Diary

Jonathan Steele

The road from Kabul to Kandahar was once known as the Eisenhower highway. Built in the 1950s, when the United States and the Soviet Union competed peacefully for Afghan friendship, this US-funded 300-mile ribbon of tarmac was plied for two decades by lorries and garishly painted buses with no concern for security. Among the passengers were half-stoned Western hippies on the overland trail through Asia. Then came civil war and in 1979 the Soviet invasion. Ambushes turned the highway into a death trap until the victorious Taliban swept into Kabul in September 1996, eliminating all security problems once again. The only threat when I travelled the highway a few weeks later was colossal discomfort. After years of neglect, the road was close to collapse. Long stretches rippled like a corrugated roof, making travel in our hired minivan unbearable even at five miles an hour. What should have been a six-hour journey took 23.

I was on the way to the Taliban’s Kandahar heartland with a colleague from the New York Times. We had seen wide-eyed young Taliban fighters in Kabul, like peasant boys parachuted into Gomorrah, rip cassettes out of car stereos and stride into hospitals to order female doctors home and men to grow beards. Now we wanted to meet the ideologues who had launched the movement. We asked an official in the Taliban’s ‘liaison office’ about the Taliban budget and how they decided their spending priorities. He looked blank. It was clear that the Taliban had nothing resembling normal state administration, let alone service delivery. What role did the government play in connection with the foreign aid which the UN and a few Western NGOs were still providing? The official relaxed visibly. ‘We identify projects. We assist them in assisting us,’ he answered, as though the Taliban were doing foreigners a great favour.

Mullah Muhammad Hassan Rahmani, the governor of Kandahar and a close associate of Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader, was happy to receive us for two hours as soon as our translator contacted his office. An unhurried and genial figure, he planted the metal end of his artificial leg on a small table between us in an apparently practised gesture. He clearly saw it as a useful talking point, knowing we would ask about his record in the jihad. He had lost his right knee fighting the Russians, he said. With no sense of awe he described Mullah Omar as a political leader more than a fount of wisdom. ‘He has not too much religious knowledge,’ he said. ‘He was involved in fighting for years and did not have the time to acquire it. A lot of scholars know more than he does.’ Television was banned under Taliban rule because ‘worshipping statues was forbidden by the Prophet and watching television is the same as seeing statues. Drawing pictures or looking at them is sinful.’ Large weddings with male and female guests and music and dancing were also forbidden. Education for girls was permitted but had to take place in a separate building; the Taliban hadn’t had the funds to build any new schools in the two years they had held power in Kandahar. Women would be allowed to work outside the home once the war was over. Stoning was the punishment for adultery, with the man put into a sack and the woman, in her burqa, placed in a pit up to her waist before the crowd pitched in. It was an effective deterrent, the governor said: so far as he could recall there had been only two or three cases in Kandahar in the last two years. ‘I was busy and couldn’t see it. In fact I’ve never seen it.’ Asked whether the Taliban wanted to spread their views beyond Afghanistan’s borders, Hassan was adamant that this was ‘enemy propaganda’. Afghanistan wanted good relations with everyone and would not interfere abroad.

Fourteen years have passed since that encounter and, remarkably, almost no other senior Taliban leader has offered himself for interview in that time. After 1996 journalists rarely got visas to Afghanistan, until the Taliban lost power in 2001. Since they re-emerged to start their insurgency against the US-led intervention, not one top mullah has met the press. About 30 ‘reconciled’ Taliban now live in government guesthouses in Kabul. Some are ex-Taliban leaders who were captured and taken to Guantánamo after their regime fell, then amnestied on their release and sent back to Afghanistan; others were not senior enough to be detained in the first place. They talk to the media and Hamid Karzai sees them as potential mediators with their former colleagues. But none were part of the new insurgency and it is unclear whether they still have contact – let alone influence – with the men who are running it.

So the Afghans who really matter are out of view at exactly the wrong time, with Obama’s war sinking into a Vietnam-style quagmire and pressure growing for a political settlement as the best exit strategy for the US and its allies. Mullah Hassan went into hiding when Kandahar fell in 2001. His whereabouts are unknown, as are Mullah Omar’s. He is said to live near Quetta but no diplomat, politician or journalist has been able to meet him since 2001. Occasional statements on the Taliban website are all we have to go by. So the important questions remain unanswered. Have the Taliban changed in the decade since they lost office? Is there a neo-Taliban, as some suggest? What of the younger generation of field commanders who lead today’s resistance to the Americans and British? Are they in regular touch with Mullah Omar and do they answer to him in any practical sense, either in military strategy or in their political objectives? Above all, is there room for compromise between the Taliban, President Karzai and the Tajik and Uzbek leaders who surround him in Kabul so that, if the US withdraws in the next few years, a power-sharing government can have a chance of lasting?

