Another War Lost

Jonathan Steele in Afghanistan

Russia’s man in Kabul, Andrey Avetisyan, has been travelling to Afghanistan since 1983, when he was a student of Pashto during the Soviet occupation. When Gorbachev took power and started negotiating the Soviet withdrawal Avetisyan was sent to Kabul for two years as a diplomat. He went back again in 1989, after the troops left, and watched Najibullah’s Soviet-backed regime survive for three more years. When mujahedin leaders finally entered the city only to fire rockets and artillery shells at each other in a lethal form of gang warfare that killed at least fifty thousand Kabulis, Avetisyan had the task of closing the badly damaged Russian embassy. Twenty years later he is back again, watching another superpower flounder. His embassy has been rebuilt almost as it used to be, with the addition of a bronze bell that hangs opposite the main building, a memorial to the fifteen thousand Soviet conscripts and officers who died in the 1980s. Like the other embassies in Kabul, Avetisyan’s is hidden behind high concrete walls. But since Russia isn’t part of the US-led coalition against the Taliban, Moscow feels security is good enough to permit its diplomats to bring their families. It even has a primary school.

Russia’s position on the American war is unexpected. Avetisyan would like a large contingent of US troops to stay in Afghanistan, unlike the Obama administration, which plans to have withdrawn the majority of its troops by 2014, leaving only a force of around ten thousand. He asks questions that no Western politician would: ‘If the mission of fighting terrorism here is not complete, why are you withdrawing? I’m not sure why fewer forces can do the job. We have asked the Americans and they give us no clear answers.’ The main reason for Russia’s concern is that Afghanistan has become its biggest supplier of heroin and it fears a surge in poppy production. Figures from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, published in November, show that the acreage used for poppy has continued to rise as conflict has spread across the country, disrupting food production. ‘Every year,’ Avetisyan told me, ‘thirty thousand Russians die from Afghan heroin. That’s twice the number we lost in the whole Afghan war.’

From Western embassies and officials of ISAF – the International Security Assistance Force, as the coalition is called – the line one hears endlessly repeated is that the Afghan security forces will fill the gap left by the departing Americans. Avetisyan will have none of it. ‘Security is going to worsen,’ he said. The morning I met him the blast from a suicide bomb rocked the building where I was staying. Avetisyan had been visiting the UN office nearby. ‘Attacks like that,’ he said, ‘are happening all over the country every day. Unfortunately for us the northern part of the country, which was quiet three years ago, is very unstable. Fighting in the north is the same as in the south and east’ – the traditional Taliban strongholds. ‘I don’t see any reason for it to become better in the next two years.’ It’s an open secret in Kabul that Western military leaders and diplomats would like nothing better than for the Afghan army to be able to hold its own for at least three years as Najibullah’s managed to do – to avoid the perception of Western defeat. ‘By the end of the 1980s,’ Avetisyan said, ‘the Afghan army was one of the strongest in the region. It had fighter jets, artillery, tanks.’ The problem was that after the Soviet Union collapsed, Moscow stopped sending money, weaponry and fuel. In his view the issue now is to ensure that the West fulfils its promises to fund and supply the Afghan army.

His worries were largely shared by one of the few members of the new Afghan elite with inside experience of the Najibullah era, Hanif Atmar, who lost a leg defending Jalalabad against the mujahedin. ‘Once the Soviet troops were gone,’ he said, ‘there was no justification for jihad. The imperative was to defend the homeland. Dr Najib’ – the secular-sounding name by which the president was known before Muslim credentials were thought necessary – ‘had a powerful party which held people together and there were functioning state institutions.’ Atmar left Kabul for the UK after the Taliban took over and didn’t return until the American invasion removed them in 2001. He served in Hamid Karzai’s two administrations, most recently as interior minister; he was removed from his post in 2010 after a suicide bomber penetrated a high-level conference. Atmar, like Avetisyan, thought that Karzai’s grip on the situation was much weaker than Dr Najib’s had been. ‘He had a better equipped army than the current one and a sizeable air force, while we have little today. What goes against the scenario of collapse is that the Taliban, while certainly more lethal, are not as strong as the mujahedin. They have less support in the rural areas.’ Now a firm critic of the president, Atmar is prominent in a group of politicians from twenty different parties pressing for changes in the law to ensure that the 2014 presidential and provincial elections are independent: their ‘charter of democracy’ proposes improvements to the Election Commission as well as the complaints mechanisms. Unless the next elections are fairer than the last, Atmar sees little hope of regaining popular trust – or of maintaining the flow of aid from the US and elsewhere. He wants US troops to stay at any cost, and fears Karzai may upset Washington by demanding an end to US troops’ immunity from local prosecution after 2014 – this is what scuppered US plans to keep troops in Iraq.

