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Jalalabad: den of corruption

Since Taliban left, city returned to rule of thieves

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JALALABAD, Afghanistan — The middleman with the sunglasses and beard met the Afghan soldiers at the gate and was allowed access inside the provincial security station. He quickly reappeared with a bag containing two videotapes, an Albanian passport, a Moroccan identification card and nine computer disks.

He set the prices: $800 each for the videotapes, $400 each for the passport or identification card and $400 for the disks. All were terrorist materials taken from inside al-Qaida caves in nearby Tora Bora, he said, or from terrorist houses inside the city. He said they were being offered for sale by a local intelligence chief, who would have to remain hidden for now.

"If you buy all of these today, then he will have the very important passports to sell," said the middleman, who identified himself as Dr. Kamran, a surgeon who works for Jalalabad's senior warlord, Hajji Hazarat Ali. "Two passports of jihad men from Saudi Arabia. They can be yours, too."

When Dr. Kamram found no takers, he returned to the station and came out empty-handed. "Maybe tomorrow?" he asked, with a conspiratorial smile.

This is Jalalabad, a city in the hands of thugs and crooks.

The city, Afghanistan's first stop on the Grand Trunk Road that links the nation to India, had been a smugglers' den for centuries, providing shelter and like-minded company for the bandits, traders and thieves who traveled the soaring mountain passes nearby. But in recent years, as the Taliban enforced its severe brand of Islamic law with public executions or dismemberment for criminals, crime declined.

Now the Taliban are gone, and the city and the surrounding Nangarhar province is run once again by warlords and guerrillas, whose enterprising rackets have almost instantly turned the place into Afghanistan's version of Shakedown Street, the land where almost everything is corrupt.

Markets here sell bootlegged copies of Hollywood releases ("Lord of the Rings" is already available), pucks of brown hashish and in one shop even the skull of a snow leopard, one of the world's most endangered cats. The corruption runs unchecked through what counts as the local government, which is essentially a group of ill-tempered guerrilla brigades.

The guerrillas welcome outsiders with threats and extortion, steal food from aid convoys and simultaneously insist they are helping Green Berets gather intelligence materials in the mountains while trying to sell the same items on the street. "Everywhere people are trying to sell these al-Qaida things," said Abdul Ghaffar, the city's newly appointed interim mayor. "Some of it is real, some of it is fake. It is all a great shame."