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 of action.
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 Americans.
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 this issue.
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 Afghanistan “security.”
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.
Doing something, Gast said, was his major problem. He is under intense pressure from Washington to show actions of almost any sort.
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 was right.
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 predicted.
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 in Vietnam.
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 over here.”
* * *
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 today.
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 Central Asia.
I laughed and said, “the Domino theory in reverse.” He nodded.
“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.
Returning to my major interest, I pressed about how and when one could think of getting out. He said that it would take at least 5 years to develop an Afghan army, and that to get out quickly now would probably plunge the country back into civil war.
I pursued the point. Should we consider early negotiations or wait? He replied that to negotiate now would be difficult because the Karzai government is so obviously weak. The Taliban, he said, have their men in every office of the government and there are no secrets from them. I mentioned that after the Vietnam war ended, we discovered that the South Vietnamese President’s chief of office admitted to having worked for the Viet Minh throughout the war. “Well,” he said, “it is even more pronounced here. The Taliban are everywhere.”
I mentioned that I was hearing that there are three options: get out now or very soon; pull out the main military forces but leave behind “Special Ops” forces; or negotiate.
He replied that, of course, we must negotiate. Indeed, he said, his information was that it was now on-going among the Afghans, but that the Pakistanis were disturbed when the Afghans tried to do it alone. He mentioned the Pakistani arrest a couple of months ago of two senior Taliban who were involved in negotiations. (This was reported and variously interpreted in the Western press.) But we could and must help the negotiation process, he said. He felt that in the context of negotiation, it would be possible to begin to pull out, but that it should not be precipitate.
The worst of all, he said, was what I had set out as the second option: to take out the regular military and leave behind the Special Forces which operate like the Soviet Spetssnaz. It would be far better to keep the regular army even at the high point it has reached (which is larger than the Soviet force level) than to rely on the Special Forces. The Special Forces are particularly hated by the Afghans, as were the Spetssnaz, and, actually, are responsible for most of the really glaring abuses here. They would ruin what reputation we have left. That would not be good for anyone, Russia included.
I remarked that of course we could not control negotiations. He agreed and said that he thought the Afghans could handle that when they decided that they had to.
Could we not create that condition? I asked. That is, by setting a firm date for withdrawal? That would not undercut our position or marked affect the Taliban strategy. After all, I pointed out, assuming that they are reasonably in touch with the outside world, the Taliban leaders will know that support for continued military action here has dropped to near zero in much of Europe and is in free fall among those Americans who previously were the war’s main advocates. As an example I mentioned the recent Newsweek article by Richard Haass (the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, which I have mentioned above) under the title, “We can’t win and it isn’t worth it.”
What setting a date would do, I argued, would take us to the position he had just mentioned the Russians were careful to create, separating the economic from the military policy. The purpose of what I had in mind, I went on, was to change the “political psychology” of the war. Then, or gradually, village shuras, jirgas or ulus would come to see that the opening of a clinic or building a canal was not a tactic in the war. Rather, it was a benefit to the villagers. They would want those things and would protect them. Then, if the Taliban opposed, they would lose the support of the people. He said that he absolutely agreed with this. “It is the only way.”
I then laid out what I would like to see happen here: the reassertion, with suitable modifications, of the traditional idea of the state. That is, a central government with sufficient military power to protect itself and punish aggression but with most emphasis on the economic and cultural means of integration. For example, using foreign aid, controlled by the central government through something like the American Corps of Engineers to undertake the major infrastructure projects. Under this arrangement, the central government would control foreign affairs including the generation of foreign aid while the provinces would handle their local affairs in accordance with their cultural traditions. Over time their policies would be influenced or swayed by the central government through the offer of opportunities for technical training and education and funding for development projects. Fairly rapidly, I thought, people in the provinces would be attracted to the things the central government could offer. Again, he agreed, saying that is the only real hope for the country.
“One can see,” he amplified my thought, “that we have done far too little on education. There is no point in doing more big projects if the Afghans do not know how to handle them and do not regard them as their own.”
We finally came to an issue on which he thinks we could beneficially cooperate. The Salang Pass through the Hindu Kush mountains needs to be rebuilt. It is the only feasible, economically viable passage between Central Asia and the Indian Subcontinent. It would enable the Afghans to ship their goods more cheaply to the outside world. It also is the supply route for the American army. And, perhaps most important of all, it could be a joint Russian-American project which would both symbolize and effect the transition from the still-remembered Cold War to a new era of peace and stability. I promised to discuss it both with our AID director here and with friends in Washington. I think it could really be the best thing to come out of Afghanistan in many years.
