Articles

Jun 11, 2007

Afghan Spring

A JOURNEY AMONG SUICIDE BOMBERS, FEMINIST GOVERNORS, AND ACRES AND ACRES OF POPPIES.

Afghan Spring

by Peter Bergen
Post date: 06.06.07
Issue date: 06.18.07

This January, somewhere in Logar Province, 40 miles south of Kabul, a 20-year-old goat herder named Imdadullah strapped on a bulky black waistcoat lined with packages of TNT. The packages were wrapped with newspaper printed in Urdu–the lingua franca of Pakistan–and tied together with a cord that led to a switch attached to a battery capable of detonating the explosives. Glued to the newspapers were nails and ball bearings.

Imdadullah was in Afghanistan at the time, but he is originally from a Pakistani town called Bannu in the North West Frontier Province, where he had trained for his mission. In that sense, he was typical of suicide bombers in Afghanistan, most of whom, according to a senior U.S. military intelligence official, are Pashtuns from Pakistan. He had been given his explosives-laden vest by a Pakistani Taliban commander named Akthar Mohammed, but, unlike some suicide bombers, he was not given tranquilizers before setting off on his assignment: to blow up a convoy of Western soldiers and thereby earn his ticket to paradise.

But, as Imdadullah approached the convoy, fiddling with his detonator switch, he was spotted by an eagle-eyed Afghan policeman. Whether because of faulty wiring or because he simply lost his nerve, Imdadullah’s bomb never went off, and, instead of paradise, he ended up in jail. Three months later, he sat across from me in an interrogation room at a dingy Kabul prison, wrapped in a dark cloak to ward off the building’s chill. A cataract had occluded one of his eyes, turning it from brown to a milky color. He told me he was not being mistreated by Afghanistan’s National Security Directorate–which had arranged the interview–and was speaking of his own free will.

It’s not often that you get to chat with a failed suicide bomber, which is perhaps as good a definition of failure as any other, and I was curious to find out what Imdadullah had hoped to achieve. “I regret that Almighty Allah did not allow me to sacrifice myself. I wanted to attack the British and foreigners and Americans,” he told me, expressing confidence that “Almighty God would have given me paradise” and that, as a martyr, he would have been granted 72 virgins. This didn’t seem quite the moment to point out that there is a lively, ongoing debate among scholars of Islam as to whether the 72 promised virgins might, in fact, only be 72 raisins. Instead, I pressed him on the question of who, exactly, he was hoping to kill. “By your standards, I’m an infidel,” I said. “Do you want to kill me?” Smiling slightly, he replied, “Why should I kill you? I kill those who bother Muslims.”

Of course, had Imdadullah’s bomb gone off, he almost certainly would have killed many more Muslims than those who supposedly bother them. According to a Human Rights Watch report released in April, eight of every ten victims of suicide attacks in Afghanistan last year were civilians. In September, I saw how this plays out at the scene of a bombing a few hundred yards from the American Embassy in Kabul. A suicide bomber in a car–what the U.S. military portentously refers to as a vbied, a vehicle borne improvised explosive device–had veered into a U.S. convoy, killing two soldiers. But also killed in the blast were at least a dozen Afghan bystanders. Body parts were scattered blocks from the scene of the attack.

There have been dozens of similar suicide attacks in Afghanistan this year, and there will likely be more. A U.S. military official in Afghanistan told me that some suicide bombers’ families are paid as much as $500, a good sum of money in a part of the world where many laborers only make a couple of dollars per day. Meanwhile, in Pakistan, the imam of the Red Mosque–located in the heart of Islamabad, just a five-minute drive from Pakistan’s parliament–says that, in recent years, hundreds of worshippers have inquired as to whether suicide operations are allowed. His answer is yes–as long as they are directed against occupying forces in Iraq or Afghanistan.

As for Imdadullah, at the end of our interview, I asked him whether he still hoped to be a martyr once he got out of jail. “Of course,” he replied, in a tone that suggested I had just asked a stupid question.

 

Iwent to Afghanistan in April because Taliban commanders had spent the winter promising a massive spring offensive against nato forces–the threat that jihadis like Imdadullah, and presumably more lethal, would fan out across the country to wreak havoc. It would, I assumed, be a pivotal month for the country, and therefore a good time to assess just how well the Western project to remake Afghanistan was faring.

I first visited Afghanistan in the summer of 1993 during the middle of a nasty civil war. The decrepit Russian transport plane on which I was traveling blew out a tire as it landed in Kabul, and the airfield was scattered with the carcasses of planes that had either crashed or been shot down. Kabul was then being torn apart by a bewildering variety of Afghan militias, which often employed child soldiers and were killing tens of thousands of civilians every year. The prime minister, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, was perhaps the only leader in world history to shell his own capital on a daily basis. Every evening, I’d watch the shells arc over the city as the sun went down–quite a beautiful sight if you weren’t on the receiving end.

