From the Esquire ME archive: December 2010
One year ago this month, President Barack Obama revealed his long-awaited plan for Afghanistan: the U.S. was to send 30,000 extra troops, the country would be stabilized and al-Qaeda finally defeated. In that instance the Afghan war became Obama’s war. This is the story of what happened next.
The prophet’s birthday.
It was a damp, overcast February morning when Taliban fighters brought their war to Kabul. The route into battle was lined with broken glass; windows of stores smashed to pieces on this, the Prophet Mohammad’s birthday [PBUH]. Then, as armed police and intelligence agents tried to seal off the area, the full scale of the devastation gradually came into view.
A huge crater filled the road where a car bomb had blown up. Across another street the fighting continued. In the shadow of a newly built shopping centre and the luxury Safi Landmark Hotel, favoured by diplomats, Western aid workers and the local elite, occasional bursts of gunfire rang out. A helicopter circled above.
For hours the commotion went on, with people gathering in a nearby park to watch. Children and old men stared in grim fascination as the heart of their capital city went up in smoke. Firemen carried away lumps of flesh and a feral dog was chased off before it could eat whatever remained. Two bodies were also stretchered from the scene: a man covered in blood but still breathing and a boy caked in dust and almost certainly dead.
Only one of the small group of militants involved in the events of February 26 survived the initial attack. He stood firm as Afghan, and later foreign, troops poured in; his resistance finally ending, as he must have hoped it would, in martyrdom. On this holiest of days, at least seventeen people were killed and dozens injured.
As a warning of what was to come, it was perfect.
Less than three months earlier, Barack Obama had delivered what might ultimately be regarded as the defining speech of his presidency. Billed optimistically by the White House as “the Way Forward in Afghanistan and Pakistan” even Obama knew this could actually be his Lyndon B. Johnson moment — the point at which America stepped deeper into an increasingly bloody guerrilla war in a hostile part of Asia. But this time, he claimed, there was no choice. “Unlike Vietnam, we are not facing a broad based popular insurgency,” he said. Failure to act would “permit a slow deterioration of conditions”. Instead, thirty-thousand extra troops would be thrown into the fight.
Few could deny that something needed to be done, but the question was what. The Taliban had been driven from power with ease in 2001, only to regroup and launch a classic rebel campaign against the U.S. and Nato occupation. Obama had already raised combat troop levels by 21,000 and by the time he was vowing to “seize the initiative” last December, the insurgents had their own shadow government that ruled large swathes of southern and eastern Afghanistan. The momentum was with them. Using Kalashnikov rifles and homemade bombs, they were gaining the upper hand against the most sophisticated and powerful military machine ever assembled.
Today, having rolled the dice, the U.S. president is now assessing the results of his gamble. He finds himself staring at some sobering statistics. More than 650 coalition personnel have been killed so far this year, compared to 521 in the whole of 2009. Civilian casualties are at record levels and violence has spread to new, once peaceful, parts of the country. Meanwhile, political leaders opposed to the Taliban are plotting to undermine the government and talk of a possible civil war is spreading.
As 2011 approaches, the situation does not look good.
The twenty-one men of 82nd Airborne’s Alpha Battery, 2nd Platoon, were not part of the surge. They had been in the southern province of Zabul from the previous summer and had since been struggling to deal with the boredom, frustration and all-too brief excitement of life on tour.
They stayed on one of the giant bases that have sprung up like new towns across Afghanistan. There was a dining hall that served bacon, fried chicken, doughnuts and ice cream, which you could eat while watching ice hockey, college basketball or a knock-off DVD on the big flat screen TVs attached to the walls. The dirt roads inside the perimeter wire had names: Blackhawk Trail, Screaming Eagles Lane.
Outside, mountains stretched across the horizon and the villagers tried to scrape a living from a land baked by the sun and ravaged by poverty.
It was now spring 2010 and, despite not being stationed in some of the more infamous parts of the country where they could get shot or blown up at any moment, 2nd platoon had been given the critical task of protecting the president’s surge.
While Obama’s strategy was being played out in Kandahar and Helmand, for the world to be shown in five-minute dispatches on CNN and CBS, the platoon was struggling to keep the lid on a dusty, forgotten patch of earth that acted as a key rat run for the Taliban as they ferried weapons, fighters and supplies to the front lines farther south.
The thirty kilometre bubble of desert, orchards and wadis the paratroopers patrolled had one school and a single medical clinic. The militants were everywhere but nowhere. They tended to issue reminders of their presence by launching poorly directed rockets at the base, then disappearing on motorbikes long before the Americans could get close in their heavily-armoured, cumbersome vehicles. On one particular day a Taliban sniper injured a member of the platoon and then vanished as an unmanned aerial drone tried in vain to track him down.
