07/07/2006, 00.00
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People of Kabul: between al-Qaeda violence and appreciation for foreign troops

by Marta Allevato

After the suicide bombs in Kabul, the only Catholic priest there talks about the dangerous alliance between al-Qaeda and the Taleban, about nationwide discontent and about the disorganized work of NGOs. But there is also widespread appreciation for foreign troops and their "work of peace". Catholic organizations are also highly regarded.

Kabul (AsiaNews) – Kabul is no longer a "happy island", the only place in Afghanistan where security and lawfulness appeared to hold sway. In recent months, a series of suicide attacks has shaken the city, raising fears about growing links between Al Qaeda and the Taleban. The latest episode happened on 5 July: three car bombs went off in different parts of the city, targeting coaches that were transporting military and employees of the Ministries of Defence and Trade. One person was killed and 47 wounded.

In a telephone interview with AsiaNews, Fr Giuseppe Moretti – the only parish priest in Kabul and superior of the missio sui iuris [Independent Mission] of Afghanistan – analyses the causes behind the escalation of violence: the expected Taleban offensive in the spring, forcefully backed by al-Qaeda followers who are seeking proselytes in Afghanistan after the death of al Zarqawi in Iraq. Popular discontent about unmet government pledges and about the work of NGOs – who seem more concerned about personal gain than meeting the Afghanis' needs – fuel the violence. But not all NGOs are the same. The Barnabite priest, who has lived in Kabul for years, highlighted the fundamental contribution to reconstruction given by foreign troops, "real peace workers" and by Catholic organizations, involved in areas that have been all but forgotten by the rest of the world.

Fr Moretti, how do you account for the escalation of violence affecting Afghanistan, especially the use of suicide bombers? Isn't this an unusual strategy for the country, most of all in Kabul, so far considered to the safest area?

The spring reaction of the Taleban was expected but certainly not with this intensity. The tragedy of suicide bombers has emerged in the past two years and it is linked to the ever closer ties between the Taleban and al-Qaeda. Car bombs are a new manifestation of terrorism, which like an octopus has spread its tentacles throughout Afghanistan. Overall, one can see growing opposition to the government, fomented – in a manner that gives cause for concern – by a recent video of Ayman al Zawahiri [Bin Laden's number 2). The Egyptian doctor – after the elimination of al Zarqawi in Iraq – called on Afghan Muslims, especially those in Kabul, to rebel against "infidel and invading forces". It is the first time that al Qaeda has made such a direct appeal to the people of Kabul. It's true, the capital could once have been considered as a happy island; declining security here is an indication of the weakness of the central power base.

And this suits terrorism?

For terrorists, striking Kabul gives great payback in terms of their image: it serves to get wider consensus among the masses, by discrediting the government of Hamid Karzai and the foreign forces' ability to act. Managing to strike the most protected city is like saying: 'we are winning, not the US and its allies'. Anyhow, the authority of the central power base is historically weak in Afghanistan: outside Kabul, the king or president are just names. Then there is the lack of a national army prepared and able to manage emergency situations like the clashes in Kabul at the end of May, following by the road accident caused by a US truck. 

Such a violent reaction would seem to indicate levels of deep discontent among the population.

Yes, and the Taleban and terrorists latch easily onto this. The population is seeing politicians' promises for a better life vanish into thin air. Alas, the enormous international funds available for reconstruction projects in Afghanistan are directed only in small part to the local people. President Karzai himself has called for more collaboration and communication between NGOs and the authorities. Sometimes, the NGOs seem to behave as if they are dealing with a "conquered" country: each has its own projects, without any agreement with the government. But the problems go even deeper than this.

Can you outline them for us?

There is no employment policy: there is an enormous discrepancy between the wages paid to those who work for the State (50 dollars per month) and those who manage to find a job with embassies, UN agencies or foreign firms (an average of 200 dollars). The difference can be up to 40%. Wages are low while the cost of rent is increasing: in Kabul, an apartment costs at least 300 dollars a month. And families here only have one wage to live off: it is rare to find wives who work. Contracts do not protect employees, who could be sacked from one day to the next.

There is no general construction policy, which the Soviets had promised, and which is more necessary than ever today. There is no health or social assistance. Education needs a thorough overhaul, to prepare teachers properly and to introduce curricula of modern studies. How can a real democracy be built on an ignorant people? Added to this, are abuses by war lords, who continue to lord it over most of the country, and drug traffickers…

Are Afghanis unhappy about the international force?

Not really. Afghans have a historical allergy to foreign presence on their soil, but they have much respect for the troops, who are contributing to rebuilding the country. I can speak about the Italian soldiers from person al experience: they are truly workers for peace. I have seen schools they rebuilt, assistance to orphanages, veterinarian support, and repaired roads. The point is that a time limit should be set for their mission. As long as the troops are here for a fixed amount of time, the population really sees them supporting the country's reconstruction and as boosting democracy, but when their presence becomes permanent, it generates hostility.

What is positive in the country?

Recovery efforts are under way, even if slowly. Not everything is negative. The international contribution is consistent although – as I said – it could be channeled better. There is much movement among women, generated by a desire for emancipation and it is not difficult to believe that the true renewal of society will come from them. 

There is also a very positive commitment from Catholic entities active in the country: the sisters of Mother Teresa, for example, have just arrived in Kabul and they have already conquered the hearts of many. Catholics are among the few entities at work in sectors like social assistance. The German Caritas was the first to open a consultancy clinic for psychological aid. The Association for Kabul Children is the only one that looks after children with cerebral palsy. Catholic organizations are making a fundamental contribution to innovation in the social and health sectors. And meanwhile, we wait, with ever greater confidence, for the opening of the first public church in Afghanistan. The possibilities of this materializing are becoming more concrete than ever although one cannot set specific times [at the moment, the only Catholic Church in the country is the chapel within the Kabul embassy].

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