Patrick Cockburn: Where the Taliban roam
Afghanistan’s president may be schmoozing Barack Obama in Washington today, but what of the country he left behind? Cockburn, winner of this year’s Orwell Prize for journalism, finds a nation fractured by war, bled dry by corruption – and governed by fear
Wednesday 06 May 2009
When President Hamid Karzai drove to Kabul airport to fly to America earlier this week, the centre of the Afghan capital was closed down by well-armed security men, soldiers and policemen. On his arrival in Washington he will begin two days of meetings, starting today, with President Barack Obama and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari about their joint efforts to combat the Taliban. Karzai is also to deliver a speech at the Brookings Institution think tank on “effective ways of fighting terrorism.”
The title of his lecture shows a certain cheek. Karzai’s seven years in power since the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001 have been notable for his failure to prevent their resurgence. Suppose the president’s motorcade this week had taken a different route and headed, not for the airport, but for the southern outskirts of Kabul, he would soon have experienced the limits of his government’s authority. It ends at a beleaguered police post within a few minutes’ drive of the capital. Drivers heading for the southern provincial capitals of Ghazni, Qalat and Kandahar nervously check their pockets to make sure that they are |carrying no documents linking them to the government.
They do so because they know that they will not have travelled far down the road before they are stopped and their identity checked by black turbaned Taliban fighters. Moving swiftly on their motorcycles, squads of six to eight men set up temporary checkpoints along the road. Sometimes they even take a traveller’s mobile phone and redial numbers recently called. If the call is answered by a government ministry or, still worse, a foreigner, then the phone’s owner may be executed on the spot. The jibe that Mr Karzai is only “mayor of Kabul” has some truth to it. It is not only when travelling south that the Taliban is in control. I wanted to go to Bamyan, the province in central Afghanistan which is inhabited by the Hazara, a minority ethnic group who are central-Asian in appearance and Shia by religion, and who were savagely persecuted and massacred by the Sunni fundamentalist Taliban during their years in power.
I last went there in December 2001 to look at the shattered remains of the giant 6th-century Buddhist statues which the Taliban had dynamited because they portrayed the human form and were “idols”. I wanted to see what had changed. If anybody benefited from the end of Taliban rule it should have been the Hazara. It turned out, however, that the biggest change was that I could no longer travel there by road. Mohammed Sarwar Jawadi, a member of the Afghan parliament representing Bamyan, who spent two years in a Taliban prison before escaping, told me that Bamyan itself was safe enough. The problem was the route.
“There are two roads going there,” explained Mr Jawadi, “but do not take the southern one because it is controlled by the Taliban.” He said there was an alternative, more northerly road and this was safe enough so long as, he added with the hint of a smile, “you bring plenty of armed guards.” He explained that a few weeks ago “men dressed in police uniforms” had stopped two vehicles belonging to a local bank, shot dead six guards and stolen the money on board. The best experts on the dangers of the road in most countries are not the police or the army, but the truckers, whose lives and livelihoods depend on correctly assessing the risks.
“The situation got really bad a year-and-a-half ago,” explained Abdul Bayan, the owner of a transport company in Kabul called Nawe Aryana, told me. His trucks carry goods all over Afghanistan, but they face ever increasing danger, particularly if they are carrying supplies for Nato troops or other foreign forces. He added that these days his drivers need armed protection even if they are carrying onions. The threat comes from both Taliban and bandits who are sometimes difficult to tell apart. If a truck worth $70,000 is captured, it costs Mr Bayan $10-12,000 to get it back. “A convoy of 20 trucks going to Kandahar [carrying goods for foreign troops or the government] will need four or five SUVs, each with four armed men on board,” he said. “We reckon it costs us $1,000 a truck just to protect them, which doesn’t leave much profit.”
Even hiring one’s own security men is not necessarily a guarantee of safety. On the same morning that Mr Karzai was leaving Kabul for Washington, the Taliban attacked a squad of armed security men in Qalat, a poor dusty city that is the capital of Zabul province in the far south. Hired to protect road construction workers, they were slaughtered in a gun battle in which seven of them were killed and three captured. Asked why he did not look for help from the Afghan army or police to protect his truck convoys, Mr Bayan looked bemused. “Get help from the soldiers and policemen?” he replied scornfully. “Why, they can’t even protect themselves, so what can they do for me?”