If all the US troops do leave, Atmar’s main fear is not that the Taliban will capture Kabul, but that the Afghan leadership will split and the army collapse into ethnic factions – a replay of the chaos of the 1990s. Pakistan would then step up its support for the Taliban. Russia and Iran would support the Tajik and Uzbek leaders of the old mujahedin-based Northern Alliance, who still run private militias and dominate parts of the army. ‘The Afghan National Security Forces,’ Atmar said, ‘have not been built to resist factional and ethnic influences. Generals are not appointed on merit: they retain their loyalty to factional interests.’ Serious engagement with Pakistan is essential, he added, if the current system is to survive. If Pakistan’s legitimate concerns are addressed, it may withdraw sanctuary from the Taliban. But even if that happens, Atmar believes the Afghan government is bound to lose control of significant areas of the south and east as the US and UK reduce their troop levels.

This is a common fear in Kabul. There is a widespread belief that every area of life will suffer. The economy will contract as the thousands of jobs that depend on foreign military and diplomatic presence disappear. Money for NGOs will dry up. Security will decline as more areas become impossible to police. Since the Afghan troops lack the air support, medevac facilities and sophisticated weaponry of the foreign forces they are replacing, most people are, like Atmar, resigned to the permanent loss of some rural areas as the Taliban and the other main insurgent group, Hizb-i-Islami, move into the gap. And resigned too to the thought that all the work the US and Britain have put into Helmand and Kandahar over the last six years has been pointless. A mid-year UN report contained a telling footnote: ‘In the southern, south-east and eastern regions of Afghanistan, entire districts and in some cases almost entire provinces are, to varying extents, controlled by Anti-Government Elements.’

I spoke to several Pashtuns who live in Kabul but remain in close contact with their home villages. One had just driven to Jalalabad with his wife, children and elderly father for a cousin’s engagement party. They made sure to get there before 4 p.m., he said, because that’s when the Afghan police shut their checkpoints and the road becomes vulnerable to attack. A journalist from Wardak province, just forty miles from Kabul, has not been able to go home for the last six years. The Taliban have recently been stepping up assassinations of government officials and anyone associated with Western-supported NGOs. Another Kabuli with relatives in Wardak said that over the last few weeks, after the Americans abandoned their forward operating bases and retreated to bases near the capital, Maidan Shahr, the Taliban have been moving into the northern part of the province. Hundreds of families have fled to Maidan Shahr. Mirwais Wardak, director of the Peace Training and Research Organisation, which conducts regular surveys of rural Afghans, explained that village and tribal elders have been forced to make deals with local armed groups. ‘The US has been in the province and has done no development. There were only two ways for villagers to survive: either pay the Taliban or pay Hizb-i-Islami.’ The main Kabul to Kandahar road runs through Wardak, carrying huge military supply convoys. ‘Sometimes you have the army on a hilltop and the Taliban running a checkpoint on the road, or it could be the other way round,’ he said. ‘Contractors ask the army for protection and army commanders say they will only come if they are paid.’

I met a Helmandi called Sayed Jawed, who worked on archaeological restoration in his province throughout the Taliban period and has managed to continue despite the present war. He took the risk, rare for an Afghan, of voluntarily visiting the British base in Lashkar Gah to advise them on how to behave, only to be insulted when they took him off to be photographed from the front and in profile; he also had his fingerprints taken and other biometric data collected in what seems to be a project to record every single Afghan’s personal information. He spoke gloomily of British and American failures in Helmand. ‘After 2002 people were waiting eagerly for development. Even between 2004 and 2006 Lashkar Gah and central Helmand were safe and there were no Taliban. But the British and Americans came with a military face, using helicopters and tanks that reminded people of the Russians. Instead of spending money on education and women’s rights in central Helmand they were flying to remote areas to combat the Taliban. They lost hearts and minds and now you cannot buy them. When the British and Americans leave, the Taliban will establish themselves in the weakest areas and the Afghan National Army won’t have the ability to stop them.’ He thought the army would struggle even to protect Lashkar Gah and Gereshk, Helmand’s largest towns.

As security declines in the Afghan countryside, aid agencies predict a further steep rise in the number of people flooding into Kabul: its population is now more than five million compared to two million in 2001. According to the official figures from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, almost half a million Afghans have had to leave their home areas since the US invasion and the total population displaced by conflict increased by 45 per cent between 2010 and 2011 and another third this year. Nato governments meanwhile are unwilling to accept that their efforts to help rural Afghans have ended up by making hundreds of thousands homeless. Last summer a working paper for Britain’s Overseas Development Institute described the ‘reluctance among many donors to engage strategically with the issue of forced displacement, largely because the main drivers of displacement are the direct and indirect effects of the ongoing conflict to which many of them are a party’.

