Mon, Oct 10, 2011 - Page 9 News List

A decade later and time for peace is running out

The headlines of the last decade in Afghanistan have been about the bloodshed, but behind them lies a political failure at every level

By Declan Walsh  /  The Guardian, ISLAMABAD

Illustration: Yusha

Ten years ago, as the first US bombs fell on Afghanistan, a Pashtun tribal leader slipped across the Pakistani border riding a motorbike. He wore a loosely tied turban, was accompanied by three companions and carried a CIA-donated satellite telephone. His name was Hamid Karzai and he is now Afghanistan’s president.

US-backed militias were sweeping toward Kabul from the north; Karzai’s job was to help rout the Taliban in the south. Using his CIA telephone, he called in a team of US Special Forces soldiers, who swooped in by helicopter with weapons for another 300 fighters. Together, they pushed toward the Taliban’s spiritual home of Kandahar. Victory was at hand, but first, a momentous meeting.

On the morning of Dec. 5, 2001, Karzai received a Taliban delegation in Shah Wali Kot, 30km north of Kandahar. Things were moving fast. Hours earlier, Afghan tribal elders gathered in Bonn, Germany, had anointed Karzai as the country’s interim leader; the UN signed off on the arrangement. In Kandahar, the reclusive Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar dispatched his second in command and defense minister, Mullah Obaidullah, to meet Karzai.

Recognizing defeat, the Taliban wanted to talk peace: a formal surrender, the transfer of vehicles and weapons, an end to fighting in Kandahar, all in return for assurances the leaders would be able to return to their villages. That night, Obaidullah sent bread for Karzai, in a gesture of conciliation.

In retrospect, it was a tantalizing opportunity for a smooth post-Taliban transition and, perhaps, a novel political dispensation. But it wasn’t to be. Furious after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the US war machine pursued the Taliban hard. Karzai, the new leader, acquiesced. And the Taliban leadership slunk across the border into Pakistan to lick their wounds and plan the resurgence that is racking the country today.

The exact circumstances of that meeting are still debated among historians, but the irony is lost on few that, today, Karzai wants to get back into that room with the Taliban in Shah Wali Kot. After 10 years of steadily rising conflict and with the prospect of a major US withdrawal before 2014, Karzai knows that his political future — and perhaps that of his country — could hinge on a negotiated settlement to the conflict. The question is whether there’s enough time left to achieve it.

The headlines of the past decade in Afghanistan have been written in blood — about 17,000 civilians and 2,750 foreign soldiers killed, countless suicide bombings and, in recent years, guerrilla spectaculars such as the recent 20-hour assault on the US embassy. However, if war has dominated the news, the greatest failings have been political.

At first, it seemed anything was possible. As the Taliban fled, reporters filed stories about jubilant women casting off their burqas; kites, banned under the Taliban, fluttered in the skies. Then came more substantial gestures: promises of money, development and democracy. That mood of hope peaked in 2004, with the first presidential poll. About 70 percent of voters participated and Karzai scooped a 55 percent majority, with support from every ethnic group. Designer Tom Ford hailed him as the “chicest man on the planet” for his flowing cape and wool hat.

An airy sense of confidence gripped Kabul, which expressed itself in small ways — young lovers who defied convention and eloped in “love marriages;” palatial wedding halls modeled on mirrored-glass skyscrapers from Dubai; flourishing body-building and sports clubs. On the edge of the city, I visited the Kabul golf club, which had shut under the Taliban, now open after the putting greens had been swept for mines. The course pro, recently returned from exile, told me the Taliban had flogged him with a steel cable. Now a gentrified warlord was financing the renovations.

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