Twenty minutes south of Kabul, along one of Afghanistan’s few newly
paved roads, lies Logar Province. In another country Logar’s desert
villages and accessible mountains might be a place city dwellers would
use for quick rustication. But in Logar the Taliban are back, coming out
at night to burn schools, assassinate liberal imams, launch rocket
attacks on government buildings and plant mines to kill NATO soldiers.
The drive from Kabul to Logar is a mind-bending lesson in political
geography, showing how badly deteriorated the occupation of Afghanistan
has become. It seems the infamously insurgency-torn “south” of this
country now extends very far north.
“The Italians call that the Valley of Death,” says my local guide
matter-of-factly as we pass a lush little cluster of villages wedged
between two desiccated slopes. We are still in Kabul Province, the
Musayi district: “Six of them were killed there a few months ago, and
they never went back in.” Then, after a pause: “The green is all
According to NATO only two Italians were killed, with four wounded. Nor
does NATO admit that any area of Afghanistan has been ceded to the
insurgents–let alone a valley right outside the capital. Whatever the
case, most Afghans are beginning to think that the Taliban are winning.
This raises several questions: Who are these insurgents? Why are they
fighting? What dynamics fuel their growth? And ultimately, how, when and
to whom will the United States and its allies finally leave Afghanistan?
When we arrive at Shaffad Sang, a cluster of villages just off the main
road, the tension grows palpably thicker. Our contact, a man named
Zibullah Pimon, who works for a foreign construction company, is visibly
nervous. Because of the Taliban activity here, Pimon spends all his time
in Kabul, returning to his village only once a week to visit his family
for a few hours before racing back. We slip into the privacy of his
qala, or mud-walled compound, and then into his neatly whitewashed and
carpeted guest room, away from the women in the family quarters.
“There were no police here and no Afghan army,” explains Pimon. “So the
Taliban saw their chance and came in.” He says Taliban actions in Logar
started about a year ago, when organizers infiltrated from
Pakistan, using money and arguments to reactivate networks of former
fighters and win over local imams. Opponents were killed or run off with
Though “Taliban” or “AGEs”–antigovernment elements–are the catchall
phrases used to describe Afghan insurgents, in provinces near Kabul like
Logar, Wardak and Nangarhar, most of the guerrillas are actually members
of Hezb-e-Islami, an old mujahedeen party led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. A
pathologically ruthless commander, Hekmatyar got his start throwing acid
at unveiled women when he was an engineering student in Kabul. In 1975
he formed Hezb-e-Islami with Pakistani support. First he fought the
nationalist President Daoud Khan; then, after the Communist coup in
1978, he received more than $600 million in American military aid to
fight the Russians.
Now his forces have reorganized, pledged support to Al Qaeda, made peace
with their old foes, the Taliban, and are “blowing back” upon their
former patrons, the Americans. Like the Taliban, Hezb-e-Islami is made
up primarily of Pashtuns, Afghanistan’s dominant ethnic group at more
than 45 percent of the population.
“They say this is not a national government, that its positions are
controlled by only a few,” says Pimon, explaining why some of his
neighbors support the insurgents. “And there are no jobs, no
“The Taliban have told every family to provide one man, and they say
they will pay these fighters,” explains Pimon, adding that corruption
and opium eradication are also angering people.
In recent months insurgent violence has even started in Kabul. Over five
weeks this fall the city suffered four suicide bombings, three of which
killed or wounded international troops. One attack hit just outside the
American Embassy: Three US Humvees were bombed, killing two GIs and
sixteen others; twenty-nine people were wounded. The US military now
says there are Kabul-based suicide cells.
September saw numerous IEDs uncovered in the capital and some rocket
attacks–including one against the airport an hour after I
arrived–while security forces arrested several urban-based Taliban,
including a group of university students who were storing
rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) and propaganda.
In the south, kidnapping has begun: One German and three Macedonian NGO
workers were abducted and murdered in Helmand Province this past spring.
Their corpses were booby-trapped, and nine Afghan National Police
officers died in the recovery effort. In September a Colombian aid
worker and two Afghan nationals were kidnapped in Wardak, west of Kabul,
then released three weeks later.
This new pattern of political violence is seen as the “Iraqization” of
the Afghan insurgency, which some fear could also lead to an Iraq-style
meltdown or ethnically based fragmentation. Even the top NATO general
here recently warned that most Afghans will soon support the Taliban if
development and security do not significantly improve over the next six
So far most Kabulis continue about their business, assured that their
chances of being killed in this war are still low. On a day-to-day
basis, their worries are more about poverty and the predation of public
The government of Afghanistan under President Hamid Karzai has become a
classic rentier state: an institution designed to capture revenue rather
than deliver services and facilitate economic growth. Instead of oil, it
feeds on the free flow of international aid, which accounts for 92
percent of the nation’s income. The government’s thirty-two ministries
are massively overstaffed, with employees usually earning a mere
$30-$100 a month. They sit in squalid offices drinking tea, reading
newspapers and watching Bollywood films on TV.
