About once a month, when he has a little extra money, my friend Daoud calls me from Kabul. He always asks the same question: “What is America going to do in Afghanistan after 2014?” He thinks I must know more than he does, because I live in the United States.
One morning last week, Daoud called and was very excited. He had just heard that President Obama had spoken with President Karzai for the first time in months. Mr. Obama made it clear to Mr. Karzai that if he did not sign the bilateral security agreement that the United States wants, Mr. Obama would wait and sign it when the next Afghan president is elected in April.
Daoud said that people all over Kabul were suddenly hopeful. Their nervousness about the American plan to reduce its forces this year had grown worse with the discussion of a “zero option” — total withdrawal — after Mr. Karzai refused to sign the agreement.
Daoud used to be a driver for a United States government program in Kabul, and was well paid by Afghan standards. That job ended more than a year ago when the Americans were in the early stages of cutting back. Now he drives a taxi. Life has been hard for him.
“Very few people can afford taxis these days,” he lamented over the crackling phone line. “And on top of all that, the price of everything is rising, as if suddenly there is no land to grow vegetables or raise animals.”
He explained that “since the day that Karzai refused to sign the security agreement, whenever I go to buy some parsley or yogurt for dinner, the price is doubled. I ask the shopkeeper why. He says, ‘You don’t know what is going to happen after 2014.’ He is trying to get money so he can run away, if he has to.
“I go to another shop,” Daoud went on, “and that guy charges even more. I go to the roundabout to hire a stonemason or a day laborer, and he tells me, ‘I have to warn you, I charge 1,500 Afghani now.’ I ask him why not 800 Afghani like always. He says: ‘Karzai refused to sign the paper with Obama. I have to make some money to send my son away if the American soldiers pull out, otherwise he’ll be killed like my older son was in the last civil war.”’
I knew what Daoud was talking about. Several of my friends have moved their families from Kabul to the safety of India or Dubai in case the Americans suddenly leave. They saw how America walked away from Iraq and what has happened there since. Other friends with successful businesses are staying, but have transferred their money from Afghan banks to banks in other countries.
Those who don’t have the option of leaving have been worried sick for months. They follow the news very closely. Like myself, they fear that if the Americans go, Afghanistan will be engulfed in another civil war, exactly as happened after the Russians left in 1989. Except this time, it will be a lot worse. Now we have not only the mujahedeen factions fighting one another, but also the Taliban, the warlords, the drug lords and groups in Pakistan like the Haqqani network, who send their suicide bombers to Afghanistan every day. All are better armed and have more money than before.
Daoud is famous for his big laugh. Suddenly it came roaring through some satellite and into my ear.
“So you see, Qais jan, please thank President Obama for looking out for Afghans like me. Now I can go to those shopkeepers and that stonemason and ask them to give me back half of my money! I will tell them that everything is going to be all right.
“You know me,” Daoud went on. “I’ll never have the money to move to another country, no matter what happens in Afghanistan. But at least with this money they must give back to me, I can have an excellent lamb stew!”
Generously, he added: “I wish you were here, Qais jan, to share it with me. But you don’t have to worry, I’ll eat your bowl for you.” Then as he laughed some more, his phone time ran out and the line went dead.
Qais Akbar Omar is the author of the memoir A Fort of Nine Towers and a student in Boston University’s creative writing program.