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Afghanistan: On the Brink

At a conference in Madrid on May 17, General Jones made an impassioned plea to the twenty-six NATO countries who are sending troops to Afghanistan this summer to end the national restrictions that they impose on their own forces. There are now some seventy-one restrictions on how the forces can be used, he said, making it extremely difficult for the commander of ISAF to run an effective military campaign—whether it’s winning people’s sympathies or fighting the Taliban. Jones told me he was doing his best to get the caveats down to a manageable number.

The day after the conference, as Jones left Madrid, the Taliban attacked in four provinces in southern Afghanistan. Trying to seize a small town in Helmand province, they sponsored two suicide car bomb attacks, ambushed convoys, and planted mines. A total of 105 Afghan civilians, police, and Taliban died—the bloodiest single day since the war ended in December 2001. A Canadian woman soldier and an American contractor were also killed.

The American government has demanded that NATO become more active, because, I was told, the beleaguered Donald Rumsfeld is desperate to bring some American troops home by November’s congressional elections. Around three thousand of the 23,000 US troops now deployed in Afghanistan are scheduled to return home this summer and Western intelligence officials say several thousand more may depart before November. The start of an American withdrawal in the midst of a vicious Taliban resurgence naturally infuriates Karzai and his government; it is particularly disillusioning for millions of Afghans who, unlike their Iraqi counterparts, still equate a sizable US military presence with security, continued international funding, and reconstruction. In Iraq practically the entire population wants the Americans to leave, however pleased they are about the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. But the survival of the new Afghan government has depended upon the leadership of the US and its ability to convince the rest of the world to rebuild the country. The US needs to contribute money to carry out its promises and show it is willing to stay the course. It is doing neither.

Since 2003 when the Taliban first began to regroup, they have gradually matured and developed with the help of al-Qaeda, which has reorganized and retrained them to use more sophisticated tactics in their military operations. As recently as a year ago, the main Taliban groups were composed of a few dozen fighters; now each group includes hundreds of heavily armed men equipped with motorbikes, cars, and horses. They burn down schools and administrative buildings and kill any Afghan who is even indirectly associated with the government. In the south, they operate with impunity just outside the provincial capitals, which have become like Green Zones. Approximately 1,500 Afghan security guards and civilians were killed by the Taliban last year and some three hundred already this year. There have been forty suicide bombings during the past nine months, compared to five in the preceding five years. Some 295 US soldiers and four CIA officials have been killed in Afghanistan since September 11, 2001—140 by hostile action.

The Taliban movement is partially directed from Quetta, in Pakistan’s Baluchistan Province, where it has been allowed to flourish largely undisturbed by the military regime of President Pervez Musharraf. The Pakistanis have never started a military operation against the Taliban in Baluchistan or arrested a single senior Taliban commander—although several minor officials have been handed over to Kabul. Taliban logistics, training, and recruitment were formerly dependent on allies in Pakistan such as the fundamentalist Islamic parties that rule Baluchistan and the North-West Frontier Province. But the Taliban is now well entrenched in southern Afghanistan too. Al-Qaeda has also put Taliban members in touch with insurgents in Iraq; the result is that the Taliban members are learning how to plan and carry out suicide bombings, make and plant mines, and detonate improvised explosive devices (IEDs). They thus have been able to prepare increasingly deadly ambushes for Afghan and Western troops.


North of Baluchistan, in the Pakistani Pashtun tribal areas of North and South Waziristan and adjacent provinces in Afghanistan, a more international kind of insurgent movement has taken root. It is led by al-Qaeda and Pakistani Taliban, and includes members of the Afghan Taliban, Central Asians loyal to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Chechens, Uighur and Chinese Muslims, and other Afghan groups led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Jalaluddin Haqqani. They are fighting largely in the east and northeast of Afghanistan, but have also demonstrated an improved capacity to set off car bombs and mount suicide attacks in Kabul and other major cities. They have been able to hold off Pakistani troops who were sent to Pakistan’s border areas by Musharraf under considerable US pressure in the spring of 2004. However, Pakistan is not the only problem. Barnett Rubin writes that all of Afghanistan’s neighbors—Iran, India, Russia, and the Central Asian Republics—oppose a long-term US presence and have funds for their own Afghan proxies just as they did during the civil war in the 1990s. They are waiting for the Americans to leave.

