Normalcy returns to Afghanistan

KABUL, Afghanistan (L.A. Times) – Twelve months ago, when she heard that terrorists had slammed planes into the World Trade Center, Jamila Omar had no idea that her own world, thousands of miles away, would change for the better. Like most Afghans, she was filled with dread – fearful of facing another long war, fearful that she or people she loved would be killed.

For the five years of Taliban rule, she dared not emerge from her home without the all-encompassing burka. On the bus, like other women, the college-educated journalist took her place at the rear. She saw stretching ahead of her a life only half-lived. “I had concluded,” she said, “that we women would always remain in the corners of the room.”

A year later, however, women are working and going to school. A government that is representative has been formed. Except for pockets of U.S. military activity against al-Qaida and Taliban suspects – and despite an assassination attempt last week against President Hamid Karzai – more than two decades of civil war appear to have ended.

The list goes on: International aid money is beginning to pour in, albeit not as quickly as people would like, and foreign organizations are offering advice and personnel. Institutions are forming. Newspapers are being published in relative freedom. The national airline, Ariana, has taken wing again. Refugees are returning to their homes by the hundreds of thousands, exceeding all estimates. National army and police forces are in training, and mine clearers are working full time to purge roads and fields of the deadly explosives.

The country has in Karzai a moderate leader who inspires confidence in the West and affection from most of his people – even if he’s something of a figurehead with limited powers outside this capital city. Mohammad Zaher Shah, the octogenarian former king, has returned and moved back into his old palace. Although no longer a monarch, he has been given the honorific title “Father of the Nation.”

And in the last few weeks of summer, women such as Omar have found the courage to shed their burkas and walk with the sun on their faces, at least here in Kabul.

Of course, there are worries on the horizon, made all the more plain by the twin shocks of nearly losing Karzai to an assassin’s bullet in the former Taliban stronghold of Kandahar and the horror of a bombing that mowed down 26 people in Kabul. On the eve of the first anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks blamed on Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida terrorist network, the latest acts appeared to be a coordinated challenge to the new Afghan order.

There are still deep fault lines in the society – disagreement over how liberal a government Afghanistan can afford while many of its people remain deeply conservative. And many here still fear what could happen to the country if Western interest flags because of a war in Iraq or simple boredom. Afghans express anxiety that the “commanders”- a euphemism for the country’s regional warlords – have not been effectively disarmed and are still playing too large a role.