Kabul, Afghanistan, August 24, 2010
My first visit to Afghanistan back in 1962 began driving up the Khyber Pass from Pakistan. That was the proper way to arrive since, as a boy, I had learned from Kipling that the Khyber was where the wild tribesmen hung out. On the rocky walls of the pass were the signs of the passing of the British and Indian regiments who for a century had been fighting them.
I was going to Afghanistan to write what would be the first American national policy paper on the country; so Kabul, then a sleepy little city of about 50,000, was to be the jumping-off place for my 2,000-mile trip around the country by Jeep, horseback, and the occasional plane. I fell in love with Afghanistan from the first. To me it is the Wild East.
A decade later, in the 1970s, Kabul had hardly changed, but the regime had. Afghanistan was in a sort of golden age of reform. The markets were full of furs, rugs, and the melons Babur Shah thought worth more than all of India. Hippies flooded into the country equipped with their parents’ credit cards, to the delight of local merchants. The university was filled with earnest young men and bright, alert, and daringly dressed young women. It had an air of hope and excitement. And the government was determined to make the country the Switzerland of Asia.
Today’s entry, no less exciting, is stunningly different. Hope is gone, fear is everywhere, and the Khyber is all but impassable. The takeoff point today is Dubai airport, a huge shopping mall almost entirely manned by Filipino expatriates, with airlines flying to and from every part of the world. The modern Airbus to Kabul had pilots of dubious back-ground and an airline magazine which, instead of the usual ads for perfume and watches, touted fully armored cars:
You are moving in a dangerous region, you find yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time; within a matter of seconds, your vehicle has become a target. Not a problem if you have to have an armored vehicle from GSG…GSG’s armoring provides you with valuable time, enough for you to grasp the situation, assess the threat and be able to react appropriately.
The magazine also provided enticing pictures of war-shattered buildings. “Welcome, most welcome!”
Kabul’s “International Airport” was even more spartan than the airport I knew in the 1970s, although we paraded past dozens of planes of other airlines. It is the hub of a United Nations virtual airline of helicopters and jets. What appeared not to have changed was that the Afghans were still the same polite and welcoming people I had known in previous trips. Then signs began to appear of war’s ugliness. An American embassy expediter met me. He half bowed and shook hands; then to my surprise he squatted on the floor. Why were we not walking out to the car? I asked. He replied that he had seven other arriving Americans to escort into Kabul. We were just a trickle in the daily flood of new American arrivals that appeared to make up half of Kabul. The expediter rather proudly said that I had been honored with a special car. Then why, I asked, could I not just get in and go? “Ah,” he replied, “it is not that easy.” Not even embassy cars were allowed within about 200 yards of the terminal, and no one could walk to the guarded car park without an escort. First lesson: nothing in Afghanistan is easy.
The embassy had informed me that I should rent a “high danger” package from a private security company known as Afghan Logistics, consisting of an armored Toyota 4Runner, an armed bodyguard, and a bulletproof vest at 20,000 Afs (roughly $450) daily. The rates included the driver’s salary, fuel, and taxes. No bullets were stipulated. I guess they were extra. However, the daily rate was only for eight hours and overtime was at double rate. My escort officer said these arrangements were necessary, standard procedure. I declined, calculating that such a display would mark me as a worthwhile target.
That was my experience in other high-danger areas. As a U.S. official, I had arrived in Algiers in 1962 during the confused and nearly frantic week when the French had more or less completely pulled out and the “external” army of the Provisional Algerian Government had not yet taken over. The “internal” or wilayah guerrillas had fought an army 30 times their size and had worn it down, but almost none of them could read. So with them a smile and a handshake were better than a diplomatic passport. Even there, as in Saigon, I felt safe walking around the city alone, but Kabul proved to be different.
