Our Humvee jolts and sways against another cold dirt track in Parwan Province, an hour north of Kabul. On the road thin shadows from barren winter orchards lie like dark lacework and flicker across the Humvee’s hood and windshield.
A landscape of adobe-walled villages, empty fields, horse carts and dramatic sharp mountains slides by. Inside the armored Humvee we listen to music on a dusty iPod and two speakers that are jacked into the vehicle’s nervous system. Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” rolls up on the iPod. The lyrics, though older than most of the soldiers on this patrol, capture the squad’s mix of homesickness and political cynicism: “Now Watergate does not bother me/Does your conscience bother you?” No one talks much about Afghanistan.
I am riding along with these two Humvees from the 164th Military Police Company to observe the American effort at keeping a lid on the Afghan caldron. I also want to compare US methods with those of the European troops who are taking over an ever larger part of the military mission here.
Specialist Willie Stacey stands in the gun turret on the SAW-249 machine gun. He taps his foot to the music’s rhythm, and to the slight twinge of fear that animates us all. Four nights ago this unit was sprayed down with small arms fire, and earlier one of their number lost his leg to a landmine.
Only ninety-eight US troops died in Afghanistan last year; but the ratio of US casualties to overall troop levels makes Afghanistan as dangerous as Iraq. While Iraq’s violent disintegration dominates the headlines, Bush touts Afghanistan as a success. During his recent visit, the President told Afghans that their country was “inspiring others…to demand their freedom.”
But many features of the political landscape here are not so inspiring–for example, the deteriorating security situation. Taliban attacks are up; their tactics have become more aggressive and nihilistic. They have detonated at least twenty-three suicide bombs in the past six months, killing foreign and Afghan troops, a Canadian diplomat, local police and in some cases crowds of civilians. Kidnapping is on the rise. American contractors are being targeted. Some 200 schools have been burned or closed down. And Lieut. Gen. Karl Eikenberry, the senior American military officer here, expects the violence to get worse over the spring and summer.
Even in the once relatively stable northern and western regions of the country, foreign military bases and patrols are coming under sporadic attack, while civilian traffic faces a sharp rise in violent banditry. One security monitoring organization said they had seen a fourfold increase in such crimes over the past year.
The backdrop to this gathering crisis is Afghanistan’s shattered economy. The country’s 24 million people are still totally dependent on foreign aid, opium poppy cultivation and remittances sent home by the 5 million Afghans living abroad. Yes, there is a new luxury hotel in Kabul, but Afghanistan ranks fifth from the bottom on the UNDP’s Human Development Index. Only a few sub-Saharan semi-failed states are more destitute, more broken down.