On another routine mission in early April, intelligence reports came in that claimed twenty-five Taliban were meeting at a village two kilometres away. Precise co-ordinates accompanied the tip-off. When the troops eventually reached the spot where the rebels were meant to be, there was nothing there except rolling hills and gale-force winds.
As much as the deepening bloodshed that was beginning to grab the headlines, this was the reality of the war that Obama had made his own. Death by a thousand cuts. A combination of traditional insurgent tactics, an unforgiving landscape and climate, together with a clash of cultures was, slowly but surely, bleeding the U.S. dry.
Ninety-five percent bad
In Pul-e-Khumri, northern Afghanistan, the phone lines went dead at around 6:00 p.m. It happened every night and lasted until sunrise. Regular as clockwork. After dark this summer the Taliban ruled the countryside and they had no intention of letting spies inform Nato or the government of their movements. This was their time and they were free to do as they pleased.
“The situation is ninety or ninety-five percent bad,” Nooria Hamidi, a provincial councillor, admitted to me one morning. A polite, friendly woman, she was initially wary of being interviewed — worried that a request to meet a journalist was actually the Taliban luring her into a deadly trap.
The road from Kabul had passed through dramatically beautiful scenery. Congested, rubbish-filled streets gave way to fertile plains of grapes before rising up into the Hindu Kush, then dropping down again through mist and traces of snow to rice fields, where around four-and-a-half hours later it ran through the hardscrabble, truck-stop market town that is Pul-e-Khumri, the capital of Baghlan province.
At the heart of the route leading to central Asia, Pul-e-Khumri is crucial to Afghanistan’s future. For the Soviets in the 1980s, it was part of the lifeline that allowed military supplies and consumer goods to be transported across the border, deep into the warzone. The Mujahideen attacked the route constantly until the Russians had nowhere to turn, except back where they came from.
The Americans and Nato used to have no such trouble. With a wildly diverse ethnic mix that includes Tajiks, Uzbeksand Turkmen, northern Afghanistan is traditionally hostile to the predominantly Pashtun Taliban. The assassinations and roadside bombings that were a feature of daily life in the south before Obama took office were almost unheard of in Baghlan. That started to change, however, when the insurgents found themselves under pressure in their home territory and decided to make this area their new priority.
Hamidi was speaking at the council’s administrative offices. Having been elected since the U.S.-led invasion, she and her colleagues were meant to be a symbol of a flourishing Afghan democracy. Instead they were a testament to its increasing failure. Just down the road, a couple of months earlier, another council member had been shot at point blank range and left seriously injured. “Now I am very scared. I am even scared of my own bodyguards,” she told me.
A third councillor, Mohammed Faisal Samay, looked out of the window, across the dirt-coloured river to some hills almost close enough to touch. “Those are the border between the government and the Taliban,” he said matter-of-factly. “Any moment the Taliban can reach us from there.”
High unemployment, discrimination between tribes and weak governance had fuelled the insurgency in Baghlan. Foreign troops had also alienated the local population with house raids – a constant source of anger for Afghanistan’s deeply conservative society.
The rebels were drawn largely from the local Pashtun community, which had suffered more than most. But people also claimed the fighters’ ranks had been swelled with Arabs, Chechens and Pakistanis drawn in by the prospect of holy war and a victory even greater than the triumph over communism.
One thing was clear: the violence was now spreading to all corners of Afghanistan. Baghlan had suddenly become another frontline and a new generation of young men was learning to hate the Nato occupation, just as their fathers had hated the Soviets.
A thousand other mujahids
The Taliban has always been a complex phenomenon, far removed from the simple caricatures so often used when describing the Afghan insurgency. Like any successful guerrilla movement, assassinations, bombings and threats are a small part of their armoury. They also have support from a significant section of the population.
In each area of the country where the rebels have flourished, the basic causes are much the same: corrupt local officials, insecurity caused by U.S.-backed warlords and, of course, the tactics of foreign troops. The Taliban provide a clear alternative to all this.
As they have resisted the world’s last remaining super-power, so their reputation has grown. Taliban fighters are often not afraid of death, but that is not their only strength. They are prepared to go far beyond the points where others would stop, fuelled by a determination to continue the jihad for as long as it takes, heedless of the sacrifices involved.
That is because they believe, to the core of their souls, that God is on their side, that their battle is His. It is a purity of purpose that marks them out for respect and fear, and that separates them from their opponents.
