Vol. 26 No. 22 · 18 November 2004

‘You can have patience or you can have carnage’

Charles Glass on US failures in Afghanistan

5790 words

Kabul, since 1776 the nominal if forever ignored capital of Afghanistan, hides itself within thousands of forbidding walls. Mounds of ancient brick race up hillsides, remnants of the fifth-century ramparts that failed to preserve decadent Hindu rule from Mughal conquest. Every private house and most public buildings are set inside mud and brick enclosures that give the city an unwelcoming air. Behind the walls, in gardens needing rain, lie separate huts for women, for cooking, for eating and for receiving guests. Only the shops open directly onto broken pavements, with random displays of carpets, stationery, books, computers, cameras, jewellery and mobile phones. The customers, like the shopkeepers, are men, most of them clothed in traditional sharwal khameez and jaunty turbans. ‘Now and then,’ Robert Byron wrote in 1933, ‘a calico beehive with a window at the top flits across the scene. This is a woman.’ Contemporary Kabul is closer to Byron’s description than to a 1977 guidebook’s city of ‘mini-skirted schoolgirls’. The schoolgirls are now matrons, who venture out in their beehives to shop in the Women’s Bazaar. Their mini-skirts long abandoned, they would not dare to enter a tea house or linger in a public square.

A lot of ‘stuff’ happened between 1977 and my visit earlier this year to make Afghanistan regress even from the state in which Byron found it seventy years ago: meddling by the US and USSR in Afghanistan’s internal affairs; the Soviet invasion; the arming of insurgents in what President Carter’s national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, called ‘the Muslim holy war against Communism’; the politicisation of Islam; the destruction of what little infrastructure the country had; the Soviet defeat and departure; the civil war among the insurgents; deals in oil pipelines and opium; the tyranny of the Taliban and the rise of Osama bin Laden on Afghan soil; the American invasion of 2001; and the American creation of a government under Hamid Karzai. Since then, the US has escalated its pursuit of Taliban and bin Laden supporters, while large areas of southern Afghanistan are reverting to Taliban control.

As an outpost of the American empire, Kabul is not as dangerous as Baghdad. But the destruction is more extensive. Whole quarters are uninhabited, their fallen mud walls beyond restoration. Schools, hospitals and royal palaces are leprous shells, abandoned to the wind and multilingual warnings against ‘unexploded ordnance’. At the same time a gold rush atmosphere challenges the desolation. Colourful hoardings hawk the services of new businesses, foreign and local: DHL couriers, rooms for rent, houses for rent, internet shops, Thai Restaurant and Pizzeria, Sizzlin’ Steaks, new hotels and guest houses. There is even a massage parlour, run discreetly by a Chinese madame whose Thai girls used to serve UN troops in East Timor. Kabul is a city of camp followers, contractors and restaurateurs, who live off foreign armies and government spending programmes. Another hint of vitality is the traffic. Cars, carts, trucks and yellow and white Corolla taxis swarm past bearded old men on three-speed bicycles. They slow down at roundabouts and come to a halt near the highest walls for a hundred miles. Rising above the parapet, a concrete fortress casts its shadow over the soldiers outside. A taxi driver says: ‘That? That is the new US Embassy.’

‘ATTENTION,’ a vast billboard declares. ‘The US Embassy would be grateful if any of our friends who have information on terrorist activity or threat information to please come to this gate between the hours of 10 a.m. and 12 p.m. on Sunday through Thursday.’ The American Embassy, like the whole Afghan project, is still under construction. But, unlike American-sponsored Afghan democracy, the embassy should be completed by the middle of next year. Air-conditioning ducts and communication cables have been laid deep underground, and a few buildings within the multi-acre complex are already functioning. Most of the staff work in prefabricated cabins, where they lay out plans for education, medical care, the economy, agriculture, transportation, the justice system and security. Assisted by private consultants they plan to remake Afghanistan in much the way their forebears in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations sought to forge a new Vietnam alongside the backroom boys from the Rand Corporation. As in Vietnam, indigenous resistance to the American project is hindering its realisation. Security is an obsession, the precondition for achieving the rest. A four-colour embassy handout defines ‘success’ as: ‘An Afghanistan that does not again become a base for terrorism; that is committed to democracy and human rights, and that can achieve progress through free market and legal economic activity.’ This same brochure, produced by the US Agency for International Development (USAID), declares that the ‘Prerequisites for Success’ are ‘security in the countryside’ and ‘adequate funding for development’. So far, Afghanistan has neither. The battle for the countryside is escalating, and American development aid to Afghanistan is the lowest per capita – $67 a year – of all major US assistance programmes.