The question goes to the heart of the crisis in Afghanistan. It is not so much that the Taliban is strong and popular, but that the government is weak, corrupt and dysfunctional. “Security has not deteriorated because of what the Taliban has done,” says Daoud Sultanzoy, a US-trained commercial pilot who is a highly respected MP from Ghazni province, south-west of Kabul, “but because people feel the government is unjust. It is seen as the enemy of the people, and because there is no constitutional alternative to it, the Taliban gain.” He is angered by a misconception common in the West that Afghans do not like any form of central government or authority. “It is not true that we do not like good government,” he says, “but for 267 years we have been misruled.”
He believes that unless there is an Afghan government deemed just and legitimate by the Afghan people, “military gains will mean nothing” and the Taliban will keep up their fight for decades.Support for the Taliban is not very high, but it has increased since 2006, when their rebellion effectively resumed with Pakistani aid. Over the last three years, backing for both the US and the Afghan government have plummeted.
Some 45 per cent of Afghans in the south and east of the country, where most of the fighting is now taking place, say that violence against the US or Nato/Isaf can be justified, according to an opinion poll carried out for ABC News, BBC and ARD at the start of this year. The poll shows that the Afghan desire for retribution is significantly boosted by shelling or bombing of civilian targets. Ominously for President Obama’s surge, the increase in the number of US troops in Afghanistan is opposed by most Afghans. They say they are convinced that their presence will simply lead to more fighting.
The problem for Obama is similar to that facing Afghans. His administration can see the failings of Karzai and his government, but they can’t see an alternative that would offer an improvement. The strong criticism of the Karzai government coming out of Washington several months ago has subsided for the moment. In recent weeks Obama’s administration has devoted its energies to getting Pakistan to reverse the local Taliban’s advances in the Swat valley and Buner district. Karzai is increasingly likely to win the presidential election on August. Just before departing for Washington, he registered as a candidate and persuaded his most dangerous possible challenger, the governor of south-western Nangarhar province, Gul Agha Sherzai, to withdraw his candidacy. Mr Karzai’s re-election looks increasingly likely.
The problem for Afghanistan is that its political landscape was created by the events of late 2001. In the preceding months, the Taliban, backed by Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, had been extending its grip over the whole country. The Northern Alliance was being squeezed by Taliban offensives into the mountainous north-east of the country.
Many of its adherents believed it faced ultimate defeat, particularly after its leader, Ahmad Shah Massoud, was assassinated by two members of al-Qa’ida pretending to be a television crew on 9 September. The movement might have collapsed. But two days later came the September 11th atacks in New York and Washington. Everything changed.
The US was determined to overthrow the Taliban in retribution for hosting al-Qa’ida, and the Northern Alliance, previously regarded with suspicion by the US because of its Iranian and Russian connections, was the only local ally available. Northern Alliance forces were victorious because they were backed by American B-52 bombers and small teams of US military advisers. The CIA paid large sums of money to local commanders to persuade them to go home. It is probable that the Pakistani military intelligence, the ISI, whose support had been crucial to the rise of the Taliban, was telling them not to fight to the end, but to wait until the US lost interest in Afghanistan. Many of the Afghan leaders who rule Afghanistan today won power during this completely unexpected turnaround in Afghan politics.
“The political, religious and economic mafia are all Northern Alliance people,” says Sultanzoy. “Nobody outside the Northern Alliance is in the government.” This is something of an exaggeration, but the warlords of the Northern Alliance treated their takeover of government as a plundering expedition. There was a shift of power away from the Pashtun, the community to which 42 per cent belong and towards the Tajiks (27 per cent), Hazara (9 per cent) and Uzbeks (9 per cent). In the newly-built Kabul district of Sherpoor, their palaces, heavily fortified and often rented out for large sums to foreign aid agencies, were built on land seized by them or handed over to them by the government.
In one part of Sherpoor there is a remarkable pink palace belonging to the Uzbek warlord General Rashid Dostum who has since had to take refuge in Istanbul. In registering for re-election this week, Mr Karzai chose as his vice-presidential candidate the Tajik leader Mohammad Qasim Fahim, whom Human Rights Watch has described as “one of the most notorious warlords in the country, with the blood of many Afghans on his hands from the civil war.”