I went with volunteers from the Norwegian Refugee Council to Charahi Qambar, a wilderness of white tarpaulin roofing and rickety mud-brick shacks on the western edge of Kabul. It was a warm bright day in early November but workers were about to start their winter needs assessment in the hope of preventing a repetition of last year’s horror when eight children died here from the cold. Some nine hundred families, mainly from Helmand and Kandahar, live in the settlement but the Afghan government refuses to accept that it is permanent: they fear more people will arrive if they do. There are 53 camps like this around Kabul. The government describes internally displaced people as illegal squatters and economic migrants, and wants them to go home. But a study commissioned by the Norwegians found that three-quarters hoped to remain in their new locations even if it became safe for them to go home.

Among the first to settle at Charahi Qambar was Abdullah Khan, a sixty-year-old whose family of ten arrived from Sangin in Helmand in 2007, along with 29 other families. ‘We own no land,’ he said, ‘and were working for hire on other people’s fields. People with land are influential and can work things out with the Taliban and the government. They have not been displaced. There are no job opportunities, so we won’t go back even if there is security. Kabul is a big city and our young men can occasionally get work as day labourers here.’ As he spoke a lorry drove through the settlement’s narrow alleys and dumped a pile of earth. A family would mix it with water to build walls for a house. The municipal authorities supply water by tanker and have allowed aid agencies to dig a few wells and provide hand-pumps. They also provide food and blankets. Dan Tyler from the Norwegian Refugee Council believes longer-term solutions are needed, but they require urban planners to accept that most of the displaced in Kabul are there to stay. ‘ISAF sees protection of civilians as focused on reducing the number of casualties. We’re trying to get them to understand it’s much wider. Conflict depresses the economy. Insecurity can encompass the ability of kids to go to school and sons to find work.’ Although Nato members have pledged around $4 billion a year for the next ten years to fund the Afghan security forces, UN appeals for $437 million in urgent humanitarian aid have only been met to a level of 40 per cent.

Moderates in the Karzai administration are trying to ensure that the US departure is not total. Talks have just started with the US on a status-of-forces agreement, commonly known as SOFA, which will specify the rights and responsibilities of the troops who remain after 2014. Rangin Spanta, Karzai’s national security adviser, is prepared to make concessions. ‘For the first time in our history,’ he said, ‘we will officially provide foreign forces with bases. It will be a very emotional and sensitive issue.’ He was even prepared to let the US continue to fly drones from Afghan territory to target suspected Taliban and al-Qaida targets in Pakistan. ‘If we can recognise that they are needed in the fight against terrorism and it serves our security, then why not, as long as it is within the principles of international law?’

In 2010, when I was last in Kabul, the possibility of talks with the Taliban was much discussed. After five years of clashes between the Taliban and ISAF, Afghans seemed anxious for negotiations. Even professional women who had been forced to stay at home under Taliban rule were saying that it would be better to have a deal than allow the war to go on for ever. Think-tank types urged Karzai and Obama to embrace the idea. The US seemed to agree and made tentative overtures to intermediaries. It let the Taliban open an office in Qatar. But the deal stalled early this year when Congress refused to authorise the release from Guantánamo Bay of five Taliban prisoners. This had been the Taliban’s main precondition for talks. Then came the US presidential election campaign, which deterred Obama from taking any steps that could be seen as appeasement. With his re-election the way is open for a new attempt at talks, but there are obstacles. One is the widespread perception among Afghans that the Taliban have become puppets of Pakistan, or even of Iran. Afghans are given to seeing themselves as the victims of foreigners – it’s a common local phobia. According to this way of thinking talks must first be held with Pakistan. ‘If Pakistan doesn’t allow the real hardline Taliban leaders to sit at the table,’ Spanta said, ‘peace is impossible. We hope that between now and 2014 we can have a better relationship with Pakistan and a proper peace process.’

The other obstacle is the sense that a comprehensive peace deal is out of reach. The Taliban are fragmented. The future shape of the government in Kabul won’t be clear until the presidential elections of 2014. Over the next 12 months the security landscape will change in unpredictable ways as US and British troops withdraw and the Taliban advance. In some rural districts local elders may make deals with the Taliban that allow them to accept their rule. In others there may be ceasefires between the Taliban and the national army. Elsewhere, the fighting will continue. In Afghanistan all war is local. Despite the trillions of dollars spent and thousands of lost American, British and Afghan lives, Afghanistan will be left hopelessly fractured.