Military history

CHAPTER 22

DEADBEAT CLUB

As soon as I landed in Kabul, Farouq and I drove to the Defense Ministry to ask about negotiations with the Taliban. Farouq parked the car. We started walking. I had always regarded this long path, leading past halfheartedly practicing Afghan soldiers, as my own personal march toward sexual harassment. I thought happy thoughts. Farouq talked our way past the first checkpoint. But then we reached the second checkpoint.

“Keep going,” Farouq muttered.

I kept walking, staring straight ahead. But it was no use. The women had spotted me. One lifted up the lacy curtain over the door in the concrete guardhouse. She started yelling. I kept walking. Finally I was stopped by a man with a gun and sent back to the women, inside the dreaded room where the bad things happened. One took my purse and opened up every single zipper, pulling out every lipstick and crumpled bill. Another took me. I held my arms out to the sides and grimaced. She ran her hands under my armpits, grabbed my breasts, squeezed.

“Nice,” she said.

“Just give me one example of an American woman who would blow herself up,” I said to her. “Just one. Doesn’t happen. We could never commit that much to anything.”

In response, she smiled, grabbed my butt, and ran her hands up my inner thighs, all the way to my crotch. She was barely as tall as my rib cage. Then, assault finished, she smiled, pinched my cheek, announced “Very pretty,” and patted me on the back. I walked out, feeling dirty.

For years, whenever people asked how foreign women were treated in Afghanistan, I always said better than in Pakistan. We were rarely felt up in public, and we had an easier time than the male reporters. We could interview women who would never reveal their secrets to a man. And we got bizarre access to the men, even the conservative mullahs, who seemed secretly charmed by the idea of Western women running around. We were the third sex, immune to the local rules for women and entitled to a more exclusive status than Western men. But the checkpoints were bad. We were felt up roughly and searched far more than our male counterparts—by women, no less, who had tried to take my lipstick and held up tampons in a threatening manner, asking what they were for. It was a problem in Pakistan and India as well—it was as if the women hired for these jobs were told that they were being hired because women had different parts than men, so they figured their primary duty was to search only the female parts. At every checkpoint, for every foreign woman, it was the same. Walk inside some dark room with several women drinking tea. Assume the position—arms out to the sides, legs spread. Grit your teeth through the groping. Often a security check consisted of a breast squeeze, a crotch grab, and a slap on the back. Sometimes male guards would come watch the show. Meanwhile Afghan men like Farouq were barely touched.

In Kabul, two places were known as the ninth level of female guard-box hell. The presidential palace, where the women had shoved me up against the wall, once becoming alarmed because I had neglected to wear a bra. And the Defense Ministry, which featured five checkpoints, two with very assertive women.

So on this day, Farouq and I pushed on to the third and fourth checkpoints. Both men, both easy. Then I faced the last and worst checkpoint, inside the ministry headquarters. A shriveled woman with bright-orange-hennaed hair and white roots waved me inside. She grabbed, pulled, yanked, squeezed, searched. I felt like a vegetable. I turned to go, but not fast enough. She pointed at her cheek and puckered her lips. She wasn’t letting me leave until I kissed her. So I kissed her on both cheeks. “Good,” she said. She patted my cheek.

Then, finally, we made it to the office of a Defense Ministry official, who was nicknamed the Silver Fox for his hair and manners. He stood up, laughing and raising his hands when he saw us. He pointed to one cheek. I kissed it. This was not Afghan protocol—in most places, an unrelated woman kissing a man on the cheek was akin to having sex—but it had always been Silver Fox protocol. He pointed to the other cheek, then the first one. “Three,” he announced.

I couldn’t seem to go anywhere today without kissing half a dozen Afghans. And no one would tell us anything about Taliban negotiations. After struggling for a few days to set up interviews, Farouq sat me down. Although we were still close friends, we had been growing somewhat distant from each other professionally, largely over money and job strains. I had been honest with Farouq about the situation at the Tribune, telling him that he had maybe a year at best and that we had no money. I was under so much stress, so worried about my job, my entire identity, that I couldn’t help but pass on my fears to Farouq, which caused him to worry about his job. A certain bitterness had crept into my dealings with work, and since I spent more time with Farouq than anyone else, a certain amount of my bitterness rubbed off on him. Now he was honest with me.

“We need a driver,” he said. “I know money is tight, but I can’t drive for you at the same time I’m a fixer. It’s too complicated. I can’t talk on the phone while I’m driving. And someone needs to stay with the car while we’re doing interviews. Because of the situation.”

“The situation”—the nondescript description of how bad things were getting in Afghanistan. Farouq was probably right. I had recently done an unscientific tally of how many people I knew in Afghanistan who had later been killed. I lost count. The latest example: A top anti-drugs judge had just been shot on his way to work in Kabul, months after telling me that the government refused to give him an armored car despite repeated threats.