* * *
Sadly, I was not able to see either the former Minister of Finance, Ashraf Ghani, or the current Minister of Finance, Omar Zakhilwal, both of whom are out of the country. Ghani, I am told, really ran Afghanistan for several years until President Karzai became jealous and decided to get rid of him. Zakhilwal, I was told, is not of his caliber but is also an able and intelligent man. As people here said – a threat or a promise, I am not sure – “next time.”
Always seeking balance in what I was hearing, I arranged to have dinner with the Afghanistan correspondent of The Guardian and The Economist, Jon Boone, and the correspondent for The Times, Jerome Starkey, at a little restaurant with banquets in place of tables and chairs, the Afghan style, called “the Sufi.” I was wary about going there because the name sufi means “woolen” and is applied to that group of Muslims who most closely resemble the mendicant followers of St. Francis of Assisi – and they certainly did not care much about the quality of their food! It actually turned out to be a very pleasant place – that is, after one passed through a cordon of armed guards and the metal detector -- with an Afghanesque seating arrangement on rugs with cushions. But after an hour, I began to feel my legs, tucked up underneath me, grow numb. No longer am I the man who rode a camel across Arabia! I could not be sure quite what I was eating in the dim light, but the food, very Afghan, was very tasty. Anyway, I was not there for the food but to listen to their opinions on the current situation.
Their opinions differed. Boone, an Oxford man who has been here three years, thought that any serious move toward evacuation would throw the country back into civil war while Starkey thought that a descent into civil war much less likely and that, since leaving would happen anyway, it was a good idea to begin negotiation soon. Both agreed that the current government is hopelessly corrupt and not really reformable. Boone placed his hopes on the police, which he thought would take five years to get in shape. He thought parts of the army, particularly the Afghan Special Forces, some of whose officers had been trained at Sand Hurst, were relatively sound, but only in the officer corps. The regular soldiers, he and Starkey agreed, were at best unmotivated and at worst would swing quickly to the Taliban.
Both commented on the massive flight of money, which I have discussed above. Boone remarked that the amount being exported shifted, depending on the Afghan evaluation of the length of the American commitment. He also pointed to an aspect of the Karzai policy I had not been aware of: the government goes into the market place, here literally a market place, once a week and buys up Afghan currency (Afs) with dollars. This has the effect of driving up the price of the local currency, and so enables those who want to take out dollars to buy them more cheaply and giving them a profit even before the money gets abroad. In short, Afghan government financial practice was subsidizing the flight of currency to the benefit of the inner circle and the warlords.
What do the Americans know about this? I asked. Probably everything, both men replied, but this thought led them to comment on the fact that practically no American ever leaves the Embassy compound. That was only in part a criticism as both Boone and Starkey men thought it was probably better that the Americans were less evident because, decked out in their body armor and helmets and surrounded by guards, they were not popular. Both said the most disliked were the Special Forces (aka “Special Ops”) who are believed to carry out at least a thousand raids a month (!) and often with considerable brutality and always with little regard for Afghan customs. Both remarked that until WikiLeaks published some of records, no one even here had any idea about the scale or impact of this intrusion. Both regarded these raids as a major cause of hatred of Americans and a great danger to the American strategy.
My last journalist contact was Joshua Partlow of The Washington Post. He very kindly invited me to his house – which he more or less inherited when an attack on the UN guest house induced the UN to make all of its personnel leave outlying houses. The house, by American standards, was modest, but like all the buildings I entered, it mustered its complement of armed guards and the double door entry. As I walked in, I mused on what percentage of our income is today devoted to “security.” Here in Afghanistan, it must just about match the amount paid out in bribes.
As I walked into the living room, I saw a huge double bass in the corner. How wonderful, I thought, for a young reporter way off in the Wild East to have brought this monstrous fiddle with him. What a task that must have been! He must be really devoted to music. When I asked, he laughed and said, no, he did not play and did not even know where the fiddle came from. It was in the house when he moved in, perhaps abandoned by some previous occupant. Now, he said, it was just decoration.
Partlow shared the house with several other people including another Washington Post reporter, David Nakamura and, Victoria Longo, a young woman working at the UN office here. Also joining us for dinner were Keith Shawe, a English botanist who worked for The Asia Foundation, an organization that was already active in Afghanistan when I first came here in 1962, and a young Chinese-American women, fresh from working at the USAID mission in Kandahar.
