Women in Afghanistan

by Christian Parenti

www.truthdig.com/, 11/26/06


Something significant happened in Kabul on Sept. 8 when a Toyota station wagon packed with explosives rammed two U.S. Humvees at the gates of the American embassy, setting off a massive blast.

The Taliban claimed credit for the bombing, as if to say: We can now strike anywhere. When I interviewed eyewitnesses a few days after the blast, shreds of clothing and a shoe still hung from the branches of a nearby tree. Local shopkeepers described the suicide bomber as "very clean," "dressed in white" and "wearing eyeliner." They said he paid $100 for a cigarette just before parking in the spot from which he launched his attack against two American Humvees.

After a month traveling around Afghanistan this autumn, I was forced to a grim conclusion: This project is lost, and nothing very good will likely replace it. The reasons for the international community's failure here are several. First, there are the immediate blunders of the occupiers who, despite extensive European involvement, are led by the Americans. Next are deeper historical dynamics dating back to the U.S. role in the anti-Soviet jihad. And finally there are much older cultural, political and economic facts about Afghanistan that have long made this a wild, lawless place, impervious to conquest and even resistant to the modernizing efforts of its urban middle classes.

The stated goal of this latest occupation has been to create a functioning state where none had existed. Thus, if Afghan institutions fail, so too does the West's project there.

"You can't have development without security," says the waxy NATO spokesman in Kabul, Mark Laity. "And security without development won't last." Alas, neither obtains in Afghanistan. __The West, led by the U.S., militarily overmatches its adversaries. But in Afghanistan, that is not the issue. As Bernard Fall said of Vietnam, a war can be militarily unlosable yet politically unwinnable.

Consider again the contours of this crisis: Half of Afghanistan is under effective insurgent control; scores of international troops have been killed this year. Between January and Oct. 8 of this year, there were 78 suicide bombings, killing nearly 200 people. Last year saw only 17 suicide attacks. In the last six months, several previously stable provinces have slipped into chaos. A few dissident British soldiers have accused NATO and U.S. forces of bombing and strafing villages. Despite, or more likely because of this firepower, the situation in key southern provinces like Helmand and Kandahar has deteriorated badly. The British were recently forced to negotiate a withdrawal from one of their southern bases in Masa Qala, essentially surrendering the area to the Taliban.

By late summer, the military crisis in southern Afghanistan was so bad that NATO's top U.S. commander, Gen. James Jones, was begging for 2,500 extra troops to join the fight in Afghanistan's deep south. Few extra soldiers were forthcoming. France was asked to move the 2,000 NATO troops under its command in Kabul south but refused, claiming they were needed in the capital.

The resurgent Taliban now control districts just outside Kabul, in Lowgar and Wardak provinces, and are even launching attacks on NATO troops in and around Kabul. In September, Mullah Dadullah, head of the Taliban forces, claimed he had 12,000 fighters, including 500 suicide bombers, and promised escalating violence next spring. Cut those numbers in half or more and the Taliban are still a formidable force. __To find out how the insurgents have crept so close to the capital, a colleague and I head south into Taliban controlled sections of Lorag. As is often the case in guerrilla warfare, the landscape appears normal: The sun shines. The crops, including patches of shaggy green cannabis, survive despite an eighth year of drought. The traffic looks nonthreatening: Toyota Corollas roll past, packed with Afghan families, the women shrouded in blue burqas. So, too, do overloaded "jingle trucks" their sides brightly painted, bumpers trimmed with skirts of dangling tin chains and black tassels in imitation of the pretty elephants that once hauled cargo in these parts. But appearances can be deceptive in Afghanistan.

To appear a bit more like locals, my traveling companion and I are dressed in traditional salwar kameez. My blond colleague, the filmmaker Ian Olds, has his head wrapped in a scarf. At paramilitary police checkpoints, he plays the role of a sleeping sick man. It all seems a bit ridiculous-how could the Taliban really operate this close to the city?

