They are calling it peace, but it is too feverish, too frenetic to deserve that name. Less than one week after the Taliban fled, Kabul is wallowing in a manic little boom – the first fruits of Afghanistan's dramatic success in drawing the world's attention to its problems.
Kabul's Grand Bazaar was always a paradox, even in the dark days of Taliban rule, awash with goods and money amid the ruins and the wreckage. But last week it was like Oxford Street with five shopping days to Christmas. The goods may be cheap and tawdry, many of them bargain-basement Chinese imports, but they are piled high and money is changing hands fast. The natives are friendly and delighted to see us; the fact that we are wandering at will without Taliban-appointed translators proves that the times have changed for good.
But is this peace or something else? In the middle of the bazaar is Kabul's famous outdoor money market. Last Monday, hours before they abandoned the capital, the Taliban pillaged it. Yesterday that little local difficulty had been left far behind. The place was doing fantastic business. The crush inside had to be seen to be believed.
Changing money in Afghanistan is hard physical labour, given that the exchange rate is 40,000 Afghanis to the dollar, and the equivalent of £50 is a wad about the size and weight of a house brick. So the brawny arithmetical prodigies with lightning fingers who work in the place were burning their way through room-high stacks of cash and then carting it away in wheelbarrows.
Where has it all come from? After the Taliban removed all that they could carry, the Northern Alliance rolled into town, their wheels oiled with proof of the world's approval. Great social change needs hard cash as well as friendly words, and the slightly morbid buzz in Kabul's Grand Bazaar suggests that the money distributed by the West's agents during the earlier stages of the war is percolating quickly through the system.
This euphoria is not peace but feast after famine. Peace means talk, compromise, decisions, rewards, punishments, prospects, plans. Kabul – that fraction of the capital that has been able to get a place at the table – is not at peace but on a binge.
As the media have been pointing out since Tuesday, the Kabulis are going back joyfully to the simple pleasures the Taliban forbade them. Young men wade through the market crowd with Indian music blaring from the fat transistors in their arms. Photo studios and market stalls selling razor blades are doing good business.
But these changes did not all begin with a bang on Tuesday morning. Even before the Taliban left, children had started flying kites again, and women were venturing to the market alone. The Taliban's minds were elsewhere during the final days: their thoughts no longer on power but on survival. So discreetly, without fuss, the Kabulis were going back to their familiar ways.
The bazaar is where you taste Kabul's strange new mood at its rawest and most intense, but even far beyond this charmed enclave the new mood has taken grip. We drove to the desolate, destroyed suburb of Karti Sahi, where thousands of Hazaras used to live before being driven out by vicious fighting during the civil war.
By the main road stands the prison where the Taliban used to lock up the men whose beards were too short. Here they whiled away the weeks until they grew long again, chalking Koranic inscriptions (that's what we were told) on the walls and occasionally drawing cherubic portraits of their captors. All the cells stand empty now, and could have been empty for years. That's how fast and how thoroughly the mood here has changed.
Up the hill the pretty Shia mosque of the Hazaras is all but abandoned; a nut seller, a few children and a couple of old men stand around. They are all poor, poorer than we in the West can easily imagine, but even they have been taken over by the mood of joy.
For those old enough to remember Afghanistan before the deluge, it has brought the memories flooding back. Mohamed Ali, a retired shop keeper in his 70s, told us that his happiest memory was of Independence Day back in the Royalist era. "It was a great affair,'' he said. "There were parties in the street that lasted 10 days.''
His only wish is that the man who was king in those days, Zahir Shah, comes back again. "I will be so happy,'' he said. "If someone will take me to him I will kiss his hand.''
Now that both the bombing and the Taliban have gone away, the people here are enormously grateful. Back in the market, a Moscow-trained economic scientist now labouring as a casual money lugger said to me twice: "Please, give our thanks to Tony Blair and George Bush." Everyone is saying peace, peace. But nobody I have spoken to can envisage what that will really mean.
Perhaps the old man's mention of Zahir Shah explains why. When asked about the shape of Afghan's next government, every person I have spoken to in the past 24 hours has mentioned that name. Young or old, Pushtun, Tajik or Hazara, all have said: bring back Zahir Shah, former King of Afghanistan from 1933 to 1974.
They know, and in case they don't I have reminded them, that Zahir Shah is 87 years old and unable to stand. None of that matters to them, nor do any other candidates for leadership: Zahir Shah is the mantra, king of a golden age so remote it is hard to believe it existed; king when Afghanistan was still a country.
Afghans want their country back. But their blind faith in their ancient ex-king shows they have no idea yet how to take the first step.Reuse content