Invading Afghanistan is easier than running it, as Alexander of Macedon’s heirs, the East India Company and the Red Army discovered. As Vladimir Kuzichkin wrote in Inside the KGB in 1990, the USSR had hoped for ‘the rapid liquidation of the "primitive” partisan resistance, followed by withdrawal from Afghanistan’. Kuzichkin also said that the KGB, which had opposed the invasion, believed ‘the resistance movement would grow in proportion to the Soviet presence.’ So it did. ‘We are bogged down in a war we cannot win and cannot abandon. It’s ridiculous. A mess,’ a KGB general told Kuzichkin halfway through the Soviet occupation. A force of 10,000 Soviet troops took Afghanistan in December 1979, but more than 105,000 were unable to prevent defeat by the ‘primitive’ resistance. They finally withdrew in February 1989.

The US garrison, most active in the Pashtun-speaking areas of the south and south-east, officially comprises only 18,000 troops – little more than a tenth of the American presence in Iraq. The US has farmed out the rest of the country to local warlords, private contractors, the CIA and the compliant allies loosely grouped in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). From the embassy, where the Afghan-born American ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, delivers weekly progress reports to the press, everything looks rosy. The Kabul to Kandahar highway improvements, completed by American firms earlier this year, provide a pretext for self-congratulation. Embassy handouts do not mention the regular attacks by bandits and insurgents that force most officials to travel by plane between the cities. Conditions, according to embassy spokesmen, are always ‘improving’. Victory in last month’s presidential election has given Hamid Karzai the credibility he had lacked; but it hasn’t granted him power. That is still exercised by the American ambassador and the American military commander, Lieutenant-General David Barno. Afghans and foreigners alike call Karzai the mayor of Kabul and Khalilzad the proconsul. Those close to both report that Karzai not only defers to Khalilzad but seeks his advice on all important issues. It was Khalilzad – American-educated and thoroughly naturalised – who introduced Karzai to the Washington establishment that would install him on his throne. Next year, the embassy is planning elections for a parliament.

Few places outside Kabul are safe for Americans – or for President Karzai, Afghan government representatives, foreign aid workers and electoral officials. ISAF, whose 6500 troops from 36 countries came under Nato command in August last year, cannot police the entire country. Most are billeted in or near Kabul, where peacekeeping demands are less strenuous than elsewhere. The bulk of ISAF’s troops are Canadian or German; other countries have contributed token forces (800 British troops serve in ISAF). The Nato secretary general, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, has warned that Afghanistan faces the prospect of ‘falling back under the Taliban’. The reason, he believes, is the American refusal to be part of ISAF. ‘There is no question but that we are involved in ISAF,’ Donald Rumsfeld explained, delphically, in April 2002. ‘We’re just doing it in ways that are distinctive and appropriate to us.’ US forces and ISAF have distinct – and conflicting – missions. ISAF’s role is to stabilise the country and US operations to capture and kill suspected Taliban and al-Qaida holdouts destabilise it. Nothing undermines ISAF and the international aid agencies more than the actions of the American forces: destroying houses, interrogating villagers, whisking men into CIA safe-houses and army prisons, killing civilians in crossfire. When US troops were fired on from a police station earlier this year, the Americans called in an air strike that severely damaged the Swedish-assisted school in which the police post was based. The Americans blamed their Afghan allies for stationing police in a school: the Afghans accused the US troops of refusing to stop at their checkpoint. This was one of many reported incidents in which Afghan civilians died.

