- One of the advantages of being an "old hand"
in the Middle East or Central Asia is that almost anything one does conjures
up memories that make for interesting contrasts. My first visit to Afghanistan
back in 1962 began by car, driving up the Khyber Pass from Pakistan. I
was accompanying Governor Chester Bowles, then "the President's Representative
for Europe, Asia and Latin America," that is, the holder of a title
but with no real authority. As befit his title, we had an American military
airplane but, as governed by the reality of his lack of power, it had broken
down. So we drove. I liked that better since I had poured over Kipling
as a boy, and the Khyber was, of course, where the wild tribesmen hung
- They still do. We didn't then see any of them, but read
the signs of the passing of the British and Indian regiments carved into
the rocks. It was a wonderful way to reach Kabul. And it was a portent
of the future.
- In those days, Kabul was a rather sleepy little city
of about 50,000, roughly the size of the Fort Worth, Texas into which I
was born. Fort Worth was cleaner but Kabul was far more interesting. And
it had the most marvelous rug stores. It was also the jumping off place
for my 2,000 mile trip around the country by Jeep, horseback and the occasional
plane. I fell in love with Afghanistan from the first. To me it is "the
- My second visit was a decade later. Kabul had hardly
changed but the regime had. Afghanistan was in a sort of golden age of
reform. Everyone was full of hope. The markets were full of furs, rugs
and the melons Babur Shah thought worth more than all of India, Hippies,
then known as "world travelers," flooded into the country equipped
with their parents' credit cards to the delight of local merchants. But
what was really impressive was the university. Filled with earnest young
men and bright, alert and daringly dressed young women, it had an air of
- Today's entry into Kabul is not less exciting but is
- The "advised" way to go these days is by air
from Dubai. The take-off point is Dubai airport which is a huge shopping
mall, almost entirely manned by Filipino expatriates, with attached airlines
from every part of the world. So large is the terminal that I was taken
from the lounge of the feeder airline, Safi, to the gate by one of those
little electric carts that are now standard airport transport. Even the
speedy cart took a quarter of an hour to make the trip.
- Settling back in my seat on the Safi plane, a modern
Airbus with pilots of dubious background (one moved over from, as he put,
"Libya, you know Qaddafi") I flipped through the airline magazine.
There, instead of the usual ads for perfume and watches, were advertisements
for fully armored cars
- You are moving in a dangerous region, you find yourself
in the wrong place at the wrong time, within a matter of seconds; your
vehicle has become a target. Not a problem if you have to have an armored
vehicle from GSGGSG's armoring provides you with valuable time, enough
for you to grasp the situation, assess the threat and be able to react
- German Support Group.com.
- If this did not make you want to rush to Afghanistan,
the airline magazine also provided enticing pictures of shattered buildings.
- My reading complete, I was ready for Kabul's "International
Airport." It was even more spartan than the airport I knew in the
1970s, but this time, as we moved toward the terminal, we paraded past
dozens of planes of other airlines. To judge by the tarmac, it was bustling.
What was particularly striking was that Kabul is the "hub" of
a United Nations virtual airline of helicopters and jets. And, although
the Americans run a far larger airport at Bagram, their planes and particularly
their jets, overflow into Kabul. Nothing like that was to be seen in my
- When we got into the terminal, I found the Afghans to
be still the same polite and welcoming people I had known in previous trips.
Then signs began to appear of the ugliness of civil war. I would see many
such signs in the days ahead, but a hint came in the first minutes. I was
met outside the customs by an American embassy expediter. He had been expecting
me, he said. We shook hands; then he sat down. Or rather squatted since
there were no chairs. Why were we not walking out to the car? I waited
for him to speak, but he just motioned me to sit. Slightly annoyed, I asked
what we were waiting for. He replied that he had seven other arriving Americans
to escort into Kabul. They were just a trickle in the daily flood. Indeed,
it appeared that half Kabul was made up of new American arrivals. However,
the expediter, seeking to assuage my impatience, rather proudly said that
I had been honored with a special car. Then why, I asked, could I not just
get in and go. "Ah," he said, "it is not that easy."
It turned out that not even embassy cars were allowed to within about two
hundred yards of the terminal, so everyone had to walk from the exit to
the guarded car park. And, naturally, as "nature" is defined
these days in Kabul, one could not do that without an escort.
- First lesson: nothing in Afghanistan is easy.
- Before I got to Kabul, I had received an email from the
escort officer assigned to me, saying that since Kabul is a "high
danger" area, the embassy wanted me to rent from a private security
company known as "Afghan Logistics" an armored Toyota "4
Runner" and hire both an armed security guard and a bullet proof vest
at 20,000 Afs (roughly $450) daily. I was to be reassured that the rates
included the driver's salary, fuel and taxes. No bullets were stipulated.
I guess they were extra. However, the daily rate was only for 8 hours and
overtime was at double rate, Kabul being presumably more dangerous at night.
But my embassy escort officer said, these arrangements were both necessary
and standard procedure, and with them I would thus be reasonably well protected.
- I declined. My doing so was not a sign of bravery but
a calculation that such a display would mark me as a worthwhile target.
- Flashing through my mind were memories of experiences
in other "high danger" areas. I had arrived in Algiers in 1962
shortly before the return of President-designate Ahmad Ben Bella (and met
him at the airport with our ambassador-designate). During that confused
and nearly frantic week, when the French had more or less completely pulled
out and the "external" army of the Provisional Algerian Government
had not yet taken over, the "internal" or wilayah guerrillas
were not only settling scores with the French and the Algerians who had
collaborated with them, but also with one another. The wilayah underground
fighters were impressive fellows; they had fought an army 30 times their
size and had worn it down, but almost none of them could read. So documents
were more objects of suspicion than passes. A smile and a handshake were
better than passports. But many people, particularly those associated with
the Organisation Armée Secrète, had little experience in
smiling and if their hands shook it was because they were carrying heavy
weapons. Not surprisingly, CIA sources indicated that in those few days
some 16,000 people were "disappeared." Yet, I felt safe walking
around the city. Two years later in Saigon, I watched a fire-fight one
night from the Embassy roof, standing next to former Vice President and
then Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge. Everyone even then knew that the Viet
Minh "owned the night." But, during the day, I felt no hesitation
in walking about the city.
