Much of Kabul is built of mud. And when it rained before last Christmas—relieving a long and severe drought—the whole city seemed to melt. The piles of sludge on its unpaved lanes rose, as though in a slow-moving tide, until it spattered everything: the big white Land Cruisers of aid agencies and Afghan ministers, the beat-up yellow taxis, the bombed-out palaces of western Kabul and the bullet-pocked huts on steep hills, the fortified foreign embassies and UN offices, and even the high billboards exhorting Afghans, in idiosyncratic English, to “national reconciliation and peace.”

Despite the rain and cold, the bazaars were crowded. Shopkeepers representing almost all of Afghanistan’s ethnic groups—Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks, and Turkmens—hawked oranges, carpets, Chinese-made windbreakers, and electronic goods, while beggars—mostly disabled children and widows in burkas—squatted beside the open sewers and tugged at the wide trousers of passing men.

It was strange to find no white faces in these crowds. Even in the modern part of Kabul, where thousands of Europeans and Americans—mostly soldiers, diplomats, aid workers, and businessmen—live, the streets were empty. Afghan guards with Kalashnikovs stood in front of the iron gates set in high concrete walls topped with barbed wire. The gates occasionally opened to reveal a new or renovated mansion, and to release or swallow a Land Cruiser with tinted windows.

To be a foreigner in Afghanistan, it seemed, was to move from one protected enclave to another. An Indian journalist I met soon after arriving in Kabul told me that security had deteriorated soon after the presidential election in October, which the Taliban had failed to disrupt, and which Hamid Karzai had won convincingly. That same month a suicide bomber, apparently from the Taliban, had killed an American woman and injured three European soldiers at a shopping district a few yards away from my hotel. The Indian journalist himself seemed lonely, frustrated by the restrictions on both his travel and social life. For some months now he had wished to set up an FCC (foreign correspondents club) in Kabul, on the lines of one in Hong Kong. One cold rainy evening I traveled to his home with one of the foreign journalists he had invited to join the club. When we arrived we found several other journalists.

As usual, there was no power. A diesel generator spluttered outside the journalist’s fortress-like home, one of the thousands simultaneously running in the city, giving Kabul its characteristic low rumble. Inside, Afghan servants, chauffeurs, and bodyguards—part of the new service economy of Kabul—bustled around, replenishing bowls of dried fruit. The journalist opened a case full of alcohol—smuggled bottles wickedly gleamed in the dim, flickering light. Sipping Scotch whisky and German beer, the journalists loudly exchanged local gossip I would hear repeatedly in the next few days from Afghans: about kickbacks from an Afghan mobile phone operator to a cabinet minister, and about $1 million allegedly missing from the coffers of Ariana, the Afghan national airline. They speculated about whether Karzai would be confident enough to exclude the most corrupt and powerful warlords—Defense Minister Mohammed Fahim and his deputy, Abdul Rashid Dostum—from his new cabinet. There were complaints about extravagant UN agencies and NGOs pushing up rents in Kabul (up to $3,000 for a dingy two-bedroom apartment); about the arrogant employees of the American company DynCorp who worked as Karzai’s bodyguards.

The Indian journalist abruptly called for silence, and read out what he said was a draft constitution, adopted from the FCC in Hong Kong. He then asked for suggestions. As it turned out, almost every idea proposed that evening ran into an obstacle. The club needed a permanent home. But this seemed possible only when rents in Kabul were less extortionate. High-paying corporate members? Perhaps, once there were many more multinational corporations in Afghanistan. Honorary memberships for such visiting foreign dignitaries as Dick Cheney, or the powerful US ambassador to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad? Perhaps, once the American embassy had become more accessible. Even a bar—indispensable to foreign correspondents clubs—seemed unobtainable. Seeking official permission for the consumption of alcohol in Kabul could only cause offense in what was still a deeply religious and conservative country.

Returning to my hotel late that night, past the sandbagged, barbwire-topped compounds of foreign embassies and UN offices, I felt sorry for the journalist. He had seemed right to argue, as his cherished project collapsed, that Kabul had advanced greatly since the collapse of the Taliban, and that with its new one million–strong population of repatriated refugees—many of them rich people who had spent decades in liberal societies—it was poised for a social revolution.

