Return to Afghanistan

Patrick Cockburn

Compared to Baghdad, Kabul is quiet. Checkpoints are everywhere, manned by Afghan police in tattered grey uniforms, but the police look relaxed and their searches of people and cars are often perfunctory. Only at the southern exit from the city, around a well fortified police post, do people appear anxious as they prepare to take the road to Kandahar. Many check their pockets nervously, perhaps to make sure they are not carrying anything to suggest they might have a link to the government or a foreign NGO. South of Kabul this could lead to summary execution by roving squads of Taliban fighters, usually six to eight men who move swiftly across country on motorcycles and set up mobile checkpoints on the roads. Sometimes, as well as examining documents, they take mobile phones from travellers and redial recent calls. If the call is answered by a government office the owner may be killed on the spot.

Taliban rule is not total across southern Afghanistan, but much of the area has been a no man’s land since 2006. Afghan truckers carrying supplies for US or Nato forces have to pay local security companies for protection or bribe their way through. Not all the gunmen on the roads are Taliban: some local commanders and bandits act independently, though probably under licence from the Taliban. One Western aid official in Kabul told me that a 100-truck convoy travelling from Pakistan to the Dutch base in Oruzgan province paid $750,000 for safe passage. The figure sounds extravagant, but similar stories are told by the owners of local Afghan trucking companies, always a more accurate source of information on the Taliban’s reach than Western diplomats or military officers. ‘It got really bad 18 months ago,’ Abdul Bayan of the Nawe Aryana transport company told me. ‘Now if I am carrying goods to a Nato base and we are going to Kandahar or any of the towns on the way, we travel in a convoy of 15 to 20 trucks protected by five SUVs, each with four armed guards. If we are going to Kandahar it costs me $1000 for each truck.’ If the Taliban capture a truck they either burn it or ask for $10,000 to $12,000 to release it unharmed. Since each truck is worth $70,000, Bayan always pays up. Nato and US officials, so keen to stress that the Taliban are part-financed by the profits of the opium and heroin trade, never mention that it also draws a healthy income from its stranglehold on the supply lines of Western forces. I asked Bayan if he had ever asked the Afghan army or police to protect his convoys. He looked bewildered: ‘Get protection from the soldiers and policemen? They can’t even protect themselves, what can they do for me?’

Over the last few years the Afghan government, despite being supported by US air power and 70,000 foreign troops, has lost control of vast tracts of southern and eastern Afghanistan. Soon after the Taliban fell in 2001 I drove from Kabul to the fortress city of Ghazni and then on to Qalat, Kandahar and Helmand. The road, a terrible 300-mile-long rutted track of deep potholes and broken pieces of ancient tarmac, was dangerous, but it was still possible to get through. Eight years later the road itself is in much better shape, but the journey is far too risky for a foreigner to undertake. A few days before I met him, one of the security companies Abdul Bayan uses was attacked by Taliban in Qalat, an impoverished, dusty town in Zabul province; seven of its men were killed and three captured. Daoud Sultanzoy, an anti-government member of the Afghan parliament from Ghazni, said he no longer dared go back to the city he represented, though he was ‘as much afraid of the government having me shot as I am of the Taliban’.

Western Afghanistan has been mostly free from violence since the overthrow of the Taliban. Even so, I could get to Herat only by air from Kabul’s tumbledown airport, since none of the roads is safe. The day after I arrived I had a picnic lunch with a building contractor called Obaidullah Sidiqi in an orchard he owned near the airport. He said it was safe enough in Herat itself, but not outside the city. As a Tajik, like the great majority in Herat, Sidiqi could not safely enter Pashtun areas where last year he had two construction contracts, one for a school and the other for a road, in districts where the Taliban are strong. Only by growing his beard long and pretending to be one of his Pashtun drivers was he able to visit the road-building project; and even then the main engineer, who is a Pashtun, warned him not to return.

