’s more, this is an industry from which women have been able to benefit—since beauty shops, high-end gown stores, and the like make most of their profits catering to wedding guests