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Signs of hope amid the chaos


KABUL, AFGHANISTAN -- The rumors fly around in this dusty old city like lint in the wind.

There's talk of kidnappings that may or may not have happened. Talk of al-Qaida or the Taliban calling for the abduction of Western women. Talk of the Taliban and al-Qaida resurgence.

Kabul is an ugly city, for the most part, a ramble of low structures, some still showing damage from the wars that have been fought here in the last three decades. The air is full of choking dust blowing particles of stuff you don't even want to think about.

The environment complements the mood. This is a scary city in a scary country. Why stay?

Lately there's been enough upheaval in the capital and violence elsewhere in the country to make it wise to lie low. The unrest was spawned by a combination of protest over the prophet Muhammad cartoons and the Sunni-Shiite bloodletting in Herat, the provincial capital in western Afghanistan that I left Friday.

The route from the Kabul airport into the city center was lined with police officers in full riot gear. There was word that a mullah in the capital had told his congregation the death of a single Westerner would satisfy the insult of the offending Muhammad cartoons.

Back in Herat, meanwhile, the security situation was said to be deteriorating.

The alert there began Feb. 7 with news that some Iranian provocateurs had come into the city from across the nearby border and whipped up people in the mosque over the cartoons.

On Wednesday, as expected, the demonstrations in Herat began sharply after 9 a.m. prayers. They ended like clockwork at 11 a.m. A few shots had been fired, but no harm done. Thursday was Ashura, the day that Shiites march and flagellate themselves to honor Hussein ibn Ali, the martyred grandson of the prophet Muhammad, and the security lid was still on. This time, fighting broke out between the Shiites and the Sunnis. There were gunshots and the sounds of grenades and 50-caliber guns, and some signs of smoke from a couple of Shiite mosques.

Word came to us that as many as 30 people had died, that doctors in the hospital were being assaulted by the families of people whose lives they could not save. This was an exaggeration. In the end, six were counted dead. No brutalized doctors appeared.

But now, Ismail Kahn, a venerated warlord who once ruled Herat until he was dislodged by the national government last year, is saying some Sunnis are missing in Herat. Mr. Kahn was sent back to Herat with a contingent of national police officers to help quell the violence by the very government that drove him out last year. Now he is threatening to search every house in Herat to find the missing Sunnis. More violence seems likely. Many Westerners are getting out for a while.

This sort of thing is likely to go on for a while, and might get much worse. The fear is that support for the commitment to Afghanistan will diminish in the West with the passage of time and the increase in violence stirred up by a variety of players, not just the Taliban and al-Qaida.

So let me share with you a couple of encounters I've had in the midst of this chaos. One was a visit to a group of female farmers outside of Herat whose lives were better because the West, especially the United States, has given them the resources to grow garlic, cumin and saffron - all valuable crops.

Another was here in Kabul. In the midst of the security alert and all the clamoring for Western blood, I visited a school for the deaf, supported by the United Nations and a U.S. humanitarian group. People at the school have developed a 2,000-word signing dictionary. They are proud people.

Alone, neither of these undertakings is enough to withstand the forces of violence and hatred that have gripped Afghanistan for decades, nay, centuries. But put them together with the development of usable roads, irrigation, sanitation, education, economic opportunities and the other stuff that Western money is being used to develop, and you see signs of significant change.

So far as I can see from my read of the history of Afghanistan, no other conqueror - from Tamerlane to the Taliban - has helped in this way. So the opportunity is here, if only we aren't scared away. It will take more money, billions more. It may take more troops.

But let's not forget why we came here in the first place. This cause is just.

G. Jefferson Price III is a former foreign correspondent and an editor at The Sun who has been traveling on behalf of Catholic Relief Services. His e-mail is gjeffersonprice@yahoo.com.

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