The Washington Post ran one of those stories the other day that was so sad, so heavy with fact and detail, that at the end of it you just wanted to sigh or cry or scream and throw something at a wall. The headline on Pamela Constable's report from Kabul was long and, after reading it, you had to consider yourself warned: "Inexplicable Wealth of Afghan Elite Sows Bitterness -- In One of the World's Poorest Nations, Myriad Tales of Official Corruption."
After a series of cutting images and wealth and poverty -- often across the street from one another -- we hit this painful summary material:
Seven years after the fall of the Taliban and the establishment of a civilian-led, internationally backed government, Afghanistan remains one of the poorest countries in the world, with rates of unemployment, illiteracy, infant mortality and malnutrition on a par with the most impoverished nations in sub-Saharan Africa. Most homes lack light, heat and running water; most babies are born at home and without medical help. ... Many families spend up to 80 percent of their income on food.
Yet against this grim backdrop, pockets of wealth have mysteriously sprung up in Kabul and other cities. Officials who earn modest salaries on paper have built fantasy mansions, and former militia commanders with no visible means of support roar around the muddy streets in convoys of sport-utility vehicles, spattering the burqa-covered widows who squat at intersections with their hands held out.
It is difficult to prove, but universally believed here, that much of this new wealth is ill-gotten. There are endless tales of official corruption, illegal drug trafficking, cargo smuggling and personal pocketing of international aid funds that have created boom industries in construction, luxury imports, security and high-tech communications.
Now, you immediately start thinking of many dynamics between the east and west, between the insiders and the outsiders in the wake of America's intervention in this war-rocked nation. And since we're talking about Afghanistan and this larger region next to Pakistan, we have to talk about religion. Right?
Also, if you have read any of Constable's work about life in this region -- including her book, "Fragments of Grace" -- you know that she knows to ask about the religion side of this. You know that there has to be a division here within the Muslim community. Here is half of that equation:
The public mood of frustration, desperation and disgust has played into the hands of Taliban insurgents, who present themselves as an alternative source of justice. ... Most Afghans do not favor a return of the Taliban, especially in cities where their extreme version of Islam clashed with the lifestyles of the country's educated classes. But more and more, people recall the five years of Taliban rule as a time of brutal but honest government, when officials lived modestly and citizens were safe from criminals.
"Nobody loved the Taliban, but what we see now is outrageous. The leaders are not rebuilding Afghanistan, they are only lining their pockets," said Abdul Nabi, 40, a high school teacher. "I haven't been paid in three months. The other day, a colleague came to me weeping and asked to borrow money to buy bread. Who can we blame for this?" he demanded. "Where can we turn to change things?"
So I want to know: What is the religious content of the other side of the corrupt equation at the heart of this story? Are the corrupt Afghans "secular," whatever that would mean in the religion-soaked culture of that nation? Are they "worldly" people who would be rejected by the devout for a variety of reasons?
In other words, are we dealing with "moderate" Muslims who have, in some way, been rewarded for their pro-western ways? Does America expect these Afghans to represent "the future"? I know that would be a hard question for American leaders there to answer, if they would.
Photo: The Sham-e-Paris Wedding Hotel, from www.RAWA.org