- * * *
- Kabul today provides a very different experience from
those. First of all, signs of danger are all about. Thousands of armed
private security guards from many nationalities as well as Afghans are
scattered throughout the city on virtually every block. Cars are checked
at intersections by Kalashnikov-wielding Afghan policemen or men who I
assumed to be police although some I saw were not in anything resembling
a uniform. Never mind the "bad guys," gun toting policemen, many
said to be high on drugs and virtually all untrained, were enough of a
- Most Kabulis feel that menace, since Kabul is said to
be now under the control of President Karzai's police, and the police are
rough with civilians and often shake them down. But the 140,000 American
and American-led troops and the scores of thousands of mercenaries and
private security guards pay no attention to the police. Nor, as I was to
find, do various privileged Afghans. Anyone who counts has his own private
army. So, taken as a whole, the 50,000 or so "security" forces
constitute a new virtual nation or actually nations, plural -- as
they come from everywhere, Gurkhas from Nepal, Malays, Samoans, various
Latinos and Europeans with a mixture of what looked like a delegation from
an American weight-lifting club -- alongside of Afghanistan's already complex
mix of nations.<#_ftn1>
- President Karzai would like to rid Afghanistan of the
"private security forces," whom he accuses of fostering corruption
and committing human rights violations. He announced as I began my tale
on August 17 that he will abolish these private armies within four months,
withdrawing their visas, expelling them and closing down the 50 or more
firms that hire them, but he probably cannot. They are "embedded"
with our military and with all the diplomatic missions and the Afghan power
- Without any sense of irony, diplomats and generals admit
that they do so actually to protect their own officials and even their
soldiers. Our ambassador, to cite one example, travels with a guard of
mercenaries rather than one of Marines who, in my days in government, were
charged with guarding the embassies. British Deputy Ambassador Tom Dodd
told me, with what I thought was a flash of pride, that the British had
a ratio of 1 mercenary for each Englishman whereas the American ratio was
3 to 1. The numbers are so large, I asked him to account for them. "Money,"
he replied. "They are cheaper than regular soldiers."
- I find that hard to believe. It must be a toss-up. Each
soldier costs us $1 million a year, but foreign (as distinct from Afghan)
mercenaries earn $1,000 or more day just in salaries, not counting housing
and food, transportation several times a year back and forth to their homes
and, perhaps most significant, life insurance.
- So much for the foreigners, so why do Afghans hire bodyguards?
Partly prestige, no doubt, but also because of a genuine fear of private
vendetta or assassination by one or other of the scores or even hundreds
of warlords. These men cannot, or at least do not, trust the regular police
to protect them. Having a dozen or so gunmen is also the road to riches.
And, most believe, it is the best way to stay alive to enjoy those riches.
- But it isn't just the rich and powerful whose condottierri
lord it over the ordinary Afghans: assorted other gunmen, including
unemployed young men and even off-duty policemen, routinely shake down
passers-by, shop keepers and even households. Scruffy fellows they may
be, but loaded down with Kalashnikov machineguns, grenades and pistols,
and cavalier about reading government documents, they pose an implicit
threat to almost everyone. The "on-duty" police can do nothing
about them because no one can tell who they are or who stands behind them
ministers, heads of government departments, bigger warlords or the
- Let me dilate on that. We think of the Taliban as a coherent
unit. No doubt it is partly that. But it is diversified in command structure
because of the weakness of their embattled communication system. So whatever
the "center," which is presumed to be far away in Quetta, Pakistan,
decides may not be known in a timely fashion, if at all, by more or less
isolated cadres. Moreover, the organization has many, perhaps not always
wanted, part-time volunteers. Although they may operate in the name of
the Taliban. Many of these people are not auxiliaries but opportunists.
Because of an insult or the presence of a target, groups of young thugs
often carry out assaults or kidnappings on their own. Such events are different
from the well-planned attacks (like the one on this hotel a few years ago)
involving suicide bombers and commando units. The aim of the independents
is not political; it is either revenge or money, or both. This makes their
- Unpredictable it is but it is more or less ever-present.
It comes not only from these casual thugs, the Taliban or even other major
insurgent groups. Indeed, almost anyone with enough money or willing kinsmen
can set himself up as a "power broker." A Washington Post reporter
earlier this month wrote about what must be a fairly typical minor strongman
whom she described as "an illiterate, hashish-producing former warlord
who directs a semiofficial police forcehe is also a key partner of US forces."
He has 40 "soldiers" and rules only about 4 square miles. So
you have all the elements: drugs, protection money, command over a small
piece of the supply route and alliance with US forces.
- Groups like this are all over the country and in the
aggregate the payoff to them is huge. An American Congressional investigation
entitled "Warlord, Inc., Extortion and Corruption Along the U.S. Supply
Chain in Afghanistan," published in June this year, showed that to
implement a $2.16 billion transport contract the US military is paying
tens of millions of dollars to warlords, corrupt public officials and (indirectly)
the Taliban to ensure safe passage of its supply convoys throughout the
country." Dexter Filkins of The New York Times (who incidentally won
a George Polk Award) put it bluntly, "With U.S. Aid, Warlord
Builds an Afghan Empire." He described "an illiterate former
highway patrol commander [who] has grown stronger than the government of
Oruzgan Province, not only supplanting its role in providing security but
usurping its other functions, his rivals say, like appointing public employees
and doling out government largess. His fighters run missions with American
Special Forces officers, and when Afghan officials have confronted him
he has either rebuffed them or had them removed." How did he do it?
Money. Filkins points out that his company charges $1,200 for each NATO
cargo truck to which it gives safe passage and so makes about $2.5 million
a month. How does he get away with it? As Filkins wrote, "His militia
has been adopted by American Special Forces officers to gather intelligence
and fight insurgents."
- Afghanistan today is somewhat like medieval Italy, a
land of warlords. The big ones are just the more impressive of hundreds
if not thousands of small bosses, some with only a dozen "guns,"
who operate in a single neighborhood or along a short stretch of road.
