In a 1998 interview with Le Nouvel Observateur,
Zbigniew Brzezinski, former national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter,
proudly of how, in July 1979, he had "signed the first directive for secret
aid to the opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul" and so helped draw a
Russian interventionary force into Afghanistan. "On the day that the Soviets
officially crossed the border," Brzezinski added, "I wrote to President Carter,
saying, in essence: 'We now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam
War.'" And so they did – with the help of the CIA, Saudi money, the Pakistani
intelligence services, and an influx of Arab jihadis, including Osama
bin Laden. In fact, their Afghan War would prove far more disastrous for the
Soviet Union than defeat in Vietnam had been for the United States. By the time
the Soviets withdrew their last troops in February 1989, the economy of the
Cold War's weaker superpower was tottering on the brink. Less than three years
later, the Soviet Union itself was no more, even as Washington, at first unbelieving,
then celebratory, declared eternal victory.
It is far clearer now, as American economic power visibly
crumbles, that rather than a victor and a vanquished there were two great
power losers in the Cold War. The weaker, the Soviet Union, simply imploded
first, while the U.S., enwreathed in a rhetoric of triumphalism and self-congratulation,
was far more slowly making its way toward the exit. Seldom mentioned here, however,
is a grotesque irony: as the U.S. seems to be experiencing the beginning stages
of its imperial implosion, it is also – as the Soviet Union was in the
1980s – enmired in a war without end in Afghanistan against a ragtag army
of Afghan insurgents supported by foreign jihadist volunteers.
One difference, of course: The Soviets were, in part, brought to the edge
of bankruptcy and collapse by a war supported to the hilt, and to the tune of
billions of dollars as well as massive infusions of weaponry, by the other superpower.
The U.S. is heading for its analogous moment without an enemy superpower in
sight. If anything, a single man – Osama bin Laden – might be said
to have filled the former superpower role, which, were the results less grim,
would be little short of farcical. That this has come to pass is, of course,
partly the result of the Bush administration's many imperial blunders, including
its invasion of Iraq and its urge to garrison the oil lands of the planet from
the Middle East to Central Asia. Like all historical analogies, the Afghan one
may be less than exact, but it does stare us in the face and, eerie as it is,
it's hard to account for its absence from discussion here in the U.S.
If you want to grasp just how deeply the United States is now entangled in
its own catastrophic Afghan War, you need only read the following report. For
obvious reasons, it's rare for TomDispatch to have on-the-spot reporting. So
consider this an exceptional exception. Anand Gopal is a superb young journalist
who writes regularly for the Christian Science Monitor. Here, he considers
the failed U.S. surge in Afghanistan – yes, there was one back in 2007
– as well as the costs for Afghan
civilians and the increasingly powerful Taliban insurgency that has emerged
from it. His report could not be more vivid or more sobering for a country readying
itself, under a new president, to pour yet more troops into Afghanistan. Tom
The Surge That Failed
Afghanistan under the Bombs
By Anand Gopal
A bit past midnight on a balmy night in late
August, Hedayatullah awoke to a deafening blast. He stumbled out of bed and
heard angry voices drawing closer. Suddenly, his bedroom doors banged open and
dozens of silhouetted figures burst in, some shouting in a strange language.
The intruders blindfolded Hedayatullah and, screaming with fury, forced him
to the ground. An Afghan voice told him not to move or speak, or he would be
killed. He listened for sounds from the next room, where his brother Noorullah
slept with his family. He could hear his nephew, eight months old, crying hysterically.
Then came the sound of an automatic rifle, after which his nephew fell silent.
The rest of the family – 18 people in all, including aunts, uncles, and
cousins – was herded outside into the darkness. The Afghan voice explained
to Hedayatullah's terrified mother, "We are the Afghan National Army, here to
accompany the American military. The Americans have killed one of your sons
and his two children. They also shot his wife and they're taking her to the
"Why?" Hedayatullah's mother stammered.
"There is no why," the soldier replied. When she heard this, she started screaming,
slamming her fists into her chest in anguish. The Afghan soldiers left her and
loaded Hedayatullah and his cousin into the back of a military van, after which
they drove off with an American convoy into the black of night.