But once we reach our destination-some villages just off the main road-the tension grows palpably thicker. People in Lowgar say that the insurgents have been operating here for about a year. They began with organizers who infiltrated from Pakistan to stir up dissatisfaction and reactivate former fighters.

The guerrillas here got a major boost when the extremist and pathologically ruthless commander Gulbuddin Hekmatyar pledged the support of his Hezb-i-Islami, an old mujahedeen party, to Al Qaeda and made peace with the Taliban. A youth from Lowgar explains: "Every family has to give one man to the Taliban."

The Taliban pay their fighters more that the Afghan military, which only pays $70 a month, but the fighters have local grievances that motivate them as well. A man in Lowgar complains: "There are no jobs, no development. The government is corrupt."

To the northeast of Kabul, in Kunnar and Nuristan, one finds a different ecology of insurgents: the networks of foreign fighters of Al Qaeda. There, the radio traffic reveals Kandahari Taliban fighters overlapping with Pakistanis and Arabs. Two Afghan journalists who know this scene well describe the Al Qaeda networks along the Pakistani border east of Kabul as supplying expertise and consultative guidance to the Taliban and Hezb-i-Islami.

"When I went there, they made me take out the battery and chip from my phone. They brought in an Arab who went over the camera and then disappeared," said one of these Afghan journalists with Al Qaeda contacts. "The Arab wouldn't be interviewed. They had Pashtun from Kandahar who had been to Kashmir. They are very smart guys."

These Al Qaeda networks in the east are small and do not mount large ground offensives like their two allied forces-the southern Taliban and Hekmatyar's Hezb-i-Islami. Combat in Kunar and Nuristan is rarely as fierce as it is further south. But Al Qaeda clearly plays an important technical and media role in the overall Afghan jihad.

An intelligence contractor speculated that the Kabul bombings were more likely Al Qaeda types than country bumpkin Kandaharis. "The checkpoints of the national police are all Northern Alliance troops," he said. "And they harass all Pashtun males. The suicide cells in Kabul are probably more sophisticated types."

Not all the foreign fighters of the anti-Soviet jihad went home when it was over. Early this year, Al Qaeda deputy leader Ayman al-Zawahiri urged followers not to forget the jihad in Afghanistan in their fixation on Iraq. Some of the earliest suicide bombers were said to be Pakistani, (though now most are believed to be Afghans). So there is still a role played by foreign fighters in Afghanistan.

The home-grown Taliban who make up the bulk of the insurgency have a simple cause: They fight to remove foreign troops and impose sharia, Islamic law. When I interviewed a group of fighters in a canyon in Zabul Province in February, the presence of foreign "non-believing" troops was their main grievance. They wanted their watan or homeland under Afghan control.

They talked about U.S. torture and arrests, criticized the government as corrupt and said they wanted a "truly Islamic government." When pressed on what that was, they ducked any specific description. They claimed that they burned schools only because they opposed the mixing of boys and girls. The fighters were local southern Pashtuns. They laid out a clear critique of President Hamid Karzai and his NATO backers. But their alternative was a rather conservative and underdeveloped ideology, long on fatalism and moralism, short on specifics.

In January, Karzai, looking for a last chance to make peace, offered to negotiate with the Taliban's spiritual leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar. The Taliban rejected the offer and several months later the Taliban's top military commander, Mullah Dadullah, said that only once all Western troops had vacated Afghanistan would his movement parlay with the Karzai administration. _Despite the ample evidence of failure, many U.S. pundits still see Afghanistan as a bright spot in the war On terror. In July, Jamie Rubin wrote a New York Times op-ed piece arguing that the Democrats should turn from Iraq and invest themselves in saving Afghanistan. Peter Bergin visited Afghanistan this fall after a few years' absence and declared: "What we are seeing in Afghanistan is far from perfect, but it's better than so-so."