Earlier that evening, I had seen two Afghan girls at a pizza parlor. They wore tight blue jeans, their faces were uncovered, and they sipped Pepsi-Cola as they watched American women playing softball on ESPN. They would have been an unthinkable sight in the Taliban-ruled Afghanistan I had visited in early 2001. Almost four years later, Kabul was full of such surprises: new walled-off villas with mock-Palladian façades, well-stocked supermarkets, Internet cafés, beauty parlors, restaurants, and stores selling DVDs of Bollywood as well as pornographic films. Sitting in one of Kabul’s great traffic jams caused by the Land Cruisers, surrounded by the vivacious banter of Afghanistan’s new radio stations and the cries of children hawking newspapers, I often felt as if I was in a small Indian city, among people prospering under the globalized economy.


In brightly lit and heated offices, diplomats, NGO workers, and government officials radiated optimism as they offered facts and figures attesting to progress in Afghanistan. The first-ever presidential elections in the country had been successfully conducted without any major disruptions, and the keenness with which Afghans participated in it portended well for the parliamentary elections due in spring 2005. Three million Afghan refugees in Pakistan and Iran had expressed their confidence in their homeland by returning to it. More than three million children had been enrolled in schools, as compared with 900,000 under the Taliban. The eight-thousand-strong International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) under NATO command was now moving to cover regions beyond Kabul. A human rights commission had begun to function. The $4.4 billion pledged by international donors in Tokyo in 2002 for Afghanistan was coming in—if very slowly.

There was now a tarmac road from Kabul to Kandahar, three hundred miles to the south. More roads linking major Afghan cities were being constructed and renovated. Small civil-military provincial reconstruction teams (PRTs), which repaired schools and roads, and were run by the United Kingdom, Germany, and the Netherlands, now existed in the northern provinces and were expected to cover the entire country by 2007. Japan was at the forefront of the DDR (demobilization, disarmament, and reintegration) program, which is meant to disarm warlord armies, and had disarmed about 30,000 of the more than 150,000 fighters in private militias. The US was creating the Afghan National Army, with 21,000 soldiers already trained. The US and Germany had trained 18,000 police officers. The UK was leading antinarcotics efforts. The Italians were reforming the judiciary.

To hear this litany of efforts was to feel the words “international community,” which Afghans commonly used, acquire a moral dimension in Afghanistan. With one of the lowest life expectancies and the highest infant mortality rates in the world, Afghanistan seemed to need all the help it could get.1 But three years after the US brought together several nations to rebuild Afghanistan, many Afghans tended to blame rather than praise that international community.

Where was much of the money for reconstruction going, they asked, pointing to the Land Cruisers and the high-rent houses and offices of the expatriate population? Disarmament was a failure, and would remain so until there was better security and rule of law in the country: most militia fighters had simply concealed their best weapons and turned in old, ineffective ones. The new Afghan army was already afflicted with desertions. There was no comprehensive plan to house and feed the millions of repatriated refugees. And though Afghans had turned out enthusiastically for their first-ever direct elections, they were disappointed to see US-backed warlords still ruling much of the country.

One evening, early in my time in Afghanistan, I went to see Dr. Massouda Jalal. In October 2004, she had been in the news as the lone woman candidate in the presidential election. She had got only 1.2 percent of the votes cast, as compared to 55.4 percent for Karzai. But the fact that a woman could stand for high office alone hinted at the immensity of the changes occurring in Afghanistan.

So it was disconcerting when Dr. Jalal, sitting in a very cold, dark room and speaking in slow, precise English, denounced the election, and the registration process preceding it, as a fraud perpetrated upon Afghans—largely a show put on by the US government to impress American voters in the year of their own presidential election.

The international community, she kept saying, believed in “quantity”—statistics about elections and registration processes—but was indifferent to “quality.” The elections had not been free and fair. Many people had registered more than once, she claimed, and voted several times.2 Often, men with guns had forced people to vote for Karzai; they had also tried to intimidate her during her election campaign.