To my astonishment, Partlow produced a rare bottle of wine, and powered by the unusual event, we went unraveled the Afghan predicament. Of course, that meant going over much the same ground as all my other conversations, violence, corruption, the question of how much or little the official Americans saw or understood of the country, and where this is all heading. In summary, I found that they were just as pessimistic as the better informed of my other contacts. The young Chinese-American woman, Bayfang, had worked as a reporter before joining AID to work in Kandahar. So she had experienced both the freedom of the reporters and the “security” of the officials. She remarked on how hard it was to get permission to go out of the guarded compound where, as in Kabul, all the official Americans lived, and then only in body armor and with guards. No wonder, she said, the Americans could not understand the country. They hardly saw it. The reporters, of course, used local transport, mainly taxis, and usually went by themselves to call on Afghans or foreigners in pursuit of their stories. The evening turned into a sort of college bull session. They were all pessimistic. Things are going down hill.
* * *
Now I have the last and most interesting of all my talks now to relate. Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef was the Taliban’s head of the central bank, deputy minister of finance, acting minister of defense and ambassador to Pakistan. In short, he was one of the most important men in the Taliban establishment. When Pakistan withdrew its recognition of the Taliban government in 2001, he was abducted and packed off to Bagram prison, to another prison in Kandahar and finally to Guantánamo. Among them, as he recounts in his autobiography, My Life With The Taliban, he was humiliated, repeatedly tortured, almost starved, sat upon, spat upon, cursed, almost always deprived of a chance to pray, had his Qur’an sullied and deprived of sleep for days on end. Finally after four years he released in 2005 without charges and allowed to return to Afghanistan. He now lives, more or less under house arrest, in Kabul.
Arranging to see him also brought back memories for me: many years ago in Cairo, I met and got to know Prince Abdul Karim al-Khatabi, the leader of the failed Rif war of liberation against the Spaniards and the French. He too was packed off to exile and held incommunicado by the French during the entire period of World War II. Khatabi’s and Zaeef’s lives and personalities and social background were very different, as were their experiences – Prince Abdul Karim was treated with respect whereas Mullah Abdul Salam was tortured -- but both were leaders of their national revolts. So, I approached this opportunity with excitement. I thought I could learn a great deal from him.
By taxi, I went to see Mullah Abdul Salam with a translator. It took about an hour to reach his neighborhood. We wandered about for a long time, unable to find the house. The district had been virtually destroyed in the civil war and the area where his house showed all the effects of both war and Afghan poverty. The streets were flanked by the usual open sewers (juis) and almost blocked by rubbish and the remains of collapsed buildings.
When we arrived, I went into the doorway past the usual collection armed guards and up a modest flight of cement steps, then, as custom required, after taking off my shoes, I went into Mullah Abdul Salam’s bare, but sofa-encircled reception room.
Rising, Mullah Abdul Salam greeted me shyly. I was not surprised. After all, I was an unknown American and from his book and the comments of my journalist new friends, I expected that he would be at least wary if not hostile. I wasn’t sure what language we would use so I said to my translator to say how much I had looked forward to meeting him after reading his book. The translator spoke a few words to him, paused and then said, “sir, he wants to speak in English.” Since Pashto is Zaeef’s native language, my Farsi speaking translator was perhaps in as weak a language position as I. So, during our talk, we went back and forth between English and Arabic which, as a religious scholar, he spoke very well.
Mullah Abdul Salam is now 42 years old and was born in a village near Kandahar. His father was the imam of a village mosque and the family, probably even more than any of his farming neighbors, was very poor. His mother died when he was a baby, of what he does not know, perhaps in childbirth. His older sister died shortly thereafter and his father, when he was still a child. As he recounts in his autobiography, his youth was grim. He was shunted from one relative to another and had to struggle for the little education, both religious and secular, he got.