More, recently the Washington Post's Jim Hoaglan, invoking the Taliban's "savagely misogynistic" ways, cited the dubious number of 2 million girls in school in Afghanistan since 2000 to spin the occupation there as "a stunning accomplishment." But his idea of "winning Afghanistan" has little to do with reality on the ground.

The situation with education in Afghanistan is actually quite abysmal.

On Oct. 2, Deputy Education Minister Mohammad Sadiq Fatman said: "More than 200,000 students are shut out of schools across the country because of school closures due to fear of attacks."

When CorpWatch looked into the issue of schools constructed by the Louis Berger Group, it found shoddy work and empty buildings. Teachers in Nagahar and elsewhere complained to me of no supplies, late payment of wages, too many students and too few teachers.

The national university is a shambles. "The professors take bribes or just pass you if you are Pashtun or Tajik like them," says Hasmat, who was studying in Kabul.

"I will be a great butcher," says Habib, who has studied medicine for six years but calls his Kabul degree worthless.

A professor who is now the Afghan ambassador to Germany says that many female students are dropping out for fear of being abducted while traveling to Kabul University.

Education is only one barometer of failure.

The harsh truth is that the West, led by the U.S., has been defeated in Afghanistan. It is only a matter time - probably three to five more bloody years-before international troops are forced to leave and a new government, or several governments, or a civil war takes hold. The country could likely divide along ethnic lines: a Pashtun south and a Tajik, Hazara and Uzbek north. _Perhaps history doomed this project from the start. For 130 years or more, Kabul has been fighting a losing battle to subjugate the wild Afghan tribes. Sometimes the great powers aid Kabul, sometimes they undermine it by aiding the restive tribes.

Kabul's struggle to tame rural Afghan society began in earnest with the Iron Emir, Abdur Rahman. Victorious over the British but sustained by their grants from 1880 to 1901, Rahman momentarily broke the Pashtun tribes of the south and began to construct a civil service and modern army, starting with a ledger and less than a dozen civil servants. His son, Habibullaha, was weak and under him Kabul's power waned. Then the grandson, Amanullah, ejected the British in 1919 (and likely had his father assassinated). Once in power, Amanullah launched a reasonably effective modernization plan that emulated Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in Turkey and Reza Shah Pahlavi in Iran.

But Amanullah pushed his reforms too far, too fast: Creating girls schools provoked a backlash from the country's imams and tribal leaders. When his beautiful Syrian wife Soraoiya appeared unveiled in public, the dam broke. The Pashtun lashkars, or tribal armies, went back to war. When Amanullah fled Kabul, a Tajik brigand from the north, named Bacha-i-Saqao ("Son of a Water Carrier") took over to rule and sack the capital for nine months.

Even during the developmentalist golden era of the early Cold War, the Afghan state was weak. From the early 1950s until 1978, Soviet and U.S. aid flowed in to compete at building roads, airports, power stations and irrigation projects. The process was presided over by a strongman, Daud Khan, who served first as prime minister under the king Zahir Shah, then, after a republican coup d'etat in 1973, as president. Daud was a modernizer, but he faced small Islamic insurgencies supported by Pakistan. And though he got some infrastructure built, Daud was never capable of extending Kabul's writ deep into the countryside.

The Afghan communists of the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan took over in 1978 with dreams of jump-starting modernization and development in their deeply backward nation of mountain villages, nomads and dirt roads. Instead, they triggered immediate crisis. The communists of the PDPA favored expanding education, gender equality and land reform, but their doctrinal cleavages led to almost immediate internecine warfare within the party. In 1967, the PDPA had split into two groups-the Khalq and Parcham-but there was violent rivalry even within the Khalq faction.

The new government succeeded in alienating Afghanistan's largely autonomous tribal leaders. Scattered rebellions soon erupted. By April, 1979, whole units of the Afghan army were defecting to the rebels. As early as March 30, 1979, Robert Gates, former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, attended a meeting at which Under Secretary of Defense Walter Slocumbe asked whether there was "value in keeping the Afghan insurgency going, [and] sucking the Soviets into a Vietnamese quagmire."