My arrival in Kabul this April–on Ariana, the Afghan national airline–was, by comparison, uneventful. To be sure, Ariana won’t be winning Conde Nast Traveller awards any time soon. On a recent flight, in a charmingly retro gesture, members of the cabin staff were smoking. Ariana is also reported to be broke, and the in-flight magazine contained a blistering screed from the airline’s director aimed at the previous director and his supposedly idiotic business practices. Still, the plane was packed with Afghan workers based in Dubai, and minesweepers are no longer needed on the Kabul airfield. Small signs of progress, perhaps, but progress nonetheless.

Every war has its hotel. For the civil war in Beirut during the 1980s, it is the Commodore. For the Iraq war, it is the Hamra with its swimming pool. For the war in Afghanistan, it is the Gandamack. (Gandamack is a village in eastern Afghanistan where British soldiers were massacred during the disastrous First Afghan War of 1842.) The Gandamack is owned by an old friend of mine, the British combat cameraman Peter Jouvenal. A collection of antique rifles for sale lines the entrance hall, and an English breakfast (with real bacon!) is always available. Tea is served on the veranda overlooking a garden tended by a hunched Afghan gardener, while flak jackets and helmets for rent are strewn on an upper floor. During my stay, Jouvenal organized a celebration of the Queen’s birthday that involved roasting a sheep on a spit; earlier in the day, the sheep had been contentedly nibbling grass on the lawn. Dozens of guests ate dinner at a long table decorated with British flags and ceremonial sabers.

A journalist who lived at the Gandamack for nine months captured its vibe well when she described it as Full Metal Jacket meets “Fawlty Towers.” Most nights at the Hare and Hound–the Gandamack bar that wouldn’t look out of place in Sussex–you can meet aid workers speaking English with Nordic accents; security contractors with bulging biceps; film directors making their next big movie in Afghanistan; cameramen fresh from Iraq; and a fair number of people who aren’t too explicit about what they are doing–but it must be really important, as they have to be quite mysterioso about it. One night, I met a representative of the p.r. firm Hill & Knowlton, which advises senior officials at the powerful Ministry of the Interior. He said he had spent a grand total of ten days in Afghanistan. Previously he had been working on “democracy promotion” in Egypt (akin, perhaps, to promoting trickle-down economics to the Khmer Rouge). One major success of the war on terrorism: It has been a full employment program for all manner of Beltway consultants.

 

Outside the confines of the Gandamack, all is not well. The day I arrived in Kabul, a suicide bomber detonated his bomb near the Afghan parliament, killing himself and two bystanders. It was the third suicide attack in Kabul in as many weeks. In 2006, suicide attacks in Afghanistan quintupled to 139; IED attacks doubled; attacks on international forces tripled; 700 Afghan civilians died at the hands of the insurgents; U.S. and nato military deaths were at their highest levels since the Taliban was ousted; and Western forces continued to mistakenly kill local civilians. In late April, for instance, some 50 civilians, including women and children, died during a U.S. Special Forces operation in the western province of Herat, a case that enraged the usually mild-mannered Afghan president, Hamid Karzai. That same month, the Taliban beheaded Afghan journalist Ajmal Naqshbandi, while the country’s attorney general ordered his goons to detain reporters at a leading private TV network because he claimed he was quoted out of context. The most important road in the country, which links Kabul to Kandahar, is now a suicidal drive for any foreigner without an escort of well-armed security guards.

All of which is quite apart from the other, more mundane, problems that bedevil the country–such as electricity only being available in Kabul for four to six hours a day, if you are one of the lucky few with access to electricity at all. Kabul is also reputed to have the highest rate of airborne fecal material in the world. The place is literally running with shit.

A visit to the home of one of Kabul’s ubiquitous street kids underlines the grinding poverty that is the lot of the vast majority of Afghans. Muzhgan, a slight, shy eleven-year-old girl, begs on the street and collects scraps of paper and cardboard for cooking fuel, while her 14-year-old sister, Hamida, works in a textile factory. Their father, Abdullah, is a day laborer who is unemployed throughout the long winter months when building construction stops. Luckily, Muzhgan attends the Aschiana school, which provides her with a hot lunch and some schooling–as it does for about 6,000 other youngsters in the Kabul area who would otherwise go hungry and uneducated. Together with her sister, Muzhgan brings in ten dollars a week, which is barely enough to cover the rent on the one-room home they share with six other family members in a burgeoning Kabul slum. Theirs is the lot of millions of Kabul residents.