While many are involved in the drug trade, others draw their funds from
offering protection or engaging in casual kidnapping. They are known to
work with or at least around the police or even, themselves, may be part-time
members of the police force and/or private security details. I imagine
that every Afghan knows who's who in his neighborhood, but an outsider
can easily blunder into a messy situation. Canny outsiders, like the members
of the resident press corps, as Dexter Filkins later told me, feel relatively
safe because they know where not to go.
- In two ways, this is a very old system in the Middle
East. In the cities, merchants kept a sort of peace because they wanted
people to visit their shops, but Nineteenth century European and native
travelers in outlying areas often "rented" free passage from
local lords. Payment for passage is common and very profitable, as
the Congressional study made clear -- today in Afghanistan. Trucks moving
fuel or supplies, even for the American Army, almost anywhere in the country
do so by paying off the local strongmen. The American command is criticized
for this practice, but it is notable that even when they supposedly ruled
Afghanistan, the Taliban engaged in the same practice. What is new is that
this system has spread to the cities. Even restaurants are fenced in with
huge concrete walls and steel gates and "rent" protection.
- I went Thursday evening to a little Lebanese restaurant
called "The Taverna" for dinner with Dexter Filkins. I found
it to be packed with people. The owner happened to be from the Lebanese
Shuf mountains. On a silly impulse, I asked him if he were a Junbalti or
a Yazbaki. He looked astonished and asked how I knew of such things. When
I replied that I had written a book on his land, he sent over dish after
dish, "on the house." Nevertheless, the meal was fairly expensive.
The reason was obvious: four armed men, in fact moonlighting policemen,
were guarding the entrance. They are the new thing not bouncers but
- The biggest doorstop of all, of course, is the American
embassy. Embassy is hardly the right word. It is a vast urban fortress,
a city in its own right. Indeed, it is now the largest in the world with
roughly 1,000 civilians and is flanked by a military garrison that is far
larger and a comparable but unmentioned CIA complex. The American "city"
has its own water purification and electrical system, roads, dormitories,
offices, shops, coffee houses and an "eating facility." (It would
be libelous to call it a restaurant). Virtually every piece of the American
bureaucracy representatives of more than 60 agencies -- is in residence.
And by residence I mean working, eating, sleeping, exercising, and being
entertained. I spoke to several people who had left the grounds only a
few times in their one- or two-year tours of duty. They are not allowed
to walk anywhere in Kabul (or elsewhere) but must go only in armored cars,
wearing a full suit of body armor and helmet.
- The Embassy compound is less than a mile from the airport,
but to get there is to run an obstacle course through a man-made valley
of high, concrete blast walls. Every few yards is a steel telegraph poll
to be raised, a group of security guards to be satisfied, a guard dog to
sniff the car's contents, a mine detector to be run under it. Then, as
each barrier is passed, the driver zigzags, like a giant slalom skier,
around massive concrete blocks to the next check point. I counted half
a dozen. At each check point the identification procedure starts all over
again to satisfy a new group of sober-faced, heavily-armed mercenaries.
I particularly noted that in addition to their weapons, each man carried
in his flak jacket at least a dozen extra clips of bullets ready,
no doubt for a prolonged siege. Overhead, a sausage-shaped balloon equipped
with sensors keeps watch on the entire city and helicopters circle frequently.
Armored cars and machinegun nests are discretely scattered about. No wonder
the Afghans believe they are under occupation and that the Americans intend
to stay. Not your typical happy neighborhood.
- I had been invited to spend my first night as a guest
of Ambassador Lt. General (rtd.) Karl Eikenberry and his charming wife,
Ching. I will come back to them in a few moments, but I want first to continue
with the physical aspect of life in Kabul.
- Since Senator John Kerry had swooped in, unannounced
until the last minute, I had to move over to a hotel on the morning of
my second day in town. Getting there was not easy, but (obviously to clear
the way for the Senator my threat to become Republican did not save
my bed) the embassy "speeded" me on my way in an armored car
with an American-employed Afghan guide.
- * * *
- Muhammad Naeem Anis is a graduate student of law in Kabul
University who works for the US AID mission, As we drove toward the hotel
along the nearly empty Kabul River, he pointed out the window at the swirling,
densely packed, but surprisingly polite mass of people, many obviously
poor but to my eye with no beggars among them, and said, "this is
- My first thought was that he meant that they or we were
in peril from the chaotic torrent of trucks and cars. That seemed a good
guess since many showed the scars of previous encounters. Then I thought
he might have meant that we could be caught in a riot, like an Embassy
car, driven by contractors from the mercenary firm DynCorps, was last month,
killed four people. In that instance the latent anger of the Afghans boiled
over with a crowd shouting "death to the Americans." We might
be lynched if we ran over one of the pedestrians. That also seemed highly
likely. It was obvious that anger was there, just under the surface and
that it could easily be set off.
- The explosive mixture as at hand: Neither pedestrians
nor cars paid any noticeable attention to one another. No give was offered
at any point by anyone, but somehow each driver knew when he was defeated
just before a collision would have happened. The men and often-burque-ed
women pedestrians performed as though in a Spanish bullfight. The "bulls"
tore along, dashing around or between one another when they could, diving
into temporary gaps, passing on both sides without any notion of on-coming
traffic or of the presumed lanes into which the road might be divided,
while the pedestrians, like toreadors, nimbly dodged in and out (of if
old, blind or one-legged as a number I saw were, entrusted themselves to
God's mercy). Accidents were surprisingly few; I saw only two in a quarter
of an hour. Sitting often in jams when traffic congealed with both streams
head to head with one another, it struck me that if the Taliban attacked,
they would have no chance to get away. Traffic may be Kabul's most effective
- But I was missing Mr. Anis's point. He was giving me
my first lesson in Afghan politics. It wasn't traffic regulation but the
rule of law that he was thinking about. He went on: "we have laws,
very good laws, but no means of enforcing them. These people," he
gestured toward the closed and locked window, "don't even know that
we have a constitution and certainly don't know what their rights are,
while the rich and powerful, who do know that we have a constitution and
laws, don't pay any attention to them. They just do what they want and
take whatever they like. And there is no one to stop them."
- I asked if this was also true in Taliban-controlled areas.
Without the slightest hesitation, he said, "no. It is not. There is
no corruption where the Taliban are in control."