Western nations, she said, had not given her a single dollar while pouring millions into Karzai’s campaign. Worse, they had forgotten about women’s rights, which Laura Bush and Cherie Blair had so ardently embraced in late 2001, and which were trampled upon daily across Afghanistan by men hired by the United States in its war on terror. Educated women like herself were not allowed to participate in political decision-making. Karzai’s cabinet was dominated by corrupt warlords and had hardly any “qualified people”—people with the training and experience, she explained, to translate Western concepts of democracy into Afghan terms.


As with other Afghans I had met, I felt unable to assess much of what she said; it had seemed to me that the election, though flawed, had been a positive step. As it turned out, within a few weeks, she was appointed as minister in charge of “women’s affairs.” It again occurred to me that outsiders like myself brought to places like Afghanistan their own assumptions of what constitutes progress, and risked being limited by them.

But to know, as the days passed and I traveled around Afghanistan, that the new mansions with the architectural adventurousness of Los Angeles belonged to corrupt government officials, often built upon lands stolen from poor Afghans3 ; to learn that the provincial governor, who spoke fluently of “peace,” “reconstruction,” “international community,” and “poppy eradication,” was a drug lord; to find out that the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), which was briefly famous in the West for highlighting the Taliban’s harsh treatment of women, was too fearful of radical Islamists to announce its presence in Kabul—to know this was to begin to have a different sense of the change that had come to Afghanistan in the last three years. It was also to realize that like the millions suffering from contaminated water, power and housing shortages, warlords, and disease, a club for foreign journalists also had to wait for better days.


Few countries in modern times have had to wait for better days as long as Afghanistan has. A bright future seemed imminent in late 2001, when the United States overthrew the Taliban regime. But the past seems hard to shake off in Afghanistan, and no events in it more so than the Soviet invasion of the country in 1979, and the American decision to help radical Islamists wage a jihad against Soviet communism.

The next two decades of war killed more than a million Afghans and displaced up to six million besides destroying much of Afghanistan’s basic infrastructure—dams, bridges, irrigation systems—and littering the country with land mines.4 The United States lost interest in Afghanistan soon after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, while Afghans continued to pay a high price for having hosted one of the bloodiest battles of the cold war. In late 2001, the United States was faced with fresh responsibilities in Afghanistan. It was obliged not only to engage in nation-building—a task President Bush rejected during a presidential debate with Al Gore in 2000 as unsuitable for the United States—but also to provide basic security to more than 25 million people in a country as big as Texas. As it turns out, the way the Bush administration conducted the war, and dealt with its aftermath, has complicated both tasks.

Apart from Americans serving at bases in countries near Afghanistan and those involved in aerial bombing, the US had committed only about 110 CIA officers and 316 Special Forces personnel to the overthrow of the Taliban.5 The Bush administration may have feared a stalemate in Afghanistan, where the armies of the British Empire and the Soviet Union have done poorly. Or it may have planned to save ground troops for future military operations in Iraq. In any case, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld preferred using small, highly mobile forces supported by precision bombing in Afghanistan.6

This strategy forced the United States to hastily recruit proxies on the ground. The most readily available of these turned out to be the anti-Taliban warlords in the so-called Northern Alliance, which consisted mainly of Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks, and Turkmens, and which the Pashtun-dominated Taliban had repeatedly defeated. The CIA had helped to arm many of these warlords during the anti-Soviet jihad—the time when men with guns first became more powerful than traditional tribal or religious leaders in Afghanistan.7 After the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, these uprooted Mujahideen used brutal violence to assert their authority over the territories they controlled—hence the name jang salar, “warlord,” that Afghans came to use for many of the anti-Soviet Mujahideen.

Supervised by warlords, poppy cultivation in Afghanistan grew especially rapidly in the early 1990s—poppy, which grows easily, even in areas without adequate water, and which can earn twenty-five times more than the traditional crops of wheat, rice, and cotton, was for many farmers the only reliable source of income in Afghanistan’s war-torn and criminalized economy. Local Mujahideen “commanders”—the word in Afghanistan refers to men with guns and bands of their loyal supporters—also set up toll checkpoints on roads. Extortion, arbitrary arrests, killings, kidnapping, and rape had become commonplace in many parts of Afghanistan in the early 1990s. Not surprisingly, many Afghans, including Hamid Karzai, initially welcomed the puritan Taliban as they arose in 1994 from the Pashtun-dominated southern and eastern provinces of Afghanistan to subdue by 1996 most of the warlords.