 

And yet, strangely, despite all the problems facing their country, Afghans remain decisively upbeat about both their government and the presence of international forces. According to a countrywide poll conducted by ABC News and the BBC late last year, President Karzai enjoys an approval rating of 68 percent, while 88 percent say they are happy the United States invaded, 74 percent hold a favorable opinion of America, and 80 percent say they want foreign troops to remain.

No group has more reason for optimism than the Hazaras, an ethnic minority whose distinctive Asiatic features and Shiism set them apart from the predominantly Sunni Pashtun and Tajik populations. Fleeing government-led pogroms in the late nineteenth century, they moved deep into the impenetrable mountains of central northern Afghanistan, known as the Hazarajat.

To get there, I took a U.N. helicopter over mountains more than 10,000 feet high, their passes clogged with snow. Eventually, we descended into a valley where sandstone cliffs rimmed green fields and a lively market town. This was the region’s capital, Bamiyan–best known to Westerners as the former home of the enormous stone Buddhas that the Taliban reduced to fragments in March 2001. Those fragments are now stored in rudimentary shelters near the twin niches that once housed the giant statues. A decision is still pending as to how–or whether–the Buddhas can be put back together.

Security in Bamiyan is handled by a small contingent of soldiers from New Zealand who drive around town in SUVs, a striking contrast to the armored Humvees that American soldiers must take on excursions out of their forward operating bases in the eastern reaches of the country. Kids wave at the Kiwis as they drive by, while merchants, who fled to the mountains when the Taliban were running the show, now do a brisk business.

Presiding over this Afghan success story is Habiba Sarabi–the country’s only female governor, and my guide to Bamiyan. Under an intense sun, I watched her officiate at a graduation ceremony for police cadets, which, quite unusually, included ten women in headscarves and neatly pressed blue uniforms. Performing a vaguely Eastern European goose step, the cadets marched smartly up to the podium to be inducted into the Afghan National Police.

Sarabi is an irrepressible woman, smiling constantly from behind a pair of glasses and a veil draped over a dark jacket, which she wore with a matching skirt. A pharmacist by training, she speaks with the English she learned while working for an NGO in Pakistan, where she fled the Taliban with her three children. From there, she helped organize underground schools in Kabul and other Afghan cities that continued to operate under the Taliban. Following the U.S. invasion, she was named minister for women’s affairs. Sarabi says the biggest achievement of her tenure was to help enshrine equal rights for women in the constitution and secure a quarter of the seats in parliament for females. She adds that around 40 percent of girls in Afghanistan are now in school.

Sarabi’s Hazara minority has also seen dramatic changes in the past several years. She terms it a “golden age” for her people, citing the low level of violence in her province and the numerous government projects that are underway there. “Sometimes,” she tells me as she jumps into an SUV guarded by a single armed officer, “I think I am a very good target for Taliban.”

Bamiyan is not the only place in Afghanistan where you can feel some optimism about the future. A trip to Faryab Province on Afghanistan’s northern border with Turkmenistan shows how, hundreds of miles from the restive Pashtun regions to the south and east, Afghan life has achieved a measure of normality. I traveled there with General Mohammed Daud, deputy minister of the interior and an affable protege of legendary Afghan commander Ahmad Shad Massoud. Daud runs his country’s poppy eradication efforts, an enormously sensitive issue for Afghans. After all, poppy is, in many regions, the backbone of the local economy, employing around two million people and generating at least a third of Afghanistan’s GDP. Nationwide, poppy cultivation grew by more than 50 percent last year.

In Maymana, the provincial capital of Faryab, I watched as Daud–a dapper dresser in an off-white safari jacket and slacks into which he had tucked a pistol–addressed an outdoor jirga of 300 tribal leaders, resplendent in their gray and white turbans and surrounded by fluttering black, green, and red Afghan flags. Daud explained to them that the government was considering sending its forces to Faryab to help with eradication. Daud was followed by Doug Wankel, the American Embassy’s point person on drugs in Afghanistan. Wankel echoed the oft-quoted words of President Karzai: “Either Afghanistan destroys poppy, or drugs will destroy Afghanistan.” The speeches were met with applause.

This contrasts strongly with the riots and deaths that have followed eradication efforts in other parts of the country. In the south, poppy eradication is a particularly hard sell. Together with Daud, I traveled to Uruzgan, an isolated, poverty-stricken province that retains a strong Taliban presence. Tarin Kot, the dusty provincial capital, is a one-horse town largely devoid of women. Its central market is peopled by Pashtun tribesmen wearing the black turbans favored by the Taliban. Before he became president, Karzai narrowly escaped being killed in Tarin Kot when he was surrounded by Taliban fighters. Over the past couple of months, things had been relatively quiet in Tarin Kot because poppy-harvesting season meant that everyone was busy working the fields.