- When we arrived outside the Serena hotel (which incidentally
is owned by the Aga Khan), we were stopped by the first group of armed
guards outside its battlements. They were more tightly spaced but even
more impressive than those at the embassy. Blankly before us was a wall
made of a 30 foot-high steel gate. As we were identified by a group of
guards, the gate was slid back on its rollers. Slowly we drove in. There
we were stopped by a steel poll and faced a second high steel gate. Then
the outer gate was rolled shut. There was just enough space between them
for a large car. Locked securely from behind, the car was checked with
a mine detector for bombs. Then the pole was raised and the second steel
gate was opened. We were in, or at least the embassy armored car was in.
Then the steel panel at the rear of the car was opened to reveal my suitcases
which, in turn, were passed through a detection system. My little camera
was particularly worrying to the security guard, but finally he shrugged
and let it (and me) through.
- Then to the "front desk" to register. Despite
the view through the glass window of the dozen or so guards, laden with
their weapons, milling around the driveway and five others more or less
discretely, but with bulging double-vented suit coats, standing around
the hall, everything began to seem just like a normal hotel. Except, as
I scanned the parking lot, I could see that the gates were fixed to even
higher concrete walls. They were, I guessed, 40 to 50 feet high. I would
later have a chance to see that the whole hotel and its charming Persian-style
garden, an area of perhaps ten acres, was surrounded by a similar wall
of which most was capped with additional barriers or razor wire. The Serena
Hotel, whatever else it may be, is a castle.
- Mr. Anis accompanied me to my room. I thought this showed
a somewhat excessive concern for my security since we were surely as safe
as walls and gates and guards could make us, but his move turned out to
have another meaning -- as so much in Afghanistan these days seems to have.
This is Ramadan, the month of fasting, and Mr. Anis could not eat or drink
in public so he asked, rather sheepishly, if I would be so kind as to order
him a sandwich and a Coca-Cola in the privacy of my room.
- I was glad I did because this gave us a chance to talk
rather more freely than in the embassy car which, I presume he thought
was bugged. He told me that while the Shiis, of which sect he belonged,
also keep the fast of Ramadan, he did not. He did not explain but from
other experiences I gather this was in part his way of saying that he was
a modern, educated man.
- As we waited for the sandwich, he told me a bit about
his life. He could not, he said, admit that he worked for the Americans.
And certainly not for the Embassy. So he told his family that he worked
for a private construction firm. He was afraid to visit his native province,
in the Tajik area, because even a Tajik relative might denounce him to
the Taliban for collaboration with the Americans. However, he said, since
his wife was from the same area, he sometimes had to return, but he dreaded
- I asked about his roots. His father, he said, had been
a doctor who was chased out during the Russian occupation; so Mr. Anis
grew up a refugee camp in Peshawar like hundreds of thousands of other
Afghans. When the Russians pulled out of Afghanistan in 1989, his family
moved back and settled in Kabul. Since Kabul has grown from a city of about
50,000 in 1980 to 5 million today, his is a common experience.
- I shamelessly used our wait for the sandwich and coke
to pursue our talk in the car about the rule of law. What about property?
- "There is no security in property," he said.
"If a person owns, for example, a house, and the local strongman wants
it, he just tells the owner to get out. The owner has no choice. If he
does not obey, he is apt to be beaten or killed. There is no recourse through
government even if the owner has all the proper papers."
- But much "private" property, he explained,
is not registered. It is either what people took over during the civil
wars or is owned by custom, perhaps generation after generation. Under
the circumstances of lawlessness, however, the distinction between registered
and unregistered property is meaningless since neither can be upheld by
- This is true, he continued, even of government property.
If the "intruder" is powerful enough, that is well enough connected
to one or other of the inner circle, he can simply take over government
lands or buildings. Then even government officials can do nothing to make
him vacate. In fact, he may be a minister himself, a member of the "inner
- * * *
- The inner circle includes but is not limited to the Hazara
Vice President, Karim Khalili; Kabir Mohabat, an Afghan with American citizenship;
"Marshal" and now Vice President Muhammad Qasim Fahim, a Tajik;
and "Marshal" Abdul Rashid Dostum, the Uzbek warlord who disdains
any government post but is the President's "right hand;"<#_ftn2>
Zara Ahmad Mobil who ran what is regarded as the most corrupt organization
in Afghanistan, the Ministry of Interior, and (as an editorial in The Guardian
put it) "is now in charge of the opium industry;" and, of course,
the Karzai family. In their meeting with Senator John Kerry, the American
press corps bluntly described the regime as Afghanistan's native mafia.
- President Karzai was himself described, in two dispatches
in November 2009 from our Ambassador to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
(which were leaked to The New York Times and published in January 2010),
with great diplomatic caution, as "not an adequate strategic partner."
After being dressed down by President Obama for doubting Karzai's integrity
or rather not being willing to overlook it in order to get on with the
war and to get along with General McChrystal, Ambassador Eikenberry, now
is even more cautious. At least in public. As I will later point out, in
our late night chat on the embassy terrace, he was more realistic. But,
he the points out that Karzai is all we have as an alternative to the Taliban.
In short we are in a position not unlike the one we faced in Vietnam.
- As a general, Eikenberry was a previous commander of
the then smaller American force in Afghanistan. Prior to that he was the
military attaché in the American embassy in Beijing, under my friend
Ambassador Chas Freeman. Eikenberry's charming wife, Ching, is from China's
far northeast and so is of partly Mongol background.
- A scholarly, intelligent, hard-driving and honest man,
Eikenberry tries to be optimistic; that goes with the job. He has to be
optimistic no matter what he feels to keep up the spirits of his staff,
but in his confidential dispatches of last November, he wrote, "The
proposed troop increase [the "surge"] will bring vastly increased
costs and an indefinite, large-scale U.S. military role in Afghanistan,
generating the need for yet more civilians. An increased U.S. and foreign
role in security and governance will increase Afghan dependencyand it will
deepen the military involvement in a mission that most agree cannot be
won solely by military meansPerhaps the charts we have all seen showing
the U.S. presence rising and then dropping off in coming year in a bell
curve will prove accurate. It is more likely, however, that these forecasts
are imprecise and optimistic."
