By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
When I talk to Lefforge in August, he tells me the total number of American soldiers killed in Afghanistan since hostilities began in October 2001 is 30. (Well over 100 soldiers in the recently formed Afghan National Army have also been killed.) Since then, that number has gone up to 35.
Most days the power goes down for at least an hour or two, but one evening it stays off for four hours, and more unusual than that, I learn why. I am lodging with an Afghan family, sitting on the patio at dusk talking with the father when the eldest son comes home. He has been stuck in traffic, he tells us, because there was an accident near the city’s power station between two pickup trucks: one truck of policemen, ostensibly loyal to President Hamid Karzai, and another filled with gunmen loyal to Marshall Muhammad Qasim Fahim, the defense minister. Men in both trucks carried Kalashnikovs. The accident quickly became a gunfight. Two men were injured, and a stray bullet took out a crucial transformer at the power station. Thus the lights went out in Kabul.
The office of Said Tayab Jawad, President Hamid Karzai’s chief of staff, is far from the smoke and bustle of downtown Kabul. The only noise is the hum of an air conditioner struggling to fight the heat of the sun pouring in through a high, semicircular wall of windows ‰ (“Semi-oval,” Jawad jokes, “not yet oval office”) that look out on the rose gardens just outside the presidential palace, idyllic except for the M-16-toting Americans in civilian clothes patrolling the palace grounds. There are inlaid marble floors, a slightly dusty chandelier, framed photos of the president, of Massoud, and of former king Zahir Shah. On the mantle sits a bronze reproduction of a Frederic Remington sculpture labeled “Bronco Buster.” From a cement post not far from here, it is hard to forget, the Taliban hung the castrated, mutilated corpse of Dr. Najibullah, Afghanistan’s president until 1992.
Jawad, a 40ish man in a tailored Western suit, spent 20 years in the U.S., most of them as a lawyer in San Francisco. His answers to my questions are polite, circuitous and strategically vague. We discuss the challenges of governing in the absence of trained officials, the difficulties of gathering tax revenue from recalcitrant warlords who govern large parts of the country, continuing difficulties with corruption — “We are not actually operating at an optimal level” — and the need for greater foreign assistance. “We underestimated the need of the Afghan people,” says Jawad, who adds that estimates have risen from an initial $5 billion to between $20 and $30 billion, “because even the capacity to estimate how much was needed was not there.” He speaks of the importance of expanding ISAF to areas beyond Kabul, and, in the most cautious of terms, the danger posed to the constitutional process by powerful fundamentalists: “In the past this has been the case with Afghanistan, where the truly pure and loving feeling of Afghans for Islam have been misdirected for political gain.”
Notwithstanding his professional if not quite believable optimism on some issues, such as defense ministry reforms aimed at wresting military control from Fahim and his followers from the northern Panjshir Valley, and the central government’s struggles with regional warlords — “It’s a different day in Afghanistan: Now guns and violence do not bring power” — Jawad’s overall message is one of thinly concealed desperation. The theme he comes back to again and again is the enormous need for “national institutions,” without which the government cannot govern. Implicitly, Jawad is admitting Karzai’s powerlessness over the country he is charged with leading.
He ends the interview with a plea, and a warning: “The legacy of the war against terrorism depends on what becomes of Afghanistan. It’s important to stabilize Afghanistan and it’s important to do it fast. The impact of a failure in Afghanistan is just too big this time. It will not be limited to Afghanistan.” This has the rehearsed and slightly tired feel of something he’s said many times before, to many American ears.
Above Mohammed Fahim Dashty’s desk hangs a huge oil painting of Ahmed Shah Massoud looking a bit like a Taxi Driver–era De Niro in a felt pakul cap. Images of the same gauntly handsome face are everywhere in Kabul: on a giant billboard towering over the hills on the northern edge of town, on the wall of the soccer stadium where the Taliban once conducted weekly executions, on fliers pasted all over the city bearing these words in English: “The Great Massoud Your Way Move Forward.” It can be hard to understand exactly which hopes the continuation of his way are meant to kindle. Massoud was not an ideologue, and not a visionary, but a warrior — the “Lion of the Panjshir” who fought first the Soviets, then rival mujahedeen, and finally the Taliban over nearly three decades without surrender or compromise.
Dashty, now the editor of Kabul Weekly, which he proudly announces is the only independent newspaper in Afghanistan, first met Massoud when still a boy. He was in the same room with him on September 9, 2001, shooting propaganda films for the Northern Alliance, when assassins masquerading as journalists detonated the explosives they had disguised as Betacam battery packs. Massoud was killed in the explosion. Dashty was severely burned. One of his light brown eyes is still cloudy. His long fingers, stained by fire, are so thin they seem to be perpetually shaking. He speaks very slowly and carefully, pausing for a good five seconds before answering any question. He has great poise, but exudes also a sense of constant distraction, of real torment stamping every thought and movement.