Photo by Wally Santana/AP
Last week I met with a U.S. Agency for International Development official in a stifling guardhouse behind the armored gates of the American embassy compound in Kabul. Just getting there is a frightening process: Over the last year anxious American soldiers have twice opened fire on cars approaching the embassy, killing several recently trained Afghan National Army (ANA) recruits. If a taxi even slows down across the street, panicked yelling erupts from within the gates. As I was let into the embassy, three American GIs, M-16s cocked and ready, jogged out to chase off a line of cars parked 100 yards away. It was late afternoon, and fairly cool, but the USAID official was sweating heavily. Tires screeched somewhere outside.
“Was that an explosion?” he asked. I told him I didn’t think it was. He shook his head in relief. “We’re very nervous here.”
It was an unusual admission for an American official. Afghanistan has largely dropped out of the peripheral vision of the American media — displaced by Iraq, Liberia, Arnold — but when the military or the State Department is asked about the country, there’s rarely a crack in their optimism. Well behind the fortifications surrounding the U.S. base at Bagram, an Air Force colonel I spoke with characterized the increasingly common and increasingly bold attacks on coalition and Afghan army soldiers in the southeast of the country as mere “acts of desperation.” The people of Afghanistan, he said, now “believe that they have control over their own destiny.” Not many Afghans would agree.
For though it made international headlines, few inside Afghanistan were surprised by last week’s violence, which took more than 60 lives in one 24-hour period. A bomb blew up on a bus in the southwestern province of Helmand, killing 15 people, six of them children. (Authorities speculate that the bomb was en route to the provincial capital, to be detonated during Afghan independence celebrations on August 19, and that the explosion was accidental.) In the center of the country another 25 were killed in factional fighting between rival military commanders in Uruzgan, and at least 20 died in a firefight between the Afghan National Army and pro-Taliban insurgents near the Pakistani border in Khost. Two students died in Kabul when the car bomb they were evidently preparing prematurely exploded. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees suspended its operations in eastern Kunar province after a rocket was fired at their office in the provincial capital Asadabad. The rocket missed. The next day, two aid workers were killed and three more wounded when assailants on motorcycles attacked an Afghan Green Crescent convoy traveling in southeastern Ghazni province. Over the weekend at least another 25 people were killed in two separate Taliban assaults on police stations in the Paktika province, and two Afghan aid workers were wounded in an attack not far from the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif.
So much bloodshed in a single day was unusual, but none of the incidents was in itself out of the ordinary. Every day brings new accounts of violence somewhere in the country. Almost two years after its founding, the Afghan national government is only negligibly present in most of the nation, if at all. As Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N.’s special representative to Afghanistan, tactfully put it to the Security Council last Wednesday, “Large gaps continue to exist in the architecture of the state.” In other words there is no electricity, running water, telephone service or medical care anywhere but in the largest cities, few government officials, and certainly nothing that resembles that ethereal state that international relations wonks like to call “the rule of law.” In all but a few places outside Kabul (and to some extent, even there) political authority is a simple question of who is holding the gun.
Though President Hamid Karzai has recently made a fair amount of progress at reining them in, much of Afghanistan is still ruled by powerful warlords or smaller regional commanders. The new line from the American military (the U.S. still has 11,000 troops in Afghanistan) is that coalition forces are working hard at nation building, constructing schools and digging wells to win hearts and minds while simultaneously reinforcing the central government’s authority in the provinces. But they spend most of their time hunting for remnants of al Qaeda and the Taliban, and still work with local militias to that end, giving to Karzai’s government with one hand as they take away with the other.
Relative calm exists only in the capital, which is still the sole place in Afghanistan patrolled by the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), handed over to NATO control last week. Repeated requests by the Afghan government and various international organizations for the expansion of ISAF to other parts of the country — such as the one Brahimi made last week in New York — have been for the most part ignored by the U.S. and the European community.
The killing continues on an almost daily basis, especially in the south and southeast, where U.S. Special Forces and ANA troops have regular run-ins with neo-Taliban militias. About one U.S. soldier has been killed in action in Afghanistan every month since the beginning of this year, and the newly created ANA (now about 5,000 strong) has seen much higher casualty rates. With those troops stretched thin, remote sections of the southeast have reportedly returned to Taliban control. Assaults on aid workers have become more common and increasingly bloody. Former Taliban leader Mullah Omar released a communiqué last week calling “all Western aid groups” the “greatest enemies of Islam and humanity.” Several NGOs have been forced to suspend their operations in the southeast. The U.N. has ceased reconstruction work in much of the south, and requires its staff to travel there only in convoys with armed escorts. Though none miss working with the repressive and aggressively paranoid Taliban government, many NGO workers admit that in some respects, at least, their work was easier before the Taliban’s fall. “You could travel anywhere in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan without fear,” says Paul Barker of CARE International. Some Afghans, particularly ethnic Pashtuns from the country’s south, are unambiguously nostalgic.
Even in Kabul, an island of relative peace, Afghans suffer from frequent abuses at the hands of civil authorities. If the presence of ISAF troops is almost universally found reassuring, the effect is largely psychological — the peacekeeping soldiers rarely leave their armored vehicles. The streets are almost entirely empty at night — even of car traffic — because people are afraid to leave their homes, and are as frightened of the police as they are of criminals out of uniform. Despite recent attempts to create a more ethnically representative national police force, most police officers are still former Northern Alliance soldiers, ethnic Tajiks from areas north of the capital, and are roundly resented by locals who suffered at the hands of repeated Northern Alliance bombardments and occupations during the country’s long civil war. Almost every Kabuli you meet can tell at least one story about someone close to them having their home robbed by armed men in police uniforms (often on the pretext of “searching for al Qaeda”), or being arrested on trumped-up charges to solicit expensive bribes. Much of this, of course, goes officially unreported. “There is no law,” says Sima Samar, head of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission. “That is the problem.”
If only through its actions, the American government is implicitly admitting its fears and its failures. The U.S. is soon expected to announce the replacement of outgoing Ambassador to Afghanistan Robert Finn with Zalmay Khalilzad, a former aide to Donald Rumsfeld; to appoint American advisers with largely military backgrounds to Afghan government ministries; and to siphon an extra billion dollars into Afghanistan from the Iraqi war budget. The aid is more than welcome, but few people here are expecting many miracles.