- Here I do not want to go into detail on our private talk
on the Embassy roof, which lasted until midnight, because I am writing
a paper for him, based on my study and my talks here, on what I think we
must now do. Let me just say that I do not believe he has changed his November
assessment. Indeed, both he and all the knowledgeable people with whom
I have talked believe the situation is far more dire now than last year.
It is not just the statistics on casualties and wounded, although they
show an accelerating downward trend and the wounded, in particular, are
much more numerous than is reported and their wounds are both more grievous
and much more expensive to compensate for. (A person with a head injury
will cost the Treasury over his lifetime about $5 million in medical bills.
Such costs are not figured into the figures given out by the Defense Department
on the cost of the war.) But, it is clear that we do not have a coherent
or long-term strategy and are trying to make up for that deficiency by
throwing money and people into the fray more or less without
any way of judging whether they help achieve or prevent us from achieving
our vague objectives. Meanwhile, the Afghans appear to be sick and tired
- So back to my first informant, Mr. Anis. When I asked
him about the local feeling toward the Americans he was so guarded that
I did not press my question. All he felt he could say was that there are
too many and their constant presence and display of power are galling.
But Ambassador Eikenberry, he said, was personally very popular. Why? I
pressed. "He goes everywhere without a big escort, and the Afghans
like that," was his reply. Eikenberry later told me that he tried
to appear often even in the supposedly unsafe market area with only a couple
of bodyguards whom he kept as unobtrusive as possible. I don't know whether
the Afghans admired his bravery or were just happy that he was not flaunting
his power. But, whatever the reason, I was to hear repeatedly that he is
- In my day with him, I was astonished by his performance.
It was the very embodiment of the Washington adage: "the urgent drives
out the important." Managing his vast staff, including four subordinate
ambassadors (talk about bureaucratic inflation I have never heard
of an American embassy with more than one ambassador!), over 60 US agencies
(over many of which he is not in ultimate command) and a thousand people,
meeting daily with General Petraeus and his senior officers, holding frequent
conferences with the Afghan press and influential Afghans, giving sometimes
several speeches a day, escorting and briefing visiting VIPs like Senator
John Kerry, meeting with, listening to and admonishing President Karzai,
and touring the ubiquitous trouble spots and even, while I was there, walking
the four-mile perimeter of the embassy walls to personally check out the
security arrangement, he is run ragged. I sat in on the briefing of his
"country team." There he was the coach, trying to build morale;
the teacher, urging the men and women from agencies not under his control
to get "out into the field" and to show more sensitivity to the
Afghans; and the diplomat, complimenting each person by name for some act
he had heard about. It was a remarkable performance. Then he rushed off
to meet Kerry, flew with him to a remote post, assembled the American press
corps for a briefing, and in the evening held a dinner for the entire Afghan
television station owners and reporters at which he gave another speech.
As I chided him, he never has time to sit back and think about what all
our frantic activities are really all about. He must have been alarmed
to hear Senator John Kerry say in an interview here in Kabul on August
19, "We have to remember that this is the beginning, just the beginning"
- * * *
- From reflecting on our, the American, problems, I went
to pay a call on Dr. Sima Samar. She is the head of the Afghanistan Independent
Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) and a highly articulate, intelligent and
well informed person. She also must be physically and morally brave because
the environment in which she operates is incredibly difficult and she has
not real power.
- As I was getting used to doing, I arrived at her office
gate which, like so much of Kabul today, is massive and steel. A peep hole,
like one might see on the cell door of violent prisoners in a jail, was
pushed open several inches so I and my embassy guide could be scrutinized.
Several minutes passed. Then a section of the massive gate was swung open
to let the two of us inside. Once we were identified, the full gate was
swung back to enable our embassy car, also identified, with suitable painted
messages and a sort of inside license plate in place of a sun visor, to
be driven in. Then the gate was rolled shut.
- As in most of the other buildings, heavily armed
Kalashnikov automatic rifles, hand grenades, pistols, flak jackets, helmets,
radios, etc. guards eyed us balefully. They were Afghans. Then an
unarmed civilian appeared, half bowed, shook hands and said hoda hafez.
Turning, he led me, but not my Afghan companion Mr. Anis, up a narrow flight
of stairs onto a non-descript and rather threadbare landing. It was in
stunning contrast to the massive "security" outside. My first
thought was 'all this protection for so little!'
- Then Dr. Samar emerged, seized my hand and led me into
her crowded office. She is an impressive woman, bright eyed, with a ready
smile, of (I guess) 60 years. She had somehow read about me so our preliminaries
were very brief, just the mention of mutual friends, particularly the grand
lady of Afghanistan, my friend Nancy Dupree, who had particularly urged
me to see her. Then without the usual offer of tea (since it is Ramadan),
we got down to business.
- The situation here, she said, is really neither black
nor white. In some ways it is better than it was a few years ago, but the
real opportunity was missed in 2002 when the Taliban had been defeated.
Had a relatively small American force been left here then, an acceptable
level of security could have been created and maintained. Today, she went
on -- as I found in most of my talks, everyone began on an optimistic note
and soon this faded into a somber mood -- today, the real casualty is hope.
People today do not believe that an acceptable level of security can be
- The fundamental problem, she said, is the warlords. They
are so deep into the drug trade, are making so much money, and are so tied
into the government at the very top that there is little hope for any sort
of reform. Putting in more troops will not accomplish anything.
- But, then, to my surprise, she went on to say that the
Afghan army and police force are really improving. They need time. Will
they get it? She asked me. I said that I doubted that, despite US government
statements, the American commitment was open-ended. Indeed, America itself
is so beset by financial problems that the mood is shifting. She nodded
- Then our conversation virtually began anew. From warlords
and improvement of the security forces, she shifted to what obviously is
the bottom line: the issue of corruption. Can the regime survive? Many
people here -- but not she, she matter-of-factually said have dual
nationality. They send their children abroad, a son in England, another
or a daughter in the US or Canada, etc. and perhaps their wives as
well. They also send along with them or at least to foreign banks as much
money as they can. The reason why they do is simple, they have little trust
in the existing government and less in the future. Why not? She asked.
They have nothing to fall back on. What they are doing is personally prudent
even if it is nationally disastrous.