When the Russians invaded in 1979, he joined the great exodus of millions – ultimately 6 million or about one Afghan in each two – to Pakistan where he lived in several of the wretched refugee camps. At 15, he ran away from “home,” if one can call a refugee tent that, joined the resistance against the Soviet invasion, fought as a guerrilla, was caught in some nine ambushes and was severely wounded. During this time, he joined the Taliban, as he told me, because it was more honest, less brutal and more religious than the other resistance groups. By the time, he joined it, Mullah Muhammad Umar had become the Taliban leader. At the end of the Soviet occupation, the various guerrilla factions split, fought one another and, in the desperate struggle for survival, becoming “warlords,” preyed upon the general population. Meanwhile, the leaders of the Taliban, as he recounted, had stood down or, more accurately, had returned to their schools and mosques. Finally, in reaction to the warlords’ extortions, rapes and murders, the Taliban coalesced and reemerged. Then began a period of negotiation, missionary activity in the name of Islam and finally fighting that led the by-then greatly expanded Taliban into control of most of Afghanistan and catapulted Mullah Abdul Salam into its most difficult civil tasks.
Today, those difficult times, and his even worse years in prison, hardly show. He has just been removed from the UN and US “blacklist,” and now, as I found, lives modestly in Kabul. He is a big man, not fat but portly, with penetrating black eyes and a modest black beard. I was at some pains to establish at least the beginnings of trust between us and must have succeeded because we spoke with some humor (always a good sign) and candor. In our talk, I found no sign of animosity toward me or even, as I expected from his autobiography, toward America and Americans.
After preliminaries, I asked what he saw ahead and how the Afghan tragedy could be solved.
In reply, he said, “ it is very hard to devise a way, but we should know that fighting is not the way. It won’t work. And it has many bad side effects such as dividing the people for the government.”
Given his background I was surprised by his concern for Karzai’s government. But as we talked, it was clear that he was thinking in terms broader than Karzai. He meant that the Afghans must have an accommodation to government, per se, if they are heal their wounds and improve their condition.
The only realistic way ahead, he went on, “is respect for the Afghan people and their way whereas America is now relying wholly on force. Force didn’t work for the British or the Russians and it won’t work for the Americans.” The word “respect” often figured in his remarks, as from my study of Afghanistan and the Arabs and Iranians, I knew it would.
But instead of working toward peace, he said and I paraphrase, America has created obstacles to peace which only it can remove. But here, he said, was a complete block: America has put the Taliban leaders on a black list, a “wanted” list, and they know that they will be killed if they surface to negotiate. Without their removal from the “capture or kill” list and a guarantee of safety from kidnap or murder, they cannot negotiate; trying to make contact with the Karzai regime is sure to get them killed. Perhaps they have even tried. He said that he did not know if Karzai and any of the Taliban leadership were in contact, but under these circumstances, he doubted it. While he admitted (and the Taliban have announced) that he is not authorized to speak for Mullah Muhammad Umar, he thought that the American troops did not need actually to pull out before negotiations could begin. If it was certain that they were going to do so, then negotiations could be got underway. That seemed to contradict some of the Taliban pronouncements, demanding withdrawal before negotiation, but it is, I believe, itself a negotiable issue.
So how do the Taliban see a post-US-controlled Afghanistan? I asked.
He replied that “it all depended on how it comes about. If it comes through negotiation, then probably the Taliban will be content with genuine participation in the government, but if it comes through force, then the Taliban will take everything.”
I asked about what he has been doing since his autobiography was translated. He perhaps did not quite understand my question and said that he was in Guantánamo until he was released. He suddenly asked me how old I am and, when I replied with my august status, he said “good. There was a man in Guantanamo who also was old and he was gentle with me. The younger men were not.”
That brought up the question of the American policy of targeting and killing the leadership. I said that I thought that such actions would open the way for younger, more radical men. Yes, he agreed, that would certainly happen but the senior, “old,” leadership is still intact, living, he said, off somewhere in Pakistan. The usual guess is in the city of Quetta, which historically was a part of Afghanistan.
I turned to the issue of al-Qaida, saying that their activities, their composition and their relationship with the Taliban was what really interested most Americans. He confirmed what the Russian ambassador had told me: Usama bin Ladin was already operating in Afghanistan before the Taliban came into power. Of course, Mullah Abdul Salam said, almost echoing the words of the Russian ambassador, the Taliban needed money and Usama was almost the only available source. All the Afghans, Mullah Abdul Salam emphasized, have the tradition of granting sanctuary (melmastia) to a guest. It is mandatory. Moreover, Usama was the enemy of the enemies of the Taliban. So there was an understanding. But after 2002, he said, “that understanding lapsed, asylum for Usama was withdrawn and the Qaida fighters, including Usama, are no longer in Afghanistan. [American military and intelligence sources have publicly confirmed this.] They will not come back. The Taliban will not allow them to return.”