As former national security advisor to President Jimmy Carter, Zbigniew Brzezinski, explained in a 1998 interview with Le Nouvel Observateur, the U.S. began aiding the tribalist and Islamic uprisings as early as July 1979. By early autumn, the Afghan army had collapsed and the USSR, fearing that Islamic rebellion in Afghanistan would quickly spread to its Central Asian republics, invaded on Dec. 24, 1979.

Soviet Special Forces, or Spetnaz, commandos killed one communist leader, Hafizullah Amin, who had earlier killed Nur Mohammed Taraki, and replaced Amin with the more agreeable Babrak Karmal. For the next eight years, the Soviet Union bled into the Hindu Kush mountains, sending in war material and fresh troops only to bring out zinc caskets and heroin-addicted vets. As the war progressed, the Red Army's tactics devolved: mines were dropped indiscriminately from planes and civilian populations bombed.

The U.S. effort in this conflict was also massive, described by Fred Halliday as "the largest covert operation in the history of the CIA."

From 1979 to 1992, America channeled a minimally estimated $3 billion to the various mujahedeen factions fighting the Russians and then the Najibullah regime. The Saudi dynasty sent an equal amount, while additional aid flowed from China, Iran, assorted Islamic charities, drug-running operations, privatized CIA funding sources (such as the collapsed Bank of Commerce and Credit International) and various Arab millionaires (such as Osama bin Laden).

Most of the arms were Soviet hand-me-downs purchased from the increasingly Western-oriented Egypt. Running the pipeline of arms, training, money, information and drugs in and out of Afghanistan was the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency. Described as a state within a state, the ISI almost doubled in size during the war and became the most religiously politicized apparatus of the Pakistani government.

Throughout the Reagan years, U.S. funding for the mujahedeen steadily increased. Facilitated by innocuously named lobbying groups like the Afghan American Educational Fund, above-board appropriations for the largely secret campaign reached $250 million annually by 1985. Much more issued from the CIA's black budget. Fully a third of U.S. monies went to the religious zealot and Pashtun Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Now this feverishly anti-American warlord has joined forces with the Taliban.

Among the many volunteers who joined the jihad was the young Osama bin Laden. Another was his now close comrade, the Egyptian surgeon-turned-terrorist, Ayman al-Zawahiri. Charged with conspiracy in the assassination of Egypt's Anwar Sadat, Zawahiri was arrested, tortured and, upon release, fled to Afghanistan. Known as "Afghan Arabs," these foreign fighters also included Pakistanis, Filipinos, Chinese, Indonesians and Malaysians.

By the time the Afghan communists were vanquished and the mujahedeen were victorious, Afghanistan was devastated. In place of a state, it had seven competing guerrillas parties. Civil war and banditry consumed the next decade and from this emerged the Taliban-a messianic, largely illiterate, vigilante force that sought to impose Muslim law and order upon Afghanistan's anarchic state of war. _For the U.S. to have succeeded after ousting the Taliban would have taken Herculean effort, single-minded dedication, enormous sums of money, a deft cultural and historical expertise, wise political balancing between rival Afghan factions and ethnic groups and a careful vetting of Afghan allies.

Instead, the American-led invasion and occupation of Afghanistan was marked by carelessness, parsimonious budgeting and a deep cultural ignorance rooted in a sense of technology-based omnipotence.

Central to the Afghan failure was the Bush administration's obsession with Iraq-the land of oil, cornerstone of Arab nationalism, strategic linchpin to a globally crucial region. In the Bush imperial scheme, Afghanistan served as a stepping-stone to Iraq and a political prop with which to sell and justify the more nebulous war on terror. As a project in and of itself, Afghanistan was always a sloppily handled sideshow.