The lack of security is a direct consequence of the small numbers of Western forces on the ground. Quite apart from the countryside, they have failed to secure even the major cities and highways so that aid agencies can work. For five years the US Pentagon has single-mindedly pursued al-Qaeda while failing (just as it has done in Iraq) to acknowledge the need for a coherent plan to restore civil society in Afghanistan, as well as the importance of hunting down the Taliban, which it has treated as a local, Afghan problem that US troops should not be concerned with. The result has been the absence of a clear US strategy for dealing with Pakistan. This has deeply frustrated the Afghan leadership, while creating periodic shouting matches between Karzai and Musharraf on CNN. The effectiveness of the American campaign against al-Qaeda, meanwhile, is itself questionable, since the group’s two top leaders, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, remain at large. The Americans claim to have caught numerous leaders they describe as Number Three in the al-Qaeda hierarchy, although every time a Number Three is caught another seems to take his place.

Second on Rubin’s list of Afghanistan’s most serious problems is “corrupt and ineffective administration without resources.” Once the war in Iraq began, the government received too little money and support to make its ministries capable of delivering services to the people. In this vacuum, warlords and cabinet ministers were quickly won over by bribes from members of the drug trade; they sought out business and property deals for themselves. But the major nations were squabbling over Iraq and paying little attention. Rubin observes that poverty, hunger, ill health, and gender inequality are so bad in Afghanistan that the country remains at the bottom of every global ranking.

In Afghanistan, the drug trade has undermined everything from security to development, while increasing public frustration with the government. Afghanistan produces 87 percent of the world’s heroin according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), based in Vienna. UNODC estimates that the value of all opiates produced in Afghanistan last year was $2.8 billion—out of which only $600 million reached the farmers. That is much less than the average estimated $2.5 billion per year that Western donors have provided Afghanistan since 2001. The aid programs supposed to provide alternative livelihoods to farmers producing poppies or help them grow other lucrative cash crops are derisory when compared to what the drug smugglers offer. The best-functioning programs to help farmers are run by opium traffickers who provide improved varieties of poppy seeds, fertilizer, and better methods of cultivation to increase opium yields and even large-scale employment during the poppy harvest. When we compare Afghanistan’s situation today with that of 2001, we see the country now needs to develop an entire alternative economy to replace the drug economy.

That international donors refuse to invest in the agricultural regions where 70 percent of the population live has been a critical failure. Another has been the failure to fund infrastructure projects. In the five years since the US-led invasion not a single new dam, power station, or major water system has been built. Only one major intercity highway has been completed. Only one in three Kabul residents has electricity, which works only one out of every three nights. Rubin points out that until 2003 funding for Afghanistan’s reconstruction was below that of East Timor and Haiti. Meanwhile, the US and NATO are spending between $15 billion and $18 billion a year on their military operations. Most tragic of all, Western populations are hardly aware of the crisis because there has been chronic failure to report on Afghanistan, especially in the US.


Recently I asked a friend who is a senior reporter with CNN why CNN has not had a staff reporter in Kabul or Islamabad for over a year. These are, after all, two capitals that are central to the Bush administration’s “war on terror,” and the lack of reporters meant that the 18,000 US troops in Afghanistan are getting almost no mention in CNN’s international news coverage. In view of recent decisions by Time magazine, The New York Times, and other major press organizations to fire hundreds of journalists, I thought my friend would talk of cost-cutting measures and reduced budgets for reporting in dangerous areas. Instead he answered, “You can add other major capitals, such as Bangkok, Jakarta, and Tehran, that are also going uncovered.”

He told me that the problem in these Muslim capitals is not one of cost, but that very few senior staff members are volunteering to be stationed there. Nor are young American men and women, who a few years ago would be volunteering to report from Asia and the Middle East, coming forward. In contrast, in Britain, dozens of young journalists have been applying to report from both regions, whenever jobs come open. “Americans, especially young Americans, do not want to travel to Asia or the Islamic world, anywhere there may be danger,” my CNN friend said. “It’s a sad time for American journalism.”

The two books under review, however, have been written by adventurous Americans who have lived in Afghanistan and Pakistan and have come to know both countries well. Ann Jones, the author of several feminist books, arrived in Kabul in December 2002, about a year after the US stopped bombing the country. She began to work for a small but effective NGO called Madar, or Mother, an organization set up some years earlier to help women in Kabul who had been widowed during the country’s many conflicts. In Kabul in Winter, Jones describes her visits to down-and-out Afghan women in prisons and her experience teaching English to female teachers—jobs nobody else wanted to do.

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