Some evidence that the Taliban have moved on since they were in power is provided by Antonio Giustozzi, a scholar at the Crisis States Research Centre at the London School of Economics, who has edited a collection of essays entitled Decoding the New Taliban.[*] For one thing, the technology has changed. Men who used to reject television now put out propaganda DVDs and run a website of news and opinion, complete with pictures. More important, their social attitudes have shifted. Giustozzi argues that the Taliban realise their old position on education was self-defeating and lost them support, and the line is now being reversed. In Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand, according to Tom Coghlan, one of Giustozzi’s contributors, people in September 2008 ‘reported a strikingly less repressive interpretation of the Taliban’s social edicts.’ They no longer ban TV, music, dog-fighting and kite-flying; nor do they insist on the old rule that men grow beards long enough to be held in the fist.

Some analysts believe that US air strikes have been so effective in killing senior Taliban that the war is now being run by a new generation of men in their twenties and thirties, with no experience of the anti-Soviet struggle that schooled the mujahidin warlords as well as Mullah Omar and his Taliban colleagues. Whether this means they are more radical than the previous generation is unclear. Coghlan quotes a Taliban cleric near Lashkar Gah in Helmand in March 2008 as saying: ‘These new crazy guys are really emotional. They are war-addicted.’

Recent reports suggest that most Afghans, tired of the all-pervasive insecurity, want negotiations with the Taliban. A survey of 423 men in Helmand and Kandahar, carried out in May by the International Council on Security and Development, found that 74 per cent were in favour of negotiations. In Kabul in March, I interviewed several women professionals, the people who suffered most from the Taliban’s restrictions on girls’ education and women working outside the home. To varying degrees they all supported the idea of dialogue with the Taliban. They felt the top priority was to end what they saw as a civil war – not an insurgency, as Nato calls it. They saw the Taliban as authentic nationalists with legitimate grievances who needed to be brought back into the equation. Otherwise, Afghans would go on being used as proxies in a long battle between al-Qaida and the US. It was time to break free of both sets of foreigners, the global jihadis and the US empire. Shukria Barakzai, an MP and women’s rights campaigner, put it like this: ‘I changed my view three years ago when I realised Afghanistan is on its own. It’s not that the international community doesn’t support us. They just don’t understand us. The Taliban are part of our population. They have different ideas but as democrats we have to accept that.’

The shift in Afghanistan’s public mood since 2007, when I was last in Kabul, is dramatic. Then, the Taliban’s military comeback was still in its infancy and defeating them was the priority. There are several things behind the change: growing disappointment that billions of dollars of Western aid seem to go nowhere except into the bank accounts of foreign consultants or local politicians; despair over the continuing civilian casualties, many caused by US airstrikes; anger and humiliation caused by the high-handedness of foreign troops; and a desire to build a national consensus in which Afghans resolve their problems themselves. Karzai’s recent outbursts against the Americans and other foreigners reflect a widely held mood.

The war logs released by WikiLeaks and analysed in July in the Guardian, Der Spiegel and the New York Times paint a picture of worsening insecurity and previously unreported but mounting civilian casualties, caused by Taliban IEDs as well as Nato air strikes. A UN report in August said civilian casualties had risen by almost a third in the first six months of this year, including an increase in Taliban assassinations of teachers, doctors and tribal leaders accused of collaborating with the US. The war logs put the spotlight back on Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence directorate’s role in funding the Taliban in the early 1990s and sheltering many of its leaders since 2001. Although much of the intelligence is flimsy or based on prejudice, the general trend of ISI support for the Taliban is clear.

Conversations with Afghans, too, reveal increasing anger with Pakistan as well as the US. Many feel Pakistan exploits the war to keep Afghanistan divided and weak. They see Pakistan’s link with the Taliban as malign, though opinions differ as to whether the Taliban are puppets, victims or willing agents of Islamabad. Among Afghanistan’s Pashtun population there is considerable support for the view that the north-western territories of Pakistan, including the city of Peshawar, belong to them; Afghanistan has never officially recognised the Durand Line that was drawn in 1893 between the British Empire and Afghanistan. Afghans believe Pakistan tries to control any Afghan group that seeks power in Kabul in order to prevent it from raising the Pashtunistan issue.