UN officials in Kandahar told me that more districts were falling to the Taliban each month. A foreign civil administrator who has lived in the south of Afghanistan for three years and speaks Pashtu said that the Kabul government and US forces controlled only three of the 11 districts in the southern province of Zabul. (Afghanistan has 34 provinces and a population of 28 million; 70 per cent of the people live in the countryside.) In Uruzgan province, the administrator said, the Taliban ran four of the 14 districts. All the southern provinces near Pakistan – Hilmand, Kandahar, Zabul, Paktika and Paktya – have become Taliban havens. ‘The people are neutral,’ he said. ‘They are not supporting the central government or the Taliban. During the night, the Taliban come there and eat. They disappear during the day. In other areas, there is full Taliban control.’

‘We are happy to work with the Americans’, Sayed Nek Muhammad, the deputy commander of the Afghan army’s Second Corps of 6000 tribal auxiliaries in Kandahar, told me. ‘But we are hearing from the common people the complaints about Americans searching their homes. Someone says: "A man is hiding in a house.” And they search it. They search the women.’ Forces such as the Second Corps are officially under the command of the Afghan National Army, which is being trained by the US, but their loyalty would shift if their tribal leaders who are currently in government went into opposition. The army, like the Afghan state, is a fragile institution.

Until the marines undertook a spring offensive near Kandahar, Nek Muhammad said, ‘we had good control and links to the people. Since the Americans started these activities, people did not listen to us. They listen to the Taliban.’ He was convinced that the Americans relied on faulty intelligence. ‘The agents who are working for the Americans do not represent Afghans. They just speak English.’ An American aid director, who has worked in Afghanistan on and off for twenty years, told me that ‘in the Ghazni area, Americans come with a list of names and arrest people and take them away. These actions are taken on the basis of allegations and rumours. It is the easy way for some Afghans to deal with their enemies.’ Both Nek Muhammad and UN officers said that many of the Americans’ informants were using the US forces to eliminate rivals, or men whose property or wives they coveted, or to settle feuds.

To perform the dual task of hunting down the Taliban and persuading the population to support the American forces, the US has established 19 civil-military Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs). Britain also set up a PRT in Mazar-i-Sharif in June 2003, but in it civil and military responsibilities are more clearly demarcated and most of the personnel are civilians. A US official described the American PRTs to me as ‘small military units to provide security and help with reconstruction’. The American PRTs – almost all soldiers – have distributed leaflets warning that humanitarian aid would be contingent on co-operation in the fight against the Taliban and al-Qaida. This policy entailed risks, as Médecins sans Frontières made clear in May. MSF, which had staffed medical programmes in Afghanistan since 1980, said that bartering humanitarian assistance for intelligence on the Taliban jeopardised the lives of all aid workers. Three weeks later, on 2 June, the Taliban ambushed and killed five MSF volunteers – not in the Taliban’s southern homeland, but in the north-west, which the US had believed was a Taliban-free zone. MSF subsequently, and reluctantly, left Afghanistan. In a press statement of 28 July it complained that ‘the US-backed coalition has consistently sought to use humanitarian aid to build support for its military and political ambitions . . . By doing so, providing aid is no longer seen as an impartial and neutral act.’ If a PRT comes to dig a well or rebuild a house one day, and returns the next to arrest or kill someone, how are Afghans to distinguish humanitarian exercises from intelligence-gathering?

Military spokesmen say that PRT units have helped villagers with irrigation and polio immunisation. They have also built a few schools, but the record is not impressive. Khalilzad’s predecessor as American ambassador, Robert Finn, trumpeted the modest achievements of the PRTs at a ceremony in Kabul on 1 February 2003: ‘in Gardez alone, since August of last year, three schools totalling $25,000 were completed. In Paktia Province, four other schools totalling $120,000 are under construction.’ The PRTs’ military adventures have, so far, overshadowed their civil operations.

