x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

The Broken State

The situation in Afghanistan is not as bad as you've heard – its worse. Nir Rosen reports from Kabul and its surrounding provinces as the Taliban attempt to wrest control from Hamid Karzai's government.

The situation in Afghanistan is not as bad as you've heard – its worse. Nir Rosen reports from Kabul and its surrounding provinces as the Taliban attempt to wrest control from Hamid Karzai's government.

In August of this year I flew in to Kabul, a bustling city undergoing a construction boom, with shopping malls, new banks, restaurants and traffic jams, where I stayed in a hotel catering to weary journalists and aid workers. I arranged to meet two Taliban commanders who agreed to take me to their province, Ghazni – about 100 miles south of the capital. They picked me up one day from a posh Kabul neighbourhood in an innocuous-looking car and we headed south. We drove past barren rocky mountains, desolate Afghan Army checkpoints being punished by the wind, roadside shacks selling food and drinks and herds of camels.

Heading southwest from Kabul, we crossed into Wardak province, and into a war zone. The burning carcasses of supply lorries meant for American and British bases in the south littered both sides of the road, and craters blown by the roadside bombs the Taliban deploy against convoys blocked our path every few minutes. Before long we were forced to stop by a battle raging ahead between the Taliban and American and Nato forces, whose explosions shook the car.

There are too many symptoms of Afghanistan’s decline to inventory, but the roads are an easy place to start, a clear sign of the shrinking zone of order that now barely reaches beyond the outskirts of Kabul. We were driving on the “ring road”, the most critical thoroughfare in Afghanistan, and the fastest, most direct and practical way of travelling between major cities – if you ignore the mounting risk. It is the only road that even resembles a motorway in Afghanistan, and the only viable route for large supply convoys. The only alternatives are small provincial roads, many just gravel or dirt – on which a journey can take days rather than hours. The section of the ring road between Kabul and Kandahar, rebuilt with international funds in 2003, was a crucial connection between the two main American bases at Bagram and Kandahar and linked the two halves of the country, reducing a two-day trip to six hours. Now bridges along the route have been destroyed, and the transport of supplies to support the Afghan government and coalition forces has become difficult. The Taliban continue to mount audacious ambushes against convoys, destroying dozens of lorries at a time and killing some of the drivers.

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The provinces of Wardak and Logar, which border Kabul to the south and east, lay between Kabul and Ghazni; both have descended into chaos, and it was in Wardak that the Taliban destroyed a convoy of 54 lorries in June. The two provinces “were like canaries in a mine,” said a senior development official whose NGO has been supporting Afghan reconstruction for more than five years. “Now they have gone,” he continued, explaining that his group classified areas as “stable”, “unstable”, and “volatile” – “and unstable provinces have now become volatile. Now it’s too late.”

In Kabul I met with western diplomats, security experts, former Mujahideen commanders, former Taliban officials, NGO representatives, and senior officials at the UN; many of the westerners have been in the country since the US invasion, some for more than a decade. They are committed, in various ways, to supporting the government led by Hamid Karzai, the efforts at development and reconstruction, and the coalition campaign against the resurgent Taliban – and none would speak candidly without remaining anonymous, since their private assessments are, to a person, “incredibly bleak,” as one said.

“I’m not optimistic,” a longtime NGO official with more than a dozen years’ experience in the country told me. He said the confidence of the Taliban today is beginning to resemble the swagger of the mujahideen he knew during the war against the Soviets. “You can’t help getting this increased uncomfortable feeling that you are waiting for something terrible to happen.” Another senior NGO staffer with decades of experience in Afghanistan told me there was “a loss of hope.” “Afghans with money,” he said, “want to move their families to Dubai or India; they’re looking at an exit strategy.” Perhaps, he suggested, America and its allies should start doing the same: “We’re not up to the task of success in Afghanistan.”