Not surprisingly, they use their positions to demand bribes and peculate
public funds. The modus operandi of the ministries is to deny access,
deny permission, deny responsibility and sabotage those who might be
effective at their job–in case they start capturing more of the aid
This mess is largely the result of a US-led process that–in the lead-up
to the Iraq War–sloppily fast-tracked Afghanistan’s reconstruction.
Warlords were allowed to control the government and the United States
signed off on ridiculous shakedown schemes like paying wages to militia
commanders who wildly exaggerated their troop numbers. The result is a
nonfunctional state that will probably never be able to “stand up” and
allow the international community to successfully “stand down.”
Five years after the overthrow of the Taliban, Kabul has only three
hours of electricity per day and unsanitary and inadequate drinking
water. The healthcare system is nonexistent or run by foreign NGOs,
and primary schools lack teachers. The government undertakes almost no
public works; there is no food-safety system or program of agricultural
extensions; state-owned industries–such as coal mines, gas works,
cement factories, the national airline with its half-dozen planes, a
chain of old hotels and several massive granaries–receive little or no
To pay taxes in Kabul one must first bribe the tax collector! No bribe
and your taxes (which will be stolen) won’t be registered as paid.
Without proof of payment a homeowner or shopkeeper could be reported to
the police, arrested and repeatedly extorted at every step of the legal
Even government offices bribe one another. “To get license plates for
our cars we had to bribe the Transportation Ministry,” says Naqib, who
runs nebulously defined “capacity-building workshops” at the Ministry of
Women’s Affairs. “We had to pay about $2,000.”
Women working in government offices–beyond the control of their
husbands but still crushed by poverty–often double and triple their
paltry $30 a month salaries through casual prostitution.
“Cellphones make it very easy,” says an Afghan driver. “The woman I am
seeing has just two or three friends. I pay her a month’s salary for an
hour in the back room of my friend’s store.”
“Closing the Chinese brothels was a joke,” says a friend of mine who
contracts for a major Western intelligence service and has access to the
highest levels of government in Kabul. “The palace is the biggest
brothel of all–half the female screeners in the presidential guard
engage in prostitution.”
The corrosive impact of life under a kleptocracy became all too clear
when a close friend was extorted by three judges. Ajmal, a successful
journalist and well-connected fixer, was ordered to pay the judges
$4,000 or go to jail. The issue was an alleged theft at a guesthouse
that his brother had managed a year earlier, before moving to Europe.
To top it off, one of the judges involved–a languid man with a poorly
dyed beard and penchant for flashy suits–was toying with Ajmal under
the guise of negotiating the bribe. The judge would insist that Ajmal
come have tea at the office or join the judge’s entourage to attend a
wedding. Money wasn’t enough–Ajmal had to grovel; he had to put on
obsequious public displays of appreciation for the judge and his power.
I went along on one trip. The judge’s office was devoid of books, files,
papers, a computer or anything else that hinted of work. Instead it was
lined with chairs in which sat a rotating series of social visitors. “My
family is very well known. We are related to King Zahir Shah,” says the
judge with a leering smirk and a pause. Ajmal chimes in with praise for
the elaborate lineage charts on display at the judge’s home. “You will
have to come visit. You will be my guests,” says the judge.
The next time I see Ajmal he explodes into a pro-Taliban diatribe.
“Fucking judges! Having long beards, big turbans, acting always very
religious.” His voice shakes with rage. “They are not even this much
Muslim!” Ajmal grabs the tip of his little finger. “If the Taliban come
back, I will pray for them! I don’t care if I have to grow a beard, go
to mosque all the time. I don’t care. At least they are not thieves!”
This from a man who has made lots of money in the new Afghanistan,
enjoys the occasional drink, rarely prays and was even jailed under the
Taliban because he had a Leonardo DiCaprio-style haircut. The
club-wielding Talib called it “Titanic hair” and shaved it all off.
In the countryside the Taliban capitalize on the resentments and
humiliations of life under kleptocracy and occupation by not being
corrupt and by simply killing officials who are. According to most
credible reports–including one from a Western intelligence
source–the Taliban are known to “always pay for food and
gasoline–always.” Government forces are more likely not to pay, in part
because their troops and front-line officers are broke. If the
corruption of Karzai’s government is Afghanistan’s new cancer, then the
Taliban are increasingly seen as chemotherapy: a very unpleasant but
perhaps necessary remedy.
