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Afghanistan Revisited 

The Weekly’s Ben Ehrenreich reports from Kabul

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I ask him whether continuing U.S. cooperation with local militias loyal to commanders at odds with the central government doesn’t hurt the reconstruction effort. “Not my area,” he says. Lefforge dismisses neo-Taliban offensives as “an act of desperation . . . They’re like cockroaches. You turn the light on and cockroaches scatter. But we’re taking them out one by one. We’re patient.”

In the weeks after Lefforge and I speak, more than 300 people will be killed in fighting around Afghanistan. Police stations will be attacked by anti-government forces both in central Logar province (a few hours from Kabul and quite far from the Pakistani border) and in Paktika in the southeast — the latter by an organized group of 400 pro-Taliban fighters. In a single day, more than 60 people will be killed in separate incidents around the country — some by a car bomb, some by a bomb in a bus, some in factional fighting between regional militias, others in a skirmish between the Taliban and the Afghan army. Later, a full-scale battle involving repeated U.S. air assaults on as many as 1,000 insurgents will rage for over a week in the southeastern province of Zabul.

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.

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POWER

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 PALACE

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.”

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