The next day, the Afghan forces released Hedayatullah and his cousin, calling
the whole raid a mistake. However, Noorullah's wife, months pregnant, never
came home: She died on the way to the hospital.
Surging in Afghanistan
When, decades from now, historians compile the record of this Afghan war,
they will date the Afghan version of the surge – the now trendy injection
of large numbers of troops to resuscitate a flagging war effort – to sometime
in early 2007. Then, a growing insurgency was causing visible problems for U.S.
and NATO forces in certain pockets in the southern parts of the country, long
a Taliban stronghold. In response, military planners dramatically beefed up
the international presence, raising the number of troops over the following
18 months by 20,000, a 45% jump.
During this period, however, the violence also jumped – by 50%. This
shouldn't be surprising. More troops meant more targets for Taliban fighters
and suicide bombers. In response, the international forces retaliated with massive
aerial bombing campaigns and large-scale house raids. The number of civilians
killed in the process skyrocketed. In the fifteen months of this surge, more
civilians have been killed than in the previous four years combined.
During the same period, the country descended into a state of utter dereliction
– no jobs, very little reconstruction, and ever less security. In turn,
the rising civilian death toll and the decaying economy proved a profitable
recipe for the Taliban, who recruited significant numbers of new fighters. They
also won the sympathy of Afghans who saw them as the lesser of two evils. Once
confined to the deep Afghan south, today the insurgents operate openly right
at the doorstep of Kabul, the capital.
This last surge, little noted by the media, failed miserably, but Washington
is now planning another one, even as Afghanistan slips away. More boots on the
ground, though, will do little to address the real causes of this country's
Revenge and the Taliban
One day, as Zubair was walking home, he noticed that the carpet factory near
his house in the southern province of Ghazni was silent. That's strange, he
thought, because he could usually hear the din of spinning looms as he approached.
As he rounded the corner, he saw a crowd of people, villagers and factory workers,
gathered around his destroyed house. An American bomb had flattened it into
a pancake of cement blocks and pulverized bricks. He ran toward the scene. It
was only when he shoved his way through the crowd and up to the wreckage that
he actually saw it – his mother's severed head lying amid mangled furniture.
He didn't scream. Instead, the sight induced a sort of catatonia; he picked
up the head, cradled it in his arms, and started walking aimlessly. He carried
on like this for days, until tribal elders pried the head from his hands and
convinced him to deal with his loss more constructively. He decided he would
get revenge by becoming a suicide bomber and inflicting a loss on some American
family as painful as the one he had just suffered.
When one decides to become a suicide bomber, it is pretty easy to find the
Taliban. In Zubair's case he just asked a relative to direct him to the nearest
Talib; every village in the country's south and east has at least a few. He
found them and he trained – yes, suicide bombing requires training –
for some time and then he was fitted with the latest model suicide vest. One
morning, he made his way, as directed, towards an office building where Americans
advisors were training their Afghan counterparts, but before he could detonate
his vest, a pair of sharp-eyed intelligence officers spotted him and wrestled
him to the ground. Zubair now spends his days in an Afghan prison.
A poll of 42 Taliban fighters by the Canadian Globe and Mail newspaper
earlier this year revealed that 12 had seen family members killed in air strikes,
and six joined the insurgency after such attacks. Far more who don't join offer
Under the Bombs
In the muddied outskirts of Kabul, an impromptu neighborhood has been sprouting,
full of civilians fleeing the regular Allied aerial bombardments in the Afghan
countryside. Sherafadeen Sadozay, a poor farmer from the south, spoke for many
there when he told me that he had once had no opinion of the United States.
Then, one day, a payload from an American sortie split his house in two, eviscerating
his wife and three children. Now, he says, he'd rather have the Taliban back
in power than nervously eye the skies every day.
Even when the bombs don't fall, it's quite dangerous to be an Afghan. Journalist
Jawed Ahmad was on assignment for Canadian Television in the southern city of
Kandahar when American troops stopped him. In his possession, they found contact
numbers to the cell phones of various Taliban fighters – something every
good journalist in the country has – and threw him into prison, not to
be heard from for almost a year. During interrogation, Ahmad says that American
jailors kicked him, smashed his head into a table, and at one point prevented
him from sleeping for nine days. They kept him standing on a snowy runway for
six hours without shoes. Twice he fainted and twice the soldiers forced him
to stand up again. After 11 months of detention, military authorities gave him
a letter stating that he was not a threat to the U.S. and released him.