The US has done all this before – in Vietnam. PRTs are the Afghan incarnation of the CIA’s People’s Action Teams (PATs) and their Popular Information Program, whose slogan was ‘Protecting the people from terrorism’. The Phoenix Program under which the PATs operated had as its objective the elimination of ‘Vietcong Infrastructure’ (VCI) – that is, civilians who gave food, shelter or other support to Vietcong guerrillas. The US offered bounties of up to $11,000 for the capture of live VCI and half that sum for a VCI corpse. Of the 2000 VCI ‘neutralised’ in April 1971, 40 per cent were assassinated. In total, the Phoenix Program assassinated between 26,000 (the CIA figure) and 40,000 (the Saigon government’s) South Vietnamese citizens and sent thousands more to be tortured in Province Interrogation Centers. As in Afghanistan, there were doubts about the reliability of the information given to the PATs. Michael Uhl, a former military intelligence officer in Vietnam, testified to the House Subcommittee on Government Operations in 1971: ‘We had no way of determining the background of these sources, or their motivation for providing American units with information . . . Our paid sources could easily have been either provocateurs or opportunists with a score to settle.’

The legal tergiversations over prisoners in Afghanistan that resulted in the novel category of ‘enemy combatant’, someone beyond the protection of international law, derived from similar creative legislating in Vietnam. The head of the CIA’s Civil Operations and Rural Development Support, William Colby, explained to Congress that the Geneva Conventions did not cover South Vietnamese detainees because ‘nationals of a co-belligerent state shall not be regarded as protected persons while the state of which they are nationals has normal diplomatic representation in the state in whose hands they are.’ This ingenious interpretation of an innocuous provision in international law meant that, because South Vietnam had an embassy in Washington, the CIA and US Special Forces could do anything they wanted to its citizens. They did pretty much what they are doing to Afghans: killed them or took them in for interrogation. In the hundreds of Province Interrogation Centers, torture was common practice. (In Afghanistan and Iraq, the US and local prison systems are separate. After Vietnam, they no longer trust the natives.) In 1963 Frank Walton, the director of USAID’s Public Safety Program, signed an order at one Vietnamese prison that detainees be ‘isolated from all others for months at a time’ and be subject to ‘immobilisation – the prisoner is bolted to the floor, handcuffed to a bar or rod, or leg irons with the chain through an eyebolt, or around a bar or rod.’ This did not prevent Walton from stating in public that the prison was ‘like a Boy Scout recreational camp’: harbinger of Rumsfeld on the tropical splendour of Guantanamo.

One phrase I heard repeated more than any other by Afghans was: ‘You can kill a man, and his family can forgive you. But if you take his trousers, he will never forgive.’ The humiliations that took place at Abu Ghraib resonate in Afghanistan, where released detainees have similar tales of torture and sexual mistreatment. In its March 2004 report, ‘Enduring Freedom: Abuses by US Forces in Afghanistan’, Human Rights Watch said that the US-led forces in Afghanistan had arrested at least a thousand people since 2002. The report referred to the use of ‘excessive or indiscriminate force when conducting arrests in residential areas in Afghanistan’ and ‘credible allegations of mistreatment in US custody’.

In May, at the height of the disclosures about the American torture of detainees in Iraq, the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) revealed that it had received 44 complaints from Afghans of abuse by Americans. The most prominent of the complainants was Sayed Nabi Siddiqi, a 47-year-old former police colonel from Gardez. American forces took him from his home in the summer of 2003 and held him for 40 days at three detention centres: the firebase at Gardez, the air base at Kandahar and the main US prison at Bagram air base. He described to the commission – and later to the New York Times and ABC News – torture and sexual humiliation that resembled what had taken place in Iraq. His testimony was on the record with the AIHRC months before the release of the photographs of naked prisoners abused by guards at Abu Ghraib. When they were published, Siddiqi told the New York Times: ‘I swear to God, those photos shown on television of the prison in Iraq – those things happened to me as well.’ Siddiqi said the Americans stripped him naked, photographed him front and back, and doused him in freezing water. He said they touched his penis and asked: ‘Why is this unhappy?’ His account of them inserting fingers into his anus suggests that they went beyond a normal body cavity search. ‘They were taunting me and laughing and asking me very rude questions . . . like which animals do you want us to bring in for you to have sex with . . . They kept insisting, and they were kicking me so much that eventually I said a cow.’ He said they then accused him of having sex with cows.