Roughly an hour from Kabul lies the Tangi valley, a picture postcard of a place, with apple orchards and cherry trees. It was here, a few years ago, that Taliban commander Fazel Rabi ruled – launching attacks on U.S. soldiers and becoming a local legend in the process.
Towards the end of his life he followed in the timeworn footsteps of rebel leaders throughout history, moving from house to house and village to village as the foreign troops hunted him down. Then, the story goes, the Americans found him asleep in a mosque and killed him.
There is now a shrine to Rabi. Two years after his death people pray and offer their respects at his final resting place.
This is what happens in Afghanistan. When men do jihad they are sheltered and protected, and if they die in the process they are remembered as martyrs. It has been so for centuries and Obama’s surge has just continued the tradition. In the Tangi valley and other parts of Maidan Wardak Province, helping the rebels is more of an obligation than a choice.
“If they have the idea that by killing one Mujahid the ranks of the Mujahideen will decrease, that’s wrong,” explained Omari, a young fighter from the province, who spoke angrily about U.S. forces murdering Islamic scholars. “I can tell you that when they kill one mujahid, from one drop of his blood Allah will make a thousand other mujahids.”
Drunk and carefree
A corpse lay in the pickup truck. Next to it a passenger had blood splattered all over his clothes. Journalists were crowding around when a shout in Dari, one of Afghanistan’s two main languages, came from the vehicle: “You f***ers! You don’t help us, you are just playing amongst yourselves for your own happiness.”
In the morning, during rush hour, it’s best not to go out. The traffic in Kabul is rammed bumper to bumper and most of the attacks happen during this period, when officials are going to work and ministries are opening for the day.
This time, on May 18, the suicide bomber targeted a military convoy. Twelve civilians and six foreign troops were killed. Reports said 750kg of explosives had been used.
In 2010 Afghanistan became the centre of world attention again as Washington decided once more to put it at the top of its agenda. Soldiers, mercenaries, journalists and aid workers flooded in — just as they had during those initial, halcyon post-invasion days. In Scene, a glossy magazine popular with the expat community in Kabul, houses with rents ranging from $3,999 to $24,999 a month are advertised. Inside, the people are pictured drunk and carefree.
But the country is collapsing around them. There have been a number of assaults on the capital alone this year, including a rocket attack on a government-sponsored peace conference as the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai was speaking. In reality, the city is under siege and the nation is simmering just a few degrees below boiling point.
The Taliban are only ever twenty or thirty minutes away. In the district of Musayi, outside Kabul city, they are joined by foreign jihadis; militants who travel in from Pakistan using the old networks and mountain trails on the eastern border that were so effective during the fight against the Soviets. When three prominent rebels were killed there in the summer, thousands of local residents are said to have turned out for the funerals.
The insurgency, though, is not the sole threat to the stability of the country and the wider region. In August, clashes between Hazaras and Pashtun nomads caused a riot in part of the capital. With little left to lose, ethnic minority leaders are growing increasingly bold, criticising the government like never before. September’s parliamentary election, which was plagued by fraud so shameless and extensive that any trace of a democracy all but evaporated, has only added to the turmoil.
An uncertain future
There are currently some one hundred and fifty thousand foreign troops in Afghanistan – the bulk of them American. Yet while Obama’s surge expanded the occupation, domestic considerations meant it also included a timetable for withdrawal, a clause that has been heavily criticised by U.S. and Afghan officials. Committing to start pulling out soldiers from July next year may have raised flagging spirits among conflict-weary American voters, but it also lifted the morale of the already resurgent Taliban. More significantly, it has convinced most ordinary Afghans that, after nearly a decade, the West is desperately seeking an exit.
The noises emanating from Washington, at least publicly, are cautiously optimistic. Nato is also upbeat. They have a plan to gradually hand over security to the Afghan army and police while drawing down their own combat forces, a project due for completion by the end of 2014.
But with Afghanistan mired in deepening violence and corruption, and any pretence at economic development now largely abandoned, the odds are stacked against the transition leaving behind even a partially stable nation. Factions, led by the very warlords that tore the country apart in the 1990s and caused the Taliban’s original rise to power, are preparing for the post-U.S. apocalypse.
It is winter now and the worst of the fighting is over for another year. Snow will fall and for a few months the main challenge will be just to survive the cold. For the Taliban that may not be so hard. They have done it before and, once again, they are certain that victory is in sight. It might not come in 2011 or even 2012, but they are not in a rush.
God and history are on their side.
by Chris Sands