Starving in Kabul
If you're walking his street, there isn't a single day when you won't see
Zayainullah. For as long as he can remember, the 11 year-old has perched on
the sidewalk at one of Kabul's busiest intersections. Zayainullah has only one
arm; the Taliban blew the other one away when he was a child. He uses this arm
to beg for handouts, quietly in the mornings, more desperately as the day goes
on. Both his parents are dead so he lives with his aunt, a widow. Given the
mores of modern-day Afghanistan, she can't work because a woman needs a man's
sanction to leave the house. So she puts young Zayainullah on the street as
her sole breadwinner. If he comes home empty-handed she beats him, sometimes
until he can no longer move.
He sits there, shirtless, with a heaving, rounded belly – distended from
severe malnutrition – as scores of other beggars and pedestrians stream
by him. No one really notices him though, because poverty has become endemic
in this country.
Afghanistan is now one of the poorest countries on the planet. It takes its
place among desperate, destitute nations like Burkina Faso and Somalia whenever
any international organization bothers to measure. The official unemployment
rate, last calculated in 2005, was 40% percent. According to recent estimates,
it may today reach as high as 80% in some parts of the country.
Approximately 45% of the population is now unable to purchase enough food
to guarantee bare minimum health levels, according to the Brookings Institution.
This winter, Afghan officials claim that hunger may kill up to 80% of the population
in some northern provinces caught in a vicious drought. Reports are emerging
of parents selling their children simply to make ends meet. In one district
of the southern province of Ghazni last spring things got so bad that villagers
started eating grass. Locals say that after a harsh winter and almost no food,
they had no choice.
Kabul itself lies in tatters. Roads have gone unpaved since 2001. Massive
craters from decades of war blot the capital city. Poor Afghans live in crumbling
warrens with no electricity and often without safe drinking water. Kabul, a
city designed for about 800,000 people, now holds more than four million, mostly
squeezed into informal settlements and squatters' shacks.
Washington spends about $100 million a day on this war – close to $36
billion a year – but only five cents of every dollar actually goes towards
aid. From this paltry sum, the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief found
that "a staggering 40 percent has returned to donor countries in corporate profits
and salaries." The economy is so underdeveloped that opium production accounts
for more than half of the country's gross domestic product.
What little money does go for reconstruction is handed over to U.S. multinationals
who then subcontract out to Afghan partners and cut corners every step of the
way. As a result, the U.N. ranks the country as the fifth least-developed in
the world – a one-position drop from 2004.
The government and coalition forces may not bring jobs to Afghanistan, but
the Taliban does. The insurgents pay for fighters – in some cases, up to
$200 a month, a windfall in a country where 42% of the population earns less
than $14 a month. When a textile factory in Kandahar laid off 2,000 workers
in September, most of them joined the Taliban. And that district in Ghazni where
locals were reduced to eating grass? It is now a Taliban stronghold.
Biking in Kabul
A spate of suicide bombings and high-profile attacks in recent years have
turned Kabul into a sort of garrison state, with roadblocks and checkpoints
clogging many of the city's main arteries. The traffic is, at times, unbearable,
so I bought a new motorbike, an Iranian import that can adroitly weave through
traffic. I was puttering along one day recently when a police commander stopped
"That's a nice bike," he said.
"Thank you," I replied.
"Is it new?"
"I'd like to have it. Get off."
I stared at him in disbelief, not quite grasping at first that he was deadly
serious. Then I began threatening him, saying I'd call a certain influential
friend if he laid a finger on the bike. That finally hit home and he stepped
back, waving me on.
Journalists may have influential friends, but ordinary Afghans are usually
not so lucky. Locals tend to fear the neighborhood police as much as the many
criminals who prowl Kabul's streets. The notoriously corrupt police force is
just one face of a government that much of the population has come to loathe.