Colonel Siddiqi was released without charge. When his story was published in the New York Times, the US Embassy issued a press release quoting Ambassador Khalilzad: ‘To the best of our knowledge this is the first time anyone in the military chain of command or the United States Embassy has heard of this alleged incident.’ The AIHRC, however, said it had informed American military officials months before. Until late May, all its requests for meetings with the ambassador had been ignored – as had its requests to see Lieutenant-General Barno. The embassy announced that the army would launch its own investigation into allegations of abuse by its personnel.

Earlier this year, the US military command said that there were about three hundred detainees at Bagram air base; most are held in wire-mesh cages containing between eight and ten prisoners. Bagram is the largest American holding facility in the country; two deaths in custody there in December 2002 have only now led to prosecutions of military personnel for what coroners had already described as homicides. Army spokesmen would not comment on the other military detention centres; and the embassy declined to release information about the notorious CIA interrogation house in the Ariana Hotel in the centre of Kabul, which is known locally as ‘The Pit’. ‘What do you think when all this comes out?’ an Afghan human rights worker asked me. ‘It is not acceptable, especially by a country that claims to be a liberator and to accept human rights. Look what’s going on in Palestine and here. People see this . . . In Afghanistan, they bomb civilians. An apology is not enough. In Afghanistan, we never had a suicide bomb attack. It started last year with an attack on the Germans.’ Then came the suicide bombings of Canadian and Dutch ISAF troops. The same human rights worker, who had been living abroad and returned to Afghanistan after the invasion, added: ‘I am not afraid if they’ – the Afghan police – ‘arrest me. Or kill me. Now, I’m afraid of the American jails.’ A UN official said: ‘One of the goals we have here is to bring this country to the rule of law and order. We must do it by example.’

The AIHRC grew out of the 5 December 2001 Bonn Agreement that created the transitional government under Hamid Karzai. Its director, Sima Samar, came home to Afghanistan after 17 years in exile to take up the posts of vice-president and minister of women’s affairs in Karzai’s government. Her subsequent criticisms of the government led to her resignation a few months later, and she moved to the AIHRC. The commission’s volunteers have the statutory right to inspect any prison in the country, except those run by the Americans. ‘We would like to have access,’ she said, but the only visitors allowed into American prisons are delegates of the International Committee of the Red Cross, whose reports are confidential. Samar regretted that the Americans were not setting an example by permitting public supervision of their prisons. The Afghans’ own example – even I was allowed to visit the main Kabul detention centre – is unheeded.

Afghans who believe that their country’s security depends on the American forces nonetheless criticise the US for permitting mujahidin warlords to rule most of the north. The warlords finance their militias through extortion, customs duties on the borders, and the sale of opium – nearly eradicated by the Taliban and now the country’s major crop. The State Department admitted this year that opium cultivation had reached its highest level in Afghan history. The Drug Enforcement Administration had already estimated that 80 per cent of Europe’s heroin came from Afghanistan. ‘The PRTs are criticised by some as letting warlords run the country, and paying the warlords,’ an American aid worker in Kabul told me. ‘We brought them back. Because of the American strategy to win the war on the cheap, we now have them in most of the country.’ The militias – tolerated by the US, which relied on them during the invasion – outnumber the new national army by more than ten to one. The embassy issues regular press releases whenever a militia disarms, but fewer than 10 per cent have turned in their heavy weapons.

American counter-insurgency experts complain that up to 30,000 Taliban and al-Qaida fighters take refuge in Pakistan between operations against US forces in Afghanistan. They made the same complaint about Vietcong hiding in Cambodia. The US has put pressure on General Musharraf to attack the ‘foreign fighters’ in his country’s North-West Frontier Province – as once it put pressure on Cambodia’s Prince Sihanouk, who was subsequently overthrown by a CIA-supported military coup. The Pakistan government had left the frontier tribes alone since Jinnah’s withdrawal of the army in 1947. This year, in co-ordination with the US military in Afghanistan, Musharraf sent his army north to force the tribes to expel insurgents. In Kabul, Lieutenant-General Barno called it the ‘hammer and anvil’ strategy: the Pakistani hammer would drive the militants onto the American anvil over the border. ‘Sometimes they’re the hammer and we’re the anvil,’ Barno told a press conference on the lawn outside his headquarters, ‘and vice versa.’ The battles – allegedly in pursuit of Osama bin Laden’s deputy, Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri – left almost as many Pakistani soldiers dead as Afghan insurgents. No senior al-Qaida or Taliban figures were captured. In fact, all the arrests of al-Qaida operatives in Pakistan have occurred in cities – mainly Karachi – far from the borders. But the US expects Pakistan to continue operations indefinitely.