IN KABUL TODAY signs of danger are all about. Thousands of armed private “security” guards of many nationalities, as well as Afghans, are at every doorway and on virtually every block. Cars are checked at intersections by Kalashnikov-wielding men. Some but not all are policemen. Anyone who counts has his own private army of guards. So, taken as a whole, the 50,000 or so “security” forces who roam Kabul constitute a new virtual nation—or actually nations, plural—as they come from everywhere: Gurkhas from Nepal, Malays, Samoans, various Latinos, and Europeans with a mixture of what looked like a delegation from an American weight-lifting club—alongside Afghanistan’s already complex mix of nations.1 They are “embedded” with our military and with all the diplomatic missions and the Afghan power elite.
Our ambassador travels with a guard of mercenaries rather than one of Marines who, in my days in government, were charged with guarding the embassies. The British deputy ambassador told me, with what I thought was a flash of pride, that the British had a ratio of only one mercenary for each Englishman, whereas the American ratio was three to one. As for Afghans, they hire bodyguards partly for prestige, but also because of a genuine fear of private vendetta by any of the scores or even hundreds of warlords or assassination by the Taliban. Having a dozen or so gunmen is also the road to riches.
Unemployed young men and even off-duty policemen routinely shake down passersby, shop keepers, and even households. Scruffy fellows loaded down with Kalashnikov machine guns, grenades, and pistols, and cavalier about reading government documents, they pose an implicit threat to almost everyone. The “on-duty” police can do nothing about them because no one can tell who they are or who stands behind them—ministers, heads of government departments, warlords, or perhaps the Taliban.
Let me dilate on that. The Taliban is diversified in command structure. So whatever the center, which is presumed to be far away in Quetta, Pakistan, decides may not be known in a timely fashion, if at all, by more or less isolated cadres. Moreover, the organization has many, perhaps not always wanted, part-time “volunteers,” many of whom are opportunists who aim at revenge, money, or both. A Washington Post reporter earlier this month wrote about what must be a fairly typical minor strongman, who has 40 “soldiers” and rules only about four square miles, whom he described as “an illiterate, hashish-producing former warlord who directs a semiofficial police force…he is also a key partner of U.S. forces.” All this makes danger unpredictable and more or less ever-present.
The payoffs to groups like these are huge. An American congressional investigation entitled “Warlord, Inc., Extortion and Corruption Along the U.S. Supply Chain in Afghanistan,” published in June this year, showed that the U.S. military is paying “tens of millions of dollars to warlords, corrupt public officials and [indirectly] the Taliban to ensure safe passage of its supply convoys throughout the country.” Dexter Filkins of the New York Times bluntly described “an illiterate former highway patrol commander [who] has grown stronger than the government of Oruzgan Province, not only supplanting its role in providing security but usurping its other functions, his rivals say, like appointing public employees and doling out government largess. His fighters run missions with American Special Forces officers, and when Afghan officials have confronted him he has either rebuffed them or had them removed.” Filkins pointed out that his company charges $1,200 for each NATO cargo truck to which it gives safe passage and so makes about $2.5 million a month. How does he get away with it? Filkins wrote: “His militia has been adopted by American Special Forces officers to gather intelligence and fight insurgents.”
Afghanistan today, somewhat like medieval Italy, is a land of warlords. The big ones are just the more impressive of hundreds if not thousands of small bosses, some with only a dozen “guns,” who operate in a single neighborhood or along a short stretch of road. Moving among them, canny outsiders, like the members of the resident press corps, feel relatively safe because they know who is who and where not to go. But most people try not to test their luck. Even restaurants are fenced in with huge concrete walls and steel gates and pay protection money.
When I went one evening to a little Lebanese restaurant called The Taverna for dinner, I was surprised to find it packed with a boisterous crowd. They appeared to be having a happy time although the prices were on a New York level. The reason for the cost was obvious: four armed men were guarding the entrance. They were not there as bouncers but as “doorstops.”
The biggest doorstop of all, of course, is at the American embassy. Embassy is hardly the right word. It is a vast urban fortress, a city in its own right with roughly 1,000 civilians, flanked by a far larger military redoubt and a comparable, officially secret but publicly obvious CIA complex. The American “city” has its own water purification and electrical system, roads, dormitories, offices, shops, coffee houses, and an “eating facility.” Virtually every piece of the American bureaucracy—representatives of more than 60 agencies—is in residence. And by residence I mean working, eating, sleeping, exercising, and being entertained. Our officials are not allowed to walk anywhere in Kabul (or elsewhere) but must travel in armored cars, wearing a full suit of body armor and helmet. This attire sets them apart from all Afghans and makes movement uncomfortable. I spoke to several people who had left the grounds only a few times, if at all, in their one- or two-year tours of duty. They might as well have done their work in Virginia.
