Afghan AutopsyNov 29, 2006
Editor's note: America began its so-called war on terror with the intention of driving the Taliban from power in Afghanistan. Five years later, the Taliban is back, Osama bin Laden is still alive, and insurgent fighters cite the U.S. presence in the country as their main wellspring of rage. How did it come to this?
Truthdig contributor Christian Parenti, just back from Afghanistan, reports.
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."