In Islamabad, Lieutenant-General Alam Jan Mashud, the former commander of the Pakistan army’s 19th Lancers and a hereditary tribal leader, told me the Americans were making a mistake. ‘I said to the British military attaché, can’t you tell your cousins?’ The cousins insisted on immediate and fierce action. In Pakistan’s tribal regions, all important decisions are made by a jirga – a tribal council – in meetings that can last for days. The tribal leaders demanded time to discuss whether to give up foreign mujahidin who had lived among them for years. ‘You can have patience,’ General Mashud said, ‘or you can have carnage.’ Musharraf, at America’s insistence, chose carnage. He sent the troops in, and they were routed. Then, from the air, he managed to kill some prominent tribal warriors. No foreign fighters turned themselves in, and no guerrillas turned up on the American anvil. Musharraf angered the tribes along the border without satisfying the Americans. The US has occasionally ‘strayed’ into Pakistan in pursuit of suspected insurgents. Its government protested against these incursions, which – like the 63 Soviet cross-border raids in 1984 – tempt Pashtuns in Pakistan to join their cousins on the Afghan side in opposing the occupiers.

General Hamid Gul was the head of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence at the height of the mujahidin campaign against the Soviets between 1987 and 1989. Close to the CIA, which helped to create the ISI, Gul was in regular contact with most of the mujahidin leaders and knew the Taliban leadership well. In those days, the mujahidin were exporting opium through Pakistan; Gul was accused of taking a cut – a charge never proved – and of appropriating some of the money intended for the holy warriors. I met him in a retired officers’ compound in Islamabad. A long time had passed since he funnelled millions from the US and Saudi Arabia to the mujahidin. In his opinion, the United States was using the ‘foreign fighters’ in Pakistan – and the supposed inability of the Pakistani military to deal with them – as a pretext. ‘They want to authenticate their doctrine of pre-emption,’ he said. ‘They want to establish the precedent that they can operate across borders without consent. The Pakistan government and army are trying to pre-empt the pre-emption. Pakistan’s government cannot allow hot pursuit. It would be the death knell of Pakistani army control in the country.’ Gul is said to be religious and to sympathise with the Taliban. ‘The Americans will sink themselves,’ he said, ‘and take the Western world with them.’ While I was in Pakistan, the army killed 120 people, including women and children, in South Waziristan. That week, Barno had announced in Kabul that ‘there are foreign fighters in those tribal areas who will have to be killed or captured.’

Jamshid Burki, who worked for the Pakistani government as an administrator in the tribal areas for forty years, explained how loyalties work among the Pashto-speaking people of the Afghan-Pakistan border: ‘The law of the land is the tribal code called Pakhtunwali. This lays down that you will provide hospitality to all travellers. You will provide protection. You will avenge all hurts caused to you and your near and dear. You will intercede in situations wherever there are quarrels between people and tribes.’ Decision is by jirga. ‘All male members of a tribe sit and decide. From the age of 16, they take part. But there is a great sanctity of age, of the white beards – sping gray in Pashtu, safed rish in Persian . . . To change a custom or policy, a simple majority does not count. There has to be an overwhelming majority. There is great order between the tribes. There is no lawlessness there. I’ve been an administrator in the tribal areas all my life, and the lawlessness in the government areas is five thousand times worse.’