Support for the current Taliban uprising, just like support for the original takeover of Afghanistan in the 1990s, is limited by the movement’s reliance on the Pashtun. ‘I wish we could get away from the idea that all Pashtun are Taliban and all the Taliban are Pashtun,’ Daoud Sultanzoy, a Pashtun, said to me. It’s true that not all Pashtun are Taliban, but solidarity among the Pashtun and the Taliban’s safe havens in Pashtun areas of Pakistan explain the movement’s resilience in the face of what appeared to be total defeat in 2001. The Pashtun are the largest community in Afghanistan, but at 42 per cent of the population they aren’t quite a majority. The Taliban have no support among the Tajiks (27 per cent of Afghans), Hazara (9 per cent), Uzbeks (9 per cent), Aimak (4 per cent), Turkmens (3 per cent) or Baloch (2 per cent). There has always been hostility between these ethnic groups, but it was exacerbated by the massacres of the 1990s and the Taliban’s refusal, during their years in power, to dilute their fanatical Sunni fundamentalism or share power with the non-Pashtun minorities. They didn’t compromise because they didn’t have to, until 9/11 and the American intervention transformed the balance of power.

By 2001 the anti-Taliban coalition, the Northern Alliance, the core of which was Tajik with some Uzbek and Hazara support, had been confined to the mountainous north-east of the country and was on the verge of defeat. It was not only rescued but put on the road to victory by Washington’s decision to overthrow the Taliban government in retaliation for its backing of al-Qaida. A few months later, aided by American bombs and money and strengthened by Pakistan’s temporary withdrawal of support from the Taliban, Northern Alliance forces swept into Kabul; there was little resistance. Its leaders, to their own astonishment, were the new rulers of Afghanistan. They have never entirely lost their grip on power in the years since. Their palatial houses, often built on land expropriated from the government, dominate expensive districts like Sherpoor. ‘I see them driving through Kabul,’ one Pashtun businessman said bitterly, ‘in their SUVs with smoked-glass windows and well-armed bodyguards, without knowing or caring how most Afghans live.’

I spent the months before the 2001 war living in a poor and dirty town called Jabal Saraj, 50 miles north of Kabul. It was held by the Northern Alliance; the front line with the Taliban ran a few miles to the south through the heavily populated Shomali plain, one of the most fertile parts of Afghanistan. It is full of well-watered orchards, their irrigation systems fed by the rivers flowing out of the Hindu Kush. Most people there are Tajiks, who had seen the front swing backwards and forwards across the plain. The Taliban had tried to capture Jabal Saraj several times, but never managed to hold it for long. The main bridge in the town was a bizarre structure, constructed on top of a pile of wrecked Taliban armoured cars. Eight years ago, Jabal Saraj was a miserable place, cut off by the Taliban on three sides, its defenders’ only line of retreat up the Panjshir Valley, one of the world’s great natural fortresses and the most important bastion of the Northern Alliance. The Taliban were worried about their enemies being able to mass their forces within striking distance of the capit-al. Their fears were justified: it was from the Panjshir and the Shomali plain that the Northern Alliance successfully stormed Kabul at the end of the year.

The Tajiks of this part of Afghanistan have been on the winning side ever since. Security here is better than in the rest of the country and there are few checkpoints. Dozens of blown-up bridges have been rebuilt and the road is busy with trucks and petrol tankers on their way to and from the north of the country, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan. Most of the fruit and vegetables on sale in the capital are from Shomali; the towns and villages have a prosperous air. But it is the old warlords, the anti-Taliban military commanders, who have done best of all. According to their critics they have been pillaging Afghanistan ever since the war ended. At the time I was living in Jabal Saraj the overall military commander of the Northern Alliance was General Mohammad Qasim Fahim. A month ago Fahim, now promoted to marshall, Afghanistan’s highest military rank, was chosen by Karzai to be his vice-presidential running mate in the election on 20 August. International observers were aghast. ‘Fahim in the heart of government would be a terrible step backwards for Afghanistan,’ Brad Adams of Human Rights Watch said. ‘He’s one of the most notorious warlords in the country, with the blood of many Afghans on his hands.’ He is far from alone. Karzai’s other vice-presidential candidate is the Hazara warlord Karim Khalili.