As the Taliban have reasserted control over the countryside, their presence is being felt ever closer to Kabul. A former Taliban government official – who served as a commander under the notorious warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar in the war against the Soviets and now works for an international aid organisation – pointed to Logar province as a critical bellwether, explaining that it had become dangerous by the summer of 2007. “I was watching trends in Logar,” he said, “because there was no movement from the government to push [the Taliban] back. It was the weakness of the government against the strength of the Taliban.” Islamic schools in Logar – an important centre for religious education – were turning out new Talibs, who are increasingly asserting themselves. A waiter at my Kabul hotel told me that he had been at a wedding in Logar in August when some 14 Taliban, armed with AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenade launchers, appeared out of nowhere to ensure no music was being played.

As I saw on the road to Ghazni, the Taliban have succeeded in essentially cutting off Kabul from the rest of the country. The road southwest to Kandahar was lethal. “The Kabul to Ghazni road is gone,” a British intelligence officer told me, “the Ghazni to Gardez road is exceedingly bad, the Wardak road is sh***, the Jalalabad road is sliding. The ambushes have become routine.” In August, 10 French paratroopers were killed, and 21 injured, in a Taliban ambush in Sarobi, only 50 kilometres east of the capital in Kabul province, while in early September Afghan soldiers were attacked in broad daylight in Logar on the most important road in Afghanistan, even closer to Kabul than Sarobi, and two suicide bombers dressed as Afghan police blew themselves up inside Kandahar’s police headquarters – highlighting the poor security even among the security forces.

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Eventually we made our way to Ghazni and stopped at a traditional house called a Qala, made of an extremely durable mixture of mud and straw and built like a fort, with high walls surrounding large compounds that often include different quarters and even areas for agriculture. We pulled up and one of my escorts, Shafiq, banged on the metal door. A man led us by motorcycle to another house from which a group of young men emerged. In the darkness I could see that a couple of them were carrying weapons.

One of the young fighters I had dinner with that first night was called Mohammed. He was 18 years old and originally from Ghazni but had gone to an Islamic school in the Pakistani city of Quetta, which borders Afghanistan and shelters many Taliban leaders. The school was called Mahmadiya and education was in Pashtu, the only language Mohammed knew. Room and board had been free. In Quetta he had joined the Taliban, he said, because they were Muslim, because his whole village had joined the Taliban and because he didn’t like the Americans entering his village. His parents thought he was still studying in Pakistan.

He had only been a fighter for 15 days, he said, after a few months of training in Ghazni, and he had only taken part in one attack so far, against an Afghan police checkpoint in Ghazni. He had used an AK-47 and his friend had used an RPG. The Afghan police were not good fighters, he said.

We entered an old adobe home built 70 years ago. Livestock brayed past the gate. A large group of Taliban were seated around the room, and I talked with a 17-year-old named Isa who, like Mohammed, had been with the Taliban for only two weeks. He had studied at a local Islamic school in Andar. I asked him why he had joined the mujahideen. “I like the mujahideen,” he said, “and I want to do jihad.” I asked him why. “Because the Americans are here,” replied another young fighter named Yusuf.

One of the Talibs told me he thought the Americans would leave in a year, and another chimed in: “After the Americans leave I want to fight them because they attacked Afghanistan.” I asked the men who they wanted to lead the country, and they replied that it did not have to be Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader thought to be hiding in northwest Pakistan, so long as Islamic law was imposed again. Would they allow foreign fighters, like Osama bin Laden, back into the country? “Islam has no borders,” Shafiq said affirmatively.

In turn they asked me about the Americans, about what people thought of the war in Afghanistan, if the Americans thought they would win. I struggled to find the right answer, and one of the commanders told Shafiq that I was a CIA agent, to which Shafiq replied that I was not. I heard the words “istikhbarat” and “iasus,” which mean “army intelligence” and “spy”, as we readied ourselves to leave.

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In the seven years since the Taliban were swiftly overthrown and the Karzai government was installed in Kabul, Afghanistan has become America’s forgotten war. The fate of the country – and America’s presence there – is hopelessly entwined with the war in Iraq, which diverted attention and resources from Afghanistan in pursuit of Saddam Hussein. Republicans – with John McCain at the forefront – speak of an impending victory in Iraq, crediting the so-called “surge” of American troops. And now politicians of both parties, led by Barack Obama, have begun to suggest a redeployment of forces to Afghanistan in the false hope that more American troops will solve Afghanistan’s problems as well.