The situation was also getting worse for foreigners. Sean’s kidnapping was only one example. A female Canadian journalist was kidnapped at a refugee camp near Kabul—she would eventually be freed, after protracted negotiations. Men on motorcycles shot and killed a Western woman walking to work in Kabul. The Taliban claimed responsibility—allegedly because she was a Christian trying to convert Muslims. Five days later, a disgruntled employee gunned down the two foreigners who ran DHL. More journalists were kidnapped. A Dutch woman, who wrote for a soft-porn laddie magazine, decided to perform a sympathetic interview with the Taliban; her magazine paid $137,000 for her release. A New York Times reporter on book leave went to meet the Taliban with the fixer Tahir—along with their driver, they were kidnapped and eventually traded to the Haqqani network, where Sean had earlier landed. After years of gambling with the Taliban, Tahir, the third Afghan fixer who had been willing to work dangerously, was betrayed. Tahir and the reporter would be held for more than seven months before escaping; their driver would manage to leave soon after.

So the situation was bad and getting worse. I told Farouq that we could hire a driver. I hoped that my bosses wouldn’t notice that I was now paying an extra $25 a day—$150 total, or $100 for Farouq, and $50 for the driver—but the security worries merited it. Farouq recruited a young man from his Internet café, who spoke little English and seemed unclear where anything was. Sometimes Farouq opted to drive himself, whenever the young man frustrated him or the drive was tricky.

“He’s learning,” Farouq said. “And his most important job is to watch the car.”

We drove out to Pul-i-Charkhi prison, the former home of superpatriot Jack Idema—or Farouq drove, as the area near the prison was a frequent Taliban hangout. I figured if I could meet the Taliban in prison, then I could find out what they thought about negotiations or anything else, while remaining safe. About 3,500 inmates now crammed into Afghanistan’s largest prison, a grim concrete catacomb that looked exactly like you’d expect an Afghan prison to look. Always affable, the guards agreed to bring a few Taliban members to talk to me, easy because about 1,500 of the inmates were allegedly insurgents. Farouq and I sat in the jail commander’s office, decorated with a dozen startlingly fluorescent pink-and-green-flower bouquets celebrating his recent promotion. Eventually three alleged Taliban militants were paraded inside. They sat down on the overstuffed couch across from me. Farouq then left the room to help a photographer friend get inside the prison. Suddenly I realized we were alone. No cops, no fixers, just me and the Taliban, who were not handcuffed or restrained in any way. I smiled at the Taliban. The Taliban smiled at me. I nodded. They nodded. Most likely, this was not safe. Some of these men were probably killers.

“Farouq?” I said loudly, still smiling. “Is this safe?”

“You’re fine,” he answered from the hallway.

We smiled and nodded some more. Farouq and the commander walked back into the office. A prison guard then poured green tea—first for the commander, then the Taliban, then Farouq, then me. I knew my place so I didn’t complain. The guard slapped down trays of chewy candies and bitter almonds for us to eat, before slumping in a chair in the corner. A fourth alleged Taliban member walked into the room.

“If somebody gives me a suicide vest, I will be the first one to blow up these guards,” proclaimed the man, sentenced to eighteen years for allegedly killing four Chinese construction workers. He gestured toward the guard in the corner, who appeared to be falling asleep. “If I get out, I will fight them. If some Islamic country could pay me, I am ready.”

The commander laughed.

The men I talked to that day were not much help with the overall goals of the Taliban or negotiations. Some said they were never Taliban. Others said they joined the Taliban after being unjustly imprisoned. But I learned how pervasive corruption was alleged to be in the justice system. All said they had been asked for bribes of tens of thousands of dollars to get their sentences reduced. All said they could not afford that much, but that other accused Taliban members had paid the bribes and were now free. One Taliban inmate insisted that Afghanistan didn’t have actual defense lawyers. Instead, inmates had brokers, middlemen between them and the judge or prosecutor.

Two senior police officials had earlier told me that many prisoners had paid off police officers to escape. The year before, fifteen prisoners had been taken to be executed, the first mass execution since Karzai’s election. Although this was supposed to send a message to Afghans that the country’s justice system was now functioning, it sent quite a different message. The executions were sloppy, mass shootings against a wall. And three guards had allowed the escape of Afghanistan’s most famous criminal, who had been sentenced to die for kidnapping, rape, and murder. In this environment, with such a topsy-turvy and often corrupt justice system, it was difficult to dismiss the claims of these alleged Taliban members.

One man sounded particularly credible. He said he was a low-level Taliban member when the regime was in power, but after Karzai came, he reconciled with the government. When three Afghan army soldiers were kidnapped by the Taliban in his district, near Kabul, he helped mediate their release. He said he was arrested because of false information given by a man who owed him money. The former Taliban member was then sentenced to seven years in prison. He told me he would rejoin the Taliban when he got out.