In the fall of 2001, “Operation Enduring Freedom” brought many of these Mujahideen out of exile and retirement. In what President Bush called one of the biggest “bargains” of all time, CIA and Special Forces officers handed out $70 million in $100 bills to such regional commanders of private militias as Ismael Khan in the west, General Abdul Rashid Dostum, General Mohammed Fahim, and Ustad Atta Mohammed in the north, and Hazrat Ali in the east.8

Seeing that they were indispensable to the US war on terror, the warlords moved quickly and boldly as the Taliban regime collapsed. In November 2001, soldiers of the Tajik-dominated Northern Alliance raced into Kabul as soon as the Taliban abandoned it and occupied important government buildings, despite being told by their American supporters to await an orderly transition. Elsewhere in Afghanistan, the former Mujahideen swiftly regained the power and influence that they had lost to the Taliban. Ismael Khan declared himself governor of the western province of Herat, and began to siphon away customs tolls on imports from Iran that amount to $9 million every month; he also reinstituted many Taliban-era restrictions on women.9

Warlords in such border provinces as Nangrahar, Kandahar, Khost, and Balkh resumed their battles to control the lucrative businesses of poppy cultivation and smuggling—fighting between the militias of Dostum and Atta Mohammed caused scores of civilian deaths in Balkh in 2002–2003. They were soon associated with the kind of human rights abuses—extrajudicial killings, kidnapping, torture, rape, and human trafficking—that had made the Taliban briefly attractive to many Afghans. Warlords working with US Special Forces also committed atrocities for which they have not been held accountable as yet: for instance, the death in the northern province of Sheberghan of up to three thousand Taliban prisoners crammed by Dostum into sealed cargo containers.10

In December 2001, the so-called Bonn Agreement, an accord signed by militia leaders who fought with the United States against the Taliban, called for the UN to deploy an international security force in Kabul, and stipulated that all militias leave the city before the arrival of the UN-mandated forces. But this was never enforced. When Hamid Karzai arrived in Kabul in late 2001 as the US-backed interim president, he had to contend not only with General Fahim of the Northern Alliance and his tens of thousands of militia fighters ensconced in the city but also with the newly empowered warlords in the rest of the country.


Hazrat Ali is one of the more flamboyant, and, with 18,000 armed supporters, the most powerful of these warlords. He became briefly famous in late 2001 when US Special Forces hired him to hunt down Osama bin Laden in the caves of Tora Bora in the eastern province of Nangrahar, on the Pakistan border. It is no longer clear whether bin Laden was in Tora Bora as American B-52s pulverized the area and the commanders dazzled journalists with stories of high-tech terrorist caves inside the mountains. But Hazrat Ali has continued to flourish. Backed by General Fahim in the Northern Alliance, and apparently favored by US Special Forces, he threatened his rivals with American air strikes, and, after forcing out Karzai’s candidate, appointed himself the “security chief” of the province of Nangrahar.11

Such job titles in Afghanistan are rarely without grim irony. An investigator for the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission in Nangrahar sighed before he went on to recite the cases of kidnapping, torture, and rape of women and young boys in which Ali’s men were implicated. Since Tora Bora, Ali had also become one of the powerful men in Afghanistan involved in the drug trade.

The farmers I met in Nangrahar province, who are among the 2.3 million Afghans employed in the drug industry, described how Ali had encouraged and closely supervised the production and trafficking of opium. His men came to their villages in pick-up trucks and bought the poppy harvest, which, once taken to Pakistan for processing, was then turned into heroin in laboratories within Nangrahar itself before being smuggled out through Dubai and Pakistan to the streets of London and Paris.12

The new freedoms enjoyed by US-backed warlords like Hazrat Ali partly explain why Afghan opium poppy cultivation, steadily increasing since the Taliban enforced a ban in 2000–2001, jumped 64 percent between 2003 and 2004, and why Afghanistan last year supplied 87 percent of the world’s heroin.13 In recent months, Karzai has declared a jihad against opium, and told provincial governors and security chiefs across Afghanistan to crack down on anyone cultivating or smuggling it. The warlords have responded with apparently impressive statistics about poppy eradication in their provinces.

