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The War with the Taliban

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Mike King

Petraeus’s second-in-command, Brig- adier General H.R. McMaster, has said that he might not be able to demonstrate “significant” progress in the province of Kandahar—the principal battleground—by the end of this year. By that time Obama will have concluded his promised second review of US policy in Afghanistan. This would be the moment to lay out a political process that would involve the Afghan parties, including the Taliban, with the two states that have the most influence on the various parties in Afghanistan: Pakistan, whose links to the Taliban are well known and whose desire to influence events in Afghanistan is as strong as ever, and Iran, the second influential regional player, which has at times both opposed the Taliban as well as negotiated with it. Constitutional amendments should also be considered that would grant more power to the provinces and the districts. That would have the advantage of giving authority to people who are respected locally, rather than people chosen by the government or the occupiers.

In General James Conway’s words, “We can either lose fast or win slow,” but the general is wrong to imply that it is up to the military to do the winning. The surge will be useful only if it convinces the Taliban that the Americans do not, after all, intend to cut and run. That conviction would embolden those among the Taliban who are keen to negotiate. If a political process is to stand a chance of succeeding, the fighting needs to end or diminish significantly.

Opposition between the goals of the majority of Afghans and the other nations involved has always been a feature of the conflict. Thomas Barfield describes the political failures that led to the reemergence of the Taliban after several years of apparent inertia, and the baleful effects that President George W. Bush’s neglect of Afghanistan—as opposed to al-Qaeda, which he pursued, though not always successfully—had on security and government services. Back in 2002 and 2003, Barfield writes, the US presence was “so light as to be invisible.” By the time the Americans began to focus more attention and resources on the country, the resurgence of the Taliban and other Islamic rebel groups—such as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hizb-i Islami and the so-called Haqqani network, both of them backed by elements within the Pakistan military—was too advanced to be easily checked.

As late as 2007, it was possible to speak of a rebellious Pashtun majority in the south and east, but these geographical limitations are no longer applicable. The insurgents, Barfield writes, have significant and growing pockets of influence in the northern provinces of Faryab, Balkh, Kunduz, and Baghlan, none of which has a Pashtun majority. The insurgents use Pakistan-educated mullahs to spread their message; they appoint shadow governors and set up courts and tax collection systems that parallel those of the government. Partly in order to appeal to non-Pashtuns, the Taliban have recast themselves as a patriotic movement as well as a religious one, which helps explain why suggestions of partition would be impossible to implement.

The further one gets from the Pashtun heartland, the more the forces opposing the US and coalition occupation of Afghanistan become, in the words of the counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen, a “fragmented series of shifting tactical alliances.”2 In some parts of the country, the Taliban and their allies have attracted one side or another in a local feud, and in others they have come to informal power-sharing agreements with the government in Kabul. Sometimes national politics apparently trumps local security. According to a recent report by the Afghanistan Analysts Network, last year in Baghlan province, police who had confiscated a truck owned by a Taliban commander were ordered by the Ministry of Interior to release the vehicle and its driver.3

Mohammad Mohaghegh, an opposition leader of the Hazara minority of Shias, compares Karzai’s predicament to that of an earlier president, Muhammad Najibullah. Najibullah’s left-wing government, which came to power in 1986, relied on Soviet backing and its writ barely extended beyond Kabul. Najibullah hoped to draw members of the Mujahideen opposition into joining with him, but they refused because they expected him to fall as soon as the Russians withdrew their support. In early 1992, three years after the departure of Soviet troops, Boris Yeltsin cut economic and military aid to Afghanistan, leading to civil war between the various Mujahideen groups and the eventual rise of the Taliban. “Now,” Mohaghegh told me, “we see that the towns are held by the government and the villages by the Taliban. By day, the state is visible, by night, the Taliban.”

Many Afghans I spoke to did not see themselves as represented by the Karzai government and its international backers: the Americans and other NATO forces, a constellation of UN agencies, largely Western NGOs, and the private companies that have been awarded reconstruction contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars. In theory, these people and agencies are united around the goal of rebuilding the country, thereby strengthening the bond between Afghans and their government. To this end, huge amounts of aid have been injected into Afghanistan since 2001—more than $455 billion. But on neither side have expectations been met. Rather than create a sense of cooperation, aid has become synonymous with some of the most poisonous aspects of the occupation: waste, inequality, and a squalid profiteering that has seen fortunes made from drug smuggling, racketeering, and dubious projects to build “infrastructure.”

In Kabul I spoke to the founder of a Western NGO that analyzes humanitarian interventions, who asked not to be named because he feared for his safety. According to him, foreign NGOs raise their operating costs by as much as 70 percent when they enter the hostile environment of Afghanistan. Beholden to local middlemen, private contractors extort huge fees from the US military for poorly performed jobs. Providing “security”—a major outlay—often means paying off the Taliban or other armed groups. “And this,” he concluded, “does not leave very much money for the actual work that is to be done.”

According to a recent UN report on corruption, more than half of Afghans believe that international organizations and NGOs are “corrupt and are in the country just to get rich.”4 Still, this summer Obama asked Congress to increase US spending on Afghan development from around $2 billion this year to $5 billion in 2011, which would include the near doubling (to $1.2 billion) of a fund available for rapid projects designed to win the loyalty of Afghans.