I used to visit Bashir Salangi, a tough warlord, who commanded the Northern Alliance forces in the Salang Valley, a deep rocky gorge north of Jabal Saraj that ended in a long tunnel which pierces the Hindu Kush and is one of the few roads linking southern and northern Afghanistan. Salangi was notorious for having pretended to defect to the Taliban. In 1997 he allowed several thousand of their fighters to flood through the tunnel, having persuaded them that they had outflanked the Northern Alliance forces; and then blew the tunnel up, killing a large number of them. Soon after the Northern Alliance victory Salangi became Kabul’s police chief and within a couple of years was being accused of bulldozing houses in Sherpoor to make room for the ‘poppy palaces’ of the new elite. Other warlords have also done well. At Bagram airport, I used to climb up the half-demolished control tower to be shown the Taliban front line by Baba Jan, an ex-Communist general. Later, Jan became a senior policeman in Kabul: he is currently said to be in business, having won valuable contracts to supply the giant US base at Bagram. Men like him, the surprise victors of 2001, became the power brokers of post-Taliban Afghanistan.

Karzai is criticised at home and abroad for relying on these warlords, but he seems to have little choice, and his recipe for staying in power appears to work. At any rate his victory in August’s presidential election looks inevitable. He has faced down Washington’s hostility, which was very evident at the beginning of the year, when American officials spoke openly about the corruption and ineffectiveness of his administration. The US has since reluctantly come to see that it has no real alternative. Though often derided as the ‘mayor of Kabul’, Karzai manoeuvres deftly between Afghan warlords, government officials, community leaders and foreign patrons. Last month he secured the withdrawal of the presidential candidacy of Gul Agha Sherzai, the governor of Nangarhar province and another former warlord, who was his only rival for the Pashtun vote. Given the need to have strong support from the Pashtun, none of the remaining candidates stands much of a chance. Karzai is not overwhelmingly popular, but opposition to him is divided. He controls the state apparatus and, ramshackle though this is, it gives him a crucial advantage in getting support from the local power brokers who will determine who wins the election.

‘It’s not that the Taliban is very strong,’ one Afghan politician said, ‘but that the government is very weak.’ It is also very corrupt. In Transparency International’s index of corruption, Afghanistan is almost as bad as it gets. ‘The whole country is criminalised,’ says Ashraf Ghani, the former finance minister and one of the presidential candidates unlikely to be elected. General Aminullah Amarkhail, who was fired from his job as head of security at Kabul airport, for his excessive zeal and success in arresting heroin smugglers, speaks of wholesale looting rather than simple corruption. ‘You have to pay $10,000 in bribes to get a job as a district police chief,’ he says, ‘and up to $150,000 to get a job as chief of police anywhere on the border – because there you can make a lot of money.’ Two hours after arresting a notorious smuggler with eight bags of heroin on her, he received a phone call from the Interior Ministry ordering him to release her and give her her drugs back. She and her gang apparently had a contract to smuggle 1000 kilos of heroin out of Afghanistan. At the other end of the country the building contractor Obaidullah Sidiqi says that the award of government contracts depends on bribery and nothing else: ‘You have shopkeepers winning construction contracts who have never built anything in their lives.’ More serious is the impact of corruption on the price of basic foodstuffs, which are more expensive in Afghanistan than in most of the rest of the world. According to the World Food Programme, wheat prices in April were 63 per cent higher than international prices, ‘making food unaffordable to millions of Afghans’. The WFP plans to feed nine million of the most vulnerable people across the country in 2009. A 70-kilo bag of flour costs 1100 Afghanis in Pakistan and 2700 in Afghanistan. Crooked customs officials and the need to pay protection money on the roads drive the price up.