The British did not conquer the tribal areas in the north-west of what became Pakistan: they’d discovered that it was less expensive to leave the tribes as a buffer between themselves and Afghanistan. They made treaties with them and maintained garrisons to protect the main highways. Burki said that, on independence in 1947, Jinnah convened a jirga in Peshawar. ‘He announced two things. I proclaim here you are among the most loyal of Pakistanis, and I order the withdrawal of all my army from your areas. I commit that the status of your areas will not be changed. There will be no change without consulting you.’ According to Burki, the return of Pakistan’s army to the north-west without consultation, and at the request of a foreign power, is ‘a violation of Jinnah’s commitment. This has never happened before. In my experience as an administrator, in dealing with the tribes, the most important item is the confidence they have in your word. If they have it, you can lead them along a path that may even be risky to the tribe. This skulduggery will not be forgotten for a long time.’ He said the army could not win a war against the tribes, any more than the British did. ‘The British started their campaign here in the 1860s,’ he said. ‘They had seven major campaigns to 1938. It ended by stationing two divisions of the RAF. That was the situation we inherited in 1947.’ What has changed? ‘The army is petrified of the Americans,’ he said. ‘When we were a colony, we had more rights. We could go to the courts.’ Now, when the FBI arrests someone in Pakistan, no court has jurisdiction. Burki and other Pakistanis told me they knew people who had disappeared, and even well-connected families could not find out where they are.

The tribes view Pakistan’s army as a Punjabi force. The Pashtun are the largest of all the ethnic groups in Afghanistan and in Pakistan’s North-West Frontier. They see the Pakistani army hitting them in the east and watch the Americans support a government of non-Pashtuns – the Tajiks and Uzbeks of the Northern Alliance – in Kabul. Until recently, ‘Afghan’ was another name for Pashtun (‘Pakhtun’ in another dialect, ‘Pathan’ to the old Raj), and the Afghan Pashtuns fear they are losing their country. Karzai may be a Pashtun, but the warlords in his cabinet – stronger people than him – are Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazara. ‘The non-Afghan is ruling the Afghan,’ Burki said, ‘and it’s called Afghanistan.’

The US presence in Afghanistan was more welcome at first than it was in Iraq. Now the war in the rural areas, the narco-trafficking warlords and abuse of prisoners have lost the US what goodwill it had. And the effects are plain, as Iraqi insurgents adopt the tactics that have proved so effective in Iraq: first the suicide bombings of ISAF forces, and now the abduction of three UN electoral workers. This is the surest way to frighten away foreigners and remove the positive effect of humanitarian assistance, leaving only soldiers to interact with the Afghans. An Afghan doctor working with the UN said: ‘99 per cent of the people don’t want the Taliban. That is why the Coalition survives. But, after a few years, the propaganda will change that. Only the Taliban is fighting the Coalition.’ Even Afghans who believe that American force is the only thing standing in the way of civil war or Taliban oppression wish the Americans would behave differently. Can they behave differently – in Iraq, Afghanistan or any other country they invade? They say they are there to save the country, and anyone who does not want to be saved must be ‘eliminated’. An Afghan militia leader, who is siding with the Kabul government for the moment, told me his greatest worry: ‘It is not Hekmatyar’ – the head of the anti-government Hizb-i-Islami – ‘or Mullah Omar who will lose. It is those of us who have sided with American interests.’ In Afghanistan, everyone has a family, a tribe, a place; and to harm one Afghan is to affect hundreds. Everyone identified with the American occupation, as once with the Soviet, expects to suffer when the Americans leave. No one will lose more, I fear, than the women whose cause the Americans – like the Soviets – claim to champion.

The American counter-insurgency arsenal – influenced in Vietnam by British success in 1950s Malaya – is running out of new weapons. Bunker-busters and daisy cutters do not defeat guerrillas, and sending marines into villages to root out the bad guys turns even anti-Taliban Afghans into militants. The one thing the US has yet to deploy in Afghanistan – or Iraq – is another failed tactic from Vietnam: severing the links between insurgents and the people. In Vietnam, the US armed forces destroyed thousands of villages and corralled people into concentration camps that they called ‘strategic hamlets’. Under American ‘protection’, they could no longer provide shelter and food to the guerrillas; and they could no longer farm their land. If the American position in Afghanistan – or Iraq – continues to deteriorate, there will be plenty of lawyers in the White House or Justice Department capable of devising a legal formula to permit the transfer of hostile rural populations into secure camps. The strategy failed in Vietnam, but then so did everything else they are doing in Afghanistan – and Iraq.