A measure of the failure of Mr Karzai, his government and his Western supporters is that I was able to drive from Kabul to Kandahar eight years ago. But if I tried to make the same journey today, I would be killed or kidnapped soon after leaving Kabul. Even then, in 2001, it was a dangerous road – though the word flatters the rutted track and smashed asphalt on which we had to drive – since the exact state of disintegration of the Taliban and the mood of their fighters was uncertain. In a heavily-guarded palace in the ancient city of Ghazni, the newly appointed governor, Qari Baba, a portly man of about 60 who looked like Sidney Greenstreet, had benignly stated that all was secure in his province, but he was so new to his post that he had not even bothered to tear old Taliban propaganda posters off the walls of his office.
One showed Afghanistan, inspired by a verse from the Koran, bursting the chains the Americans had placed around it. Though the Taliban had gone, they had not gone very far, and there were plenty of menacing-looking men in black with assault rifles slung over their shoulders in the courtyard of the governor’s palace. For all Qari Baba’s show of confidence, he himself only moved in a convoy of 20 armoured vehicles. New men were taking over. I met Dr Mohammad Shajahan, the leader of the Harekat-e-Islami party which represented the Hazara minority in Ghazni. “The Taliban control about 50 per cent of the province,” he said. “I have just had a meeting with them and they have promised to surrender by 3pm today. If they surrender their weapons and cars and go home, then we guarantee their security.”
Shajahan, who was a dentist by profession, was astonished by the swift change in his fortunes. “Just three months ago, I was working in a gas station in Virginia in the US,” he said. “After September 11th, I came back here, where I used to be a commander, with a plan for raising 1,000 men.”The same scenes were being repeated all the way to Kandahar. The Taliban might be surrendering on terms, but they had not been defeated. Most of the country had become a frightening no-man’s land. Afghan houses were dun-coloured mud brick fortresses with windowless 20ft-high walls that could contain innocent families or several hundred soldiers. There were no checkpoints. We asked one man, pointing up the road, how far we were from the Taliban frontline. “About 10km,” he said, which sounded comforting – until we noticed that he was pointing down the road behind us.
The speed of the implosion of the Taliban was such that I though they would be back in business in a few months. I was right in thinking they would return, but wrong about the timing, and it was three or four years before they began to reassert their grip. Hamid Karzai, who had just been appointed head of an interim government, was not regarded wi th much respect. Abdul Ahmed, a tough-looking warlord from the village of Maydanshar, just outside Kabul, was vocally contemptuous of him, saying that he had been appointed “because of pressure from the outside world. He has done no fighting against the Taliban.” It was an opinion held by many.
The war against the Taliban in 2001 produced winners and losers who did not change very much in subsequent years. What has changed is security, which Bayan the truck owner says is now worse than at any time since the Communists were in power. It is no longer possible to drive to Ghazni. Even Sultanzoy, who is a member of parliament for the province, says it is too dangerous for him to go there “though I am more afraid of the government shooting me than the Taliban.” In any case, most of the winners in the war live north of Kabul. After 9/11 like many other correspondents, I had wanted to get into Afghanistan and had flown from Moscow to Dushanbe in Tajikistan in the hope of crossing the Amu Darya river to reach opposition-held territory.
In the event, the Northern Alliance provided an ancient Soviet helicopter which flew us over the Hindu Kush to the war-battered town of Jabal Saraj at the southern end of the Panjshir valley just north of Kabul. It was a strategically vital area which put the Northern Alliance within striking distance of Kabul. The Taliban repeatedly tried to capture it and for years had fought for the well-watered Shomali plain, one of the most fertile parts of Afghanistan, through which ran the front line.
The people of Shomali are Tajiks and supporters of the Northern Alliance. They have done well out of the peace. Once again their fruit and vegetables can reach the markets in Kabul. New schools and housing have been built. Almost all the bridges that had been blown up in the fighting have been replaced. The main trade route through the Salang tunnel, which pierces the Hindu Kush and connects southern and northern Afghanistan is open once again. But it is the local warlords like General Bashir Salangi, who commanded Northern Alliance forces in the Salang Valley, or General Baba Jan, who was in command of the front north of Bagram airport who have done best for themselves in terms of government jobs and private business. The Afghan government may be weakened by jobs for the boys, particularly when the boys in question are ruthless warlords who inflicted a devastating civil war on Afghanistan in the 1990s.
