"If the Americans think this is success, then outright failure must be
pretty horrible to behold." - a Western observer
People remember Tony Blair's pronouncement that the world "will not walk away from Afghanistan, as it has done so many times before". But Afghans have also listened with astonishment as Americans portray their country's experience since the overthrow of the Taliban as a "success". Now the United States is priming its laser-guided bombs anew, and the attention of the world's media has swivelled to the deserts and oilfields of Iraq.
The Independent (UK)
Monday, February 24, 2003
Living in poverty and fear of abandonment, the barely functioning state that
trusted its saviours
By Phil Reeves in Kabul
The details are so compelling. The snowman, for instance, that someone built
on a roundabout in the middle of this battered city.
This was clearly meant to represent Osama bin Laden, for his name was written
on his midriff. He also had a long scraggy beard made of grass and a Taliban
A little joke, a dash of black humour to take the mind off the oppressively
cold weather and dismal poverty? Or was it an act of scorn at a defeated
oppressor? Or an expression of support? And what about the blizzard of
propaganda leaflets flung into the streets from a passing car the other
That was the first time the "night letters" – regularly distributed in
provincial cities – have appeared in the capital, threatening jihad against
the foreign soldiers and their allies. Are these the desperate death throes
of defeated Islamist extremists, or a sign that they are rallying anew? And
what of the persistent whispers that al- Qa'ida and Taliban elements have
secretly slipped back into Kabul? These were considered serious enough by the
United Nations security analysts for them to issue a kidnapping warning to
staff on Thursday.
Now, remember, this is Kabul, a city protected by nearly 5,000 international
peacekeepers, and the safest, quietest place in Afghanistan. Yet anxiety is
gripping it like winter flu.
These unsettling little tremors, possible signals of a more dangerous
faultline, are not all. A more basic issue is in play: a deep concern in
Kabul that the international community is losing interest even though the
task of repairing the wreckage of war – let alone, the even more massive job
of nation-building – has just begun.
People remember Tony Blair's pronouncement that the world "will not walk away
from Afghanistan, as it has done so many times before". But Afghans have also
listened with astonishment as Americans portray their country's experience
since the overthrow of the Taliban as a "success".
Now the United States is priming its laser-guided bombs anew, and the
attention of the world's media has swivelled to the deserts and oilfields of
Iraq. Few in Kabul seem convinced by the repeated assurances – from the US
government and its military, from the UN and Britain – that they will not be
forgotten or allowed to lapse back into the bloodshed that prevailed after
the occupying Soviet forces were driven out by the CIA-funded and CIA-armed
mujahedin in 1989.
There are plenty who dislike the presence of the Americans and their allies
sweeping around their pot-holed streets in shiny new four-by-fours or army
jeeps. This is a city that still has a deeply conservative strain – despite
all the trumpeting about the liberation of women, many of those on the
streets still wear burqas – and one whose capacity for trust has been
corroded by past international betrayals. But a fear of abandonment – or at
least a sharp fall-off in international support – is palpable and encompasses
many international aid agency workers as well as residents. One agency
official, a veteran of several previous conflicts, told The Independent: "The
Pentagon and the White House have absolutely no policy on Afghanistan."
You find the anxiety in the squalid little shack where Ilal Mohammed adds a
few dollars to his $30 monthly income as a government worker by renting out
DVDs of women's wrestling and vaguely raunchy Hindi movies – unthinkable in
the Taliban days. Feeding his five small children is hard and conditions at
home are miserable. But, he says, it wasworse before.
You find it over the road in the grubby hut where Hazrat Shah, a gnarled
75-year-old Pashtun, is selling firewood – a thriving business in a city
routinely plagued by power cuts and freezing weather. He has seen it all –
Soviet invasion, civil war, the rise of the Taliban, the arrival of the
Americans after 9/11. There is at last a measure of relative stability, he
says. But these are "very risky times".
And it is there in the outdoor money-changers' market, where a local surgeon
called Dr Ali – he was fearful of giving his full name – is investing in a
few greenbacks. He spelt the position out better than anyone. "If the
Americans attack Iraq and leave here, we will lose everything. We have
already been through that once before, and we don't want it to happen again.
The international community is our only hope, the only way that we can stand
on our two feet one day." That day is still a very long way off. The brave
new world promised in the aftermath of the Taliban's ousting has yet to dawn.