Western officials assert that the Taliban fund themselves by taxing the
drug trade. But with opium production accounting for at least half of
Afghanistan’s GDP, it could be said that even merchants selling plastic
buckets to farmers at the local bazaar are “funded by the drug trade.”
According to the United Nations, Afghanistan now supplies 92 percent of
the world’s heroin. Production dipped last year by 21 percent but has
now bounced back, to an all-time high. Poppy cultivation directly
employs an estimated 2.9 million Afghans, and the country earns about $3
billion annually from it–most of which is parked in foreign bank
accounts and laundered through regional real estate schemes.
Karzai has said, “Either Afghanistan destroys opium or opium will
destroy Afghanistan.” And the UN has described poppy as creating “a
state of emergency.” But a visit to drug-growing regions indicates that
the exact opposite is just as possible: Opium revenue acts as a
stabilizing force by keeping poor farmers alive. Eradicate all poppy,
and Afghanistan’s 30 million people could plunge back into all-out civil
war, with the country disintegrating into two or three parts: the
Pashtun south becoming a de facto extension of heavily Pashtun northern
Pakistan, and the more ethnically diverse north, around Mazar-e-Sharif,
and west, around Herat, being pulled into the orbits of the more
developed economies of Central Asia and Iran.
One region where poppy eradication has reportedly been effective is in
Nangarhar. Lying east of Kabul, Nangarhar is a long, mountainous
province that juts out into the tribal belt of Pakistan; its population
is heavily Pashtun. “We are facing a lot of problems,” says Ghulam
Hazrat, a teacher and farmer in the Derazi village of the Kama district,
north of the provincial capital of Jalalabad.
Last year the government promised each farmer here $350 for every
half-acre not planted with poppy. But the people in Kama say the money
was stolen. “Only some farmers got $150,” says Hazrat. “We have no paper
or books in the school. The road is bad and there is no clinic. The
teachers have not been paid in three months. Maybe we will plant this
year. If we don’t plant we will suffer, and when people suffer, people
In more remote parts of Nangarhar, eradication is even less effective.
The Sherzad district lies several hours southwest of Jalalabad, at the
end of a rutted dirt track. The landscape is desert canyons and barren
hills punctuated by villages clustered along beleaguered little rivers
flowing down from the mountains on the Pakistani border.
In the village of Toto, not far from the border, I meet Wazir, an
old-school poppy farmer, who lives in a qala with his two wives. In a
manner typical of rural Afghanistan, the neighboring families in this
district engage in constant blood feuding, and according to Wazir crime
is common throughout south Nangarhar.
Nangarhar’s security reports revealed that crime was not the only issue:
Twenty-three mostly war-related incidents were listed during the week I
made my visit. According to the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office, there was
a kidnapping threat, ongoing counterinsurgency operations and “reported
infiltration of a new group of AGE/Insurgents” made up of “Arabs,
Chechens and Pakistanis.” Two vehicles used by “armed Taliban” were
spotted in Sherzad, and there were some rocket attacks. The reports
paint a picture of a region beyond government control.
“The eradication campaign came, but they just took bribes,” says Wazir
as we sit in his dera, a shaded outside visiting area, on rope and
wooden cots called charpayi. “When we heard that they were coming we
went to the district governor and negotiated a price.” Wazir says that
the local “commander,” named Hasil, was chosen as the farmers’ envoy.
“If the governor had not accepted the bribe, we were ready to fight. If
a farmer loses his poppy he can’t even have tea and sugar. He will
borrow money from a rich person and lose his land.” Wazir says emergency
loans carry 100 percent interest rates.
The official rhetoric of poppy eradication is ridiculously ambitious
when compared with facts on the ground. Among the “five pillars” of the
strategy are “judicial reform” and “alternative livelihoods.” None of
that exists here. The only NGO in this district digs wells, but Wazir
says that the corrupt drilling team charges a fee for what should be
As the sun starts to slide down in the sky, we head back out. Halfway to
Jalalabad, five armed men emerge from behind rocks. One aims an RPG at
our truck while another steps into the road and levels his AK-47 at the
windshield. It’s an ambush. The lead gunman approaches and asks, “Is
that police truck still down in the village?”
By freak luck we had noticed a Frontier Police pickup truck getting gas
in the village just behind us. Thinking fast, one of my Afghan
colleagues answers: “Yes. And they will be following us in a few
minutes.” The gunman pauses, for one very long second, and then allows
us to pass. We assume these men were local thieves, or possibly Taliban,
who lay in wait for us or the cops but choked at the last minute.
Northern Afghanistan has been relatively peaceful, but there are
increasing signs of trouble–clashes between rival militias, occasional
attacks on troops of the International Security Assistance Force
(ISAF, the UN-sanctioned peacekeeping force), rising banditry.