But it is corruption rather than patronage which is discrediting the legitimacy of the government at a moment when it is facing a new challenge from the Taliban. In Transparency International’s list of the most corrupt countries in the world, Afghanistan ranks 176 out of 180. In few countries is corruption so widespread or so open as it is in Kabul. There are the notorious “Poppy Palaces”, supposedly built by the profits of the heroin and opium trade. Government ministers with small salaries are somehow able to afford to spend over £1m each on constructing mansions. The former finance minister, Ashraf Ghani, says “the whole country is criminalised.” An anonymous official is quoted as aptly saying Afghanistan “is not a tribal society, but a mafia society.”“You have to pay $10,000 in bribes to get a job as a district police chief,” says General Aminullah Amarkhail, former head of security at Kabul airport, “and up to $150,000 to get a job as chief of police anywhere on the border because there you can make a lot of money.”
He believes that what happens in Afghanistan should be compared to looting, rather than simple corruption. The outcome of his campaign against smuggling, mostly of drugs, at Kabul airport explains why corruption is so difficult to eradicate. An army general transferred to the Interior Ministry, he was put in charge of security at Kabul airport in 2005 where he had soon arrested more than 100 heroin smugglers, most of them en route to Dubai.
“When I took over Kabul airport was a garbage dump,” he recalls. “I had 320 policemen, though I had to fire some for co-operating with smugglers.”He noticed that some travellers had “an extraordinary number of visas in their passports which they could not explain.” Bribes of $1,000 per kilogram of heroin were offered to his staff if they would help the smugglers. He did not have any X-ray machines, but he was able to detect smugglers who had ingested drugs by their dry lips and the bottles of oil they always carried. He began to receive death threats.
One woman whom he stopped had eight bags of heroin with her: her overall contract was to carry 1,000 kilos. She threatened him when he arrested her. “I will have you sacked from your job because I am more powerful than you,” she told him. “And I will get my heroin back as well.” She was as good as her word. Two hours later, instructions came from the Interior Ministry to let her go and return her heroin.The smuggler’s other prediction also turned out to be true. General Aminullah was suddenly sacked and charged with a minor offence. A new official took over security at the airport and smugglers were no longer arrested. General Aminullah’s case became well known in Afghanistan and abroad, but this was not enough to get him reinstated, despite a court order to do so. Recently he was made adviser on security to the minister of education, a job he says he was given purely to get him out of the way. He is still demanding his old job back.
The US troop reinforcements sent this year might make Afghanistan’s roads safer. The American military will also have a lot of money to spend, as in Iraq, to carry out aid projects immediately. The Afghan police would perform a lot better if they were paid more than $120 a month (Taliban fighters are believed to get $200). The US is sending 4,000 extra military trainers, as well as more combat brigades. But these reinforcements will lead to more violence and more air strikes. These will inflict civilian casualties which infuriate Afghans and lead in turn to a rise in support for the Taliban. Given the government’s lack of legitimacy, and its inability to provide basic services, the Taliban does not have to do much to destabilise the country.
Withdrawal of Pakistani support and a denial of safe refuge in Pakistan would be a crippling blow to the Taliban. But this is not likely to happen along the long mountainous border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. President Zardari may want to do it, but policy on the Taliban is decided by the Pakistani military. They are not likely to cast off a movement they have fostered for so long. The Taliban may not be a very effective military unit, but it has shown that it is prepared to fight for a long time, longer probably than the US will want to keep so many troops in Afghanistan.In Iraq, the US occupation was always going to end badly. The occupation was never popular among Iraqis.
In Afghanistan there were greater opportunities. The Taliban regime was always hated by the great majority, who were glad to see it fall. Here, the American presence was, at first, welcomed by most. There may not have been enough foreign aid, but there was enough to make a real difference to the lives of Afghans. It was Karzai’s dysfunctional state of warlords and criminals which opened the door for the Taliban’s return.
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