The Surge That Failed
Afghanistan under the Bombs
A bit past midnight on a balmy night in late August, Hedayatullah awoke to a deafening blast. He stumbled out of bed and heard angry voices drawing closer. Suddenly, his bedroom doors banged open and dozens of silhouetted figures burst in, some shouting in a strange language.
The intruders blindfolded Hedayatullah and, screaming with fury, forced him to the ground. An Afghan voice told him not to move or speak, or he would be killed. He listened for sounds from the next room, where his brother Noorullah slept with his family. He could hear his nephew, eight months old, crying hysterically. Then came the sound of an automatic rifle, after which his nephew fell silent.
The rest of the family — 18 people in all, including aunts, uncles, and cousins — was herded outside into the darkness. The Afghan voice explained to Hedayatullah’s terrified mother, “We are the Afghan National Army, here to accompany the American military. The Americans have killed one of your sons and his two children. They also shot his wife and they’re taking her to the hospital.”
“Why?” Hedayatullah’s mother stammered.
“There is no why,” the soldier replied. When she heard this, she started screaming, slamming her fists into her chest in anguish. The Afghan soldiers left her and loaded Hedayatullah and his cousin into the back of a military van, after which they drove off with an American convoy into the black of night.
The next day, the Afghan forces released Hedayatullah and his cousin, calling the whole raid a mistake. However, Noorullah’s wife, months pregnant, never came home: She died on the way to the hospital.
Surging in Afghanistan
When, decades from now, historians compile the record of this Afghan war, they will date the Afghan version of the surge — the now trendy injection of large numbers of troops to resuscitate a flagging war effort — to sometime in early 2007. Then, a growing insurgency was causing visible problems for U.S. and NATO forces in certain pockets in the southern parts of the country, long a Taliban stronghold. In response, military planners dramatically beefed up the international presence, raising the number of troops over the following 18 months by 20,000, a 45% jump.
During this period, however, the violence also jumped — by 50%. This shouldn’t be surprising. More troops meant more targets for Taliban fighters and suicide bombers. In response, the international forces retaliated with massive aerial bombing campaigns and large-scale house raids. The number of civilians killed in the process skyrocketed. In the fifteen months of this surge, more civilians have been killed than in the previous four years combined.
During the same period, the country descended into a state of utter dereliction — no jobs, very little reconstruction, and ever less security. In turn, the rising civilian death toll and the decaying economy proved a profitable recipe for the Taliban, who recruited significant numbers of new fighters. They also won the sympathy of Afghans who saw them as the lesser of two evils. Once confined to the deep Afghan south, today the insurgents operate openly right at the doorstep of Kabul, the capital.
This last surge, little noted by the media, failed miserably, but Washington is now planning another one, even as Afghanistan slips away. More boots on the ground, though, will do little to address the real causes of this country’s unfolding tragedy.
Revenge and the Taliban
One day, as Zubair was walking home, he noticed that the carpet factory near his house in the southern province of Ghazni was silent. That’s strange, he thought, because he could usually hear the din of spinning looms as he approached. As he rounded the corner, he saw a crowd of people, villagers and factory workers, gathered around his destroyed house. An American bomb had flattened it into a pancake of cement blocks and pulverized bricks. He ran toward the scene. It was only when he shoved his way through the crowd and up to the wreckage that he actually saw it — his mother’s severed head lying amid mangled furniture.
He didn’t scream. Instead, the sight induced a sort of catatonia; he picked up the head, cradled it in his arms, and started walking aimlessly. He carried on like this for days, until tribal elders pried the head from his hands and convinced him to deal with his loss more constructively. He decided he would get revenge by becoming a suicide bomber and inflicting a loss on some American family as painful as the one he had just suffered.
When one decides to become a suicide bomber, it is pretty easy to find the Taliban. In Zubair’s case he just asked a relative to direct him to the nearest Talib; every village in the country’s south and east has at least a few. He found them and he trained — yes, suicide bombing requires training — for some time and then he was fitted with the latest model suicide vest. One morning, he made his way, as directed, towards an office building where Americans advisors were training their Afghan counterparts, but before he could detonate his vest, a pair of sharp-eyed intelligence officers spotted him and wrestled him to the ground. Zubair now spends his days in an Afghan prison.
A poll of 42 Taliban fighters by the Canadian Globe and Mail newspaper earlier this year revealed that 12 had seen family members killed in air strikes, and six joined the insurgency after such attacks. Far more who don’t join offer their support.