The Embassy compound is less than a mile from the airport, but to get there is to run an obstacle course through a man-made valley of high concrete blast walls. Every few yards is a steel telegraph poll to be raised, a group of security guards to be satisfied, a guard dog to sniff the car’s contents, a mine detector to be run under it. Then, as each barrier is passed, the driver zigzags around massive concrete blocks to the next checkpoint. At each checkpoint the identification procedure starts all over again to satisfy a new group of sober-faced, heavily armed mercenaries. Overhead, a sausage-shaped balloon equipped with sensors keeps watch on the entire city and helicopters circle frequently. Armored cars and machine-gun nests are discreetly scattered about. No wonder the Afghans believe they are under occupation and that the Americans intend to stay.
When I moved over to a hotel, the embassy speeded me on my way in an armored car with an Afghan guide, a graduate student in Kabul University who works for the USAID mission. Driving toward the hotel, he pointed out the window and said: “This is our problem…”
My first thought was that he meant that we were in peril from the chaotic torrent of trucks and cars. Then I thought he might have meant that we might be lynched if we ran over one of the pedestrians, as happened last month when four people in an embassy car were killed by a crowd shouting “death to the Americans.” But neither pedestrians nor cars paid any noticeable attention to one another and certainly not to us. Young or old, healthy or crippled, they entrusted themselves to God’s mercy. But my guide’s point was different. “These people,” he gestured toward the closed and locked window, “don’t even know that we have a constitution and certainly don’t know what their rights are, while the rich and powerful, who do know that we have laws, don’t pay any attention to them.” I asked if this was also true in Taliban-controlled areas. Without the slightest hesitation, he said, “No, it is not. There is no corruption where the Taliban are in control.”
Arriving at the Serena Hotel, we stopped in front of a 30-foot-high steel gate. After the “outside” pack of guards had satisfied themselves, the gate was slid back on its rollers and we drove in. The outer gate was then slid back into place and we were stopped by a steel pole. We then faced a second high steel gate. Locked securely from the front and behind, we were eyed suspiciously by another group of armed guards while the car was checked for bombs. Then the pole was raised and the second steel gate was opened. We were in, or at least the embassy armored car was in. Then the steel panel at the rear of the car was opened to reveal my suitcases which, in turn, were passed through a detection system. My little camera was particularly worrying to the security guard, but finally he shrugged and let it (and me) through. The whole hotel and its charming Persian-style garden, an area of perhaps 10 acres, was surrounded by a wall 40 to 50 feet high capped with additional barriers or razor wire. The Serena Hotel, whatever else it may be, is a castle. All that was missing was a drawbridge.
As I checked in, more or less conventionally as in other hotels, I saw that the lobby was discreetly overlooked by another half dozen armed men. My guide accompanied me to my room. I thought this was surely unnecessary even by Kabul standards, but he insisted. I quickly found out that security was not the only issue in Kabul. Since it was Ramadan, the month of fasting, and he could not eat or drink in public, he asked rather sheepishly if I would be so kind as to order him a sandwich and a Coca-Cola in the privacy of my room. I gathered that at least in part this was his way of saying that he was a modern, educated man. So I shamelessly used our wait for the sandwich and Coke to pursue our talk in the car about the rule of law.
What about property? I asked. “There is no security in property,” he replied. “If a person owns, for example, a house, and the local strongman wants it, he just tells the owner to get out. The owner has no choice. If he does not obey, he is apt to be beaten or killed. There is no recourse through government even if the owner has all the proper papers.” Much “private” property, he explained, is owned by custom, perhaps generation after generation. Under the circumstances of lawlessness, however, the distinction between registered and unregistered property is meaningless since neither can be upheld by any authority. Only force secures it. This is true, he continued, even of government property. If the “intruder” is powerful enough, perhaps part of the “inner circle,” he can simply take over government lands or buildings.