The only detailed insider account of the Taliban is a memoir by Abdul Salam Zaeef, the movement’s former ambassador to Pakistan. Zaeef is no spokesman for Mullah Omar and the Quetta shura. But My Life with the Taliban usefully shows that its leaders saw themselves as nationalists, reformers and liberators rather than Islamist ideologues.[†] Mullah Hassan’s characterisation of Mullah Omar in that 1996 Kandahar interview as a political rather than a religious leader fits well with Zaeef’s version of history. Zaeef, too, is contemptuous of Pakistan, and the ISI in particular. He made a point of resisting their advances when he took up his diplomatic post in Islamabad, seeing them as ill-intentioned and manipulative. Pakistan ‘is so famous for treachery that it is said they can get milk from a bull,’ he writes. ‘They use everybody, deceive everybody.’ Some of his anger comes from his childhood in refugee camps near Peshawar, where Afghans were treated as second-class citizens, regularly picked on by the Pakistani police. But he is also furious with Pakistan’s role in the ‘war on terror’: its torture and detention of suspected terrorists, he believes, is as bad as anything the US does.

Arrested after the Taliban collapse in 2001, Zaeef was sent to Guantánamo. On the way he spent time in US custody in Kandahar and Bagram, where he was kept in solitary confinement with his hands and feet tied for 20 days. In Kandahar – shades of the abuse in Abu Ghraib – Zaeef says he was stripped naked and mocked by male and female US troops, one of whom took photos. After three years in Guantánamo, he was offered release on condition he signed a statement that he had been a member of al-Qaida and the Taliban and would cut all ties with them. ‘I was a Talib, I am a Talib and I will always be a Talib, but I have never been part of al-Qaida,’ he retorted. Eventually they allowed him to go after signing a declaration: ‘I am writing this out of obligation and stating that I am not going to participate in any kind of anti-American activities or military actions.’

Zaeef maintains that he was shocked by al-Qaida’s attack on 9/11, of which he had no foreknowledge. He says he wept when he watched TV pictures of the burning buildings and people throwing themselves out and falling to the ground like stones: ‘I stared at the pictures in disbelief.’ He immediately saw the likely repercussions. ‘I knew that Afghanistan and its poverty-stricken people would ultimately suffer for what had just taken place in America. The United States would seek revenge.’ He admits that some of the Taliban watching the scene were jubilant and thought the US was too far away to retaliate. ‘How could they be so superficial?’ he asks.

Mullah Omar rang to consult Zaeef about how to react. Next morning Zaeef called a press conference in Islamabad and read a statement condemning the attacks. ‘All those responsible must be brought to justice. We want them to be brought to justice and we want America to be patient and careful in their actions,’ it said. Zaeef returned to Kandahar, where he found Mullah Omar blindly sure that the US was unlikely to attack. He tried to warn the Taliban leader. He told him Pakistan was urging the US to launch air strikes on Afghanistan and had already started talks with the Northern Alliance in the expectation that they would be the leaders of a post-Taliban government. But Omar claimed America could not attack Afghanistan without valid reason. He had asked Washington to deliver proof incriminating bin Laden and said the Taliban would take no further action until it was given hard evidence. Zaeef’s account seems plausible given that the Taliban made no preparations for war, but it shows how out of touch Omar had become. The destruction of the Buddha statues at Bamyan earlier in the year had already suggested he had no real understanding of the way the outside world perceived the Taliban.

We know almost nothing about the Taliban’s current views, but it’s clear that on the US side there is as yet no readiness to talk. There is some evidence that General David Petraeus, the new US commander in Afghanistan, is more in tune with Afghan realities than his predecessor, General Stanley McChrystal. But both have been committed to the current ‘surge’ of extra US troops. Petraeus’s image in the US as a man who had success with the surge in Iraq may wed him even more closely to the strategy than McChrystal. Known as a company man with an ear for the subtleties of inter-agency jockeying in Washington, Petraeus recognises that the White House believes the Taliban have to be weakened militarily before the US can contemplate talks. Petraeus will not step out of line.

