ON A RECENT TRIP to Afghanistan, many Afghans asked me: “What’s the American plan for us?” I said I didn’t know and I didn’t know anyone who knows. There’s remarkably little discussion of Afghanistan, and that includes among American presidential candidates, who rarely mention the subject. It is almost as if Afghanistan were an afterthought, an annoying obstacle on the way to remaking the Middle East.
And Osama bin Laden? That man, apparently untroubled by the U.S., is now well entrenched and, from all reports, growing stronger in the lawless region stretching from eastern Afghanistan over the mountains into western Pakistan and planning who knows what.
According to Ali Jalali, former interior minister under Afghan President Hamid Karzai and a possible successor to him, there was no postwar plan: the idea was to mop up fast and not worry too much about the aftermath.
But there is no end in sight to the six-year war that now has lasted longer than World War II. The resurgent Taliban are making gains, especially in the south, where British troops defeat them in battle—but then the poorly paid and trained Afghan army troops assigned to hold the territory fail to do so.
We don’t have enough troops there, says U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who should know. Combined U.S. and NATO forces add up to some 50,000, as against the Taliban’s estimated 15,000 to 20,000—not enough of an advantage to defeat an insurgency.
The lack of ground troops leads to a greater reliance on air attack, which inevitably takes civilian lives. The United Nations reports that in 2007 U.S., NATO and Afghan firepower killed more civilians, including children, than did the insurgents. President Karzai has repeatedly objected to this on the grounds of inhumanity and flawed strategy. There is no faster way to recruit insurgents who have witnessed the deaths of their loved ones.
Given this military impasse, there are increasing calls, notably by President Karzai, for negotiations with Taliban who might be agreeable to some kind of political settlement. Former Taliban leaders in Kabul have been enlisted in this effort, among them former foreign minister Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil, whom I met on a trip to Afghanistan in 1999 for the Voice of America. He struck me then as a rather droll, understated fellow and a probable moderate. That has proved to be the case.
Another negotiator is Abdul Salam Zaeev, former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan. He has written a book, so far published in Pushtu and Urdu, about the harsh treatment—e.g., torture—he received at the hands of Americans in Afghanistan and Guantanamo. In a recent interview in Kabul, he told me he looks forward to an Islamic government in Afghanistan but one that moderates the harsher aspects of Taliban rule and is acceptable to the majority of Muslims.
The effort has had one major success. A key Taliban commander, Mullah Abdul Salaam, has defected in the south along with many of the insurgents under his control. He has been put in charge of the area he once threatened. How many others will follow his example remains to be seen. A successful counter-insurgency, say observers, depends on dealing with Afghanistan’s ever enduring tribes, who even though they do not figure in conventional democratic theory, may well decide the fate of Afghanistan.
Despite the tensions and uncertain future, Afghans do not appear anxious—far from it. In teeming, boisterous Kabul, they are busy at work in all sorts of small shops that stretch as far as the eye can see. Moreover, it’s possible to spend three weeks in the country—outside the areas of combat—and never experience a rude word or sullen look. On the contrary, while disappointed with U.S. policy—promises, they say, that have not been kept—Afghans are very friendly and hospitable toward Americans. They don’t come in contact with that many, however. U.S. Embassy employees are not allowed outside the compound except with special permission and an armed guard in an armored car.
Indeed, “security companies are having a ball,” says Wali Sherzai, an Afghan-American director of a construction firm, Technologists Inc. Armed guards are everywhere. I asked one if he thought this was overkill, in a manner of speaking. Maybe so, he said, but it’s when you get complacent that things happen. Taliban leaders claim they have plenty of infiltrators in Kabul. “That’s not an idle boast,” according to Sherzai. “Anyone could be an informer. It’s become part of life to look for suspicious people.”
The Afghan economy has grown substantially since the Americans arrived, providing more food, roads, schools and health clinics. For the first time in decades it’s possible to see a procession of girls on their way to school, though attacks on them are increasing and many schools have closed. A severe shortage of electricity and running water continues throughout the country. In overpopulated Kabul, Afghans build modest mud homes on the surrounding mountains and must carry water and other supplies up a steep incline.
Economic progress may now be stalling, however. Investment from abroad was flowing until competent financial managers were replaced by their opposite. “Corruption is mind boggling,” says Abdul Ali Seraj, an Afghan-American who plans to run for president this year. “When you go to the smallest office, they will squeeze you dry of every dime.”
