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Impressions of Afghanistan in August 2010

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 out.
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 wild East.”
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 excitement.
Today’s entry into Kabul is not less exciting but is stunningly different.
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 GSG…GSG’s armoring provides you with valuable time, enough for you to grasp the situation, assess the threat and be able to react appropriately.
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 earlier trips.
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.
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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 menace.
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.
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 elite.
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 Taliban.
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 danger unpredictable.
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 force…he 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 “doorstops.”
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.
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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 our problem…”
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 security force.
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 each visit.
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? I asked.
“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 any authority.
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 circle.”
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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;” 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 dependency…and it will deepen the military involvement in a mission that most agree cannot be won solely by military means…Perhaps 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 of Americans.
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 indeed popular.
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 achieved.
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 and sighed.
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 people jobs.
“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.
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