Can Afghanistan be Rescued?
Chris Sands, Newstatesman, 27 March 2008
The Taliban are very far from being defeated. Worse, western governments are in denial about the dangers of failing
A normal week in Kabul recently went like this: one day unknown attackers dressed in military gear kidnapped a local businessman; 48 hours later a rocket landed in a deserted area; not long after, a businessman's driver was abducted and a ransom demanded; then, in a district near the city, a mine was found planted in a dirt road.
Within a fortnight violence had moved up a level. A suicide bomber targeted a US convoy as it travelled along the main route leading to the airport. Eight Afghan civilians were killed and 35 wounded. Much of this is just routine horror, details that will be swept aside by even the most pessimistic Nato members when they meet in Bucharest for their summit on 2-4 April. But what the west is starting to acknowledge, people here have known for some time: Afghanistan is not a success story.
Najiba Sharif was elected as an MP for Kabul in September 2005, when the war had apparently been won and hope was still in the air. As a female politician in a land until so recently controlled by the Taliban, she represented a new dawn. A little over two years later she described to me how that had changed: "If everything continues like this, I feel very sad about my children's future. I never wanted to flee the country before, but now I get the sense that I should.
"I do not want to stand for parliament again. Whatever aims I had, I could not achieve them. I have no answers for the people who voted for me and I feel ashamed."
A series of sobering reports on Afghanistan has emerged in recent months. In January alone, Oxfam warned of a potential humanitarian disaster, President Hamid Karzai said the picture was one of "doom and gloom" for his country, and US senators accused their government of having no clear strategy to defeat the insurgency.
For men and women trying to survive everyday life, these realisations are too little, too late. Even the most alarming assessments only hint at the paranoid anger that exists in villages, towns and cities. Sharif's despair is legion.
Earlier this year I met the husband of an MP from southern Afghanistan. With him was a team of bodyguards that he had hired recently after his wife received threatening phone calls telling her never to go back to parliament. When I asked him who was responsible, he insisted it was allies of Karzai. People are frightened by all sides in this war, including government and Nato-led forces. For many, the kind of security offered by the Taliban is preferable to what they have now.
Delawar Chamtu became a policeman 28 years ago and survived everything the world threw at him until one morning last autumn, when the bus he was travelling in blew up. At least 13 people died, including a woman and four children. Suicide bombings were rare here until 2006. Now they occur regularly across much of the country and are threatening to take the insurgency to a new level this spring and summer.
Their impact has been hugely damaging, reaching far beyond the number of people killed. Each explosion sows doubts in the minds of Afghans, some of whom wholeheartedly supported Kar-zai when he first came to power. Chamtu was among them.
"He was very optimistic in the beginning," recalled his eldest son, Khyber. "I wanted to leave the country then, but he said I was not allowed to go because it would become stable. He said Afghanistan would become just like all foreign countries. After security went bad he became worried and started asking how it could happen. He would say, 'How can the Taliban create these problems and occupy parts of our country when we have all the world with us?'"
Growing numbers of Afghans are pondering the same question. It is estimated that last year more than 8,000 people died in violence related to insurgency, and there were 160 suicide bombings - a record total. Kabul had, since the invasion, been regarded as relatively safe. Increased militant activity and rampant criminality are changing that perception of the capital city.
People avoid going out between seven and nine in the morning, when suicide attacks often happen. Blast walls put up to protect government and military compounds are raised higher with each passing month. And when an army convoy or a bus full of policemen moves through the city, civilians watch on anxiously.
Mahfouz Khan was killed in the same incident as Chamtu. At first, his brother Isatullah could only find a familiar-looking pair of legs in the morgue. Then he discovered the body they had been torn from and his fears were confirmed.
"I will never blame the suicide bomber. Maybe he was in trouble or had been given bad advice. Someone had put him under pressure and told him this would be Islamic, or perhaps he was just very poor," said Isatullah. "But I blame my government. If we had a proper government that could deploy good police on our borders how could these people cross into our cities? There is no real government and no real police. Everyone in the government is a killer."
It is now hard to find an Afghan who genuinely supports Karzai. From Kabul to Kan dahar, people complain that his administration is incompetent and corrupt. Their loyalty is to tribal elders, religious leaders or militia commanders, not to a regime they believe to be the tool of the Americans.
Uruzgan Province lies in southern Afghan istan, where it is bordered by the Taliban strongholds of Kandahar, Helmand, Zabul and Ghazni. Late last year, with a new governor in place and winter fast approaching, the US ambassador, William Wood, was flown in to showcase the sudden optimism said to exist in this key battleground. Some children stuck their middle fingers up at the Dutch soldiers deployed in town to provide the muscle all officials here need to survive. Most of the men just stood and stared, unflinching, as dust swirled around them.
Having met a handful of carefully chosen Afghans, the ambassador gave me a few minutes of his time. I asked Wood if he agreed that security was deteriorating and the insurgents were getting stronger.
"We all expected that the fighting season of 2007 would be a very difficult one for the government and for its international allies. In fact, it's been a very difficult fighting season for the Taliban," he said. "They seem to have given up on their ability to win the hearts and minds of the population."
A week or so later I joined members of the British army's 1st Battalion, Royal Gurkha Rifles as they patrolled through a valley in Uruzgan. Signs of militant activity were clearly visible, with well-made bunkers and trenches dotting the landscape. But local people denied there were any insurgents around and the troops did not know what to think. In the end I asked an Afghan interpreter his opinion.
"Of course, everyone in this village is Taliban," he said. "The men, women and children, they are all Taliban."
According to the Senlis Council, an international think tank, the Taliban have a permanent presence in 54 per cent of Afghanistan. In a report entitled Stumbling Into Chaos, published last November, Senlis also warned that insurgents could soon capture Kabul. These findings were dismissed by the Ministry of Defence in the UK and, despite growing concerns among the international community regarding the security situation, a state of denial remains.
Talks about troop numbers and restrictions on deployment will inevitably dominate Nato's Bucharest summit, but the arguments will seem surreal from inside Afghanistan. When I first came to live in Kabul, almost three years ago, I could travel by car to Kandahar with the odds just about stacked in favour of survival. Today, Afghans are scared to take that route, fearing the police, criminals and the Taliban. I cannot safely walk more than 500 metres from my front door.
Violence is also rising in the north, where warlords are tightening their grip on power. All the main land routes into Kabul are expected to be targeted this year, with the same kind of tactics used against Soviet occupation being adopted once again.
Many people hate the Taliban, but that does not mean they like Britain, the US, Nato or the Karzai government. In the words of a former Northern Alliance commander, a one-time ally of the US: "Now when any foreigner is killed every Afghan says, 'Praise be to God.'"
Chris Sands is a British freelance journalist based in Kabul