The first thing on every Afghani man”s mind since “The Liberation of Kabul” (as the networks have so catchily named it) is his newly shaven face.

Paul Wong
Family members of David Chen of Honolulu, a victim of the crash of American Airlines Flight 587, sit with his portrait during a memorial service yesterday. <br><br>AP PHOTO

Or at least this is what the media outlets which on Nov. 13 ran footage or photos of crowded barbershops in Kabul and Taliqan and that”s nearly all of them seem to suggest.

That day The New York Times ran a front-page article, “In fallen Taliban city, a busy, busy barber.” The Times reported, “Men tossed their turbans into the gutters. Families dug up their long-hidden television sets. Restaurants blared music. Cigarettes flared and young men talked of growing their hair long.” Once again, it seems, the United States has come in and made it all better.

Wrong.

We have not made it all better. And whether we take the credit for the so-called liberation of any city in Afghanistan depends on the hour and the channel and the context. When women stand outside and for the first time in two years see the world through unveiled eyes and for the first time in two years the people who love those women can watch their eyes smile and laugh and cry, well, God bless America.

But when Taliban men are brained with rifle butts or Taliban soldiers-in-training, many of them children, are locked a hundred deep in tiny windowless rooms, that”s the Northern Alliance for you. And hey, we can”t expect the members of the Northern Alliance to be on their best behavior all the time. After all, look what they”ve done for us.

But somehow we fail to see that we are fools if we think that what they have done, they have done for us.

We”ve got lots of dirty work to do in Afghanistan and Mr. Bush and his Brain Trust have contracted it out. Plain and simple. Between the Northern Alliance and the United Nations, we”ve sold ourselves to the lowest bidder when we thought that we were buying the cheapest way out.

The Northern Alliance is happy to take our money and our backing and happy to feign agreement with polite nods when Bush offers his cursory caveats. Bush then turns around and promises us with a clean conscience that our commanders are making sure that theirs “respect the human rights of the people that they”re liberating.” In reality, I don”t think that we care so much about the human rights of the Taliban. And I feel pretty confident that the Northern Alliance cares even less.

Apologists for the actions of our new-found friends in Afghanistan are quick to scream that we have to look at the violence and the war in relative terms. And in some ways, they are right. Thousands of our missing still lie under the smoldering ruins on the southern tip of Manhattan, in the neighborhood that may be forever renamed “Ground Zero”. Both enemies inevitably suffer the casualties of war.

But America needs to look at the long term, at the bets we”re making now and making in arguable haste. We can”t turn around and cry out in disgust the sob stories of the people of Afghanistan, oppressed by Taliban rule, when I can remember back to my ninth grade politics class and discussions of the United States” installation of that very regime. Are we fighting on behalf of the men and women buried beneath the rubble of New York, or are we fighting for the beards to be shaved and the veils to come off? Whatever it is, we need to get our story straight.

In a few years we will forget, not what bin Laden and his cronies have done to us, but what we have returned to the children of Afghanistan. And then I don”t doubt that the people of Afghanistan, temporary pawns in the game of U.S. hegemony, will be just as badly off in spite of their “liberation.” Just as badly off as the people of Bosnia and Rwanda and Iraq still are. We fight our battles, make our point and move on.

But in the meantime we can”t go on pretending that the people of Afghanistan now call us their brothers and sisters. To be sure, as Thomas Friedman wrote in his Nov. 13 column, titled “In Pakistan, it”s Jihad 101” (and while he writes of Pakistan I run with the assumption that Pashtun sentiment seethes similarly on the other side of that oh-so-meaningful Durand Line) “This is not a neighborhood where we should linger. This is not Mr. Rogers” neighborhood.”

For the head of Osama bin Laden and for America”s face, the United States has written the Northern Alliance a blank check. And we can be sure that it will be cashed.

Johanna Hanink can be reached via e-mail at jhanink@umich.edu.

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