Afghanistan: ten years of reportage

This week marks 10 years since the invasion of Afghanistan. Kim Sengupta reflects on the people he has met – and the promises he's seen broken – during a decade spent covering the conflict

The Irish bar in the Mustafa Hotel became the hub of the adventurers and oddballs who had drifted to Kabul after the fall of the Taliban. There was a dancing Osama bin Laden doll, bullet holes in the ceiling and men who wore wraparound sunglasses at night while lovingly cradled their guns.

The seats for drinking al fresco on the adjacent terrace were supposedly from Russian MiG's shot down by the Mujaheddin using US-supplied Stinger missiles. One night a chimpanzee was liberated from the city zoo and put on sentry duty with a Kalashnikov. It was only afterwards that the sole person who was sober, a former boxer, noticed that the safety-catch was off.

Some of the customers were bad and possibly mad. One such was Jack Idema, a short, wiry man with rapid -fire patter who claimed to be an ex-CIA agent. He used to turn up at the hotel where we were staying, the Intercontinental, selling grainy video footage of "al-Qa'ida training camps" he had supposedly obtained from his "friends in intelligence". We were warned by Afghan and Western officials that he was a Walter Mitty. This did not stop him from going on to set up "Task Force Sabre 7" and open an unofficial prison where "terrorist" suspects, arbitrarily arrested, were hung upside down from the ceiling and beaten.

In 2001, Afghanistan was the Wild East. The invasion following the 9/11 attacks was deemed a success for the US and its allies. Donald Rumsfeld, the Defence Secretary in Washington, was arguing that the job was done with the fall of the Taliban; America was not into nation-building and the troops on the ground would be thinned out. The customers at the Mustafa Bar, private security contractors, were there to fill the vacuum. From then on these men would be very much the camp followers in the various fronts of the War on Terror, leaving a highly controversial, and sometimes bloody, footprint.

Some curbs were eventually brought in to control them and the flaky ones drifted off to make cameo appearances in other war zones. Idema was arrested and imprisoned. It emerged at his trial that he had already served a sentence in the States for wire fraud.

But it was not all a three-ringed circus. There was a genuine sense of hope. The Taliban had been shattered and the movement's leadership had fled to their havens in Pakistan. The warlords had grudgingly accepted that they would have to disband their private armies. Afghanistan had a new government led by Hamid Karzai, inaugurated in a loya jirga [grand assembly] presided over by the former President, Burhanuddin Rabbani. Tony Blair's ringing declaration: "This time we would not walk away," as had happened when the US and UK had used the Afghans in the war against the Soviets and then abandoned them to a savage civil war, pointed to a bright future.

Investment, we were told, would pour in for development as security was established. Bin Laden, it was true, had escaped with a handful of followers from Tora Bora into Pakistan. But, we were assured, it would be a matter of months, if not weeks, before he was killed or captured.

In Kandahar, at the home of Mullah Omar, the semi-literate cleric who had headed the austere Taliban regime, with its gold-plated chandeliers, formica wall panels and a rococo mosque with green and blue mirrors, American soldiers prowled looking for souvenirs.

A corporal from Alabama lay on the mullah's bed with its imported Italian mattress, a big grin on his face saying "ain't this something". In Mazhar-e-Sharif in the north, Donald Rumsfeld stressed to a group of us during a flying visit that the war was truly over. "The Taliban are marginalised, they will have no future role to play. This is a new Afghanistan."

The best thing about this brave new world was how the most oppressed section of the population, women, were being emancipated. They were walking around not just without the burka, but unveiled, in Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban. Schools were opening for girls in province after province after years of being banned by Islamists.

I met women in 2002 who were reaching positions of authority. Safia Amajan, who had survived the Taliban years secretly running classes for girls – partly because she was a Hafiz, someone who could recite the whole Koran – was setting up a women's workshop. There was also Malalai Kakar, the most prominent policewoman in the country, who led a team of 10 female officers who rescued abused women.

Safia, whose family name was Warashta, but had had become known as Amajan ("our aunt") by the girls she had helped, was optimistic. "Yes, we shall now see a way ahead for women. It'll be slow but it shall take place. But we must have support, there are people who'll try and stop this." she said.

Commander Kakar, who liked to cook breakfast for her husband and her six children before putting her pistol in her handbag and going to work, knew what she had to do. "I have been accused of being rough with husbands who beat up their wives. That is not true, we just do what the law requires. These men kill women as easily as they would kill a bird."

The two women had begun to work closely with Zarghuna Kakar, preparing to run in the elections to become Kandahar's first female MP. Cherie Blair and Laura Bush spoke of the importance of women playing their part in public life in the Afghanistan of the future, Zarghuna had watched them on television.

Ahmed Wali Karzai, the President's brother and "Mr Kandahar" was full of assurances that he would protect female public officials. But establishing any form of stability would depend on the West's attention span in Afghanistan, he said. "The Taliban are waiting. They will get help from those who want to control them, the Pakistanis, and they will try to come back, for sure."

AWK was to be accused later of running Afghanistan's second city like a Mafia don, running roughshod over the law. He always denied the accusations, at our last meeting, a lunch at his heavily fortified home in January this year, he was philosophical. "I have been accused of so many things that I've begun to forget them. The only thing I haven't been accused so far is prostitution. But I have made sure the Taliban doesn't control Kandahar, they've tried to kill me nine times."