Daud met with Uruzgan’s deputy governor and a couple of Dutch army officers who run the local provincial reconstruction team to discuss how and where eradication efforts might proceed. During a break in the meeting, I stepped onto a balcony in the governor’s mansion and was greeted by an astonishing sight: a sea of lush poppy fields stretching from the walls of the mansion to a row of mountains several miles away. Streams that were swollen by the heavy winter snowfall, ending years of drought, will no doubt produce another bumper crop here; and, already, the distinctive red flowers of mature poppy plants could be seen in some of the fields. An Afghan counternarcotics official joined me on the balcony. “Uruzgan is a very beautiful place,” he said. Smiling, he added, “And a very dangerous place.”

The next morning, we drove to a desert flatland area several miles outside town. There, we met up with what looked like a traveling circus, albeit a heavily armed one. Two hundred policemen trucked in from Kabul had set up large green tents to house themselves during the two-week eradication program that was planned for the province. The policemen were members of the Afghan Eradication Force, which travels around the country destroying poppy fields the locals don’t have the will or ability to get rid of on their own.

Large trucks disgorged some 20 ATVs–powerful, four-wheel-drive mini-tractors with sizeable tires. To the backs of the vehicles, workmen affixed long metal bars that would be dragged over the poppy stalks to break them down. The ATVs were brought in because Afghan peasants will sometimes flood their fields to prevent ordinary tractors from doing the eradication. The entire operation, nominally an Afghan one, was being directed by employees of DynCorp, a large U.S. contractor. Most wore the unofficial uniform of the American contractor in Afghanistan: Oakley shades, goatee or beard, baseball cap, t-shirt, tan pants, work boots.

The first day of eradication was a bust because the eradication team drove to some poppy fields that lay outside the area local leaders had agreed to destroy. Daud left the following day for Kabul, but, two days later, Taliban fighters, some disguised in burkas, sprang a series of ambushes on the eradication force, pinning them down in an intense firefight, resulting in four wounded Afghan policemen. When I heard the news, I couldn’t help thinking that if you deployed American cops to wipe out the crops and livelihoods of farmers in, say, Iowa, they might also find themselves on the receiving end of some shotgun fire.

The Taliban exploits such situations masterfully. Abdul Haq Hanif, a spokesman for the Taliban before he was arrested in February, acknowledged the linkage between his organization and the drug trade when he conceded to me what pretty much every Afghan and American official in Afghanistan has been saying for years: that the Taliban is, in part, a narcoterrorist organization, much like the farc in Colombia. It’s no surprise, then, that where poppy is grown, support for the Taliban runs high. In a poll conducted in March by the Senlis Council, an independent research organization, 27 percent of those interviewed in Kandahar and Helmand provinces–where much of Afghanistan’s poppy is grown–said they supported the Taliban, a number that is five times higher than in the rest of the country. And, thanks in part to drug money, the Taliban’s coffers are flush: According to U.N. officials who track Taliban finances, Taliban fighters are now being paid $300 a month, four times the wage of the average Afghan police officer.

 

Poppy aside, one of the Taliban’s biggest advantages in Afghanistan today is probably Pakistan. Hanif, the former Taliban spokesman, confirms to me that the group’s leadership has settled across the border. A lanky, bearded 26-year-old whose family is from Naranghar Province in eastern Afghanistan, he studied at a Pakistani madrassa in Sadda, near the Afghan border, then was recruited by the Taliban while working as a journalist. “I was dealing with provincial Taliban leaders,” he explained. “They were calling from Pakistan.”

A similar point was made to me by a U.S. military official in Afghanistan with access to intelligence information. “Mullah Omar is still in Quetta,” he said, referring to a city in southwestern Pakistan. “We know exactly where he is. He never comes into Afghanistan. We even know the compound he goes back and forth to.” He described Pakistani cooperation in fighting the Taliban as “schizophrenic,” pointing to the case of Mullah Osmani–a Taliban commander killed by a U.S. air strike inside Afghanistan last December–as an example of what Pakistan can do when it wants to help. “We would not have got him without Pakistani information,” he said. On the other hand, a Western official based in Pakistan told me that detailed intelligence–known as “target folders”–on the locations of high-value Taliban and Al Qaeda officials provided by the U.S. government to Pakistan during the past six months has not been acted on. Whether the Pakistanis lack the capacity to arrest these targets or merely the will is an open question–though the impending fall election in Pakistan could very well be part of the explanation.

