Women in Afghanistan
by Christian Parenti
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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.