The fifth anniversary of September 11 finds Afghanistan in a deepening crisis. Security is deteriorating in most parts of the country, due to Taliban insurgency and general lawlessness. Economic development is largely stalled in the south and moving very slowly in the north. Kabul is mired in corruption and layer upon layer of dysfunctional bureaucracy. Bribery is so rampant that even sections of the government have to bribe each other to get simple tasks accomplished.
Most disturbing is the deteriorating security environment, which was punctuated by a massive suicide car bomb that ripped into a US convoy on September 8, a mere 300 yards from the US Embassy and just in front of the main monument honoring the Mujahadeen leader Ahmed Shah Massoud, who was killed by al Qaida two days before the attack on the World Trade Center in New York. The suicide attack killed two US soldiers, destroying their vehicle and sixteen Afghan civilians. Dozens more were wounded.
“Now everyone is very sad in Kabul,” said a young man who lives near where the suicide bomb struck. “Many people were injured. Even my brother called from Belgium, he was so worried.”
Two days later the Taliban killed the governor of the relatively stable, eastern province of Paktia with another suicide bomb. The victim, Governor Abdul Hakim Taniwal, was an Afghan ex-pat, a former sociologist who gave up a comfortable life in Australia to help reconstruct his country. His murder was the forty-eighth suicide bombing this year. Today, at his funeral, another bomb claimed at least five more lives.
In the week leading up to the 9/11 anniversary several rockets hit central Kabul and the airport and one NATO solider was killed by a suicide bomb. At least one other IED was discovered before detonation. And now the US military has announced that they believe a “suicide cell” is operating inside the capital–so sealing Kabul’s four main entrance points might not prevent further attacks.
In the south, British-led NATO forces are engaged in an all-out fight against Taliban guerrillas, in the grandly named Operation Medusa. Since early August NATO forces (know locally under the acronym ISAF) have had twenty-three soliders of various nationalities killed and an undisclosed number wounded. Six ISAF troops have died in the last week alone.
Taliban fighters in southern Zabul province interviewed by The Nation in February explained that their war as a jihad against the corruption of the Kabul government and what they see as oppressive foreign troops who do not respect Islam or Pashtun culture.
The British military claims to be super-adroit at handling restive natives, but many accounts portray the British-led counterinsurgency in the south as badly botched. On September 9 and 10, NATO forces used artillery and close air support to kill ninety-four insurgents one day and ninety-two the next, describing the second battle among villages and orchards as a “Taliban counter-attack.”
There are reports of civilian casualties filtering from the Operation Medusa battleground, but follow-up investigation by journalists–particularly non-Afghan reporters–is impossible as the Taliban are almost totally hostile to the press.
At a September 10 press briefing, NATO spokesman Mark Laity attempted to assure journalists that there would be a full investigation into civilian deaths, while an officer in the south simply affirmed that the Taliban in the Panjwayi-Zhari area of Kandahar Province “have suffered significant attrition.”
“They don’t seem to understand that if you kill one person you make an enemy of the whole family,” said Omar, an increasingly pessimistic Kabul businessman.
As hostility among the Pashtun tribes of the South grows fiercer, NATO tactics have escalated to ever more lethal levels.
One British officer, Captain Leo Docherty, a former aide de camp to the commander of UK forces in Helmand province, was so disgusted by the war that he quit the British Army last month, calling the campaign in Afghanistan “grotesquely clumsy” and “a textbook case of how to screw up a counterinsurgency.” He accused UK and US forces of bombing and strafing villages.
Such high-tech brutality is no doubt partly fueled by NATO’s failure to fill its original commitments: ISAF’s nearly 20,000 troops are thinly spread, operating across 85 percent of the country.
Just south of Kabul, in Logar province, residents report that the Taliban are in control of whole districts; their power is based in part on local loyalties to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a warlord who was once backed by the CIA but is now with the Taliban, and partly on their attempts to eradicate corrupt government officials and allow poppy cultivation–both of which are very popular with poor farmers.
Economically the situation in Afghanistan is little better. Kabul has, by some estimates, more that doubled in size since 2001 and is now home to an estimated 4 million people most of whom live in squalid conditions. There are only about four hours of electric power on most days. Water is also in short supply, most slum dwellers have to buy it from tanker trucks; in the countryside drought and lack of infrastructure are withering crops. Many NGOs continue to scale back: during the May 29 Kabul riots international officers were attacked and NGO staff (almost all local Afghans) were getting killed on the roads. These murders rarely make the news.
Several key highway links have been paved and that has improved commerce and communications. But the road from Kabul to Kandahar, which is now good, suffered from very bad security.
In the face of all this, NATO member states meeting in Warsaw acknowledged the need to fulfill their commitments in Afghanistan by sending more troops–but they did not actually promise to do so.
The sad contradiction of Afghanistan is that many of the individuals and NGOs that joined the reconstruction effort here were not supportive of the American-led assault for fear that it would serve as a stepping-stone to Iraq and quickly devolve into a neocolonial occupation. But the fall of the Taliban was also seen as Afghanistan’s last, best chance at avoiding several more decades of anarchy, privation and civil war. That hope is now fading.