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Afghan City Is Back in Business

Aftermath: With the ouster of several hundred Al Qaeda fighters, Jalalabad experiences a commercial mini-boom.


JALALABAD, Afghanistan — Three months ago, several hundred Arabs belonging to the Al Qaeda terrorist network called Jalalabad home. Today, only 21 remain: 16 in prison and five in a hospital, under guard while recovering from wounds suffered in the battle for Tora Bora.

The Arabs started trickling into Jalalabad five years ago as guests of the ruling Taliban. Many came with their families. They rented dingy homes and low-income housing compounds and set up a terrorist training camp just outside town. They shopped on Governor House Road and sent their children out to buy bread but otherwise mixed little.

"They really weren't bad people," recalled Miamat Ullah, who opened a photo shop after the Taliban and Al Qaeda fled Jalalabad in November. "They were polite, well behaved. But I didn't like having them here. They didn't belong. They caused us great trouble because their mission was to use Afghanistan for attacking the world."

The eastern city the Arabs called home has a population of several hundred thousand and resembles a giant scrap yard that no one ever cleaned. Broken-down vehicles and discarded garbage litter the alleys. The floor of the most popular restaurant is covered with dabs of spit and the mutton bones of just-finished lunches. Dust covers everything as though the city were in need of a bath. Sheep wander the streets in search of food.

But Jalalabad's long-suffering people have cautiously come to a shared conclusion: The Taliban and Al Qaeda aren't coming back.

That in turn has lifted what one resident calls "our hour of darkness" and given birth to a mini-boom. Shops selling videos and music cassettes, both banned by the Taliban, have opened. Teeming outdoor markets are stocked with fresh vegetables and carcasses of slaughtered lambs. The city's only traffic cop stands on a platform at Wireless Intersection, waving wildly in a futile attempt to keep order on streets clogged with horse carts, donkeys burdened with cargo, bicycles, taxis, Toyota pickups and pedestrians.

"Business is good," said Ahmed Zai, a money-changer who sat cross-legged and barefoot in an open-air cubicle, his fingers flashing through a thick stack of 1,000-rupee notes from Pakistan as he silently counted. "There is a lot of money around. One of the [anti-Taliban] commanders brought in $150,000 to change for rupees the other day. Where'd he get it? The Americans, maybe. I don't know."

Zai said that a month ago, one U.S. dollar bought 78,000 afghanis, the local currency. Today, that dollar buys 11,800 afghanis. The stronger afghani, he said, reflected a belief in regional money markets that Afghanistan can lay a foundation for peace and stability with the Taliban and Al Qaeda ousted and an interim government due to be installed in Kabul, the capital, on Saturday.

A few blocks away, past sidewalk food stalls where throngs of men lined up for calves' liver and mutton kabob cooked over open fires, Sayed Hassan looked down on Wireless Intersection from his second floor office. The sign on the door identified his company as Nangarhar Property Dealers.

"You cannot buy property in Jalalabad as a foreigner," he said, "but for $100 a month, I can rent you a house, a beautiful house, with three rooms and a big yard. Many of the Arab houses are available. The Arabs left quickly, so it is easy to rent in Jalalabad now. Are you interested?"

The 400-bed hospital in Jalalabad is the province's largest. It was built 19 years ago but looks like a relic from an earlier century, with dim lights and unheated rooms and metal gurneys coated in dust and slowed by wheels that don't turn. Of the 60 wounded civilians the Public Health Hospital treated as a result of U.S.-led bombing, 45 died, said the emergency room director, Dr. Almas Shirz.

"No one is allowed to see the Arabs you ask about," he said. "They are in a separate area with two guards. They are comfortable. They do not complain. They were the last of our war cases from Tora Bora. Now we're getting non-war cases. Yesterday we had three admissions in emergency. Normal cases, like a man shot in a fight over a woman."

When the Taliban and Al Qaeda left Jalalabad, the moujahedeen militias who now run the city opened the doors of the 80-year-old Central Jail, freeing the Taliban's prisoners. Now only three civilian inmates plus the 16 Arabs--all accused of murder--are being held behind the facility's high, thick walls topped by four guard posts. Security appears lax, and Afghan officials who have been inside say the Arabs wander around reasonably freely and are not even confined to locked cells.

"We give them food, good treatment," said Mirza Mohammed, the moujahedeen warden. "These are just ordinary Al Qaeda soldiers, not anyone special like Osama bin Laden. Bin Laden ran away. Where, I don't know. But these Arabs aren't going to run away to anywhere."

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