- As I listened, my mind went back to Vietnam. Afghanistan
is in so many ways Vietnam redux. Everyone is preparing his bolt hole and
wants to be sure that it is well padded with money. Afghan Minister of
Finance Umar Zakhilwal admitted that during the last three years over $4
billion billion -- in cash had been flown out of Afghanistan in suitcases
and footlockers (like I thought only Mexican drug dealers used) destined
for private accounts or persons abroad. While money in those amounts has
a serious effect on the faltering Afghan economy, what is even more important
is that it shows that commitment to this regime and to Afghanistan is fragile
and declining among the inner circle, Afghanistan's power elite.
- Back to Dr. Samar. What else, could she put her finger
on? I asked.
- "Foreign corruption," she said. "Oh, of
course, it is not the same kind. But when a contract is awarded to a foreign
company and it then either does a bad job or does not finish its work and
yet exports 80% or 90% of the contract funds, is that not also corruption?
We would understand even 50% but few take that little. Is that not corruption
too? But you Americans pay little attention to it; yet it serves as a model
for our people.
- "Even when corruption is not involved," she
continued, "there are two tendencies that undercut the benefit your
actions might have brought. The first is the use of machines. Of course,
I know," she went on, "machines are faster and may even do a
more beautiful job, but they displace labor. And unemployment is one of
our most serious problems. It would be far better to use shovels and give
- "Also bad is the tendency of your contractors to
draw on labor from outside the place where a project is undertaken. Of
course, contractors draw on the cheapest source of labor. So they might
use Tajiks to do a project in a Hazara area, for example. Then the local
people have no sense that it is theirs. We see this often. But, if a road,
for example, is built in a village by local people, they feel it is somehow
theirs and will take care of it. But Americans show no sensitivity to Afghans
and their way of living."
- Nothing was to be gained, she said, by adding more troops.
There are already probably far too many. Each new soldier gives rise to
a new Talib. And troops do not address the core issue.
- But, she was not in favor of a total withdrawal at this
time. Time , she said, must be given to enable the police force, at least,
to improve. That, she agreed, was not much solace but it was the best that
could realistically be offered from here.
- * * *
- I next went to see the Deputy Special Representative
of the UN Secretary General, the former German Ambassador to Iraq, Martin
Kobler. His immediate superior, Steaffan de Mistura, a friend of my good
friend and neighbor, Samir Basta, who was his boss had told me that he
is an excellent man and here, I found he is said to be one of the best
informed men in town Unfortunately, he was away on leave, so Ambassador
Kobler filled in.
- Ambassador Kobler's headquarters, UNAMA, was understandably
under massive protection. No UN person could forget the killing of the
UN team in Baghdad, including my dear friend, Nadia Younes, who had just
been appointed Assistant Secretary General for the UN General Assembly.
How and why this tragedy happened is a story I will tell at another time,
but here it is memorialized in concrete, steel and a small army of guards.
- Ambassador Kobler launched into our talk by emphasizing
how the UN people moved out around Afghanistan. He did not say it, but
almost everyone else I spoke to did: the Americans stay huddled in their
compounds. Even when they are in "the field," they don't get
out and around very much. It is mainly to move its workers around that
the UN maintains the "airline" I saw when I landed in Kabul.
Kobler himself, he said, tries to make at least one trip a week, often
two, outside of Kabul to one or more of the 40 some odd project headquarters
the UN maintains.
- As most of the officials I met were to do, Kobler started
rather sanguine about the current situation, but slowly retreated into
major worry about how to reconcile the two and contradictory objects of
the essentially American policy -- the thrust to build up a central authority
(which, as he said, violates the national genius of the Afghans) while
working with the manifestations of local autonomy (which is the Afghan
tradition). The Americans, he commented, are trying to swim against the
tide of Afghan history by their emphasis on central authority. Afghanistan
always had a weak central authority that allowed the provinces much freedom
- But the Americans are even carrying out their own policy
ineffectively, he said. About 80% of all aid funds flow outside the control
of the central government so effectively the American program (as in Vietnam)
substitutes itself for the central government and so in the eyes of the
public diminishes it. Later I was to hear from the director of our AID
program, Earl Gast, that actually 92% of aid money bypassed the central
government. It was now down to 80% and his, Gast's, objective was to reduce
it to 25%. It is cleaner that way, of course, but it shows Afghans that
they do not have a government other than us.
- Kobler continued: since the American military has virtually
all the disposable money, and the Afghans regard America as intending to
dominate the country into the future, they regard all foreign aid efforts
as a tactic of the war -- as General Petraeus is endlessly quoted as saying,
"money is my main ammunition."
- These thoughts led us into the issue of our Afghan traditions
versus ours. To work here in any capacity, he said, we must be sensitive
to Afghan traditions, which we often are not. Every time our soldiers bang
on a door, or break it down, and enter a house to search for an insurgent,
going into the women's quarters and even checking on, or otherwise manhandling,
the women and children and opening up their private closets etc., which
they feel they must do as an insurgent who might kill an American the next
day, may be hiding there, the soldiers (or more likely the Special Forces)
inevitably lose that family to the Taliban or at least make them hate the
- But, at the same time, he went on, we must stand up for
the values we hold. We do and must absolutely oppose such awful acts as
stoning to death people who violate Sharia laws. There can be no give on
- Perhaps the most interesting piece of information Kobler
gave me was on the Taliban reaction to last week's UN Report on Taliban
killing or injuring Afghan civilians. Although the Taliban denounced the
report, and the UN for making it, their press release contained what Kobler
thought was a major new development: they called for the creation of an
international tribunal including the Taliban to investigate the charge.
Kobler rightly saw this as a ploy to give the Taliban a sort of recognition
as a quasi governmental "player," but admitted that it may have
lifted the veil slightly on a form of cooperation. He said, of course,
the Americans and the UN would not agree.
- I objected, wondering if there were not a way to use
this demarche. Perhaps we should remember, I said, a precedent of the Algerian
war. I laughed and said that of course no one remembered any precedents
from previous wars. He (and later others including the Russian ambassador
) agreed. Everyone said that at the start of each new year we throw away
all our memories of the actions and reactions of the past year and start
all over again.
- But what did I have in mind? He asked.
