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

Mon, Oct 10, 2011 - Page 9

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.

“Attack the course,” joked the scorecard.

The joke was not seen as bad taste. The Taliban insurgency was distant, largely confined to the southern provinces, more nuisance than serious threat. A Swiss Red Cross worker had been killed in Kandahar in March 2003, but Western military officials started to speak of the Taliban as a declining force. At Bagram airbase, north of Kabul, US soldiers took pedicures and massages in a beauty parlor.

“You can’t fight if you have sore muscles,” one young officer told me.

Yet this brave democracy had perilously fragile foundations. The US invasion had toppled the Taliban but, many Afghans complained, left behind the force they hated equally: the warlords who had plundered the country for decades. Instead of being banished, many of the old faces came back. Some stood for election, such as Abdul Rashid Dostum, the US-allied warlord accused of suffocating up to 2,000 Taliban fighters in shipping containers. In 2005, Karzai made him chief of staff to the military.

The president protested he had little choice but to accommodate such bullies — the US wanted nation building on the cheap. He had a point. The administration of former US president George W. Bush, preoccupied with the war in Iraq, had only 8,000 soldiers in Afghanistan at the time of the 2004 election. Commanders, intelligence assets, military equipment — all were being re-routed to Baghdad.

Meanwhile, across the border in Pakistan, the Taliban leadership were plotting a comeback. There was clearly no place in a political process — US leaders bundled them in the same basket as al-Qaeda fugitives, which was a mistake. Then, in 2005, they made a dramatic reappearance. Violent incidents soared to more than 4,000, from 1,500 the year before. Coalition deaths doubled from 60 to 131.

By 2006, the US contingent had increased to 20,000 soldiers. Pakistan denied the insurgents were using its territory, but NATO officers spoke of the “Quetta Shura” — the Taliban ruling council headquartered in western Pakistan. More worrying proof was available. In 2006, I attended a funeral north of Quetta for a fallen Taliban fighter; the homily was read by a mullah who was also the provincial minister of health.

It was a perfect storm for the British deployment to Helmand. Few took seriously the statement by the then-British defense secretary John Reid in mid-2006 that “not a single shot” might be fired. Although, British officers did promise to do things differently from the US. Criss-crossing the desert in nimble — but hugely exposed — open-top jeeps, officers said there would be no kicking down people’s doors. They talked confidently about the lessons of Northern Ireland; young soldiers strolled the bazaars, playing football with local kids.

None of that lasted long. By June, British troops had been sucked into a vicious fight in Sangin, a village deep in Helmand’s heroin country. Insurgents streamed across the desert from Pakistan; the death toll inched upward. British commanders turned to pulverizing air strikes and helicopter gunships that killed hundreds of Taliban fighters, but the more the British killed, the more fighters seemed to spring up.

The violence spread like a virus. NATO launched Operation Medusa in neighboring Kandahar in the summer of 2006 — the alliance’s first land operation. It was a success, of sorts. Canadian soldiers started the fight and US soldiers finished it, driving the Taliban back over the border toward Quetta. I toured the battlefield with Colonel Stephen Williams, a flamboyant American who played heavy metal music as his artillery pounded Taliban-held compounds.

“Rock’n’roll, man,” he said.

However, the Taliban were also adapting. The insurgency melted out of sight, instead attacking Western and Afghan forces with roadside bombs and suicide attacks. Casualties of Western troops mounted, touching a high of 711 last year. About 2,700 civilians also perished. Beyond the bloodshed, the main problem was that the Afghan government seemed incapable of holding captured ground. In Kabul, Western officials scrambled to come up with solutions.

Every season brought a new initiative — counter-narcotics, building the justice system, rooting out corruption. At first, Western forces demobilized Afghan militias, then they started to arm them. Diplomats attended fundraising events in Tokyo, Berlin and London, trying to maintain flagging interest. The term “Afghanization” — putting Afghan soldiers, civil servants or policemen up front — became an article of shaky faith.

However, no amount of money or soldiers seemed capable of patching up the deeply dysfunctional relationship at the heart of the affair. Anger and frustration turned to resentment and deep mistrust, on both sides. Diplomatic cables from 2009 released through WikiLeaks showed former US ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry describing Karzai as a “paranoid and weak individual unfamiliar with the basics of nation building.” Another cable noted that Karzai’s deputy, Ahmad Zia Massoud, had been questioned after arriving in Dubai with US$52 million in cash — raising questions about financial propriety at the highest levels of government.

The surge under US President Barack Obama two years ago, bringing the US contingent to more than 100,000 troops, was supposed to rescue the situation. It succeeded in part. Western troops now control a greater swath of southern Afghanistan than they have for years; Taliban violence there is receding. Yet violence has simultaneously surged in the mountainous east, along the border with Pakistan’s tribal belt.

The area is controlled by the notorious Haqqani network — the tribal jihadi clan based out of North Waziristan and the subject of friction between the US and the Pakistani military. The US accuses Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency of supporting the Haqqanis, who carried out the daring Sept. 13 attack on the US embassy. The Pakistanis say they don’t know what the US wants — to make peace with the insurgents, or to fight them.

Amid the confusion, the one sure thing is that, by the end of 2014, the US and Britain will have withdrawn most of their troops. Talk of an “endgame” may be premature: Informed officials say that between 10,000 and 20,000 US soldiers will remain behind to support Karzai’s government.

But will it survive? The prospect of talks with the Taliban has already resurrected old ethnic tensions; grave talk of civil war runs quietly in the corridors of diplomacy. Karzai periodically says he would like to sit down with the Taliban leaders, as he once did 10 years ago. The question now is whether that would solve Afghanistan’s conflict, or propel it into a new phase.