When Mullah Abdul Salam returned to Afghanistan, he said, he three times met with President Karzai who asked him to participate in the great national assembly, the Loya Jirga. He said he told Karzai that it was not proper to have a Loya Jirga during occupation by foreign forces and urged him not to hold it. He also told Karzai, he said, he personally could not, under the circumstances, participate.
I asked if he saw Americans. Yes, he replied an American general once came to call on him, asking what was the best way to arm Afghans to fight the Taliban.
He didn’t laugh, as I expected he would.
What about the American aid program? I asked. Granting aid, he said, had a bad effect “because it split families. If a man took American money, making him a traitor to Afghanistan and to Islam, his own brother was apt to kill him.” But, I said, in other circumstances would it not be good? “Oh, certainly,” he replied. So, I added, then we must change the circumstances. He nodded.
Musing, he said he was often asked to compare the Russians and the Americans. On the good side, he said, the Russians came by invitation from an existing government whereas the Americans invaded. But, on the bad side, the Russians were far more brutal than the Americans, bombing whole villages, killing perhaps a million people. On their side, he went on, the Americans at least brought the UN with them and that was a good thing for Afghanistan. The Americans, however, were here only in opposition to the Russians and when there was no Russian threat they left. I was surprised by what I inferred was almost nostalgia in his remark. It was nearly what I had heard from Dr. Samar on the role America could have played in 2002.
I then raised the issue of the brutality of the Taliban. I did not mention the recent UN report on the injuries inflicted by the Taliban on Afghan civilians as I am sure he would think that these are inevitable in a guerrilla war. Instead, I raised the issue of the execution by stoning of an Afghan woman. I remarked that such barbaric practice gave a horrible image of the Taliban even though such execution was authorized by both the Old Testament and the Qur’an. But we no longer believed in it. Can the Taliban modernize? I asked.
He shrugged. “What can you expect now? The Taliban are completely isolated, under constant attack, and naturally this throws them back onto old ways. They cannot afford to relax even on such matters.”
I asked about his own religious observance. It being Ramadan, he was of course fasting. I asked if he went to the little mosque I had seen nearby in his capacity as a mullah. Oh no, he said, he was not allowed to for his own safety. That remark also surprised me. Was he afraid of the Taliban? I asked. He rather ducked that question, saying only that he did go to the mosque for the Friday congregational prayer. But, although he did not specify, it was clear that in the circumstances of Afghanistan today, as I saw everywhere I turned, almost anyone of any standing was unsure where danger might arise. Also, the government would not probably not approve his attendance at a place where he might influence the population. Better to pray at home.
He said he has written a second book, also in Pashto, somewhat like his first. The publishers of his autobiography, he said, refused to pay him royalties as he was on the black list. So he asked that they just hold the money, but, in the end, they refused to give him anything. I suggested that he should write an article on how to end the war and plan to contact Rick MacArthur to see if Harpers would be interested.
Abdul Salam has been invited, he said, by the European parliament to visit Europe. But he had not applied for a visa. He said he had only recently been free to do so, and he had to remember that he was a guest in the country and must not do anything that might embarrass his hosts. [WRP: I have discussed elsewhere the limits of refuge and the control of “guests.”]
As I was leaving, he said that he was expecting the German ambassador. And, indeed, as I went out, there were four big armored cars with a dozen or so men armed with wicked looking machineguns, eyeing me suspiciously, and a small group of German diplomats, waiting to go in.
I was amused that they did not even look sheepish when, by myself without armed guards, I walked passed them to my taxi.
William R. Polk
August 24, 2010
Astonishing to hear Senator John Kerry say in an interview with an American news outlet, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty here in Kabul on August 19, “We have to remember that this is the beginning, just the beginning” -- after 9 years of war!
The commander of one of the strike forces in southern Afghanistan, Lt. Col. David Flynn, who also served in Iraq, told a reporter from the Mclatchy Newspapers on August 19, “We’ve killed hundreds and thouands of Taliban over nine year, and killing another thousand this year is not going to be the difference.” He thought he had established rapport with the shura in a village called Et Babur, but when he and his men tried to set up an outpost, the villagers led them “off to a remote corner of the village where they’d just faced a sustained Taliban attack.” In short, they were being led into an ambush.
Although not publicized, as Dion Nissenbaum of the Mcclatchy Newspapers wrote on August 19, “American and Afghan forces are methodically targeting Taliban strongholds in southern Afghanistan.”