Under the Bombs
In the muddied outskirts of Kabul, an impromptu neighborhood has been sprouting, full of civilians fleeing the regular Allied aerial bombardments in the Afghan countryside. Sherafadeen Sadozay, a poor farmer from the south, spoke for many there when he told me that he had once had no opinion of the United States. Then, one day, a payload from an American sortie split his house in two, eviscerating his wife and three children. Now, he says, he’d rather have the Taliban back in power than nervously eye the skies every day.
Even when the bombs don’t fall, it’s quite dangerous to be an Afghan. Journalist Jawed Ahmad was on assignment for Canadian Television in the southern city of Kandahar when American troops stopped him. In his possession, they found contact numbers to the cell phones of various Taliban fighters — something every good journalist in the country has — and threw him into prison, not to be heard from for almost a year. During interrogation, Ahmad says that American jailors kicked him, smashed his head into a table, and at one point prevented him from sleeping for nine days. They kept him standing on a snowy runway for six hours without shoes. Twice he fainted and twice the soldiers forced him to stand up again. After 11 months of detention, military authorities gave him a letter stating that he was not a threat to the U.S. and released him.
Starving in Kabul
If you’re walking his street, there isn’t a single day when you won’t see Zayainullah. For as long as he can remember, the 11 year-old has perched on the sidewalk at one of Kabul’s busiest intersections. Zayainullah has only one arm; the Taliban blew the other one away when he was a child. He uses this arm to beg for handouts, quietly in the mornings, more desperately as the day goes on. Both his parents are dead so he lives with his aunt, a widow. Given the mores of modern-day Afghanistan, she can’t work because a woman needs a man’s sanction to leave the house. So she puts young Zayainullah on the street as her sole breadwinner. If he comes home empty-handed she beats him, sometimes until he can no longer move.
He sits there, shirtless, with a heaving, rounded belly — distended from severe malnutrition — as scores of other beggars and pedestrians stream by him. No one really notices him though, because poverty has become endemic in this country.
Afghanistan is now one of the poorest countries on the planet. It takes its place among desperate, destitute nations like Burkina Faso and Somalia whenever any international organization bothers to measure. The official unemployment rate, last calculated in 2005, was 40% percent. According to recent estimates, it may today reach as high as 80% in some parts of the country.
Approximately 45% of the population is now unable to purchase enough food to guarantee bare minimum health levels, according to the Brookings Institution. This winter, Afghan officials claim that hunger may kill up to 80% of the population in some northern provinces caught in a vicious drought. Reports are emerging of parents selling their children simply to make ends meet. In one district of the southern province of Ghazni last spring things got so bad that villagers started eating grass. Locals say that after a harsh winter and almost no food, they had no choice.
Kabul itself lies in tatters. Roads have gone unpaved since 2001. Massive craters from decades of war blot the capital city. Poor Afghans live in crumbling warrens with no electricity and often without safe drinking water. Kabul, a city designed for about 800,000 people, now holds more than four million, mostly squeezed into informal settlements and squatters’ shacks.
Washington spends about $100 million a day on this war — close to $36 billion a year — but only five cents of every dollar actually goes towards aid. From this paltry sum, the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief found that “a staggering 40 percent has returned to donor countries in corporate profits and salaries.” The economy is so underdeveloped that opium production accounts for more than half of the country’s gross domestic product.
What little money does go for reconstruction is handed over to U.S. multinationals who then subcontract out to Afghan partners and cut corners every step of the way. As a result, the U.N. ranks the country as the fifth least-developed in the world — a one-position drop from 2004.
The government and coalition forces may not bring jobs to Afghanistan, but the Taliban does. The insurgents pay for fighters — in some cases, up to $200 a month, a windfall in a country where 42% of the population earns less than $14 a month. When a textile factory in Kandahar laid off 2,000 workers in September, most of them joined the Taliban. And that district in Ghazni where locals were reduced to eating grass? It is now a Taliban stronghold.
Biking in Kabul
A spate of suicide bombings and high-profile attacks in recent years have turned Kabul into a sort of garrison state, with roadblocks and checkpoints clogging many of the city’s main arteries. The traffic is, at times, unbearable, so I bought a new motorbike, an Iranian import that can adroitly weave through traffic. I was puttering along one day recently when a police commander stopped me.
“That’s a nice bike,” he said.
“Thank you,” I replied.
“Is it new?”
“I’d like to have it. Get off.”
