I’m not going to Kandahar after all. Despite checking with no fewer than five air services, I just couldn’t make it happen in time. Airplanes broke, flights got cancelled and I got stuck in Kabul. I’m still planning on flying to Tarin Kowt to visit the Dutch-Aussie reconstruction team, eventually, but in the meantime I’ve got a couple days to kill.
So I hit the streets to check out the Kabul economy. I talked to a concession stand owner, a baker, a butcher, an auto mechanic, a DVD salesman and a construction foreman, asking them all the same basic questions: How is business? Are you better off now than a few years ago? What do you need to do even better?
Of the six, only the mechanic felt he wasn’t doing any better. In the foreman’s case, he was making several times the salary he made under the Taliban, despite working the very same long-delayed construction project. He said there was no shortage of labor. Which makes sense, considering that despite improvements, unemployment remains high.
Two of the men interviewed had received micro-loans to improve their businesses. (Don’t take that as meaning that 30 percent of Kabul entrepreneurs have received micro-loans, for I deliberately sought these men out.) The mechanic said he wanted a micro-loan but that all the lenders in Kabul charge interest, which is forbidden by Islam.
Only one of the six complained about security. None of them griped about electricity, even though Kabul still goes dark for hours at a time. Most of them had their own generators.
The concession stand owner spoke out against corrupt government officials. And several subjects I approached refused to be interviewed at all, saying that they feared reprisal if the police found out that they were talking to the press. Their silence spoke volumes about the real problem in Kabul. More on that later.