The country is not remotely close to becoming a functioning state, with a
viable infrastructure and control over its territory. And the US-led war
against al-Qa'ida is not over, even though the world's attention has drifted
A year ago, the impromptu church service held this month for a small group of
US infantrymen in the mountains of south-eastern Afghanistan would have made
TV news bulletins worldwide. We would all have seen Capt Jimmy Nichols,
battalion chaplain for 2-504 Parachute Infantry Regiment, lead his soldiers
in a gruff rendering of the hymn "Keep on the Firing Line". Dressed in full
combat gear, he launched into a sermon about Samson, turning to the wrathful
pages of the Old Testament to fire up his men before they resumed their
efforts to kill or capture a small group of armed zealots.
Samson was, the chaplain declared, the "original tough guy, long before
Rambo", whose "super-strength" was a gift from God. "God has given us also
gifts. You see, the reason that Samson is such a good story for folks like
you and me in the military is that Samson is you – Samson is me."
On the front line, fundamentalism is used to fight fundamentalism.
But, 15 months after the fall of the Taliban, the American Samson has yet to
prevail. According to Col Roger King, the US military spokesman at the Bagram
air base outside Kabul, there are "probably several hundred" Taliban and al-
Qa'ida forces around Afghanistan and "maybe a larger number" over the border
with Pakistan. Some of these forces appear to have forged links with
Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a militiaman who once pocketed CIA funds to fight the
Soviet Union before joining the civil war, earning a reputation for extreme
brutality. He is marching under the banner of a self-declared jihad against
the Americans and their allies.
The head of the Hezb-i- Islami party, he is suspected in Kabul of involvement
in numerous rocket attacks and a car bomb that killed 30 in September. Last
year he narrowly missed being killed by a missile fired by a CIA Predator, an
There are other ominous signs. Some 400 rockets have been fired at American
forces in 10 months. They find two or three caches of arms, often 107mm
Chinese rockets, each week. "This place is a 100 times more dangerous than
Iraq," said one US reserve officer at Bagram, a veteran of Operation Desert
Storm in Iraq in 1991. "Here they are liable to toss a grenade under your
vehicle at any time." A fortnight ago the Taliban issued what is thought to
be its first communiqué since being removed from power. It named two senior
figures – Mullah Obaeidullah and Mullah Biradar – as commanders in a new
campaign to oust the Americans.
And the international effort to help establish a meaningful central
government under Hamid Karzai is also incomplete. Many of the building blocks
of a viable nation – institutions capable of imposing law and order, health
services, power supplies, a road network, communications, education – are
In the first six months of the Karzai interim administration, two ministers
including the first vice-president were assassinated. The President came
close to being killed in Kandahar last September.
Some international agency workers report that there is outright anger and
frustration in the provinces over the slow pace of reconstruction and the
lack of security, a sense that the Karzai government has done nothing for
them. Ethnic rivalries are crucial: dissatisfaction is said to be
particularly strong among Pashtuns, who believe that the interim government
is dominated by the light-skinned, sandy-haired and often green-eyed
The Karzai transitional government has been unable to assert its control over
most of the country. Until it does so, the free-and-fair elections required
next year by the Bonn Agreement will remain a pipe dream.
The UN and Hamid Karzai have tried to persuade the international community to
tackle the resulting "security vacuum" by extending Kabul's peace-keeping
force, the International Security Assistance Force, (Isaf) to key provincial
cities – exporting the relative stability that they have created within the
These efforts failed. The Pentagon has proposed a cheaper option: dispatching
reconstruction teams of 80 to 100 dominated by US reservists to provincial
centres. But this has met strong opposition from international aid agencies.
In the meantime, Afghanistan is awash with hundreds of thousands of weapons,
many supplied by the West after the Soviet invasion. Much of this arsenal,
including tanks, is in the hands of rival warlords who are still feuding over
control of key trading routes. Though several have taken senior jobs and most
have expressed verbal support for the Karzai government, they have yet to
relinquish their private armies.
The lack of money has dogged Afghanistan from the start. A year ago, the
World Bank estimated $10.2bn (£6.4bn) was needed over five years.
International pledges were about half that sum. And, according to Care
International, an NGO monitoring international aid, the money actually
spentper capita last year in Afghanistan was under half that of post-conflict
Rwanda, Bosnia, Kosovo and East Timor. The CIA has spent some of that paying
warlords and militias for help in the "war on terror" – strengthening rivals
to the central government.
So what does this tell us about the fate of Iraq after the Americans have
taken it apart?
It is not hard to find international aid workers who see that the problems of
Afghanistan will be repeated in Iraq. "There is a real question over whether
the international community is prepared to take on the burden of rebuilding
Iraq over the long term," said Paul O'Brien, advocacy co-ordinator for Care
Another Western observer summed up his views more acidly. "If the Americans
think this is success, then outright failure must be pretty horrible to