I stared at him in disbelief, not quite grasping at first that he was deadly serious. Then I began threatening him, saying I’d call a certain influential friend if he laid a finger on the bike. That finally hit home and he stepped back, waving me on.
Journalists may have influential friends, but ordinary Afghans are usually not so lucky. Locals tend to fear the neighborhood police as much as the many criminals who prowl Kabul’s streets. The notoriously corrupt police force is just one face of a government that much of the population has come to loathe.
Police are known to rob passengers at checkpoints. Many of the country’s leading members of parliament and cabinet officials sport long, bloody records of human rights abuses. Rapists and serious criminals regularly bribe their way out of prison. Warlords and militia commanders run wild in the north, regularly raping young girls and snatching the land of villagers with impunity. Earlier this year newspapers revealed that President Hamid Karzai pardoned a pair of such militiamen accused of bayonet-raping a young woman.
What Karzai does hardly matters, though. After all, his government barely functions. Most of the country is carved up into fiefdoms run by small-time commanders. A U.S. intelligence report in the spring of 2008 estimated that the central government then controlled just 30% of the country, and many say even that is now an optimistic assessment.
Drive a few miles outside Kabul and the roads are controlled by bandits, off-duty cops, or anyone else with a gun and an eye for a quick buck. The Karzai government’s popularity has plummeted to such levels that, believe it or not, many Afghans in Kabul wax nostalgic for the days of Dr. Mohammad Najibullah, the country’s last Communist dictator. “That government was cruel and indifferent, but at least they gave us something,” an Afghan friend typically told me. The Karzai government provides almost no social services, expending all its efforts just trying to keep itself together.
Power abhors a vacuum, and so, in those areas where central government rule has crumbled, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan — the Taliban government — is rising in its place. In Wardak, a province bordering Kabul Province, the Taliban has a stable foothold, complete with a shadow government of mayors and police chiefs. In Logar, another of Kabul’s neighboring provinces, some “government-controlled” areas consist of the home of the district head, the NATO installation down the road — and nothing else.
With the rise of the Taliban in these areas comes their notorious brand of justice. Shadow courts now dispense Taliban-style draconian judgments and punishments in many districts and ever more locals are turning to them to settle disputes, either out of fear or because they are far more efficient than the corrupt government courts. The Taliban recently chopped off the ears of a schoolteacher in Zabul province for working for the government. They gunned down a popular drummer in Ghazni simply for playing music in public. Even the infamous public executions are back. The Taliban recently invited journalists to watch the execution of a pair of women on prostitution charges.
The Taliban are as uninterested in social services and human rights as the Karzai government or the international forces, but they know how to turn a world of poverty, insecurity, and death from laser-guided missiles to their advantage. This is how the Islamic Emirate spreads, like so many weeds at first, poking out of areas where the government has failed. As the central government spins towards irrelevancy, the whole south and east of Afghanistan is becoming a thicket of Taliban before our very eyes.
A War to be Lost
One night the Taliban raided a police check post near my Kabul home, killing three policemen. The following morning, when a police contingent arrived on the scene to investigate, a bomb that the rebels had cleverly hidden at the site exploded and killed two more of them. I arrived shortly afterwards to find pieces of charred flesh littering the ground and a mangled, burnt out police van sitting overturned on a pile of rubble.
The raid didn’t make much news at the time, but it was actually the deepest the insurgents had penetrated the capital since they were overthrown seven years ago. They have dispatched many individual suicide bombers into the capital and rocketed it as well from time to time, but never had they marched in as an attacking force on foot. When I told an Afghan colleague that I couldn’t believe the Taliban were coming into Kabul this way, he responded: “Coming? They’ve been here. They were just waiting for the government and the U.S. to fail.”
Failure is a notion now preoccupying the Western leadership of this war, which is why they are scrambling for yet another “surge” solution.
Of course, the Taliban won’t be capturing Kabul anytime soon; the international forces are much too powerful to topple militarily. But the Americans can’t defeat the Taliban either; the guerrillas are too deeply rooted in a country scarred by no jobs, no security, and no hope. The result is a war of attrition, with the Americans planning to pour yet more fuel on the flames by throwing in more soldiers next year.
This is a war to be won by constructing roads, creating jobs, cleaning up the government, and giving Afghans something they’ve had preciously little of in the last 30 years: hope. However, hope is fading fast here, and that’s a fact Washington can ill afford to ignore; for once the Afghans lose all hope, the Americans will have lost this war.