Consider again the salient facts: Well before 9/11, the Bush team's earliest cabinet meetings touched on regime change in Iraq. Days after 9/11, then Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz suggested that the U.S. skip an invasion of Afghanistan and proceed directly to Iraq. His boss, Donald Rumsfeld, complained that there were no good targets in Afghanistan. But the Afghan invasion had to happen for U.S. foreign policy to have any credibility. As it happened, the Afghan war was an advertisement for Rumsfeld's goal of "military transformation" and his theory of light, fast warfare.

Once the Afghan occupation began, the political process was rushed. Warlords were allowed to take over the government. The loya jirga, the constitution, the presidential elections, and the parliamentary elections were all rushed processes, designed to meet U.S. political deadlines. This was the quickest way to create the short-term appearance of stability and success and thus was the quickest way to Iraq. But this process created a hopelessly dysfunctional, intensely corrupt Afghan government, and that foreordained Western failure. After all, who would stand up as the West stood down?

The international community's military spending in Afghanistan has outpaced development spending by 10 to 1. This is a core mistake in a war that is fundamentally political. Despite the disproportionate military spending, the U.S. deployed only 9,000 troops to hunt Osama bin Laden during the first two years. The ratio of support troops to combat soldiers in the U.S. military is such that a force of 9,000 translates into little more than 800 or 900 soldiers actually in the field at any one time.

On the economic front, things were even worse. The Bush administration actually forgot to request any money for Afghan reconstruction in its initial 2002 budget. The final budget did allot $300 million to development, but for a population of 28 million people with such a devastated infrastructure, that was hardly a start.

Another key mistake in forming the Afghan state was the U.S. agreement to "pay the army." Unlike Iraq-which had a real army but which Paul Bremmer foolishly fired-Afghanistan had only warlord militias. Once the U.S. agreed to maintain these armed bodies, graft ran wild: the number of alleged troops controlled by each Northern Alliance "commander" accelerated rapidly.

"Suddenly [former Defense Minister Mohammad Qasim] Fahim was claiming that he had 20,000 and then, no, it was 50,000, or 70,000, or whatever number you could come up with," said a British intelligence contractor. "That became an awful lot of $30 a month per man going into somebody's pocket. And you can be damned sure the boys with the [AK-47s] weren't getting much of it."

Ridiculous shakedown schemes like that set the tone and soon the Afghan government had 32 huge dysfunctional ministries-all-subsisting on foreign aid. In fact, these ministries are so dysfunctional that despite all the graft and theft and leakage of funds, many ministries actually have 30 percent of their funds unspent. In other words, the chaos at the ministries is so deep they can't even steal their full allotment of aid money.

But why blame the Afghans? After all, they take their cues from their overlords. The Defense Department has admitted that it cannot keep track of the billions of dollars it has spent in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Government Accountability Office concluded that the U.S. seemed to have little idea of how many contractors were in the two countries or what they were doing."

Corruption is only part of the issue-the warped political theater of the Bush administration misshaped what development did happen.

"Ambassador [Zalmay] Khalilzad screwed it up," says Mary Louise Vitelli, a U.S. consultant to the Ministry of Mines and Industry (one of the five Afghan government ministries that control power generation). "Instead of rebuilding Kabul's three hydro plants, he wanted 500 girls schools, because that looks good. So now Kabul is still without power." Also, Kabul's power stations were Soviet built, so their repair would have mostly likely meant contracting Russian firms- not something Team Bush likes to do.

True, Coca-Cola has opened a bottling plant in Kabul and the Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development has erected a largely unused five-star hotel in the capital. But in more important ways, Afghanistan's reconstruction is stalled out. The result has been joblessness, hunger and growing political rage that is now being harnessed by an array of Islamic guerrillas.