Police are known to rob passengers at checkpoints. Many of the country's leading
members of parliament and cabinet officials sport long, bloody records of human
rights abuses. Rapists and serious criminals regularly bribe their way out of
prison. Warlords and militia commanders run wild in the north, regularly raping
young girls and snatching the land of villagers with impunity. Earlier this
year newspapers revealed that President Hamid Karzai pardoned a pair of such
militiamen accused of bayonet-raping a young woman.
What Karzai does hardly matters, though. After all, his government barely
functions. Most of the country is carved up into fiefdoms run by small-time
commanders. A U.S. intelligence report in the spring of 2008 estimated that
the central government then controlled just 30% of the country, and many say
even that is now an optimistic assessment.
Drive a few miles outside Kabul and the roads are controlled by bandits, off-duty
cops, or anyone else with a gun and an eye for a quick buck. The Karzai government's
popularity has plummeted to such levels that, believe it or not, many Afghans
in Kabul wax nostalgic for the days of Dr. Mohammad Najibullah, the country's
last Communist dictator. "That government was cruel and indifferent, but at
least they gave us something," an Afghan friend typically told me. The Karzai
government provides almost no social services, expending all its efforts just
trying to keep itself together.
Power abhors a vacuum, and so, in those areas where central government rule
has crumbled, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan – the Taliban government
– is rising in its place. In Wardak, a province bordering Kabul Province,
the Taliban has a stable foothold, complete with a shadow government of mayors
and police chiefs. In Logar, another of Kabul's neighboring provinces, some
"government-controlled" areas consist of the home of the district head, the
NATO installation down the road – and nothing else.
With the rise of the Taliban in these areas comes their notorious brand of
justice. Shadow courts now dispense Taliban-style draconian judgments and punishments
in many districts and ever more locals are turning to them to settle disputes,
either out of fear or because they are far more efficient than the corrupt government
courts. The Taliban recently chopped off the ears of a schoolteacher in Zabul
province for working for the government. They gunned down a popular drummer
in Ghazni simply for playing music in public. Even the infamous public executions
are back. The Taliban recently invited journalists to watch the execution of
a pair of women on prostitution charges.
The Taliban are as uninterested in social services and human rights as the
Karzai government or the international forces, but they know how to turn a world
of poverty, insecurity, and death from laser-guided missiles to their advantage.
This is how the Islamic Emirate spreads, like so many weeds at first, poking
out of areas where the government has failed. As the central government spins
towards irrelevancy, the whole south and east of Afghanistan is becoming a thicket
of Taliban before our very eyes.
A War to be Lost
One night the Taliban raided a police check post near my Kabul home, killing
three policemen. The following morning, when a police contingent arrived on
the scene to investigate, a bomb that the rebels had cleverly hidden at the
site exploded and killed two more of them. I arrived shortly afterwards to find
pieces of charred flesh littering the ground and a mangled, burnt out police
van sitting overturned on a pile of rubble.
The raid didn't make much news at the time, but it was actually the deepest
the insurgents had penetrated the capital since they were overthrown seven years
ago. They have dispatched many individual suicide bombers into the capital and
rocketed it as well from time to time, but never had they marched in as an attacking
force on foot. When I told an Afghan colleague that I couldn't believe the Taliban
were coming into Kabul this way, he responded: "Coming? They've been here. They
were just waiting for the government and the U.S. to fail."
Failure is a notion now preoccupying the Western leadership of this war, which
is why they are scrambling for yet another "surge" solution.
Of course, the Taliban won't be capturing Kabul anytime soon; the international
forces are much too powerful to topple militarily. But the Americans can't defeat
the Taliban either; the guerrillas are too deeply rooted in a country scarred
by no jobs, no security, and no hope. The result is a war of attrition, with
the Americans planning to pour yet more fuel on the flames by throwing in more
soldiers next year.
This is a war to be won by constructing roads, creating jobs, cleaning up
the government, and giving Afghans something they've had preciously little of
in the last 30 years: hope. However, hope is fading fast here, and that's a
fact Washington can ill afford to ignore; for once the Afghans lose all hope,
the Americans will have lost this war.
Anand Gopal writes frequently about Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the "War
on Terror." He is a correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, based in
Afghanistan. For more of his information and dispatches from the region, visit
Copyright 2008 Anand Gopal