But Iraq has not been – and will not be – a victory of any sort, and the celebrated decline in violence (to a level that would not be cause for celebration anywhere else in the world) had little to do with the additional troops. A combination of factors – the ceasefire declared by Muqtada al Sadr’s Mahdi Army, the turn of the Sunni “Awakenings” groups against al Qa’eda, and the winding down of the most intense phase of the civil war in which Shiites soundly defeated Sunni forces – brought about the drop in violence while the segregation of Sunnis and Shiites and the erection of concrete walls and checkpoints to keep them divided created a measure of relative calm.

The situation in Afghanistan could not be more different. In Iraq, a Shiite-dominated state was bolstered by American troops and advisers, and the majority Shiite community prevailed over its Sunni rivals. In Afghanistan, there is hardly a state to support – and its undersized army, many of them Tajiks, faces an insurgency made up of Pashtuns, the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan.

At the centre of the state, a very senior Western diplomat told me, “is an extremely weak president, a corrupt and ineffective ministry of interior, an army that will fight but has no command and control capabilities,” backed by “a dysfunctional international alliance.” “I’m very worried and negative,” he continued. “The analysis of our intelligence people is that things are getting worse.”

The rapid defeat of the Taliban – and the equally rapid establishment of a new government in Kabul – left power in the hands of the warlords who helped depose the Taliban. “I thought the Americans and the international community could succeed in 2001,” the former Taliban government official told me, “I thought we would get rid of the warlords, but in the first six months they supported the warlords and put them in power. There was hope at the elections, but the warlords won. Now they are in parliament, ministers, deputy ministers.” “The American intervention issued blank checks to these guys,” the senior NGO staffer said. “They threw money, weapons, vehicles at them. Anyone willing to work with the Americans was welcome.”

“The police are highly corrupt,” a senior UN humanitarian official in Kabul explained, “and they are at the centre of the collapse of the state and the Karzai government. They are involved in everything from corruption to harassment. Locals feel alienation from police and they have been the best promoters of the Taliban. The police make them support the Taliban.” The British intelligence officer was more blunt. “People might hate the Taliban,” he said, “but they hate the government just as much. At least the Taliban have rules.”

Nathaniel Fick, a former Marine officer who served in Afghanistan in 2001 and 2002, and in Iraq in 2003, served as an instructor at a counterinsurgency academy in Kabul in 2007. (He was the leader of a platoon in Iraq that featured in the book Generation Kill and the subsequent HBO mini-series of the same name.) He returned to Afghanistan in 2008 as a fellow with a new Washington think-tank, the Center for a New American Security, to conduct an assessment of US policy. “We met with tribal elders in Ghazni,” he told me, “and they told us they were slapped on one cheek by the Taliban and on the other by the government. There is bribery in every office, total lack of security, police corruption.” The police are underpaid and poorly trained, he said, and they have become “corrupt and parasitic on the population – it’s corruption from need, not greed.” Afghans, he said, trust neither the government nor its coalition backers: “they think we’re going to leave, so they stay on the fence.”

The very senior Western diplomat concurred, suggesting that the population wants to support a winner. “They don’t want to back the government if, in 18 months time, the Taliban will ride back into the village and behead anyone who has made a deal with the coalition.”

“The central lesson I took away from my trip to Afghanistan,” Fick told me, “is that while every aspect of a counterinsurgency strategy aims at bolstering the legitimacy of the central government, increasingly the Afghan people view their government as illegitimate. When we bolster that government, it undermines us.” The “hearts and minds” approach that has recently guided counterinsurgency operations in Iraq, many sources agreed, has little prospect of success in Afghanistan now. “It is too late to bring security by development,” the former Taliban government official told me. In the countryside, he said, “you have to decide to be with Taliban or be with the government. In Logar if you are with the government you have to move to Kabul. If you are with the Taliban, you can stay – but you may have to give them your son.”