If the war in the south pits messianic guerrillas against what they see
as a sinful puppet government run by foreign infidels, then violence in
the north takes on a distinctly ethnic quality, with Uzbeks, Tajiks and
others squaring off against the Pashtuns, who once supported the
Taliban and oppressed non-Pashtuns. What happens next in the north is a
crucial piece of the Afghan puzzle.
We drive to Balkh Province; NATO has recently reported an ambush and
firefight in a Pashtun village here. To get safe passage into Pashtun
villages, we must find the local Pashtun commander, a former Taliban and
mujahedeen landlord named Haji Aktar. Our local Tajik contact is
terrified by the idea of approaching Aktar. “The people around here are
lawless and wild,” he says from the passenger seat. We have traveled a
mere five or ten miles from his home, Balkh town, but the man acts like
we’re in another country.
Eventually we make contact with Haji Aktar and his broodingly handsome
son, who is now taking over the family business of, essentially, being
the man in charge of the local poppy-farming Pashtuns. We sit on
the carpeted veranda of Haji Aktar’s adobe qala and look out over the
pot fields on the plain that stretches south out of Turkmenistan and
Uzbekistan to the base of the blue-gray Hindu Kush mountains. After a
lunch of stewed sheep kidneys, okra and greasy rice, Haji Aktar explains
why the Pashtun of the north are growing angry. “The government of the
north excluded Pashtuns,” he says. He is talking about his rival, the
Tajik governor, Atta Mohammed. “Every day or two they are searching and
raiding the three Pashtun districts. They even arrested me. They came
with forty vehicles and three helicopters and took me to [the prison at]
Haji Aktar explains how he was handcuffed and blindfolded, while
American troops searched his private quarters–“with women and children
inside.” Being a gracious host, Haji Aktar does not blame the
foreigners–my people. Instead he blames Atta Mohammed for setting him
up. Haji Aktar claims he is at peace with the government. But one
wonders at what point this honor-obsessed feudal landlord will feel
compelled to avenge his humiliation.
“I can’t think of a bigger insult for a guy like that,” booms G. Whitney
Azoy, a former US diplomat turned scholar-adventurer, who knows Haji
Aktar. In the 1980s Azoy was involved with support for the mujahedeen’s
US-backed campaign against the Soviets; more recently he worked as a
consultant for the military contractor DynCorp and now runs a State
Department-funded research center. He is one of the leading authorities
on northern Afghanistan. “Nothing–I mean nothing–could be worse for a
Pashtun landlord like that. But a guy like Aktar is also very shrewd and
patient. He’ll wait and watch. But that sort of thing won’t be
On one of my last nights in Kabul I retire to the spacious home of my
acquaintance the intelligence contractor. Particularly fascinating is
his insight into the mindset of Western diplomats and military officers.
“Mention defeat and they say, ‘It is unthinkable!’ Well, it is coming,
so you better well start thinking about it,” says the contractor. He
guesses the West’s project in Afghanistan has between three and five
years, and he thinks negotiation with the Taliban is its “only hope” for
a graceful exit.
Surprisingly, that view has gained traction in several countries with
ISAF troops. British Deputy Foreign Minister Kim Howells suggested that
talks might be useful, and some in the Canadian New Democratic Party
have agreed. Then, in early October, US Senate majority leader Bill
Frist said the war in Afghanistan could “never” be won militarily and
suggested that some Taliban be allowed into the government. One
rumor in Kabul was that the Taliban’s military commander, Mullah
Dadullah, might be offered the Defense Ministry.
But a few posts for some top leaders won’t end the war. There are
already many ex-Talib in the Parliament and ministries, and they push
the Afghan government in fundamentalist directions. As for Gulbuddin
Hekmatyar, few believe he would settle for anything less than ruling
Afghanistan himself. And what about the Al Qaeda network operating on
the border northeast of Kabul, in Nuristan and Kunar? It’s hard to
imagine the Bush Administration placating these champions of
international jihad with the offer of an Afghan ministry.
Negotiations may help the West save face as it disengages, but it is
unlikely they will do more than that. Ultimately, the US-built state in
Afghanistan seems unreformable, and its future looks calamitous. Yet the
nation builders in Kabul remain in denial, each concerned with immediate
performance and the next promotion rather than the big picture. My host
the contractor illustrates this mentality with a historical anecdote.
“Did you know, the US government continued family postings to Vietnam as
late as four months before it fell?” he asks. “You might have thought
that someone would have smelled the rot earlier and asked, ‘Do we really
need to bring the 2-year-old to Saigon?’ But no–that would have been
pessimistic, bad for the career.”