But AWK was prescient about what lay ahead. It was not long before America and Britain, yet again, walked away, this time into the disaster of Iraq in 2003. Funds for reconstruction were switched over. The thinly spread forces were denuded even further. CIA and special forces operatives trying to track down Bin Laden and the al-Qa'ida hierarchy on the Pakistani border were switched to the hunt for Saddam Hussein and senior Ba'athists.

I met one of them, Alex, a former US army Ranger of 19 years experience, fluent in Dari, Pashtu and Urdu, at "Camp Victory" next to Baghdad airport at the end of 2003. "We were actually getting somewhere and then we were ordered to move here. We have had to leave our Afghan agents – some of them have been killed." he shook his head in disgust.

"I was an Afghan specialist, spent years with the Muj. I don't even speak Arabic for God's sake, but they don't give a fuck about Afghanistan in DC any longer." Alex was among those later interviewed by a Congressional committee looking into the conduct of the war. But by then, he pointed out, the damage had been done.

The media, too, were focused on the mayhem of Iraq. Fleeting visits to Afghanistan revealed an alarming rise in strife. During one trip we watched British Gurkha soldiers arrest a senior lieutenant of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a former Mujaheddin leader who had once been the West's blue-eyed boy and had tea with Margaret Thatcher in London, as he was coming into Kabul to organise a suicide attack.

UK forces were to face their most lethal experience of the Afghan war in 2006 with the move to Helmand, a deployment, defence secretary John Reid had declared may "end without a shot being fired in anger". The campaign veered off in precisely the opposite direction to the one advised by General Sir David Richards, now head of the British military, then leading Nato forces in the country.

Instead of securing population centres, bases were set up in outlying districts such as Sangin and Musa Qala, effectively inviting the Taliban to come and fight. The challenge was taken up, casualties mounted, especially after the insurgents began using roadside bombs on an industrial scale.

I went with British and American forces into operations often ending in ferocious fighting. Last year, at Babaji in Helmand, Company Sergeant Major Steve Taylor, of the Coldstream Guards, said quietly "Out of 130 men we have had four deaths and 35 casualties, four of them have been double amputees, two single amputees. It hasn't been easy, not easy at all. I have had young lads pleading that they didn't want to go out on patrol, but you say: 'Son, you have to go through with this, this is what we do.' They have gone out and they have done the job. I don't think I could have asked for more."

During one patrol, Sergeant John Amer was injured by a booby trap as he rushed to help an injured comrade. As we returned with the stretcher party, another IED, placed on a route cleared just a few hours previously, exploded, blowing others off their feet. The injured were evacuated to a medical centre at Camp Bastion. One of them, Sergeant Paul Bains, said afterwards "We saw John Amer fade away. I think he would have survived the first attack, but not what happened afterwards." The Afghans, too, were paying a lethal price at the hands of the Islamists with a string of assassinations of prominent public figures, among them Ahmed Wali Karzai (on 12 July this year) and, most recently on 20 September, former President Rabbani who was heading peace talks with the insurgents. Attacks mounted in the capital and The Intercontinental, the media hotel in 2001, came under siege. Suspects were arrested outside the Mustafa.

The US and Afghan governments produced evidence that the Pakistani intelligence service, ISI, were directing the terrorist campaign.

Women became particular targets for vengeance. In September 2006, at the age of 65, Safia Amajan was shot dead. I met the two men, in their early twenties, arrested for her murder at the Sarposa prison in Kandahar. They had carried out the murder in return for $5,000 offered by a mullah in Pakistan. The men were caught when the mullah wanted proof they had carried out their task and they attempted, by night, to dig up the body for a lock of hair.

A Taliban commander, Mullah Hayat Khan, put out a statement saying Amajan had been "executed" for refusing to stop working. Commander Malalai Kakar had thrown herself into the investigation. "They would not have been caught if they had not tried to disturb Safia's body" she said.

"I do not trust myself to be in the same cell as those men. They murdered someone old enough to be their grandmother. They murdered someone who has done so much for Afghanistan." A month later Malalai herself was killed. A false report had been placed that a young woman was being held captive, her life in danger. Commander Kakar was ambushed on her way to the police station to pick up her team.

Zarghuna Kakar, who had succeeded in becoming an MP, attended Malalai's funeral. She was herself under a Taliban death sentence, but had failed to get any protection from either Nato or Afghan officials. A little while later she and her family were attacked at the local market. Her husband, Mohammed Nasir, was killed and she suffered head wounds. Zarghuna fled to Kabul with her children.

Even just discussing women's rights has become risky. Sayed Pervez Kambaksh, a 24-year-old trainee journalist was arrested on charges of blasphemy and sentenced to death after distributing a pamphlet on equality at his university in Mazar-i-Sharif. His case became an international cause célèbre after it was exposed by The Independent. A petition to secure justice organized by this newspaper gathered more than 100,000 signatures. In September 2009, following his re-election, President Karzai secretly pardoned him. He was freed from jail flown out of the country to start a new life in the West.

Jack Idema had been released from prison, also on a Karzai pardon, two years earlier. He returned to the US he began legal proceedings (later dropped) against Steven Spielberg. A character in a 1997 film The Peacemaker, played by George Clooney, was, he claimed, based on him. On the anniversary of 9/11, Idema was to be found barricaded in a house in Yucatan, Mexico, with police attempting to question him over an alleged assault. He was also said to be writing a screenplay about his "undercover counter-insurgency role".

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