The connective tissue for all the Afghan guerrilla groups is Pakistan, its radical Islamist parties and its intelligence services. While the insurgents are fueled by internal dynamics, they also receive external stimulus from across the border. One reason Pakistan aids the Afghan insurgents is that Political Islam - a view of Islam as a revolutionary political vehicle and sharia as a solution to social problems - has considerable traction in Pakistan. In 2002, a coalition of six Islamist parties, the Mutahidda Majlis-i-Amal (MMA), became the second-largest group in Pakistan's Parliament. The Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence agency is heavy with Islamist fellow travelers who have long-standing personal and political links to the Taliban, Hezb-i-Islami and Al Qaeda. Since June, Pakistan has had a de facto truce with pro-Taliban tribal forces on the Pakistan side of the border.

A formal truce was signed on Sept. 5, which allowed Afghan insurgents to continue using Pakistan as a base. A month later, U.S. military spokesman Col. John Paradis announced that insurgent attacks had tripled in eastern Afghanistan along its border with Pakistan's North Waziristan tribal agency.

Pakistan continues to destabilize Afghanistan for several reasons: part of the issue is ethnic politics. In 1893, Afghanistan agreed to a frontier with British India called the Durand Line, after Sir Henry Mortimer Durand, who forced it upon Abdur Rahman, the so-called "Iron Emir" of Afghanistan. The Durand Line's main political impact has been to divide "Pashtunistan," leaving what is now a population of 28 million Pashtun speakers dispersed between Afghanistan and Pakistan. In Afghanistan, the Pashtuns make up 40 percent of the population and have ruled the country ever since its creation in 1749. In Pakistan, Pashtuns are a large and poor minority. The last thing Pakistan wants is for the Pashtun minority within its borders to link up with or become the tools of a strong neighboring Afghanistan ruled by Pashtuns.

The other factor in Pakistani thinking about Afghanistan is India. As long as massive India threatens Pakistan, Pakistan wants Afghanistan to remain pliable so as to provide "strategic depth" or fallback room in case of a major land war with India.

Pakistan's support for Gulbuddin Hekmatyar dates back to 1975 when the ISI supported the young radical against the nationalist government of Daud Khan. With the Communist coup in 1978 and Soviet invasion of 1979, Pakistan's support for Hekmatyar and other Afghan guerrillas increased: CIA and Saudi money was managed by the Pakistani ISI. After the mujahedeen finally took Kabul in 1992, the country went into meltdown after four years of chaos and warfare. Pakistan backed the Taliban, who managed to subdue most of Afghanistan by 1996.

With the attacks of 9/11, discussion of Pakistan-Taliban relations turned on how Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf would soon be forced to ditch his Pashtun clients so as to serve the new U.S. agenda. Such a change of course would gain the general many concessions, but it would undermine the perpetual structural agenda of keeping Afghanistan weak.

So after 9/11, Musharraf played two seemingly contradictory roles: one as America's indispensable ally, the local broker in the war on terror. The other was the traditional role of destabilizing and dominating Afghanistan.

In the face of this gathering storm, the West is getting increasingly aggressive about opium poppy eradication- trying to douse the fires of insurrection.

For several years, the U.S. occupiers had the sanity to ignore opium, but in 2003, Republican Congressman Henry Hyde sent a letter to Donald Rumsfeld, expressing his "growing concerns about Afghanistan and the impact of illicit drugs on the fight against global terrorism." The next year, Rumsfeld called the drug problem in Afghanistan "too serious to be ignored." Opium is now seen as the linchpin to the counterinsurgency: kill the poppies and you kill the rebels.

Finally, in 2005, there was some success in poppy eradication - a reported 21 percent drop in production - but that coincided with (and possibly caused) an upsurge in guerrilla activity.

This year, production bounced back to a record high of 6,100 tons of opium and U.S. officials in Kabul and Washington are pushing for more robust eradication. Some officials even want to start aerial spraying. Among them is the freelance drug warrior retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey, who told the AP: "We know exactly where these fields are. They're absolutely vulnerable to eradication. And it is immeasurably more effective to do it with an airplane." He calls the war on opium a matter of national security _"I've been telling the Pentagon, if you don't take on drug production, you're going to get run out of Afghanistan," he said.