THE INNER CIRCLE INCLUDES but is not limited to the Hazara vice president, Karim Khalili; Kabir Mohabbat, an Afghan with American citizenship; marshal and now vice president Muhammad Qasim Fahim, a Tajik; and marshal Abdul Rashid Dostum, the Uzbek warlord who disdains any government post but is the president’s “right hand”;2 Zara Ahmad Mobil, who ran what is regarded as the most corrupt organization in Afghanistan, the Ministry of Interior, and (as an editorial in the Guardian put it) “is now in charge of the opium industry”; and, of course, the Karzai family. That is partly why President Karzai was himself described, in two dispatches in November 2009 from our ambassador Karl Eikenberry to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (which were leaked to the New York Times and published in January 2010), with great diplomatic caution, as “not an adequate strategic partner.” But, as he is forced to admit, Karzai is all we have as an alternative to the Taliban. In short we are in a position not unlike the one we faced in Vietnam.
Formerly a general, Eikenberry previously commanded the then smaller American force in Afghanistan. A scholarly, intelligent, hard-driving, and honest man, Eikenberry tries to be optimistic no matter what he feels to keep up the spirits of his staff. But in his confidential dispatches of last November, he wrote:
The proposed troop increase [the “surge”] will bring vastly increased costs and an indefinite, large-scale U.S. military role in Afghanistan, generating the need for yet more civilians. An increased U.S. and foreign role in security and governance will increase Afghan dependency… and it will deepen the military involvement in a mission that most agree cannot be won solely by military means….Perhaps the charts we have all seen showing the U.S. presence rising and then dropping off in coming year in a bell curve will prove accurate. It is more likely, however, that these forecasts are imprecise and optimistic.
There is no objective reason for him to have changed his November assessment. It is not just that the statistics on casualties show a worsening trend. But the paramount fact is that we do not have a coherent or long-term strategy and are trying to make up for that deficiency by throwing money—and people—into the fray more or less without any way of judging whether they help achieve or prevent us from achieving our vague objectives. Meanwhile, the Afghans appear to be sick and tired of Americans.
That was a recurrent theme in all my talks. To check on it, I went to pay a call on Dr. Sima Samar, a highly articulate, intelligent, and well-informed person who is head of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC). She also must be physically and morally brave because she has no real power and the environment in which she operates is very difficult.
At her office, the gate is massive steel. A peephole was pushed open several inches so I and my embassy guide could be scrutinized. Then once we were identified, our embassy car, complete with inside license plate in place of a sun visor, was driven in. Heavily armed—Kalashnikov automatic rifles, hand grenades, pistols, flak jackets, helmets, radios, etc.—guards eyed us balefully. Then Dr. Samar emerged, and led me into her crowded office. She is an impressive woman of (I guess) 60 years, bright eyed, with a ready smile. After the mention of mutual friends, particularly my friend Nancy Dupree, the grand American lady of Afghanistan, we got down to business.
The real opportunity, she began, was missed in 2002, when the Taliban had been defeated. Had a relatively small American force been left here then, an acceptable level of security could have been created and maintained. Today, she went on, the fundamental problem is the warlords. They are so deep into the drug trade, are making so much money, and are so tied into the government at the very top—and, she eyed me carefully, saying “to the Americans”— that there is little hope for any sort of reform. Putting in more troops will not accomplish anything. Then she shifted to the bottom line: corruption. Many people here send their children abroad—a son in England, another or a daughter in the U.S. or Canada, etc. and perhaps their wives as well—along with as much money as they can. What they are doing is personally prudent and nationally disastrous.
This reminded me of Vietnam. Everyone is preparing his bolt hole and padding it with money. Afghan minister of finance Umar Zakhilwal admitted that during the last three years more than $4 billion—billion—in cash had been flown out of Afghanistan in suitcases and footlockers. While this has a serious effect on the faltering Afghan economy, it is even more important as an indicator of Afghanistan’s power elite and inner circle’s scarce commitment to this regime.
