For some, life is good — and hidden

Miranda Kennedy Jan 16, 2007

KAI RYSSDAL: American troops in Iraq aren’t the only ones having their combat tours extended. Defense Secretary Robert Gates arrived in Kabul today, where he said he’s not opposed to keeping some American soldiers in Afghanistan longer, too.

There are a fair number in the country already: about 24,000. That’s the most since the war began six years ago. The U.S. has spent billions of dollars on security and reconstruction since then, but most Afghans say their lives haven’t improved.

Most of them say that, but not all. We sent Miranda Kennedy to find out how Kabul’s new elite spend their spare time.

MIRANDA KENNEDY: Friday is the weekly day off in Afghanistan. It’s the Muslim day of prayer, but for Kabul’s newly rich, it’s more like the day of controlled debauchery.

AJMAL JALILI:We’re gonna drink. Yeah, we’re gonna drink, but not too much.

Ajmal Jalili is heading to meet some friends for brunch. The constitution forbids Afghans from drinking. But booze is widely available for the thousands of foreigners working in Kabul and those Afghans who know where to go.

JALILI: Alright, we’re here . . .

KENNEDY: So where are we coming to?

JALILI: A guesthouse called Atmosphere. So it’s a little safer, better.

KENNEDY: But this is a place. . . Afghans aren’t supposed to come here, unless you have a foreign passport.

JALILI: Sometimes, no it’s alright, you can go anywhere you want.

If you know the right people, which they do at Atmosphere. This French-owned guesthouse is unmarked. It’s surrounded by high brick walls.

[Speaking Dari to guards]

Ajmal and his well-dressed friends greet the armed Afghan guarding the door, and he lets them through.

[Ambience — jazz, chatting]

Inside, it could be the south of France. There’s jazz playing in a rose garden, and Europeans in bikinis are lying by a pool. We settle down at a corner table, and some of the guys order beers — even though it’s barely 11 in the morning.

The prices here are inflated, but Ajmal’s friends all earn big working for foreign organizations, which is why they’re welcome here.

UMAID BAHAR: Working with coalition right now is a great danger for Afghans. You know we have accepted all their dangers in order to be paid more.

Umaid Bahar is a 23-year-old in a flashy collar shirt. He says he makes $1,000 a month as an interpreter for the U.S.-led coalition forces. That’s 10 times the salary of a government employee in Afghanistan.

Umaid keeps his job a secret from most people. That’s partly to protect himself and partly because he knows his family would disapprove. So he doesn’t go back to his village much.

BAHAR: When I go there, I never tell them if I work with the coalition. If I go there by these types of clothes . . .

KENNEDY: Wearing jeans . . .

BAHAR: Yeah, wearing jeans and a shirt like this, they will think that I’m already influenced by them.

Umaid started working for the U.S. five years ago. Now he drinks and sometimes even visits Kabul’s foreign-run brothels. But he worries that he’s undermining his religion and culture just by being here today.

BAHAR: We’re Afghans, we’re Muslim, and we’re living in a Islamic environment. We shouldn’t forget this.

Umaid struggles with his guilty conscience. He’s not sure Afghans should be allowed to come here. But his friends don’t have so much of a problem with their Westernized lifestyles.

Obidullah Sahak makes $6,000 a month working security with the U.S. army. The job’s given him a new identity, too.

SAHAK: My nickname is Obi because my name is Obidullah, and the Americans I work for, they can’t pronounce it and they just call me Obi, from the movie Obi Kenobi. [Laugh] Obi Wan Kenobi.

Obi’s never seen his Star Wars namesake, and he doesn’t want his Afghan friends to pick up the name. But he’s willing to put up with it from the army, which has employed him and a couple of his brothers for five years. Now, he and his family own 14 vehicles. They recently spent a million dollars building a mansion his friends call “The Palace.” Later, he takes me there and shows me around.

KENNEDY: So you have two sitting rooms.

SAHAK: Actually one in each floor. Like one here. . .

It towers above the other houses in the neighborhood, and that worries Obi a little. If the Taliban found out it was built with money from the Americans, they’d try to destroy it. And Obi’s not sure the U.S. will be here long enough for him to earn another million to rebuild it.

In Kabul, I’m Miranda Kennedy for Marketplace.

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