- It was not a complete analogy but some adaptation from
the Algerian war might be useful to consider. Toward the end of the Algerian
war of independence, America had a crippling diplomatic problem: .we were
closely allied to France which was fighting the Algerians, but we were
emotionally on the Algerian side and thought that, in any case, they would
prevail. The State Department was torn apart: the European Bureau wanted
to have nothing to do with the Algerians while the African Bureau was keen
to recognize them. President Kennedy hit on a typical Kennedy solution:
use the family. He sent Jackie Kennedy's half brother, Hugh Auchincloss,
up to New York to hang out at the UN. He had no official title, but he
was to be there as a friendly presence. Identified as he was with JFK,
his job was to make representatives of the Provisional Algerian Government,
which had observer status at the UN, feel welcome. I wondered if some sort
of adaptation might open up contacts with the Insurgents. Was there no
way that at least the beginnings of foundations for future bridges might
be laid? He said he doubted it.
- * * *
- From each of my forays, I found it a relief to return
to the hotel. Again, tradition. Inside the forbidding walls was a delightful
"Persian" garden, where two fountains playing into water channels
which were flanked by beds of roses. I felt back in "my" Middle
East. Alas, the one of fading memory. Then, I had dinner in the hotel courtyard,
listening to traditional Afghan music. Suddenly came the distant call to
prayer. The drummers were silenced, but the moment the call ended, they
took up their drums, not concerned about prayer time but only about the
announcement of prayer. The Taliban would have been outraged. And, as the
Russian ambassador later told me, the ambassador from the United Arab Emirates
certainly was: the accent in Arabic was terrible and the several calls
to prayer across the city paid no attention to timing. In the UAE, he said,
they pushed a button and the whole country heard one call!
- At noon the next day, I drove over to the British embassy
to see Deputy Ambassador Tom Dodd. To say the least, this is an unusual
British embassy. It is the UK's largest, although dwarfed by the American
establishment. It echoed the Americans in its elaborate security
but, to me more striking, was the abrasion of Foreign Office formality.
The email I received from one of the clerks setting up the appointment
was addressed, "Dear William," and saying that "Tom"
would be happy to see me. I thought how the British ambassador I had known
of old would be turning in their graves.
- Mr. Dodd Tom is a new arrival, and not, I
inferred from his rather vague remarks about his background, a regular
Foreign Office man. He was indeed a civil servant but of what kind I could
not tell. He was more optimistic than most of those I met. He said that
while the situation in Kandahar was the worst, some of the other cities,
such as Mazar-i-Sharif, Herat and Kunduz, were better. What distinguished
them? I asked. He said it was simply that the local warlords were more
willing to share their loot with their followers. So there was a sort of
"trickle down effect," but in Kandahar the President's half-brother
was stingy. I laughed to think how the phrase "trickle down,"
coined by my former colleagues, the Chicago economists, was applied to
- Not noticing my reaction, he said that if the programs
of his government, the US and the Afghans have five years, the situation
in Kandahar would be better.
- Not much gain for five years in that word "better,"
I replied. Moreover, I thought a more realistic time frame was 6 months
to a year. And I pointed out how a number of the very people who fervently
advocated the war, like Richard Haass, the current president of the Council
on Foreign Relations, have now turned against it. As he wrote in Newsweek
two weeks ago, "We can't win and it isn't worth it." I didn't
feel that this registered.
- When he got on to the military aspects, Dodd said he
did not interface with Petraeus, but he went on to say one positive and
one negative thing: the positive thing is that apparently there are many
fewer Special Forces night raids, although, he said, he is not privy to
them. (That too rather surprised me. As the UK's acting senior representative,
I should have thought he needed to be privy to everything that affected
the UK's position.) The negative thing is that the policy of killing off
the Taliban old guard (he pointed out that here "old" means 50)
is bringing forward younger and more violent men who have none of the experience
or subtlety of the older generation. This cannot be good, he said. I would
later hear much the same from a former senior Taliban leader, Mullah Abdul
Salam Zaeef, although he would tell me that much of the old guard is till
alive and in command.
- One interesting aspect of the government of Karzai, Dodd
said, is that he can pick up a mobile phone and call almost anyone in the
country and connect within half an hour, and, he said, "the Afghans
love to talk." So presumably Karzai is in contact almost continuously
with people all over the country.
- Despite the fall in public support in the UK for the
British position here, he said, Britain has a more important stake than
America since it has about 1 million Pakistani and 3 million Indian residents/subjects
in the UK. But, he said, with I thought something like wry amusement, in
the event of any sort of settlement, interim or otherwise, "Britain
has no money for projects of any magnitude. When it leaves, as it inevitably
must, it will be able to maintain its special forces and a training mission
for the army or police. Nothing more."
- When we got onto the cost of the war, to my surprise,
he misspoke or was totally misinformed: he said that the American war effort
here was, after all, "cheap." I must have looked astonished because
he went on to clarify his remark: it was only $7 billion a year. That is
even less than the published figure perhaps half the real cost
not for a year but for a month.
- * * *
- Speaking of money leads me to my meeting the next day,
Wednesday, August 18, with US AID Mission Director Earl W. Gast, America's
senior man on the Afghan economy.
- Gast was refreshingly candid. Also relatively new to
his job, he was proud of what he was doing. His favorite program, he said,
was the "Afghanistan's National Solidarity Program," which is
described as "the largest development program in Afghanistan and a
flagship program of the Afghan government." It was begun in 2003 and
claims to have financed over 50,000 projects in all of Afghanistan's 34
provinces. In the words of its MIT-led evaluation, the program "is
structured around two major village-level interventions: (1) the creation
of a gender-balanced Community Development Council (CDC) through a secret-ballot,
universal suffrage election; and (2) the disbursement of grants, up to
a village maximum of $60,000, to support the implementation of projects
selected, designed, and managed by the CDC in consultation with the village
community. NSP thus seeks to both improve the access of rural villagers
to critical services and to create a structure for village governance on
democratic process and the participation of women."
- Nation building in high gear! But as a jaded old hand
in reading government handouts, I asked Gast if it really made any difference.