What else could she put her finger on? I asked. “Foreign corruption,” she said. “When a contract is awarded to a foreign company and it then either does a bad job or does not finish its work and yet exports 80 or 90 percent of the contract funds, is that not also corruption? You Americans pay little attention to it, yet it serves as a model for our people.
“Even when corruption is not involved,” she continued, “you undercut the benefit of your actions by using too many machines….It would be far better to use shovels and give people jobs.”
“Also bad is the tendency of your contractors to use Tajiks to do a project in a Hazara area, for example. If a road is built in a village by local people, they feel it is somehow theirs and will take care of it. But Americans show no sensitivity to Afghans and their way of living.”
I NEXT WENT to see the deputy special representative of the UN secretary-general, the former German ambassador to Iraq, Martin Kobler. His headquarters was also under massive protection. No UN person could forget the killing of the UN team in Baghdad. Kobler did not say it, but almost everyone else I spoke to did: the Americans stay huddled in their compounds. Even when they are in “the field,” they don’t get out and around very much. The UN maintains the “airline” I saw when I landed in Kabul mainly to move its workers around the country.
Kobler worried about how to reconcile the two contradictory objects of American policy—to build up a central authority (which, as he said, violates the national genius of the Afghans) while working with the manifestations of local autonomy (which is the Afghan tradition). The Americans, he commented, are trying to swim against the tide of Afghan history by their emphasis on central authority. Kobler continued: since the American military has virtually all the disposable money, and the Afghans regard America as intending to dominate the country into the future, they regard all foreign aid efforts as a tactic of the war—as General Petraeus is endlessly quoted as saying, “money is my main ammunition.”
Perhaps the most interesting piece of information Kobler gave me was on the Taliban reaction to last week’s UN report on Taliban killing or injuring of Afghan civilians. Although the Taliban denounced the report, and the UN for making it, their press release contained what Kobler thought was a major new development: they called for the creation of an international tribunal including the Taliban to investigate the charge. Kobler rightly saw this as a ploy to give the Taliban a sort of recognition as a quasi-governmental player, but admitted that it may have lifted the veil slightly on a form of cooperation. He said, of course, the Americans and the UN would not agree. I wondered if some sort of adaptation might open up contacts with the insurgents. He said he doubted it.
FROM EACH OF MY FORAYS, I found it a relief to return to the hotel. Inside the forbidding walls was a delightful Persian garden, with two fountains playing into water channels which were flanked by beds of roses. I felt back in “my” Middle East of fading memory. Then I had dinner in the hotel courtyard, listening to traditional Afghan music. Suddenly came the distant call to prayer. The drummers were silenced, but the moment the call ended—but while the prayers had only just begun—they took up their drums. The Taliban would have been outraged.
The next day, I drove over to see British deputy ambassador Tom Dodd—a civil servant, but of what kind I could not tell. He was more optimistic than most of those I met. He said that while the situation in Kandahar was the worst, some of the other cities, such as Mazar-i-Sharif, Herat, and Kunduz, were better. What distinguished them? Simply that the local warlords were more willing to share their loot with their followers while in Kandahar the president’s half-brother was stingy. He said that if the programs of his government, the U.S., and the Afghans have five years, the situation in Kandahar would be better. Not much gain for five years in that word better, I replied. I didn’t feel that this registered.
When we got onto the cost of the war, to my surprise, he misspoke or was totally misinformed: he said that the American war effort here was, after all, “cheap.” I must have looked astonished because he went on to clarify his remark: it was only $7 billion a year. That is even less than the published figure—perhaps half the real cost—not for a year but for a month.
SPEAKING OF MONEY, I met the next day with USAID mission director Earl W. Gast, America’s senior man on the Afghan economy. Gast was refreshingly candid. His favorite program, he said, was the “Afghanistan National Solidarity Program,” begun in 2003, which claims to have financed more than 50,000 projects in all of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. Nation-building in high gear! But as a jaded old hand in reading government handouts, I asked Gast if it really made any difference. By way of a reply, he gave me the report of a study group sponsored by MIT under contract to USAID. They found a strong impact on selected aspects of village governance, but none on economic activity. Reading closely, I doubted that the program had much impact on anything except on our feeling that we were doing something. Doing something, Gast said, was his major problem. He is under intense pressure from Washington to show actions of almost any sort.
