- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 12, 2004

Whither Afghanistan?

When we most memorably heard from John Jennings, he was riding along with a British Broadcasting Corp. film crew in the leading wave of Afghan resistance fighters as they triumphantly entered the capital, Kabul, during the war to defeat the Taliban late in 2001.

Mr. Jennings, a veteran of the Associated Press’ Kabul bureau in the 1980s and a former Washington Times staffer, stayed on in Afghanistan for a few more weeks, sending us stories on the first days of the new regime.

He then returned to the United States and his new career in medicine, and we more or less lost track of him until earlier this year. That was when he called to say he was returning to Afghanistan for a visit and would like to file a few stories.

The first two of those are scheduled to appear tomorrow, and the timing could not be any better, with Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Washington for appointments with top administration officials tomorrow and Tuesday.

Mr. Jennings’ reporting flies in the face of the conventional wisdom that the country is teetering on the brink of anarchy.

While acknowledging the widely reported attacks that have taken places in regions where Taliban remnants remain strong, he found much of the country to be prospering, with bustling markets and roads clogged with commerce.

During a visit last fall, Mr. Jennings reports, “I concentrated on populous areas dominated by anti-Taliban leaders, visiting three of the country’s five largest cities — Kabul, Mazar-e-Sharif and Jalalabad — and the countryside around each, with side trips to the Panjshir Valley and the Pakistan border.”

During a second trip last month, he says, “I visited Kabul and Jalalabad again, then went on to Ghazni, Kandahar and Herat, spending several days in each.

“I traveled overland, on public transport, unarmed, unaccompanied, sandwiched between ordinary Afghans, querying them about conditions near their homes and along the highways. … I haunted bazaars and tea houses, chatting with fellow patrons and shopkeepers.

“Except for southwestern Farah Province, where Taliban were reliably reported to have infiltrated the local security forces, I traveled openly as a foreigner, often in blue jeans and baseball cap.”

In areas controlled by the warlords of the so-called Northern Alliance, he says, “the highways are wide open, the cities calm, food and fuel relatively cheap.”

Japanese tourists

That sounds very different from the experience of U.N. election staffers and private relief workers, many of whom have been ambushed and killed or kidnapped in recent weeks.

Just last week, attackers murdered 11 Chinese road workers while they slept in an area of northern Afghanistan that had been considered relatively stable.

Mr. Jennings’ experience may mean that former Taliban members and other insurgents are deliberately targeting anyone there in an official capacity with an eye to undermining elections coming in September, while disregarding anyone else.

It may also reflect the fact that we in the press focus all our attention on the places where violent actions are happening and ignore the much larger areas where conditions are stable and calm.

How else to explain Mr. Jennings’ encounter with a Japanese travel agent who had just returned from taking a tour group to Bamiyan, the site where the Taliban dynamited two enormous stone Buddhas in 1999?

The woman, named Mariko, on only her second visit to Afghanistan, had taken her seven Japanese tourists on a two-week trek by jeep to the site in the central highlands from Peshawar in Pakistan.

On the way, Mr. Jennings reports, “They had traversed the fiefs of several prominent warlords and dozens of lesser ones. The trip had been a roaring success, and Mariko had already found several more takers for an October reprise.”

David W. Jones is the foreign editor of The Washington Times. His e-mail address is djones@washingtontimes.com.

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