‘You can have patience or you can have carnage’

Charles Glass on US failures in Afghanistan

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.

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