Before he arrived, he said, one of the big efforts at doing something was down in the newly conquered province of Marja. The U.S. military had run the Taliban out—or so our generals thought—and General McChrystal was bringing in a “government in a box.” Perhaps the most important piece “in the box” was to be the creation of jobs. So USAID set up a program to hire 10,000 workers—virtually all the adults in a local population of about 35,000 people—but only about 1,000 took up the offer. Why? Local people knew more about guerrilla warfare than the American army did. The guerrillas had faded away when confronted with overwhelming force and came back when the time was right. Then they would punish those they regarded as traitors for working for the Americans. The 9,000 Afghans who turned down the USAID offer proved to be what we would call street smart.
TO GET ANOTHER OPINION, I met with Dexter Filkins of the New York Times, who has spent years in repeated assignments here, in Iraq, India, and Pakistan, one of the few who gets about the country on his own, neither embedded, nor loaded down with flak jacket, bodyguards, and minders. First, he said, the Kandahar operation is already in full swing. It isn’t just the assassination squads of the Special Ops (aka Special Forces) but large-scale regular army action although the military here, known as ISAF, are not talking about it. And it is essentially, as I wrote in June on “changing the guard but not the drill,” the same as the Marja operation, just bigger. The failed Marja campaign is the template for the Kandahar campaign. And it too will fail, Filkins predicted.
Filkins said that Petraeus was essentially trying to apply what he did in Iraq to Afghanistan without much thought that the two countries are very different. As a historian, I pointed out that the record is even longer: Petraeus is replaying not only Iraq or even what the Americans did in Vietnam but the French tactics in 19th-century Indochina. Filkins was relatively complimentary about the military high command and particularly about Petraeus, primarily because unlike the civilians holed up in the embassy fortress, the military get out into “the field.” But, I wondered, is this really such a good idea? Almost everyone with whom I spoke mentioned how disturbing it is to the Afghans to see so many Americans. Would adding more be beneficial, particularly when decked out in helmets, flak jackets, and goggles? Not speaking any of the local languages, almost entirely new to the country and prone to tell the locals how to manage their lives, they conjure the phrase common among the English during World War II, about the Americans: “overfed, overpaid, oversexed, and over here.”
TO GET A NON-AMERICAN and “historical” view on foreign intervention in Afghanistan, I arranged to have a dinner and long talk with Russian ambassador Andrey Avetisyan, a Pashto language specialist who served three stints here, including once during the Soviet occupation.
Avetisyan singled out two things that, he thought, the Russians did rather better than the Americans. First, they separated economic and military actions. Their “civic action” projects, unknown to most outsiders, actually accomplished a great deal, e.g., the vast plantations of olives and the production of oil, one of the few programs of which the memory lingers to this day. Second, they did not flood the country with cash. Of course, he said, they paid salaries. But by paying directly for work done, he believed that they did not foster the kind of corruption rife in today’s Afghan government.
The Americans’ military policy, he said, was roughly comparable to the Russians’, except that the Russians’ was simpler: unless you collaborated with the Russians, the Russians fought you. Today, the Americans’ mixing of civic action, counterinsurgency, military occupation, and special operations makes a complex and often self-defeating combination. However, reliance on the military did not work for the Russians and, he believed strongly, would not work for the Americans today.
In the course of our talk, I mentioned that after the war in Vietnam, we learned that the Viet Cong had their men even in the office of the president of South Vietnam. Yes, he said, that is also true in Kabul, where every significant office is infiltrated by supporters of the Taliban. Earlier, I had been told by my young Afghan helper that he feared even to return to his home province for fear that someone would find out that he worked for the Americans and would denounce him. And his province was not Pashtun but the north, which outsiders assume is hostile to the Pashtun and therefore to the Taliban.