Afghanistan has been unable to absorb the money it has been given, much less bring about the changes that the US and its allies have expected of it. The parliamentary elections of September 18 were severely tarnished by Taliban intimidation of voters, including bombings and other attacks on polling stations, allegations of major fraud, and a much lighter turnout than last year’s scandalously manipulated presidential election. Results, when they trickle in, are not expected to create a more effective opposition to Karzai in a chamber that is organized less around factions and parties than individuals and their personal interests. Many Afghan families have enthusiastically enrolled their daughters in schools, but most Afghan women wear the burqa, and either cannot exercise the rights that they are guaranteed by the constitution or are not aware that they have them. With or without the Taliban, Afghan society is deeply conservative and patriarchal, and it will take years of patient effort before it becomes less so.

At a conference in Kabul in July, the UN secretary-general and dozens of foreign ministers endorsed unrealistic objectives that the Americans had devised for the Karzai government. The most important of these was that Afghanistan’s armed forces should assume military leadership of the country by the end of 2014 and that the government should cut corruption dramatically.

Few of the Afghans and foreigners I spoke to in Kabul hid their skepticism that Afghanistan’s armed forces would be able to take over security in four years’ time. The army has an attrition rate of about 25 percent, with many soldiers drug-addled and most units operating at partial strength.5 A recent Afghan National Army operation against Taliban fighters east of Kabul turned into a debacle, with many Afghan casualties.

Equally, one can doubt the government’s resolve to tackle corruption, a problem it has helped create. It recently compromised its own efforts when a presidential aide was arrested on suspicion of soliciting bribes, and Karzai promptly ordered an investigation of the investigators. Since then, allegations of fraud at the Kabul Bank, whose major shareholders include Karzai’s brother and the brother of one of the country’s vice-presidents, have further highlighted the chicanery at the heart of public life. According to the UN’s corruption report, Afghans paid out some $2.5 billion in bribes in the course of 2009, almost one quarter of GDP, and corruption is widely believed to be still on the rise.

In July, I spent a morning with Ramazan Bashardoost, a former minister in the Karzai government whose reputation for fighting corruption has made him a controversial figure. Bashardoost showed me what he described as a list of prominent people who, in 2004, were allocated state-owned land for building villas at knock-down prices, a handout that got much attention at the time but was never investigated. Since the occupation, the price of land in Kabul and other cities has soared. There have been many such land grabs, but not a single successful prosecution of any senior official on embezzlement charges.

I visited Bashardoost in his “people’s tent,” which he has erected in reproachful proximity to the parliament building. Citizens come in to tell him their problems. One group of men told him that the mayor of Kabul had summarily ejected them from shops they had been granted by his predecessor. Another man, a former head of the housing department in a southern province, said that he had been sacked for refusing, in return for “good money,” to collude in the distribution of state land to various warlords. The man named many senior government figures, all of them allegedly involved in the scam.

Finishing his account, the man returned to his own plight. “I was honest and for this reason I am now sitting at home. My wife works for an NGO with the Americans and I am at home.” He wept, not because he had been fired but because, as an Afghan man in a highly patriarchal society, he had been reduced to living off his wife’s toil.

Later that day I met a teacher from Uruzgan, a mostly Pashtun province with strong Taliban links. (Uruzgan is the home province of the Taliban leader Mullah Omar.) His name was Sakhidad Etemadi and he was a member of the province’s Hazara minority, some of whom have joined militias against the Taliban. This summer the Taliban stopped a bus in Uruzgan and beheaded nine Hazara men in front of their families, after accusing them of spying for the Americans.

Having been driven out of his home in central Uruzgan by the Taliban, Etemadi now oversees eight Hazara schools in neighboring Ghazni, where some two hundred Hazara families from Uruzgan have settled. Etemadi told me a sad story of his recent attempts to collect his own salary and those of some one hundred teachers who are still on the Uruzgan payroll, a quest that had necessitated long and dangerous trips to Uruzgan, fruitless negotiations with a despotic-seeming provincial official and the Education Ministry there—both apparently contemptuous of Hazaras—and immense stoicism in the face of arbitrary power in Afghanistan. When I saw him, Etemadi had spent the past several weeks in Kabul trying to get the provincial official overruled. Back in Ghazni, he said, the eight schools were operating, and his fellow teachers working without pay.

Afghans associate bureaucratic arrogance and corruption with the Karzai government, and it is unlikely that it can be redeemed in their eyes. They also associate corruption with the occupation. But the occupation is needed to prevent the country from collapsing into civil war on a much larger scale than is currently the case, and there is no obvious and appealing alternative to the Karzai government. Were the Americans to leave Afghanistan, it is likely that Tajik warlords would take power in Kabul, leading to an intense and disastrous struggle with the Taliban and their allies in the south. The best that can be hoped for is that changes in American policies will help Karzai press for political reconciliation, and that new partnerships will be formed that express the interests of Afghanistan’s different communities and their shared yearning for peace.

In the meantime, the war intensifies, with no sign of real victory in sight. The errors of the past—installing Karzai, imposing a centralized system that barely takes into account local power structures, tolerating vast corruption—have made the war harder for the US to fight. It is far from clear that Obama has the vision and courage—or the political support at home and among US allies—to devise policies that can end it.

—September 29, 2010

  1. 2

    See Kilcullen’s essay in Decoding the New Taliban: Insights from the Afghan Field, edited by Antonio Giustozzi (Columbia University Press, 2009).

  2. 3

    Antonio Giustozzi and Christoph Reuter, “The Northern Front: The Afghan Insurgency Spreading Beyond the Pashtuns,” Afghanistan Analysts Network, June 2010.

  3. 4

    Corruption in Afghanistan: Bribery as Reported by the Victims,” UN Office on Drugs and Crime, January 2010.

  4. 5

    See the International Crisis Group’s recent report, “A Force in Fragments: Reconstituting the Afghan National Army,” May 2010.

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