“The countryside is caught between the coercive forces of the state and the coercive forces of the opposition to the state,” the senior development official told me. “Two years ago you could build a road or a bridge in a village and tell them, ‘Please don’t let the Taliban come.’ Now you’ve reached the stage where the hearts and minds business doesn’t work.” And, he quipped, “the Americans’ continuous bombing of wedding parties isn’t helping.” According to a recent Human Rights Watch report, 116 civilians were killed in 13 airstrikes in 2006, 321 civilians were killed in 22 strikes in 2007 and more than 119 civilians have been killed by aerial bombing in the first seven months of this year. These numbers, which do not account for injuries, are conservative, considering the difficulty of reaching rural areas to tally casualties.

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For now, the hopes of the American-led coalition, the UN and the Karzai government are with the 2009 presidential elections in Afghanistan. But the abysmal security conditions across the country look sure to pose insurmountable difficulties, beginning with the challenge of registering voters in the increasingly lawless provinces outside Kabul. “You cant fix the insurgency with an election,” the senior UN humanitarian official told me. “It’s a socio-economic phenomenon that goes well beyond the border of Afghanistan.” Virtually no one I spoke to – except the starry-eyed UN political staff in Kabul, who are working to prepare for the vote – expected elections to take place. “Elections won’t be possible,” the former Taliban government official told me. “registration might be possible because it’s in the winter. But next year the situation won’t be calm enough to have elections.”

“The Americans are gung-ho about elections,” the senior NGO staffer who has spent decades in Afghanistan told me. “If you have enough money, you can have elections, but what is the meaning? They got away with flawed elections in 2004 and 2005, but now a deeply flawed election will only make things worse. The 2004 elections were good enough, remarkably successful, but politically flawed. What will be the impact of a deeply flawed election? Karzai only won 56 per cent of the vote in 2004. I can’t imagine he would do better this time, so the elections would need a second round. It will further exacerbate ethnic tensions and divisions.”

To Nathaniel Fick, the drive to hold elections suggested a blind desire to bolster Karzai and engineer a positive milestone – a tactic familiar from Iraq. In that country’s first two elections, Sunnis either boycotted or were unable to vote due to the threat of violence. Iraqi Sunnis were a minority at only 20 per cent, but their alienation from the new Iraqi state helped fuel the resistance, empowered a sectarian Shiite government and led to civil war. But in Afghanistan the largest group, Pushtuns, dominate the armed insurgency – and they expect a Pushtun to lead the country. “Even Tajiks accept that you’ve got to have a Pushtun leader,” the senior NGO staffer told me, “if you have a Tajik president you’ll get civil war and the country will split apart. A credible election will be very difficult to hold.” He warned that failed elections might lead to rule by decree or the declaration of a state of emergency, further alienating the population.

When Fick asked Afghans who they expected as president, he told me, they all gave the same answer: “Whoever the US backs.” The British intelligence officer suggested that “the Taliban are all too happy to keep Karzai in power – he’s impotent in every single way.” Whether Karzai stays, the former Taliban government official said, “depends on a higher level than Karzai; it is up to the US. If they want to have a loya jirga to put Karzai in for another five years they will do that.”

With the deepening realisation that an election may not be possible, whispers of a new loya jirga can be heard in much of the country – one that might include Taliban sympathisers or allies. “The only way that elections can happen is if the Taliban start fighting,” said Barnett Rubin, a professor at NYU and a leading Afghanistan expert. The very senior Western diplomat agreed. “This can’t be solved other than by in the end talking to the Taliban,” he told me. “The Taliban are a violent expression of Pushtun religious conservative nationalism. We might not like it but it’s real. We have to find a space for them.”

Rubin favours negotiations with the Taliban, but cautions that the possible return of al Qa’eda forces remains a serious roadblock. “What are the guarantees that [the Taliban] won’t let them have bases?” he asked, “what guarantees would they give that could persuade the US government?” Both the Americans and the Taliban, Rubin suggested, would need to undertake confidence-building measures if negotiations are to have a chance of success. “We have to say that we’re in Afghanistan to leave, not to stay,” he said, “and then do things that look convincing, and then the Taliban have to provide guarantees.” It would be politically difficult for most American leaders to make the case to the American people that they should trust the Taliban, he said, but “we have to distinguish between the things we want and the things we want to fight a war about.”