In its political strategy the US puts its money on ‘reconciliation and reintegration’. Decoded, this amounts to little more than amnesty and surrender. Taliban fighters and commanders should renounce violence and sign up to the constitution, in return for which they may be paid a short-term allowance and perhaps be offered a job. The deal is highly unlikely to tempt anyone of any significance. Amnesty was first offered in 2005 and no senior commander has defected. Only 12 of the 142 Taliban leaders on the UN security council sanctions list have come over, and none was involved in the post-2001 insurgency. The Americans are fighting a variety of local Taliban commanders, and, in south-eastern Afghanistan, different groups entirely: Hizb-i-Islami, founded by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and the so-called Haqqani network, led by a father and son team. Each group has different regional and tribal loyalties but it is fanciful to imagine any of them can be persuaded to join the Americans and fight each other. Previous American efforts to create local militias have had minimal success. Offering local ceasefires is a more productive path. Groups would keep their arms but drop out of the fight unless outsiders move into the district. The British tried this in 2006 in Musa Qala in the northern part of Helmand when they persuaded the town’s elders to ask the Taliban not to enter if the British withdrew. At the time the Americans were not happy, and neither was General David Richards, then the International Security Assistance Force commander in Afghanistan and soon to be Britain’s chief of the Defence Staff. The truce broke down after a US air strike killed the brother of the local Taliban commander just outside the demilitarised area. It may have been deliberate sabotage.

The US ‘reconciliation’ approach at least recognises, for the first time, that most Taliban are motivated by a sense of grievance and a demand for justice. They are not ideologues or Islamists pursuing a global jihad like al-Qaida. Trying to start a dialogue with them through local elders may be productive if it is aimed at understanding their wider objectives beyond the obvious one, the withdrawal of Western forces from their district and ultimately from the country. At the national level it is essential that talks take place between Karzai and Mullah Omar. If Omar insists he can only talk with the Americans, there could be a format that includes plenary sessions with Karzai, the Taliban and the Americans so that the Taliban address their remarks to the Americans. Pakistan’s role is vital. Ideally, Pakistan would be included in a regional forum of ‘Friends of Afghanistan’ made up of Iran, Pakistan, India, China, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Russia: these countries would be asked to make pledges of non-interference and recognise Afghanistan as a non-aligned state with no foreign bases. But Pakistan is likely to insist on more than that. A model might be the Geneva talks that ended the Soviet occupation in 1988. They included the Soviet Union, the US, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Today’s version would be the US, Pakistan, the Kabul government and the Taliban. Eventually, there should also be an Afghan Loya Jirga with all the Afghan parties, including the Kabul government, the Taliban, and Hekmatyar and the Haqqanis. Any changes to the constitution must be agreed by representatives of Afghan women’s groups and human rights organisations.

Can a settlement along these lines be found? Only an exploratory dialogue with the Taliban can even begin to answer this question. There are bound to be misunderstandings and breakdowns on the way. Twenty-six years elapsed between the Conservative government’s first secret contacts with the IRA in 1972 and the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. In South Africa, where there was broad agreement on the need for a transfer of power, it still required four years to work out the details. What would a post-American Afghanistan look like? It is likely to have a weak central government and powerful semi-autonomous regions, in part because Kabul has never been a strong ruling centre. The national army may well have to be broken into regional corps. At the moment its officer corps is Tajik-dominated and it is hard to see how Taliban commanders could work with them.

Are we getting ahead of ourselves? Until the Obama administration comes round to the idea of negotiations, progress is stalled. When David Miliband advocated talks with the Taliban in March, he did not mention their name in his key sentence. ‘The idea of political engagement with those who would directly or indirectly attack our troops is difficult,’ he said in a speech at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In spite of this cautious formulation, US policy-makers reacted negatively and the current British government’s line is not to repeat it. But Obama will have to move at some point from his ‘reconciliation’ policy to one of ‘accommodation’. That means taking the Taliban’s grievances on board and being willing to address them in a compromise deal that is likely to involve the formation of a power-sharing government in Kabul in return for a US withdrawal. The US public is growing steadily more disillusioned with what is already America’s longest war. Obama has promised to review his strategy in December, a year after he announced the surge. By then the results of November’s Congressional elections will be in. The decision he faces is momentous: go into the 2012 campaign as a president who has started the endgame or play the tough guy even though he must know any hope of defeating the Taliban militarily is doomed.

[*] Hurst, 318 pp., £25, August 2009, 978 1 85065 961 7.

[†] Hurst, 331 pp., £20, February, 978 1 84904 026 6.