When I met Hazrat Ali in Jalalabad, the capital of Nangrahar, near the Khyber Pass, this December, at a compound teeming with Land Cruisers and heavily armed bodyguards, he had just returned from a tour of some poppy-growing districts. Sitting cross-legged on a divan at one end of a long room, which was bare except for chandeliers, Ali kept slapping the soles of his feet as he detailed his success in eradicating 95 percent of the poppy grown in Nangrahar. He had not received clear-enough instructions from Karzai, he said, otherwise he would have stopped poppy cultivation long ago. Now, within three days, there would be no poppy plants left in his province.

These claims were not entirely “bullshit,” as a Western diplomat in Kabul later described them. The efforts at eradication were largely successful in Nangrahar. But opium poppy can be stored for a long time, and many farmers in Nangrahar told me that Hazrat Ali was most likely waiting to sell his reserves after shortages caused by crop eradication in Afghanistan had pushed up international prices.

I asked him how farmers whom he had forced to stop growing poppy would find another way of feeding their families. He said he didn’t worry about that. Opium was immoral, banned by the sharia; it had to be eradicated. As for farmers in his province who complained about American soldiers breaking into their homes, searching for terrorists and poppy, they needed, Ali said, to reform themselves, to stop growing poppy and supporting terrorists.

In his elegant mansion in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, some fifty miles from the Uzbekistan border, the former warlord-turned-governor Atta Mohammed described to me, as a television crew hovered around us, how hard he had worked to eradicate poppy in Balkh province, and how as a man of peace he had asked hundreds of his fighters to voluntarily disarm. Feared locally as an extreme Islamic fundamentalist, and previously seen in dirty camouflage khakis, Mohammed had recently trimmed his long beard, and taken to wearing pinstripe suits while meeting foreign visitors in his wood-paneled office.

The local TV news that evening showed Mohammed discussing the progress of Afghanistan with a visiting writer from America. On television, he looked suave, even persuasive. But by then I had learned from a longstanding American aid worker in the city that his militia had stashed away large amounts of arms. Afghans in the city spoke casually of Mohammed’s role in smuggling drugs across the largely unguarded border with Uzbekistan. In July 2004, Mohammed had locked the Karzai-appointed local police chief in his own home after the latter seized a consignment of opium. British troops stationed in Mazar as part of the ISAF-run Provincial Reconstruction Team had to supply the besieged police chief with food and water until the standoff ended.

When I met the military commander of the PRT in December, he had just returned from what he described, with British euphemism, as “a frank talk” with Mohammed. Apparently, there was little else that he and his few dozen troops in a region as large as Scotland could do.

Certainly Afghanistan’s weak central government is even less equipped to do much about the fact that twenty-eight out of the country’s thirty-two provinces now grow poppy, often with the support and involvement of local officials, such as the chief of police in the remote northern province of Badakshan, who until recently was running the largest heroin factory in Afghanistan in his garden. Karzai had initially offered cash incentives to poppy farmers in an attempt to make them destroy their crops. But many farmers never saw the money, which was swallowed by corrupt government officials. Others accepted it and continued to cultivate poppy. Karzai later admitted his payments were a mistake.

The availability of high-yield seeds, cold storage facilities, and microcredit may wean Afghan farmers away from what has become their most reliable source of income. However, long-term schemes for making Afghan agriculture and horticulture more profitable do not seem as important to the US counternarcotics program in Afghanistan as aggressive, quick-fix schemes for poppy eradication, which seem certain to invite resistance.14 Last year, the American security company DynCorp trained a four-hundred-strong Afghan eradication team in just two weeks, and sent it out to the central province of Wardak, where it destroyed one thousand hectares, but only after fighting off farmers who fired rockets and sowed their fields with landmines.15

In November 2004, farmers in Nangrahar reported seeing a plane spraying poppy fields with chemicals. The governor of the province, Din Mohammed, who had to pacify the angry farmers, told me that only the Americans could have sent the plane, but US officials denied all knowledge of it. According to a European diplomat I met in Kabul, “very senior” members of the Bush administration had resolved to aerially eradicate poppy in Afghanistan, much to the consternation of Karzai, who feared that farmers would be incited to armed revolt by planes or helicopters destroying their fields.16

During her Senate confirmation hearing in January, the new secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, did not rule out aerial eradication in the future. “At this point, manual [eradication] is all we can do,” she said, “but we’ll see whether aerial is needed.” But it seems unfair to target, manually or aerially, hundreds of thousands of small poppy farmers without ensuring that they have alternative means of survival, especially while warlords and corrupt government officials build up great fortunes out of the narcotics business.

