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‘Is that thing still going on?’: Kabul on the end of bin Laden

May 3, 2011

Early yesterday morning in Kabul, we woke to a phone buzzing with text  messages and turned on the TV just in time to catch president Obama announcing that the terrorist America had been chasing for around a decade had been killed. Seriously, for real.

(He turned out to have been right under our allies’ nose, actually, but thanks, Pakistan, we can always count on you when  we need a frontline state.)

 As the news became clearer, we started thinking about the wisdom of venturing out for the day. The past week had been unusually tense even by Kabul’s standards, and the city has been on high alert since the Taliban thoughtfully sent out a memo announcing the launch of its spring offensive. To decode the  situation, we did what we usually do and consulted our housemate, a  veteran of the jihad and a learned professor of economics. Was it safe  to go to work now that OBL had been killed, we asked?  “Sure,” he  said, as he shrugged on his own backpack and prepared to leave for office. “Nobody in this city remembered that he was alive anyway.”

According to Steve Coll’s ‘Ghost Wars’, US president George HW Bush (the senior) was surprised into giving the following response when an official tried to brief him about the war (the other war, the one on the 90’s) in Afghanistan. “Is that thing still going on,” he asked. Yesterday, Kabul residents reacted in much the same way to America’s chest thumping yee-haws. ‘Was that guy still around?’  As most international organizations ‘locked down’ and expats retreated  behind the high walls of their secure compounds, Kabul residents got out of the house and went to work. The message they sent forth, from their thin trickle of buses and bicycles on the usually Landcruiser-choked streets, was a big, fat ‘Whatever’.  Calling ahead to a friend to check if he was in office, we got his best perversely Afghan side. “The man was an Arab who died in Pakistan, why would I skip work in Kabul for him,” he ribbed mercilessly on the phone

That doesn’t mean there is no emotion attached to the news of binLaden’s death here. After all, this is the place where he cut his jihadi teeth, and where the first bombs fell almost a decade ago in direct response to his presence.  Depending on whom you ask, there is both relief and sadness at his death. But everywhere, it comes tempered with a strong feeling of how irrelevant the guy had become, not just for Afghanistan, but for the world. It hasn’t been about one guy in a cave (or as it turned out, mansion in leafy Pakistani city) for a long time, and ‘getting him’ doesn’t mean a whole lot when the war continues to pound down on both sides of the Afghan-Pak border. “Great,” drawls one friend in her mock-American accent, when I call her with the news. “Now call me when the war’s over.”

By lunchtime, the absence of a body has caused a swirl of conspiracy theories on the road. “They pulled him out of the freezer and  threw him in Pakistan to help Obama’s re election,” says one taxi driver. “Pakistanis sold him for money,” says another, with satisfaction.“They are not true warriors for Islam.” The fact that he was found not in a cave but a mansion in Pakistan surprises no one. Even president Karzai couldnt resist the tone of “we-told-you-so-but-did-you-believe-us-huh” in his address to the nation, where he helpfully pointed out that ‘we told you so.’ (Keeping him company were the Indian news channels, which went into gleeful overdrive and beamed pictures of  Zardari cheek by jowl with OBL. Same diff, dude.)

In offices, Facebook status messages pop up all over screens, all  about OBL. In one room, a Panjshiri argues with a Pashtun over the  relative evil of Osama and Obama. The latter may be a ‘secret Zionist’  and ‘Muslim killer’, says the Panjshiri, but the other killed (Ahmad Shah) Massoud.

 People crowd around TVs, watching the images of young, white Americans, laughing and cheering for their incredible country, celebrating their triumph. Initially, there is laughter here too, the disbelieving kind. A few cracks at how even Karzai would not show off about getting an enemy ten years too late. But as the cheers of “USA USA” ring louder, and the chest thumping crowd swells larger, the silence in the room deepens and turns chill. The faces around us are like dark mirrors of the others on TV, the cheers a dreadful echo of that plaintive and bewildered question from a decade ago, “Why do they hate us.”

The camera stops on the image of a young man in star spangled hat and boxer shorts, holding a sign that says ‘We Got Him.’ “Whats going on?” whispers one young woman, a late comer in the room. “They are  celebrating the death of their friend,” says another, wryly. ‘Karzai  will go the same way’, comes one prediction. ‘Will that make him a  hero?’ That one launches a long debate (But ‘no, not really,’ is the final verdict).

“America feels strong again, the dollar is rising, they have forgotten their problems of recession, which is what their president needed,” explains one armchair analyst, tucking into his lunch. ‘God bless America, but God help us,” he laughs, gallows humour ever at the ready.  But the TV is eventually turned off, the laughter and loud hoots of young America silenced as something profane. Perhaps it takes decades of war to understand it, but in that room, the idea of cheering over one more death seemed simply futile.

 As we leave for home, we ask our driver what he thinks will happen to the war in Afghanistan. “Nothing, he says, surprised. “Our enemies are different, they won’t stop because Osama is dead.” But will America leave now that they’ve got what they wanted, we persist. “Of course  not,” he laughs. “One project is over, another one will start.”


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