In Afghanistan, Bin Laden’s Dream Lives On
On the morning Osama bin Laden died, a corpse was being carried through the streets of Charikar, a town north of Kabul. Exactly who the deceased was or how he had met his fate wasn’t clear, but the funeral procession edged slowly down one of the country’s main roads while a voice from a loudspeaker urged people to come out and pray for his soul.
Afghanistan has been in turmoil since the late 1970s, the short periods of stability and hope in-between never lasting long enough to count for much. So events in this war that are hailed as momentous by the world’s media or potential “game changers” by US officials often take on a surreal quality in the place where they are meant to matter most. Bin Laden’s killing was no different. In Charikar, the relatively peaceful capital of Parwan province, al-Qaida does not have significant support. It is a stronghold of the Northern Alliance, the loose collection of anti-Soviet fighters, militia leaders and serial human rights abusers that overthrew the Taliban regime in 2001 with the help of American air power.
Yet when a pair of the movement’s commanders in the town were told of the historic news emanating from Pakistan, they did not celebrate. Of greater concern to them were the Nato soldiers who, they claimed, had been raiding homes in the surrounding area, wrongly arresting clerics and insulting Afghan culture. “If these foreigners stay longer, they will sow the seeds of more violence and division,” one said.
While the commanders answered carefully, a businessman sitting beside them was less diplomatic. He warned that the United States could emulate the Soviet Union and collapse after a devastating defeat in a country famous for humbling empires. “They are sending their dogs to our houses without permission,” he said. “We have to defend ourselves. We will hit them with sticks and stones, and if we have guns we will shoot them.”
This kind of hostility has become typical in recent years, with the war leaving a legacy of mistrust and hatred towards the West that goes far deeper than any single group or ideology. Bin Laden might be gone, but the conflict he sucked the US-led coalition into continues to do his bidding. The danger is that the impact will be felt for decades, both here and abroad.
Afghanistan was a country in ruins when the Americans invaded, and the violence that has followed means it is more traumatised now than it already was, weighed down with a terrible burden it cannot shake off. The language of jihad is found in every day life. In a society such as this, wanting to be a shahid (martyr) or ghazi (a holy warrior who has killed an infidel) is not extreme. Nor is it unusual for a child to pose for a photograph holding a kalashnikov.
Among a population that defines itself by its piety and adherence to the strictest tenets of Islam, Nato forces were inevitably going to be seen as occupiers when the realisation dawned that they could not bring the security they had promised. There will be no equivalent of the pro-democracy Arab Spring here.
Sympathy for the insurgents is particularly easy to find in the Pashtun community, Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group. For many of them, Bin Laden’s role in the anti-Soviet struggle still marks him out for admiration. Speaking in Kabul, a resident of the eastern province of Khost said: “He left his house in the name of Islam and now he is a martyr. If one Osama dies, hundreds will rise up and hundreds of their friends will rise up.”
Nato cannot win in Afghanistan. Even if al-Qaida and the Taliban were to be defeated in the short term, acts of retribution are inevitable in the future. All it needs is for a young man who has lost a relative in a drone attack or an air strike to seek vengeance on the streets of Washington, Paris or London. Bin Laden’s dream is very much alive. Chris Sands is a journalist, a photographer, and a co-founder of Makoto Photographic Agency. Copyright © 2011 Le Monde diplomatique – distributed by Agence Global