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Peaceful Afghan city fears war after US pullout

A city that has modernized over the last 10 years now faces whispers of violence, tremors of economic downturn and calls by strongmen to rearm against the Taliban.
Image: Herat's stability seems threatened.
Merchants attract crowds to the narrow streets of the bazaar in Herat, Afghanistan, on Nov. 1. Herat is being shaken by whispers of violence, tremors of economic downturn, calls by a local strongman to rearm against the Taliban and conservative opposition to modernization. Bryan Denton / The New York Times
/ Source: The New York Times

Women in Converse sneakers jog untrammeled — if still in full, flowing chadors — in this western Afghan city’s biggest park, enjoying freedoms rarely witnessed in the rest of Afghanistan.

Rich businessmen, refugees for a few days of “picnic” from more violent Kandahar, pull on apple-scented shisha pipes like lotus eaters in the pagodas of the local pleasure garden. Unwary for once of kidnappers or suicide bombers, they punctuate the night with hoots of laughter.

Herat, an ancient trading city of minarets and wide avenues in the brown borderlands of western Afghanistan, has probably advanced further than any other in this country toward modernity over the past 10 years. There is a quiet and firm belief here that if any place can ride out the coming economic and security turbulence as international forces and money depart, it will be this city.

Yet there are still whispers of encroaching violence, tremors of economic downturn, calls by a local strongman to rearm against the Taliban, conservative opposition to modernization — and doubt.

“War will start,” said Ghulam Reza, a slight man with a gray beard and turban, an old mujahedeen fighter who had brought his two grown-up daughters and their husbands to the Citadel, one of Herat’s landmarks.

He wanted them to see how much the hulking battlements had been restored with, in large part, a $1.2 million grant from the United States Consulate.

He also wanted to show them where he used to fight when war stalked the city, and all of those parts were in ruins.

“Everything will go back to the early 1990s, when there was a civil war among the mujahedeen groups,” he said, adding that there would still be hope if foreign forces stayed in large numbers.

There is the strong sense that Herat has an immense amount to lose.

The source of the city’s prosperity is not hard to see — the snaking road from the Iranian border 80 miles away runs to the dusty 200-acre customs yard on the edge of town. There, beneath brown hills chalked with “Allahu akbar” and “My love, Afghanistan,” lumbering trucks spill German air-conditioners, Chinese motorcycle parts and Saudi honey into the Herat economy for transport to the Afghan hinterland.

Although there are attacks in the districts outside the city, the Taliban have not secured a strong foothold in Herat. And trade and proximity to Iran and Turkmenistan have bred openness and a rich urbanization of furniture stores, office towers and storied homes, some in places where dirt tracks ran just five years ago.

The city has swelled in recent years to more than a million residents, according to provincial estimates. And the life here, in the quiet paved neighborhoods, the laughter of its fairs and chatter of its soccer fields, evokes something all too rare in Afghanistan — a people actually having fun.

But Herat is also a place where Afghan history has a tendency to splinter. It was here in 1979 that locals rose up against the Soviet-backed government, giving first momentum to a chain of uprisings that prompted the invasion and 10-year Soviet occupation of the country.

'Holes in our history'
Much of the city was destroyed. In a dirty, bombed-out wasteland in the center of Herat, 600-year-old minarets still stand, barely, looking like haunted industrial smokestacks — a reminder to the people not only of their history but also of what they should be careful not to lose again, said Ayamuddin Ajmal, head of the department for the preservation of cultural monuments.

“They are the five fingers of our history,” said Mr. Ajmal, a sturdy man with short black hair, as he strode one morning beneath the minarets. “They witnessed a lot. Those bullet holes are holes in our history.”

A commander who took part in the 1979 rebellion, Ismail Khan, later became governor and self-styled emir of this region, his fatherly largess evident in Herat’s parks and museums.

Now, he is active again. Leaving his office in Kabul, where he serves as minister for energy and water, he returned to Herat on Nov. 1 to gather thousands of his former fighters outside the city, urging them to reactivate their networks and prepare to counter the Taliban if the national army is not up to the job. That call raised fears around the country that old dividing lines were again becoming active among the network of mujahedeen warlords who waged the civil war.

Worries about a return to the bad old days here and elsewhere in Afghanistan have cast a pall over Herat, contributing to a weakening of its lifeblood — trade — as the 2014 troop withdrawal approaches.

Annual economic growth has slipped from 20 percent in 2011 to about 10 percent, according to the Chamber of Commerce and Industries. And restrictions on trade through Iran and a slowing of that economy next door are also making things worse, locals say.

Out in the warehouses of the Shahab motorcycle factory in an industrial park near the airport, production has dropped from 400 bikes a day to 100, and the manager, Halim Shah Haideri, was forced to lay off half of the 150 workers. Mr. Haideri, 50, burst into sudden pessimism: “There will be a war, definitely.”

This pessimism has nurtured a sense of siege even in those areas where Herat has made the most social and cultural progress, like women’s rights and the media.

New freedoms
Herat boasts some of the highest levels of education for girls, and Afghanistan’s only female provincial chief prosecutor.

But the prosecutor, Maria Bashir, receives monthly notifications “of Taliban plots to attack me,” she said, sitting in her defended office in the government compound. “It is very difficult for them to accept that a woman should be in a decision-making position.”

Not far away, in one of Herat’s more expensive neighborhoods, Sayed Wahid Qattali, a young, well-connected businessman from a prosperous family, rented a house for $1,500 a month, built a studio and this month began Herat’s newest television station, Asar, or Time, which he describes as pro-democratic. He also started a radio station focused solely on women and their issues.

Both stations celebrate new freedoms won over the last decade. But the way he describes them, they are also weapons crucial now to defending those freedoms against the country’s enemies.

“I am trying to protect all these values,” Mr. Qattali said.

The competition includes rival cable channels in Herat — backed, he said, by Iran and Pakistan, and occupied with disseminating their propaganda. Those two neighbors loom large in almost every Afghan’s fears about who will determine the country’s fate once the United States leaves.

“We are against Talibanization,” Mr. Qattali said. “We are against the influence of Iran and Pakistan, who are supporting fundamentalism in the region.”

Later, in the sprawling park known as the Takht-e-Safar gardens — one of Ismail Khan’s legacies — children swirled in flying chairs at a creaky multicolored fun fair. As traditional music pulsed through a loudspeaker, they howled and kicked, still able to enjoy the openness of their sparkling city below.

But Mohammad Hares, a 19-year-old law student, wearing brown, traditional shalwar kameez and eating potato chips in the shadows of the pine trees, worried how long it would last.

“Recently there has been some security incidents in Herat city, and in the districts — assassinations, kidnappings — which have made Heratis very concerned,” he said, watching another ride, the Big Wheel, as men and women together were lifted up in blue, red and green buckets toward the sunset.

“I remember the Taliban times,” he said, “and I hope Afghanistan will be free so that the kids can continue with their education and go to school.”

Habib Zahori contributed reporting.

This story, "Freewheeling Afghan City Fearful of U.S. Pullout," originally appeared in The New York Times.