‘There’s almost no tradition of civil society’

Hard times have made Mohammed Fahim Dashty look older than his 32 years. A colleague of the Northern Alliance leader General Ahmed Shah Massoud who fought the Taliban, Dashty was an eyewitness to the general’s mysterious murder just two days before the attacks of September 11, 2001. Dashty is editor of the Kabul Weekly, which is published in Afghanistan’s two official languages, Afghan and English. On a recent working visit to Athens he spoke with Kathimerini about the state of his country. Western media describe post-Taliban Afghanistan as a chaotic state exploited by former warlords, and President Karzai as the «mayor of Kabul,» without real power over the entire country. Are there any grounds for such descriptions? Many Western journalists come for one or two weeks at the most and think that they have become experts on Afghanistan. Of course we are facing many problems; we’ve been at war for 30 years. The legacy of national and tribal conflict weighs heavily and there is almost no tradition of civil society. We have to build our nation from scratch. But important steps have been taken. Afghanistan today is light years away from where it was three years ago. We don’t have the Taliban, we don’t have Al Qaida, we do have a democratically elected president, a democratic constitution, and we’ll soon have a democratically elected National Assembly. The economy is developing rapidly and although the security situation is not perfect, it is improving steadily. But Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar are still at large and the Taliban seem to have regrouped and taken control of a large part of the country. The Taliban are indeed active in their traditional strongholds in the south and southeast of the country, though that does not mean that they control territory. They make up small terrorist groups which attack foreign soldiers and local figures. But when such attacks take place in Western capitals such as New York and Madrid, it is not surprising that we see such phenomena in Afghanistan. The big problem is that the Taliban possess significant bases in western Pakistan, such as Vazistan, which border on Afghanistan. The border is long and mountainous. Tribal and family connections on both sides of the border are strong. A large part of the local population supports them and facilitates their movements, making it extremely difficult to arrest their leaders. American, Pakistani and Afghan secret services concur in the belief that bin Laden and Mullah Omar are in that area but they cannot find them. The opium problem It is said that Al Qaida is profiting from opium farming, which has grown enormously. Some say that Afghanistan is in danger of changing from a terrorist state into a failed state under the control of drug gangs. It is a major problem, given that 78 percent of the world crop of opium comes from Afghanistan. Because of their tradition and religion, Afghans don’t want opium. But due to the dire economic situation, many farmers have no other option. Smugglers give them large advances and their income is incomparably larger than it is from other crops. There are ties between local gangs and the Islamic networks that support Al Qaida. The problem cannot be resolved simply by resorting to violence. Farmers need alternative, economically productive solutions. Such programs have been started, with subsidies for plants or flowers used to make pharmaceuticals, perfumes and cosmetics, but there is still a long way to go. There is also provision for a special police team and more effective border controls so as to reduce the flow of opium abroad. Can you give us a broad picture of the changes in everyday life for Afghans – wages, unemployment, education and the status of women? Despite the growth of the economy, a large proportion of the population in the countryside and the cities has no regular, permanent work. There are huge differences in wages, from $30 dollars a month to as much as $12,000 a month for some officials. There is a small but growing middle class in the private sector (such as mobile telephony companies), which pays better wages. A considerable number of people work in the hundreds of non-governmental organizations that are active in Afghanistan. There’s a contradiction here. We need them to rebuild the country, but we can’t help noting that 70 percent of their income goes on their officials’ wages. The good news on education is that 5 million children are going to school this year – a significant step forward, considering that only 15 percent of Afghans are functionally literate. The bad news is that we lack buildings, teachers, books and infrastructure of all kinds. As for women, the citation has improved dramatically. In the last elections, 47 percent of voters were women, and the constitution stipulates that women make up at least 25 percent of the National Assembly. What was the reaction in Afghanistan to recent threats by the United States against your neighbor Iran, which contributed significantly to ousting the Taliban? Iran has not had a clear strategy on Afghanistan; it often wavers. After the fall of the Taliban, it adopted a more friendly stance and tried to develop forms of cooperation, mainly in the economic sphere. They built roads and helped rebuild the electrical grid, for instance. During our elections and while the constitution was being framed, we saw no signs of any intention to intervene on the part of Tehran. We’re afraid that we’ll pay the price if US-Iranian relations deteriorate. The Americans have 18,000 soldiers in Afghanistan and if things go wrong with Iran they’ll want to deploy them, which will put us in a very difficult position. The day they killed Massoud Could you describe what happened on the day Ahmed Shah Massoud was murdered? On the morning of September 9, 2001 I got up very early because I had been been notified by General Massoud to attend his first press interview with Arab journalists (I was already publishing my newspaper, which was illegal, of course, with his support). There were two Moroccans and I followed them with men from Massoud’s security guard to his headquarters. After some holdups, we were there for the interview at noon. There were eight of us in the room: Massoud, his secretary, the Northern Alliance’s ambassador to India, the leader of our secret services, two Moroccans, the translator and me. Massoud asked for the written questions they had prepared and began to study them while one of the Moroccans started to set up a camera and microphones. I was behind him at an angle so that I had a good line of vision since I intended to tape the interview on our account. While I was adjusting my camera, I felt a powerful acoustic shock, heard the explosion and felt my feet and face were burning. I rushed outside, bleeding. My first thought was that my own camera had exploded. Amid the uproar, Massoud’s secretary came up to me and said the general had been wounded and that one of the two Moroccans was a suicide bomber who hidden the explosives in a camera. I turned back and saw Massoud covered in blood, in bad shape. We took him by helicopter to a small town in Tajikstan, near the border. At first they told us that he was doing well and and that he would pull though. Twelve days later I heard that he had died. Two days before the attack on the Twin Towers – it can’t have been a coincidence. There is no doubt that it was the work of Al Qaida, which knew what was going to happen and took care to remove the Taliban’s most dangerous opponent. Besides, the wife of one of the Moroccans later confessed that her husband was a fundamentalist and had undergone special training for his mission.

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