By way of a reply he gave me the report of a study group sponsored by MIT
under contract to AID. The contractors did a random survey in 250 areas
and gave a mixed report. Their report was, indeed, the opposite of what
I would have expected: they found a strong impact on selected aspects of
village "governance" but none on economic activity. Reading closely
both what they said and what they did not say, however, I doubted that
the program had much impact on anything except on our feeling that we were
- Doing something, Gast said, was his major problem. He
is under intense pressure from Washington to show actions of almost any
- Before he arrived, he said, one of the big efforts at
doing something was down in the newly conquered province of Marja. The
US military had run the Taliban out -- or so they thought -- and General
McChrystal was bringing in a "government in a box." Perhaps the
most important piece "in the box" was to be the creation of jobs.
So AID set up a program to hire 10,000 workers virtually all the
adults in a local population of about 35,000 people but only about
1,000 took up the offer. Why? The answer was simple: the local people knew
more about guerrilla warfare than the American army did. From years of
experience, they knew that the guerrillas had done what guerrillas are
supposed to do, fade away when confronted with overwhelming force and come
back when the time is right. They are back. And, as other insurgents have
done in all the insurgencies I studied in my Violent Politics, they have
punished those they regarded as traitors. The 9,000 Afghans who turned
down the AID offer were what we would call "street smart."
- * * *
- Did we learn anything from this experience? To get another
opinion, I met with Dexter Filkins, an "old" that is not
in my terms but at least a decade old -- Middle East hand, who has spent
years in repeated assignments here, in Iraq, India and Pakistan and who
is one of the few who really gets about the country, on his own, not "embedded,"
and not loaded down with flak jacket, body guards and minders. He is just
young enough and daring enough to see a different picture, I thought. I
- First, he said, the Kandahar operation is already in
full swing. It isn't just the assassination squads of the "Special
Ops" (aka Special Forces) but large-scale regular army action although
the Military here, known as ISAF, are not talking about it. And it is essentially,
as I wrote in June on "changing the guard but not the drill,"
the same as the Marja operation, just bigger. The failed Marja campaign
is the template for the Kandahar campaign. And it too will fail, Filkins
- Filkins said that Petraeus was essentially trying to
apply what he did in Iraq to Afghanistan without much thought that the
two countries are very different. I disagreed, as I have in print: Petraeus
is replaying not only what the Americans did in Vietnam but even the French
- But to my surprise, Filkins was relatively complimentary
about the military high command and particularly about Petraeus. What he
found most favorable was that, unlike all the civilians holed up in the
embassy fortress, the military get out into "the field." Had
Ambassador Eikenberry heard this, he would have agreed. Much of his admonition
to the members of his Country Team meeting was to get out and see.
- But, is this really such a good idea? I wonder. Almost
everyone with whom I spoke mentioned how disturbing it was to the Afghans
to see so many Americans. True, there are large areas of the country with
no American military or civilian presence, but from Kabul west, south and
east, Americans are thick on the ground. Would adding more be beneficial?
And particularly adding more when decked out in helmets, flak jackets and
goggles like my escort officer, a nice American woman had to
wear even up in the supposedly "secure" northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif.
Not speaking any of the local languages, almost entirely new to the country
(very few have little preparation before they come, stay here longer than
a year and have little contact or, apparently, interest while they are
here) and prone to tell the locals how to manage their lives, they conjure
the phrase common among even our close friends and allies, the English
during World War II, about the Americans, "over sexed, over paid and
- * * *
- To get a non-American and "historical" view
on foreign intervention in Afghanistan, I arranged to have a dinner and
long talk with Russian Ambassador Andrey Avetisyan. Since we had not met
before, I asked him to tell me about himself. He is a Pashto language specialist
who has served in the Russian Foreign Office, in Belgium and for three
stints here including once during the Soviet occupation. I met him courtesy
of my old friend Evgeny Maksimovich Primakov, the former Russian Foreign
Minister, Director of the KBG and Prime Minister.
- Avetisyan and I covered much the same ground as I did
my previous talks with, obviously, different angels of vision. I will report
only the differences here.
- Avetisyan was quite categorical in saying that there
was no hope of winning the war militarily. Then he went into a bit of the
history of the Soviet campaign. Two things he particularly singled out
were ones that, he thought, the Russians did rather better than the Americans.
First, they separated economic and military actions. Their "civic
action" projects, unknown to most outsiders, actually accomplished
a great deal. We discussed my favorite, the vast plantations of olives
and the production of oil (both casualties of the civil wars in the 1990s)
from which the memory lingers to this day. He is often approached, he said,
by Afghans, even former anti-Russian fighters, who compare the Russians
favorably to the Americans.
- The second aspect of the Russian economic program he
thought was better was that they did not provide cash to the Afghans. Of
course, he said, they paid salaries, but they brought in the equipment
that was needed and paid, directly, for work done with it. So, he believed,
the problem of corruption of the Afghan government then was far less than
- The military policy of the Americans, he said, was roughly
comparable to the Russian. That is, except that it was more simple then:
you either fought or you collaborated. Today, the mixing of civic action,
counterinsurgency, military occupation and special operations makes a complex
combination. However, reliance on the military did not work for the Russians
and, he believed strongly, would not work for the Americans today.
- What about the Russian involvement today? I asked.
- There are two aspects, he replied. First, the Russians
are worried about the Central Asians and Caucasians who have come to fight
for the Taliban. What are they going to do when they go home? He wondered.
"Some people," he said, "think that they will have just
grown old and become tired of war. But I am not so sure." They are
hardened veterans, and maybe they will take home what they learned here.
The second aspect, he said, is that if the Taliban win, they and their
version of PanIslamism will make an impact on the republics of former Soviet
- I laughed and said, "the Domino theory in reverse."
- "However," he continued, "wherever the
al-Qaida people are today, it is important to remember that they were involved
here before the Taliban arrived. The Taliban found Usama bin Ladin already
here. I suppose their getting together was a matter of money. The Taliban
had almost none and the Saudis had a lot. It was a natural alliance."
- I commented that I understood that about a year ago,
the Taliban put Usama under what I guessed could be called "cave arrest."
Avetisyan laughed and said "there are many reports." Unquestionably,
there have been severe strains in their relationship. I do not think that
they will exercise major influence on the Taliban. Nor will the Taliban
give them a free hand.