“I am from a tribe of three hundred and fifty young men,” he said. “They are all against what’s been done to me. Of course, they are also now against the government.”

His story—of leaving the Taliban, only to be arrested later because of a personal rivalry—was familiar. So was his story of entire clans turning against the government for a perceived slight against one member. The Afghan government seemed to be losing the Afghans. In the south, clerics who had backed Karzai or stood against the Taliban had been killed, one by one. Many Afghans drifted toward the Taliban-led militants because they seemed more powerful and more committed. Others leaned toward the Taliban because of disillusionment with corruption and civilian casualties.

My onetime shooting buddy, Sabit, had failed so miserably as attorney general that his name was now a joke. I felt bad for him, even if I was still wary of seeing him. His moral high ground had been gradually eroded, his credibility erased. Warlords had continued to humiliate him publicly. His temper had alienated everyone. Western diplomats had started treating him a bit like a drunk uncle at a holiday party. But even as I pitied him, Sabit also shared the blame for the broken justice system and what it had become—one of the biggest failures of the international community and the government.

Finally Sabit had gone too far, even for Karzai. The previous summer, in a fit of pique, Sabit announced he was running for president. Karzai immediately fired him. The jokes started—a video appeared on TV and on YouTube, allegedly showing Sabit dancing at a party. The video was fuzzy, and Sabit’s face couldn’t be seen, but it was entitled “Afghanistan Attorney General, Dancing Drunk.” The New York Times later sealed the deal, reporting that the video showed Sabit dancing giddily, slurring his words, apparently drunk. I didn’t think that the dancing man was Sabit—but as usual in Afghanistan, the truth didn’t matter. His fall was complete. Afghanistan’s Don Quixote, who rode to power tilting at brothels and booze, was finished.

Things deteriorated further. I was going slightly stir-crazy after imposing my own security lockdown due to all the attacks and kidnappings. So right before leaving Afghanistan, I decided to see old friends, making use of my new driver. On a Friday afternoon, I dropped by a going-away party for a stranger at a security-guy hangout with its own bar. Within half an hour, I wanted out. After extensive instructions, my driver picked up three of us to go to L’Atmosphère. He couldn’t find it. Our conflicting directions probably didn’t help.

“Doesn’t he know where anything is?” a friend asked.

“Apparently not,” I answered.

“How did you find this guy?”

“Farouq.”

“This isn’t safe,” she said. “The situation’s too bad to be just driving around with no idea where we are. I want to talk to Farouq.”

I called Farouq. This was probably not a good idea. This was Friday, Farouq’s day off. In an attempt to show how productive I was, how useful I was, I had been pushing Farouq harder than in years, harder than he was used to working. I listened to my friend tell Farouq how the young man didn’t know enough to be a driver. She was right—but this conversation would have fallout. She was challenging Farouq’s Pashtun-ness and questioning him in a way that was not good. Farouq wanted to talk to the driver, then me. He was icy.

“He is just a boy. He is just learning. And you’re making him work too late at night.”

“If I’m paying $50 a day for a driver, he has to work,” I said. “And it’s only eight o’clock.”

The next week, Farouq told me the driver could not work in the evenings.

“Because of the situation,” Farouq said. “He’s just a boy.”

The attacks in Afghanistan were almost always between seven and ten in the morning, and we had adjusted our schedule accordingly. Only one major attack had been at night.

“I don’t get it,” I said. “Nothing ever happens at night.”

“Something might,” Farouq said.

Right before I left Kabul, the driver again couldn’t remember where a restaurant was. Farouq wasn’t in the car.

“I can’t believe this,” I complained. “My company is paying a lot of money for a driver, and you can’t remember where anything is.”

I had assumed I was paying $50 for a driver, and $100 for Farouq. But apparently Farouq and his employee had a different deal. The poor guy, struggling with his English, tried to understand me. He looked at me, and tried to explain himself in a combination of Dari and English.

“No. Not a lot.”

“How much do you make?”

“Five.” He held up his hand and waved his fingers and thumb.

I should have seen it coming. That Farouq, the master operator, would figure out a typical Afghan workaround, a way to get more money out of the Tribune in the last days of a regular paycheck. By my calculations, hiring a driver was now netting Farouq $145 a day, as opposed to the $125 he made when we didn’t have a driver. I tried to look at this from Farouq’s point of view. The driver was driving Farouq’s car, and $5 a day was a lot for most Afghans, most of whom made $1 or $2 a day. And it’s not like he drove much. Essentially, he was being paid to car-sit.

I filed the information away, but considering what was happening with our company, considering how Farouq’s job was under threat, I didn’t confront my old friend about something so comparatively small. I figured everything would work out soon. I just didn’t know how.

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