Wadir Safi, a law professor at Kabul University, is charged with establishing an effective legal system in Afghanistan, a tall order. He and his colleagues have trained some 1,300 lawyers and judges, but when they return to their provinces, they come under other kinds of pressure. They are paid little. Their courtroom may be an abandoned garage. And if they defy the local strongmen to enforce the law, their lives may be in danger. Indeed, a few judges have been killed.
According to Nasir Shansab, the Afghan-American author of Soviet Expansion in the Third World: Afghanistan a Case Study, says Afghanistan has never been a nation of laws as such, but tribal elders administering informal justice were able to maintain a tolerable level of lawlessness.
Now the responsible elders have been overtaken by so-called warlords, many of them veterans of the war against the Soviets. Many of the governors appointed by President Karzai have used the office to create a terror of their own by stealing, smuggling, trafficking in drugs and even illegally exporting the country’s natural resources. President Karzai, Afghans say, while charming and conciliatory, fails to use the power at his disposal and confront them.
Harsh, But Not Corrupt
As a result, some Afghans look back almost nostalgically on Taliban rule. Harsh it was, but not corrupt. Punishment for theft was at least a lashing, probably the loss of a hand, maybe even a life. There was a weekly public execution, one of which I attended. Two men were hanged with bills stuffed into their mouths, signifying corruption.
On my 1999 trip, I met Mullah Mohammed Khaksar, a robust, very hospitable deputy interior minister and former intelligence chief. Judging from his talk amid a fruit-laden banquet at his home, I considered him a dedicated Taliban—but it turned out he had been in contact with U.S. intelligence officials across the border in Pakistan. They, however, seemed to have doubts about him and kept him at a distance. That was a grave mistake, says Associated Press correspondent Kathy Gannon, who thinks Mullah Khaksar might have revealed some of Osama bin Laden’s plans. Denied the protection he sought from the U.S. Embassy, he was gunned down in Kandahar while walking with his two children.
So far, the Afghan north has been largely spared this kind of violence. In peaceful times it could be a center of tourism. To the west, Herat, under the influence of neighboring Iran, seems almost oblivious to danger. In contrast to Kabul, people are on the streets at night, including women, often without burkas. Also unlike Kabul, Herat has 24-hour-a-day electricity, sufficient water and largely paved roads, much of this courtesy of Iran—suggesting that Tehran could contribute to stability in Afghanistan if Washington sought its help instead of threatening to attack it.
On paper at least, Washington has big plans for Afghanistan. The idea is to overhaul everything in keeping with democratic ambitions. But there are limits, say close observers of the embattled country. In an interview in Maclean’s magazine, Rory Stewart, author of The Places in Between, about his colorful mid-winter trek across Afghanistan, cautions that “the international community is simultaneously trying to fight the Taliban, create a liberal democracy, exterminate narcotics, build a strong central government and defend human rights.” That, he says, is too much. “There is a surreal gap between the language of the international community and our performance.”
For instance, Afghanistan’s opium production, which provides some 90 percent of the world’s heroin, is a huge problem. But much of it comes from Helmand province in the south, where insurgents are strongest. Unless and until they’re suppressed, there’s little point trying to eliminate the opium under their control. An adroit diplomacy is called for that is not now in evidence. Afghans say Americans must learn to deal in shades of grey—those Taliban who can be peeled away from the more extreme.
If one big project were launched in each province with the offer of plentiful jobs, says legal reformer Wadir Safi, that could end the insurgency—though, to be sure, it would have to be accompanied by adequate security. My former interpreter, Azam Said Mohammad, now chairman of the business consulting firm Kite Communication, says Americans, while invaders, are not considered occupiers. Why don’t they make a shining example of Afghanistan, a signal to Muslims around the world that America cares? After the massive destruction of World War II, the United States restored Western Europe with its all-encompassing Marshall Plan. Could it not do the same in a single shattered country today? It is a task not above America, says Azam, if America wants to do it.
Considering the skimping on Afghanistan—aid per capita is among the lowest of any international development program since World War II—a Marshall Plan seems a distant prospect. But at least it’s a plan. Let’s reassure Afghans and ourselves. Let’s have a plan.
Ed Warner is now retired from the Voice of America, where he was in charge of a unit that provided analysis of foreign affairs.