Al-Qaida has praised the Taliban resurgence engendered by resentment of American behaviour. ‘Southern and eastern Afghanistan have completely become an open field for the mujahidin,’ Ayman al-Zawahiri announced on al-Jazeera on 9 September. ‘The Americans are huddled in their trenches, refusing to confront the holy warriors despite the holy warriors provoking them by shelling, shooting and cutting the routes around them.’ Al-Zawahiri is wrong about the trenches. US forces regularly move from their bases by helicopter and in convoy to engage elusive insurgents, many but not all of whom are Taliban. As for bin Laden’s Arab mujahidin, most have gone to Iraq, where the fighting is heavier and they speak the language. In both Iraq and Afghanistan, al-Zawahiri said, if the Americans continue ‘they will bleed to death,’ but ‘if they withdraw they will lose everything.’

In 1839, Britain occupied Afghanistan for the first time to depose Dost Muhammad and replace him with the more compliant Shah Shujah. The Afghans united to overthrow the puppet and expel the British. Sir William Macnaghten, who as British envoy ran the country through Shah Shujah, dismissed reports of unrest with the same bravado the American Embassy does today. The uprising, he wrote, was merely the ‘transient manifestation of a habitual spirit of independence’. The tribes killed Macnaghten, and 16,000 doomed British troops and camp followers retreated from Kabul towards Jalalabad in January 1842. With thousands of corpses lying frozen and stripped of their clothes in the Khurd Kabul Pass, an Irish trooper said to an officer: ‘Isn’t this a contrary country?’ In 1855, the British concluded the Treaty of Peshawar with the ruler they had overthrown. Dost Muhammad kept the terms of the treaty and supported the British until his death eight years later.

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Vol. 26 No. 24 · 16 December 2004

Charles Glass talks of the ‘American invasion’ of Afghanistan in 2001, and the ‘American creation of a government under Hamid Karzai’ (LRB, 18 November). But Afghanistan was already in the middle of a civil war. The Taliban lines were broken by US bombing and attacks by the Northern Alliance. Afghan troops advanced and took Kabul. With the exception of the special forces that functioned as spotters for the bombardments, no US troops were present in that advance. As for the creation of the interim Afghan government, that was managed by a gathering of Afghan exile and resistance groups in Bonn in November and December 2001; the US had nothing to do with it. In choosing Karzai, a Pashtun, these groups understood that it might be best if their leader were from the largest single ethnic group. Even the Uzbek and Tajik-dominated Northern Alliance understood this. Glass insinuates that Karzai is told what to do by the US ambassador, but the US has no interest in ‘taking over’ Afghanistan. The idea is for the Afghans to take it over, and have a government elected by the majority of Afghans.

Glass repeatedly compares US policies in Afghanistan to those in Vietnam, but the two situations couldn’t be more unalike. It has been crucial to the US in Afghanistan that their military involvement be minimal. Nato troops (no US troops) are in the capital; Glass says that 18,000 troops are currently stationed along the Pakistan border, but no US troops are in garrison in Afghan cities. They are there only to chase after Taliban remnants and Osama bin Laden. Glass laments that the destruction of Kabul is more extensive and worse than that of Baghdad: yes, but 95 per cent of it was done before 1996, by the warring Afghan factions.

Glass is not impressed by the recent Afghan presidential election. Perhaps he sees such elections as ‘devices of legitimisation’. But you have to start somewhere. When I was in Peshawar in early October, NGOs and other elements were involved in registering Afghans in refugee camps for the election. The response was so overwhelming that the registration process had to be extended by two days. These are the people who, Glass reports, are ‘not supporting the central government’.

Glass claims that the central government mandate doesn’t extend beyond the capital. But if Karzai can keep the capital quiet and increase confidence in the new regime, that is progress. If the new administration can extend its control towards the Khyber Pass and Jalalabad, as it is doing, that is progress. Glass seems not to have heard that Ismael Khan, the governor of Herat, was recently dismissed, and that new Afghan army units have been deployed to the western province. That, too, is progress.

Kenneth Meyer
Hong Kong

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