Afghanistan

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 pistachio trees.”

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 warnings.

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 development.

“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 months.

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 officials.

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 flow.

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 investment.

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 process.

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 fight.”

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 aid.

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] Bagram.”

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 forgotten.”

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.”