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Barack Obama has already called for the deployment of additional combat brigades to Afghanistan, and Robert Gates, the Bush administration defence secretary who Obama intends to keep in position, has already announced his desire to send more than 20,000 additional soldiers into Afghanistan, stating last week that “it’s important that we have a surge of forces before the election.” Defense officials indicated this week that the new surge may begin even before Obama takes office in January, while Gates himself painted a rosy picture of the situation: “The notion that things are out of control in Afghanistan or that we’re sliding toward a disaster, I think, is far too pessimistic.” But in a meeting with a delegation from the UN Security Council on Tuesday, Hamid Karzai for the first time called on the coalition to set a deadline for withdrawal. “If there is no deadline, we have the right to find another solution for peace and security, which is negotiations,” Karzai said. “This war has gone on for seven years,” he complained. “The Afghans don’t understand anymore, how come a little force like the Taliban can continue to exist, can continue to flourish, can continue to launch attacks.”

John Nagl, a recently retired lieutenant colonel in the US Army with an Oxford PhD, was one of the co-authors of the army’s new counterinsurgency manual, and he served as an operations officer in the Anbar province of Iraq. He backs the troop surge in Afghanistan and argues that more American military advisers need to be embedded with Afghan security forces, as was done in Iraq. “We are not winning in Afghanistan,” Nagl told me. “We are not providing security to the population, the insurgency is getting stronger, we urgently need to get more boots on the ground. In the long term those should be Afghan boots.” Nagl said the September handover of security in Iraq’s Anbar province to local forces presented an opportunity to transfer Marines from Anbar to Afghanistan. “We know how to conduct counterinsurgency, provide security to the population while simultaneously building local security forces.”

“It takes a long time to build an army and police force,” he said. “It’s a multiyear effort but we are not doing the right things now. There is a real danger that the Karzai government can fall. There is a danger of a Tet offensive sort of event in Afghanistan.” Nagl, however, also stressed an “outreach strategy to the insurgents” and supports holding talks with the Taliban.

But it is not clear that the tactics that were employed in Iraq will be effective in Afghanistan. “More foreign Christian troops are not the answer,” the senior UN humanitarian official argued. “No force on earth can garrison every village.”

The British intelligence officer concurred: “You’ll end up arresting the entire population,” he said. “We should have realised the limits of troops. It’s an endless spiral: more violence, more troops. Afghan security forces are the way forward, but we are too far behind in training them.”

“More troops aren’t the keys to the kingdom,” said Fick. “We as a country and coalition have to answer the question: What are we trying to do? A security operation? A nation-building operation? Are we trying to dismantle al Qa’eda? We haven’t answered that question. How we answer that question determines the resources we use. If I had an infinite number of troops I would put them in every village, we don’t have the forces money or patience to do it. So a training and advising mission is the next best thing.”

Training the Afghan army is a worthy goal, but in the meantime the country is increasingly in the hands of a fractious band of Taliban, allied with myriad leaders who think nothing of battling one another. There is no sign that the Taliban are weakening: they have an apparently endless supply of men and arms and they don’t mind losing large numbers of men, because even casualties can be spun into propaganda that suggests they have plenty of followers to spare. They do not have the power they did in the 1990s, when they swept across Afghanistan with little resistance, or the popular support they enjoyed while fighting the Russians. Although the Taliban will never be able to defeat the US-led coalition, that same coalition will not be able to uproot the Taliban from rural Afghanistan, wipe out their bases of support and recruitment in Pakistan, or cut them off from the Afghan population.

The former Taliban government official – who served as a mujahideen commander until 1992 – reminded me that the Soviet army was larger and more powerful than the coalition today, with more than 100,000 troops, and that the Afghan government they supported was stronger than the current one as well.

“The end will be like with the Russians,” he said. “The Americans will never succeed in containing the conflict. There will be more bleeding, the evacuation of foreigners. It’s coming to the same situation – by 1985 or 1986, the Communist forces held only the provincial capitals. There were 465,000 military and civilian members of the puppet government. But the Russians were still confined to their bases.”

Nir Rosen is a fellow at the Center on Law and Security at NYU and the author of The Triumph of the Martyrs: A Reporter’s Journey into Occupied Iraq.