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Update: Afghanistan

The American bombing of Afghanistan began on October 7 last year, almost a month after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The capital city of Kabul fell to the U.S.-supported Northern Alliance in mid-November, and by December the rout of the Taliban was complete. Things finally appeared to be looking up for Afghanistan when in January the interim government of Hamid Karzai took charge, and began to secure promises of assistance and reconstruction from Western countries. One of Karzai's first acts as prime minister was to appoint Abdul Rahman, a senior member of the Northern Alliance, as minister for tourism.

This seemed, on the face of it, an odd decision. Twenty years of war have made Afghanistan one of the most extensively land mined countries in the world. The Taliban official in Tony Kushner's play, Homebody Kabul, which is set in 1998, has no doubt that Afghanistan is "not a place for sightseeing." In 2001, it faced what aid agencies repeatedly called a "humanitarian catastrophe" in the form of famine, epidemics, and a massive exodus to Iran and Pakistan. While in Afghanistan in April of last year, I was often interrogated by Afghans about what seemed to them the "white people's" peculiarly inordinate interest in the Buddha statues of Bamiyan. They couldn't square the Western concern for art and cultural heritage with the wretchedness of contemporary Afghanistan. Perhaps Karzai, in setting up a tourism ministry, was attempting to open up another channel through which both foreign aid and sympathy could flow into the country.

In the interviews Rahman gave to foreign journalists, the tourism minister appeared busy. He asked his foreign patrons for the rather steep sum of $1 billion to repair the damage to the tourist industry. He wanted to upgrade hotels, he said, and organize history and culture tours and trekking expeditions. He was already planning advertising campaigns in Europe, Japan, and the United States. But he wanted to get his act together first. "I do not want the tourist to face lots of problems," he told USA Today. "Give me two months," he said. "We will have set up travel and tour guides and brochures, and the country will be ready. Also, the weather will be better."

The weather did improve. Some representatives of Western tourist agencies visited Kabul. Few of them could have ventured out into the countryside, which is still under the control of various warlords, or, more simply, men with guns. But most of them did experience the rigors of the Inter-Continental Hotel in Kabul, which has not been affiliated with the hotel chain for 15 years. Some tourist agencies in Pakistan and America even began to offer package tours to Afghanistan.

It couldn't have required much insight on their part to see that the lack of infrastructure—roads, airports, hotels— was a problem. As it turned out, that lack was felt most acutely not by the few foreign visitors but by Afghanistan's hajj pilgrims, who apparently lynched Rahman at Kabul airport in February as he, exercising his VIP prerogatives, was about to commandeer the only available plane and fly his family to a vacation in India. Karzai later said, without providing any details, and adding considerably to Afghanistan's atmosphere of intrigue, that the murder of the minister, far from being spontaneous, was the result of a conspiracy.

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