On the Transparency index Afghanistan comes just ahead of Iraq. But Iraq is an oil state with an annual budget of almost $60 billion. The Afghan government has very little money and donations from foreign governments make up 90 per cent of public expenditure. The police I saw in Kabul and Herat lackadaisically searching vehicles make about $120 a month. The only way they can feed their families is to take bribes. A private soldier in the Iraqi army earns about $600 and an officer who has graduated from university far more. The political landscape of Afghanistan is shaped by the country’s terrible poverty. This was true before the fall of the Taliban and it has been true ever since. Some 42 per cent of the population of 25 million earns less than $1 a day and average life expectancy is just 45. The female literacy rate is 18 per cent, only 23 per cent of the population has access to clean water, and 40 to 70 per cent of the workforce is unemployed. (The wide variation shows the government’s own uncertainty about the means by which millions of Afghans are trying to survive.) The failure of the Karzai government and its Western backers to make a dent in these desolating figures explains why so many Afghans are disillusioned with both.

In Iraq the Sunni insurrection began within weeks of the fall of Baghdad whereas most Afghans initially welcomed the arrival of foreign forces on the grounds that they were at least better than the Taliban and the warlords. But the latest opinion polls show Afghan confidence in both the US and the Afghan government plummeting. The number of Afghans who think the US is doing well has more than halved from 68 per cent in 2005 to 32 per cent. Support for the Taliban remains low but 36 per cent now blame the continuing violence on the US, Nato or the Afghan government; 27 per cent blame the Taliban. People are dubious that the US troop reinforcements, the so-called Afghan surge, will do them much good. Three or four years ago they would have had a much better chance of success. The first of the extra forces promised by Obama are beginning to arrive in southern Afghanistan. By the end of the year some 30,000 American soldiers will be added to the 32,000 already there. Their goal will be to train and expand the Afghan security forces, possibly raising their number to 400,000; to support the central government; and to provide protection for the civilian population. They should at least be able to open up the main roads linking the cities of southern Afghanistan. There is also to be a surge in civilian advisers, including lawyers and economists, to assist the government. Each of these, it has been estimated, will be paid between $250,000 and $500,000 and will live in an expensive house in Kabul protected at even greater cost by a security company. Afghan-Americans, some of whom have lived in the US for decades, are being hired to come back as translators at a salary of $225,000. Plenty of indigenous Afghans speak English but they are not trusted. Meanwhile in Farah province, in the west of the country, the Taliban are hiring unemployed young men, giving them a weapon and paying them $8 for each attack they make on local police checkpoints, thus minimising the risk to veteran Taliban fighters while inflicting losses on government forces.

Will the surge work? The problem for the US military is that whatever goodwill they have earned by building schools, roads and bridges can be quickly lost. A quarter of Afghans approve of the use of armed force against US or Nato forces, but this figure jumps to 44 per cent among those who have been shelled or bombed by them. On 4 May, US planes dropped 2000-pound bombs on three mud-brick villages in Bala Buluk district, killing some 140 people. The Afghan government, local human rights organisations and the villagers all agreed that only civilians had been killed. Enraged survivors drove a truck filled with severed limbs, heads and torsos to the local governor’s office. Local shopkeepers went on strike in Farah town and there were demonstrations among students at Kabul University. The US military meanwhile produced more and more unlikely accounts of what had happened, claiming that between 60 and 65 of the dead were Taliban fighters, but refusing, on grounds of security, to say how they knew this. The bodies were too pulverised by the explosions to be properly identified.

Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission, after extensive interviewing, said that 97 Afghans had been killed, of whom 65 were children and 21 women. It found that none was armed. Nor had they been used as human shields and, at most, two Taliban were among the dead. The US military is supposedly more sensitive about inflicting civilian casualties because of the Iraq war, but there is little sign of this in Afghanistan.

The government’s legitimacy in the eyes of Afghans has withered as it fails to provide security, services, employment or economic development. There is growing hostility to the presence of foreign forces, particularly in Pashtun areas where fighting continues. Recipes for counter-insurgency, devised in very different circumstances in Iraq, may not have much relevance in Afghanistan. It will be politically and militarily very difficult to seal off the Taliban from their safe havens in Pakistan. ‘The surge is a double-edged sword,’ Sultanzoy says. ‘If it instigates more violence, it will provoke more resistance.’

28 May