So the Russian ambassador and I turned to what could be done. I mentioned the three options being bruited about: get out now or very soon; pull out the main military forces while leaving behind Special Ops forces; or negotiate. He replied that his information was that negotiation was now ongoing among the Afghans, but that the Pakistanis were disturbed when the Afghans tried to do it alone, and hence arrested two senior Taliban who were involved in negotiations. He felt that it would be possible to begin to pull out in the context of negotiation, but that it should not be precipitate. Obviously, he said, “you must negotiate.” And he reminded me of the parting advice the Russians gave to their Afghan puppets: “Don’t try to be Russians or Communists. Be Afghans.”
Worst of all, he said, was the option to take out the regular military and leave behind the Special Forces which operate like the Soviet Spetssnaz. It would be far better to keep the regular army even at the high point it has reached (which is larger than the Soviet force level) than to rely on the Special Forces. The Special Forces are particularly hated by the Afghans, as were the Spetssnaz. They would ruin what reputation we have left.
What about the “combat from afar,” the drone strikes managed from thousands of miles away? Everyone agreed that they are the worst. They seem to evoke a medieval, almost supernatural dread of demons in the sky—and that is the image now being fixed on America.
ALWAYS SEEKING BALANCE in what I was hearing, I arranged to have dinner with the Afghanistan correspondent of the Guardian and the Economist, Jon Boone, and the correspondent for the Times, Jerome Starkey, at a little restaurant with an Afghanesque seating arrangement on rugs with cushions. But after an hour, I began to feel my legs, tucked up underneath me, grow numb. No longer am I the man who rode a camel across Arabia! I could not be sure quite what I was eating in the dim light, but the food was very tasty. Anyway, I was there to listen to their opinions on the current situation.
Boone, an Oxford man who has been here three years, thought that any serious move toward evacuation would throw the country back into civil war while Starkey thought that a descent into civil war much less likely and that, since leaving would happen anyway, it was a good idea to begin negotiation soon. Both agreed that the current government is hopelessly corrupt and not reformable. Both commented on the massive flight of money, which I have discussed above. Boone pointed to an aspect of the Karzai policy I had not been aware of: the government goes into the marketplace, here literally a marketplace, once a week and buys up Afghan currency with dollars. This drives up the price of the local currency, and so enables those who want to take out dollars to buy them more cheaply and gives them a profit even before the money gets abroad. In short, Afghan government financial practice was subsidizing the flight of currency to the benefit of the inner circle and the warlords. What do the Americans know about this? I asked. Probably everything, both men replied.
NOW THE LAST and most interesting of all my talks. Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef was the Taliban’s head of the central bank, deputy minister of finance, acting minister of defense, and ambassador to Pakistan. In short, he was one of the most important men in the pre-2001 Taliban establishment. When Pakistan withdrew its recognition of the Taliban government, as the then disabled ambassador, he was abducted and packed off to Bagram prison, to another prison in Kandahar, and finally to Guantánamo. There, as he recounts in his autobiography, My Life with the Taliban, he was humiliated, tortured, almost starved, sat upon, spat upon, urinated on, cursed, almost always deprived of a chance to pray, had his Qur’an sullied, and was deprived of sleep for days on end. He was released in 2005 without charges and allowed to return to Afghanistan. He now lives, more or less under house arrest, in Kabul.
Trying to find his house, I wandered through a nearly destroyed area of Kabul streets almost blocked by rubbish and the remains of collapsed buildings and flanked by open sewers. But even there and even for him, the doorway was held by armed guards. Past them and up a modest flight of cement steps, I walked into Mullah Abdul Salam’s bare but sofa-encircled reception room. Although I was warned that he would be hostile, he greeted me politely. We fumbled for a common language. His English was serviceable but weak; my Pashto, nonexistent; so we went back and forth between English and Arabic which, as a religious scholar, he spoke very well.