Further complicating matters, the Taliban has shifted military tactics in the past few months. When I embedded last summer with the 2-4 Infantry in Zabul, a remote province in southern Afghanistan, the U.S. commander there, Lieutenant Colonel Frank Sturek, described a recent two-hour battle against more than 100 Taliban fighters armed with machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades, mortars, and recoilless rifles. At the time, judging from newly dug graves, Sturek estimated that 35 to 40 Taliban had been killed during the firefight. Now Taliban leaders have largely abandoned those kinds of mass battle formations, deeming them too costly. Instead, they are resorting to the tactics that have worked so well for insurgents in Iraq–suicide operations and IED attacks–and moving their men only in small groups.

This, in turn, raises a key question: Are militants in Afghanistan merely copycatting the insurgents in Iraq, or are they getting on-the-job training there? Art Keller, a retired CIA officer who ran a covert intelligence network last year in the tribal areas along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan, believes it’s the latter. “People are going there to learn the tactics and then come back,” he tells me. Hamid Mir, a Pakistani journalist who is writing Osama bin Laden’s biography, relates the story of “a Taliban commander … who told me that he was trained in Iraq, and subsequently he set up his own training camp in Zabul.”

Equally disturbing is evidence of close cooperation between Al Qaeda and the Taliban. In December, months before he was killed, Mullah Dadullah, a leading Taliban commander, outlined Al Qaeda’s close relationship with the Taliban to CBS News. “Osama bin Laden, thank God, is alive and in good health. We are in contact with his top aides and sharing plans and operations with each other.” In a subsequent interview with Al Jazeera, Dadullah said that bin Laden supervised the suicide operation targeting Vice President Dick Cheney at Bagram Air Force base during his visit to Afghanistan in February, an attack that killed more than a dozen people, including an American soldier. The U.S. military dismisses that claim but admits that another Al Qaeda leader, Abu Laith Al Libi, was behind the operation. The American military official estimates that some 600 foreign militants tied to Al Qaeda are currently in Afghanistan–mostly Uzbeks, as well as some North Africans and Saudis. As for bin Laden himself, “The trail is ice cold. No intelligence on that in years.”

 

As it turns out, the spring offensive that I came here hoping to observe never happened. Part of the explanation lies in the Taliban’s tactical shift to an Iraq-style insurgency where conventional military operations are avoided. And, perhaps, with poppy-harvesting season in full swing, too many Taliban fighters were preoccupied with agricultural pursuits.

But some of the credit also goes to nato, which, in March, launched a preemptive attack against the Taliban in southern Afghanistan. That month, 4,500 nato soldiers moved around the Kanjaki dam in Helmand Province, an area the Taliban had controlled until last summer. The aim was to secure the surrounding region so that reconstruction could begin on the dam, which will eventually provide electricity to almost two million households in Kandahar and Helmand.

The Kanjaki operation reflects an admirable, and long overdue, push to secure swaths of the country that previously had been rife with violence. The Bush administration is now asking for more than $11 billion in aid over the next two years, much of it for the Afghan army and police. As Hobbes recognized four centuries ago, it is security that is the most important public good; and, as a senior Afghan diplomat pointed out to me, an effective police force will prove far more useful here in the short term than more computer schools.

Of course, if Afghanistan is to stabilize, it will take more than increased funding for police work. Pakistan must finally rein in its backward tribal belt, where Al Qaeda and the Taliban have long been regrouping–and which is now a staging ground for suicide attacks from London to Lahore. And the Afghan government will need to find a way to address crushing unemployment, which currently stands at 40 percent. Perhaps a public employment program dedicated to rebuilding the country’s devastated infrastructure–and paid for by the United States–might do the trick. It would, at the very least, be a far more productive use of U.S. money than poppy eradication.

When Afghanistan makes the news in the States, it is usually for grim reasons. As a result, one thing the press rarely captures is how lovely a place Afghanistan can be. Kabul sits 7,000 feet above sea level and is surrounded by snow-tipped mountains. In spring, the sun warms soft winds during the day, and, at night, a pleasant chill descends with dusk and the muezzin’s call to prayer. Afghans, when they aren’t killing one another, are some of the most charming people in the world. Once in a while, it is even possible to catch a glimpse of why–in the 1970s, before the Soviets invaded–Kabul was a major pit stop on the hippie trail to India and something of a tourist destination in its own right. Someday, perhaps, the tourists will return. If Imdadullah and his comrades don’t blow up the country first.
Peter Bergen is a Schwartz senior fellow at the New American Foundation and the author of The Osama bin Laden I Know.

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