Leveler heads- including many in the NATO forces-readily admit that nothing could be more destabilizing. Even the NATO spokesman Mark Laity, a Brit, privately disparaged U.S. domestic pressure for robust anti-drug policy in Afghanistan as a "short-sighted, moralistic policy nostrum" that he wished U.S. voters would stop supporting.

Opium cultivation and trafficking makes up more than half the Afghan economy --amounting to $3 billion annually, according to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime. Poppy cultivation employs an estimated 2.9 million people and Afghanistan now supplies 92 percent of the world's heroin.

What that means in practical terms is that many key players in the Afghan government are heavily involved in drug trafficking-including Karzai's younger brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, an influential leader of the Popalzai clan of the Kandahari Pashtun.

One motive behind stepped-up eradication has been to consolidate power in Kabul. The private intelligence firm Stratfor correctly noted that "the poppy eradication plan's main objective is to begin eliminating the smaller, more easily managed and often more reckless warlords in the area. Little-known provincial players will be the first warlords targeted by the government."

More often than not, eradication does the opposite: It becomes another chance for local officials to demand bribes from poor farmers or for local warlords to stand up successfully against Kabul. According to some farmers I have interviewed, eradication when thwarted (as it usually is) strengthens local commanders-as threatened farmers turn to the gunmen for help.

"We are facing a lot of problems. Only security has improved," say Ghulam Hazrat, a teacher and farmer in the Derazi village of the Kuma district. Farmers in Kuma are among the few who have been forced to seriously scale back their poppy cultivation. "We have no paper or books in the school. The road is bad. There is no clinic." He says there are only four teachers for 350 students in this group of villages. And the teachers have not been paid for three months.

"With no poppy, lots of people have had to leave to find work. The government promised each farmer $350 not to plant poppy. But the money was stolen. Only some farmers got $150. Maybe we will plant this year. If we don't plant, we will suffer and when people suffer, people fight."

Eradicate the opium poppy - half the economy - and Afghanistan's 28 million people could plunge back into all-out civil war, with the country eventually disintegrating into two or three pieces: the Pashtun south becoming a de facto extension of heavily Pashtun Pakistan, and the more ethnically diverse north and west around Herat being pulled into the orbits of the more developed economies of Central Asia and Iran.

One of the key elements in the poppy eradication strategy is judicial reform. To see how the courts work, I asked to see a trial. I was put off for a week. But then, after pressing hard, the provincial court in Kabul relented.

It was a murder trial. The accused stood impassively as the agreements were delivered rather haphazardly. It all seemed a bit odd. Then a death sentence was delivered and the defendant walked out of court.


It turned out the whole thing was staged for my benefit. The court faked a trial (rather sloppily) so as to keep me away from the real sham of justice as it is actually practiced in Afghanistan. "They can't show us real trials because they are so bad," says my interpreter.

The hopelessness of an American victory in Afghanistan seems to be sinking in among some politicians. Senate leader Bill Frist recently called for negotiations with the Taliban, though he was forced to later back off his statement. So, too, has British Deputy Foreign Secretary Kim Howell suggested talks with the enemy. Meanwhile, the top NATO commander on the ground, Lt. Gen. David Richards of the UK, has warned that if the international forces and Kabul government cannot improve the economic and security environment within the next six months, most Afghans in the south will likely switch to active support of the Taliban. For a career military man, that sort of warning is quite an admission.

In the meantime, NATO's growing desperation has driven it to use ever more aerial bombardment and strafing. This serves merely to lose the battle for Afghan "hearts and minds."

NATO's aggressive military operations are creating an intensified solidarity among Pashtuns, which means greater support for the Taliban. Now the fight has entered Kabul, the rising violence even lapping at the gates of the U.S. embassy compound.

Overall, the situation remains stalemated. But here is a prediction: The West will eventually tire of the expense, casualties and futility of it all. Then, after face-saving negotiations, the West will once again quit Afghanistan.

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