Now 42 years old, Salam was born in a religious family in a poor, remote Pashtun village. Orphaned young, his youth was grim and lonely and he struggled for the little formal education, religious or secular, he got. Getting more has been the quest of his life. When the Russians invaded in 1979, he joined the great exodus to Pakistan—ultimately 5 or 6 million or about one Afghan in two. At 15, he joined the resistance against the Soviet invasion, fought in some nine ambushes, and was severely wounded. He joined the Taliban, as he told me, because it was more honest, less brutal, and more religious than the other resistance groups. At the end of the Soviet occupation, the various guerrilla factions fought one another for the spoils of victory. It was then that the Taliban coalesced and reemerged in reaction to the warlords’ extortions, rapes, and murders. When the Taliban controlled most of Afghanistan, they gave Mullah Abdul Salam one after another its most difficult civil tasks.
Today, those difficult times, and his even worse years in prison, hardly show. In our talk, I found no sign of animosity toward me or even, as I expected from his autobiography, toward America and Americans. He reminded me of what I have heard of Nelson Mandela who, after a similar horrifying personal experience, has emerged as a man of peace. I asked what he saw ahead and how the Afghan tragedy could be solved. He replied: “It is very hard to devise a way, but we should know that fighting is not the way. It won’t work. And it has many bad side effects such as dividing the people from the government.” I was surprised by what appeared to be his concern for Karzai’s government, but what he meant was that the Afghans must accommodate to government, per se, if they are to heal their wounds and improve their condition. But instead of working toward peace, he said and I paraphrase, America has relied wholly on force, and hence created obstacles to peace which only it can remove. America has put the entire Taliban leadership—some 2,000 people—on a secret list. They know that they will be killed or will disappear into the black hole of the American prisons if they surface to negotiate. Unless this is ended, no negotiations can take place.
While Mullah Abdul Salam stressed (and the Taliban have announced) that he is not authorized to speak for Mullah Muhammad Umar, he thought that the American troops did not need actually to have pulled out before negotiations could begin. That seemed to contradict Taliban pronouncements, demanding withdrawal before negotiation. But, if withdrawal was definitely agreed for a set time, he thought, negotiations could take place perhaps even with a cease-fire.
I turned to the issue of al Qaeda, saying that their activities, their composition, and their relationship with the Taliban was what really interested most American officials. Of course, Mullah Abdul Salam said, almost echoing what the Russian ambassador had told me, al Qaeda was there before the Taliban takeover. Then, the Taliban needed money and Osama bin Ladin was almost the only available source. Moreover, Osama was the enemy of the enemies of the Taliban. So there was an understanding. But after 2002, he said, “that understanding lapsed, asylum for Osama was withdrawn, and the Qaeda fighters, including Osama, are no longer in Afghanistan. The Taliban will not allow them to return.”
I then raised the issue of the brutality of the Taliban. I did not mention the recent UN report on the injuries inflicted by the Taliban on Afghan civilians as I am sure he would think that these are inevitable in a guerrilla war. Instead, I raised the issue of the execution by stoning of an Afghan woman. I remarked that such barbaric practice gave a horrible image of the Taliban, even though such execution is authorized by the Old Testament but not by the Qur’an. Can the Taliban modernize? I asked. He shrugged. “What can you expect now? The Taliban are completely isolated, under constant attack, and naturally this throws them back onto old ways. They cannot afford to relax even on such matters.”
As I was leaving, he said that he was expecting the German ambassador. And, indeed, as I went out, there were four big armored cars with a dozen or so men armed with wicked-looking machine guns, eyeing me suspiciously, and a small group of German diplomats, waiting to go in.
I was amused that they did not even look sheepish when, by myself without armed guards, I walked past them to my taxi.
1 The Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks, Turkmen, Aimaqs, Kirghiz, Nuris, Baluchis, and others; no one group is the majority of Afghans. They tend to be grouped in discrete areas, but there is much mixing, particularly here in the capital, throughout the country. This would make any notion of a formal division of Afghanistan along ethnic lines either impossible or would cause horrible suffering.
2 Dostum deserves an Olympic gold medal for opportunism. A leader of the Uzbek people of the north, he fought the Russians, then joined them to fight the insurgents; then he joined the insurgency to fight the Russians; next he joined the Taliban; then he switched sides again to join the anti-Taliban “Northern Alliance” and is infamous for suffocating in steel lift vans in the sweltering summer captured Taliban soldiers. Now—for how long?—he is a supporter of President Karzai.
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