Many Afghans seemed right to wonder why the 18,000 US troops in the country were unable to arrest the more notorious drug traffickers. When I put this to a Western diplomat, he said that Al Capone was known as a mafia don for years before there was enough evidence to convict him. He went on to promise arrests of some big traffickers in early 2005. Until then, it will be hard to dismiss Afghans as conspiracy theorists when they claim the US ignored the extraordinary growth in poppy production over the last three years because it expected the money from drugs—Afghanistan’s only major export—to spare it some of the costs of rebuilding the country’s economy.17


Growing evidence that the Taliban and al-Qaeda were funding themselves through the narcotics trade may have finally alerted the Bush administration to the possibility that, as Antonio Maria Costa, executive director of the UN antinarcotics program, wrote in a report in October 2003, “Afghanistan will again turn into a failed state, this time in the hands of drug cartels and narco-terrorists.” In his more alarming recent survey, published in November 2004, Costa warned that if the drug problem in Afghanistan persists, “the political and military successes of the last three years will be lost.”18

But for most people I talked to, Afghanistan will be unable to avoid this fate as long as the Bush administration considers warlords indispensable to its war on terror, and thus undercuts President Karzai’s authority. Much of the country appears to be run largely by these warlords and their private militias, whom Karzai himself described, in a recent interview with The New York Times, as the greatest threat to Afghanistan’s security—even more dangerous than Taliban insurgents, who killed more than nine hundred people last year, including reconstruction and aid workers, but are still largely confined to the southern and eastern provinces.19

Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, have consistently refused to involve US troops in peacekeeping efforts in Afghanistan. More surprisingly, they opposed, until September 2003, expanding the UN-mandated International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) beyond Kabul, especially in areas where, as the Human Rights Watch report for 2005 puts it, “there are no real governmental structures or activity, only abuse and criminal enterprises by factions.”20 The eight-thousand-strong ISAF, which is under NATO command, will grow by a few more thousand soldiers as it expands across Afghanistan over the next three years. But its presence will still compare poorly with 40,000 NATO soldiers in Bosnia, which is one tenth the size of Afghanistan. Moreover, the ISAF has no mandate to take on drug traffickers or even to intervene militarily in factional fighting.

In July 2004, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), which remained in Afghanistan through the hard years of the civil war and the Taliban regime, pulled out of the country after five of its workers were killed by unknown gunmen. MSF claimed that Afghan officials gave them evidence that warlords in northwest Afghanistan were involved in the killings but did nothing to arrest the suspects. MSF had previously “condemned the distribution of leaflets by the coalition forces in southern Afghanistan in which the population was informed that providing information about the Taliban and al Qaeda was necessary if they wanted the delivery of aid to continue.” It accused the United States of consistently using “humanitarian aid to build support for its military and political ambitions” and thus compromising the neutrality of Western aid agencies in war zones.21

In a response published in The Wall Street Journal, the novelist Cheryl Benard, who is married to the US ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, advised MSF that “it’s a different world out there” and that “humanitarians will have to operate under the cover of arms—or not at all.”22 But it is not clear whether the large-scale and expensive military offensives ($1 billion per month) against the Taliban and al-Qaeda, such as Operation Anaconda in early 2002, are working, especially when compared to intelligence and police operations in Pakistan, which have captured many senior al-Qaeda members.23

Both bin Laden and Mullah Omar are still at large after the highest bounties and most rigorous manhunts in history. This may attest not only to the difficulties of fighting a shadowy enemy in a vast and mountainous territory but also to the strength of tribal and religious loyalties and growing anti-American sentiment in the Pashtun-dominated provinces of Afghanistan and Pakistan. In October 2002, popular resentment of America helped a coalition of radical Islamist parties win elections in the Pakistani provinces bordering Afghanistan, where the Taliban appear to find ready support.24 More people in southern and eastern Afghanistan are likely to be drawn to radical Islamists as aerial bombings and raids on villages continue, and the US military places itself further beyond international law.

