I left Afghanistan after the August 2009 presidential elections feeling like I had witnessed a sort of tribal theater of the absurd.
The country was dominated by internal ethnic conflicts among the Pashtuns, Tajiks and Hazaras, to name a few. Every power in the region -- Pakistan, India, Iran, China and Russia -- greatly benefited from uncertainty in Afghanistan. So the thinly veiled chaos they created, usually by proxy, resulted in perfectly choreographed destabilization. Chaos was the only institution running efficiently in Afghanistan.
An already charged landscape was tilted further towards the brink by a ubiquitous and brutal Taliban, a massive and unwieldy U.S. and NATO military presence, powerful drug cartels, and the warlords. Crippling paranoia was rampant for ordinary people in every Afghan province. Even before Afghans went to the polls, international observers voiced serious concerns that the elections had been rigged by the incumbent, President Hamid Karzai. It didn't help Karzai's credibility that the Brookings Institute and Transparency International had called his administration the fifth most corrupt government in the world (right up there with Somalia and Iraq). Many Afghans were uncomfortable with the fact that Karzai was in hoc with warlords, and equally as bad was the fact that his main challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, had himself come from one of the main warlord political parties. Given that the warlords were responsible for the murderous civil war that opened the door for the Taliban to sweep in and take control the country, this was not a small thing to be overlooked.
For Afghans, just going to the polls was a daunting prospect, given the vicious and prevalent threats by the Taliban. Some who voted -- despite threats of violence -- had their fingers cut off.
In the tense days leading up to the election, I spent most of my time exploring neighborhoods in Kabul. Each day, fewer and fewer people were going outside their homes, until the city had become a ghost town. Each day, the Taliban's presence was felt more intensely than the previous day. Afghans are prone to extravagant rumors and conspiracy theories, which made it especially hard to get a clear read of things transpiring. My interpreter Haz (not his real name) mentioned that the Afghan National Army was desperately hunting down twenty suicide bombers that had reportedly made their way into Kabul and were in hiding until election day. That evening, someone from the UN, of all places, told me the same thing, but the number had become two hundred. The source of the rumor, as it turned out, was a Taliban boast.
Conspiracies aside, there were suicide bombers in Kabul. Three days in a row, I arrived at scenes of bloody carnage within an hour of each happening.
One was a standoff between counter-terrorism police and three Taliban insurgents inside a bank in the center of the city. It was such a non-event to Afghans so used to mayhem, my driver had asked me if I wanted to stop there or If I wanted to stick to my existing itinerary of candidate interviews. But once there, I realized his nonchalance was more of a face saving way to try and steer clear of the place. Every few minutes, he would walk over to me and move us farther from the scene or mention that it was going to go on for hours and we could come back later -- anything to convince me to leave.
A cardinal rule with terrorist incidents is to avoid being near them during or after, because of the risk of another one occurring at the scene, a common tactic used to double the casualties. Someone in the crowd would have a bomb strapped to them, a passing car would explode, a sniper would be hiding nearby. In this instance, while waiting for a resolution, a small bomb went off nearby, most likely engineered to maim onlookers. Haz's fears were coming to life.
After the siege ended, I went with police to a location where they displayed the bodies. One victim had set off a small explosive device that burned most of his face into a black, charred mask, the force of the blast also tearing his arm off at the fibula. Another of the three had a colorful orange shawl turned tourniquet tied around his leg at the femoral artery. I wondered if he had attempted to save his own life during the firefight or if the police had fruitlessly tried to keep him alive.
The day before, I had been traveling on Jalabad Road. This stretch of highway is an important commercial roadway and because it's well traveled by Afghan and international forces, it's a popular location for Improvised Explosive Devices. Roadside bombings are commonplace and it is nerve wracking to be anywhere near military vehicles, as they are the usual targets. Virtually anyone -- in any vehicle -- traveling in Afghanistan on any given road or city may be an inadvertent collateral target. Armored military vehicles move quickly on these roads, frequently speeding up behind and next to civilian cars, putting those vehicles in the line of IED fire. Or, God forbid, you are caught in a traffic jam near a convoy of armored vehicles. You can only hold your breath.
We drove off Jalabad Road to a nearby street soon after a serious suicide bombing had happened. Although things had calmed down from the initial turmoil, there was still mayhem underneath the surface. People milling about the wreckage. Several storefronts had been damaged. Completely destroyed cars clogged the small street, windows blown out, doors torn off, hoods missing, wires and hoses spilling out like organs. Some were positioned vertically on their sides. Some were being lifted away onto flatbed trucks. Some still had tatters of upholstery, but mostly the insides were obliterated metal wreckage. The street was littered with debris -- pieces of clothing, huge pools of water and oil, plastic bottles, orphaned car parts, scattered shards of glass, sandals, bumpers.
Haz had a way of speaking that was less like giving me information and more like warnings and omens. "There's a box of body parts over there," he said in monotone, motioning to a wall.
I walked over and watched as people pulled a cloth off the cardboard box.
I was expecting to see distinct hands and feet, like parts of a disassembled mannequin. In reality, the contents were more reminiscent of an horrific Rorschach test of burned, swollen and discolored flesh, probably equal parts Afghan civilian, NATO soldier and Taliban insurgent.
My interpreter usually immersed himself into crowds and listened for cues. While I didn't feel like the scene was an overtly dangerous one, Haz suddenly and very anxiously materialized next to me. He put his head close to mine and whispered faintly so no one would hear him speaking in English to me "Put your cameras in your bag. Follow me to the car right now please. Hide your cameras. Walk quickly."
I knew I was conspicuous because of my cameras, but I didn't feel like all eyes were upon me. Some media were there with video cameras, which seemed to me made them bigger targets. As we picked up our pace towards the car, Haz continued to whisper, without looking at me "People in the crowd are talking about taking revenge on foreigners. It's going to be too dangerous here in a minute."
We walked about 100 yards where our driver was waiting. As we pulled away, Haz finished his sentence. "Jeff. The crowd was talking about taking revenge and one of the men said 'I have a knife.'"
The man had been staring at me.