No one among the thousands of Afghans detained by the US military at mostly unknown locations across Afghanistan since 2001 has been given prisoner-of-war status. Often released as arbitrarily as they are arrested, they have no access to legal counsel. Mistreatment during interrogation—beatings, sexual humiliation, and sleep deprivation—appears common. Eight Afghans have died in American custody. Last year, two of these deaths were ruled homicides by US military doctors at Bagram air base, near Kabul.25

In Jalalabad, I met a diplomat from one of Afghanistan’s powerful neighbors. He described in some detail his encounters with American diplomats and military officers whom he said were intellectually limited but very arrogant. He said, “The Afghans in the south and east hate the Americans as much as they hated the Russians. They are too tired after twenty-five years of war. But give them two more years of Operation Enduring Freedom and they will start another jihad.”

Later that same evening, I was at the governor’s mansion in Jalalabad, formerly a summer palace of the King of Afghanistan, when a delegation of tribal elders arrived. They had walked for much of the day from a remote district; mud covered their slippers and scaly feet. The governor attended to them immediately, after postponing his meeting with me. They sat on a terrace in two long rows, and the scene—long-bearded, turbaned men before their solicitous potentate, against a backdrop of gardens and pavilions—could have come out of a Mughal miniature painting.

The men had come to complain to the governor about heavy-handed American soldiers in their villages. After their leader spoke briefly and somberly, the governor attempted a joke—probably in order to hide his own inability to influence his American patrons. Afghanistan, he said, had become a petri dish in which foreigners could throw in whatever they liked. Some of the men laughed, revealing toothless mouths.

But when their laughter subsided one of the elders began to speak. From where I sat, I couldn’t see his face. I only heard his deep, urgent voice. He spoke about the dishonor caused to their families by American soldiers barging into women’s quarters, about the frustration and rage felt by him and others, and he spoke for a long time, his voice growing in passion until it broke, and I began to think that the diplomat, who I felt had been too embittered by his own encounters with powerful and abrasive Americans, may not have exaggerated much.

Many Afghans I met felt that people in the West, absorbed with Iraq, had already grown indifferent to their fate, or saw in Afghanistan only what they wished to see: the dawn of democracy and freedom. But as Dr. Sima Samar, the leading human rights activist in Afghanistan, put it recently, “democracy and freedom are meaningless without justice and the rule of law.”26 The parliamentary elections due this year may appear to be another milestone in the grand march to democracy and freedom; but they are also likely to give greater legitimacy to the warlords, who are currently better placed than anyone in Afghanistan to form political parties and influence voters.27

For many Afghans, however, the future still appears to be full of opportunities. When I returned to Kabul, Karzai had announced his new cabinet. He had managed to exclude the more powerful warlords—Fahim and Dostum—and to choose what Massouda Jalal called “qualified people,” including Dr. Jalal herself. Her job as minister of women’s affairs seemed to have little political or financial power, and it would last only until the parliamentary elections, but she had accepted it.

I went to see her on her first day at work. Two weeks before when I met her it had been intensely cold and damp in her apartment in a Soviet-style housing estate. There was no power, and when she spoke of “the dark ages” of the Taliban, a time that she spent largely at home, it had been hard to imagine a bleakness more lowering than the one she lived with. Now, at the brilliantly lit and expensively carpeted ministerial chambers, her husband lined up with many women waiting to be received by Dr. Jalal.

The minister was busy, her assistant said, but I had time for one question. As she stood smiling and chatting with bouquet-laden visitors, I asked her what she thought the international community, which she had previously criticized, ought to do. It was the wrong question to ask then. She had yet to adjust her political opinions to her new official role, and she struggled briefly while the Afghan women around her stared at me. Then, she blurted out, “Don’t forget us.” As I left, she appeared slightly embarrassed by the sentimental words. But they expressed well, I thought later, the weary but still hopeful mood of many Afghans as they compete for the attention and goodwill of an easily distracted world.

—February 10, 2005

This Issue

March 10, 2005