|On the roads
Tony Blair vowed that the West would not walk away from Afghanistan. But in a remarkable journey, meeting militia leaders and the heavily guarded President, Peter Oborne found a nation left to fend for itself - and Taliban thugs undeterred.
By Peter Oborne
Sunday May 25, 2003: (The Observer) To begin with, post-conflict Kabul looks a success story. It is true that massive areas of the town still resemble Dresden after World War II. The wreckage of war is everywhere - gutted buildings, uncleared minefields, crashed planes, burnt-out tanks and the human wreckage of hobbling landmine victims and the war widows in blue burqas extending their hands for alms at every street corner. But this pitiful background of destruction and carnage only makes the surrounding economic and social activity all the more remarkable. Everywhere there is testimony to the tenacity of the human spirit, from the little shops that have sprung up in the ground floors of smashed houses to the taxi trade: up from barely 200 under the Taliban to an amazing 40,000, it is credibly said, today.
Restaurants open every week: a new Iranian kebab house is currently all the rage. The Aga Khan is building a five-star hotel. Rents - stimulated by the diplomatic and United Nations presence - are sky high. In some parts of town, a four-bedroom house at the end of a potholed road can earn $10,000 a month. The free and secure country promised by Tony Blair and George Bush in late 2001 looks to be emerging smoothly. But you do not need to be in Afghanistan long to sense the forces that undermine the gilded café society of aid-workers, diplomats, businessmen, spies and westernised Afghans.
This spring the Taliban and al-Qaeda, who have never been eradicated, and still lurk murderously in the mountains, gathering strength, moved on to a new strategy. They are no longer content with the robberies, hi-jacking, rocket attacks and roadblocks that have formed the standard method of disruption since the eyes of the West turned towards Iraq. They have now adapted a new tactic: execution.
The international community was not shocked by the first menacing news that filtered up to Kabul from the lawless south during our early hours in the town: the killing of two coalition soldiers. They were part of a platoon driving along the main road from Kandahar to Herat. A group of motorcyclists ranged up alongside their convoy, waved in friendly fashion, suddenly produced machine guns, opened fire and sped away. This was seen as unfortunate, but merely another deadly moment in the merciless private war the Americans are fighting against terror. The next news from the south, a day or two later, was not so readily dis missed. Bandits held up a convoy moving through the province of Oruzgan, just north of Kandahar. They went through each vehicle, robbing those inside but leaving them unharmed. At length they found an 'international', Ricardo Munguia, an El Salvadorean Red Cross worker.
Munguia was hustled out of his car. The bandit commander used his satellite telephone to speak to an unknown third party, thought to be in Pakistan. The moment the call finished, Munguia was thrown into a roadside ditch, and shot. What gives this wretched episode extra poignancy is the fact that the bandit commander's life had been saved by the Red Cross a year earlier.
A few days later the same fate met a stray Italian motorcyclist, apparently on an eccentric private journey through the south. These killings, and others, have appalled Afghanistan's international community. They have been followed by warnings from Taliban leaders that all 'internationals' will be targeted. The UN immediately placed a blanket ban on travel through much of the south, while several aid organisations pulled out completely from Kandahar and adjacent areas. The new mood of jittery nervousness may well have been behind the accidental killing of three Afghan soldiers by US embassy guards in a friendly fire incident last week.
The Taliban exudes confidence. In February its leader Mullah Omar - like Osama bin Laden, coalition forces have never flushed him out - issued his first defiant message since the fall of his government in December 2001, calling on Afghans 'to rise up and use your sword against infidels and their puppets'. Slogans such as these are now secretly distributed in propaganda flyers through Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan, in southern cities and sometimes in Kabul itself.
In March, Gulbuddin Hetmatyar, now a close ally of bin Laden and high on the FBI's 'most wanted' list, issued a warning blast from his hide-out. He denounced Afghanistan's pro-Western President Hamid Karzai as the 'showboy of the US', and declared that the Americans would be 'reduced to rubble'. Hetmatyar's vainglorious pronouncement contained a typical Afghan irony. Back in the 1980s, during the long Mujahideen struggle against the Russians, he was the CIA's warlord of choice and lavishly supplied with US cash and military hardware.
Eighteen months have now passed since the West made a series of unequivocal promises to Afghanistan. As invasion loomed before the Labour conference in 2001, Tony Blair promised: 'We will not walk away from Afghanistan, as the outside world has done so many times before.'
The following month the Prime Minister told Parliament that he supported 'an inclusive, democratic political structure' for the country. Last month, during the Iraq war, Britain and America held up Afghanistan as the model for the elimination of a rogue state.
As British and coalition forces closed into Baghdad, documentary filmmaker Paul Yule and I flew into Kabul for Channel 4. We wanted to find out whether Britain and the West are keeping the pledges we made. We wanted to find out whether Afghanistan is on course for the secure and prosperous future promised by Tony Blair, or whether it is heading back into the horror and barbarism of the past 25 years, which has killed 1 million Afghans and spawned the terror movement that struck at New York on 11 September. To find out we visited warlords, ranged out far beyond Kabul, spoke to soldiers, policemen, farmers, refugees, aid-workers and diplomats. First we visited acting President Karzai in the presidential palace.
Karzai is one of the most protected men in the world. We have to pass through five heavily guarded checkpoints before reaching the palace. Opposite the formal entrance is a large yellowish office block: it houses the CIA. Even in the tranquil courtyard outside the palace, machine-gun toting American guards wearing body armour and slacks stand at every 50 paces. Hetmatyar likes to gibe that Karzai 'does not trust Afghan guards'. But say what you will about Karzai, he is a brave man, subject to constant assassination plots. When I ask him about them, he brushes them aside as 'just part of life'.
We interviewed the interim President on the day Baghdad fell. Karzai is tall, good-looking and articulate. He dresses in immaculately pressed shalwar kameez and waistcoat - sheer Afghan chic. The awesome task of creating a modern, democratic Afghan state - and in the process turning 3,000 years of historical development on its head - devolves on him. He is a friend of the West, and that is what makes his criticisms, when they come, so much more devastating. I ask him whether the $5 billion pledged to Afghanistan at the Tokyo donors' conference of 2002 was enough to rebuild his country. 'Definitely not,' says Karzai. 'We believe Afghanistan needs $15-20bn to reach the stage we were in 1979.'
He complains, too, that the money has gone to the wrong places. Rather than make over funds to Karzai's central government, Western donors have preferred to act through outside agencies. 'Last year,' says Karzai, 'we had no control over how this money was spent.' He warns that this lack of trust 'does weaken the presence of the central government in the provinces of Afghanistan'.
It is hard to disagree. Even the niggardly World Bank accepts that Afghan reconstruction requires $10bn rather than the $5bn made available at Tokyo, while US Senator Joseph Biden argues that $20bn would be nearer the mark. Earlier this year the aid organisation Care International produced a devas tating study which contrasted Afghanistan to other post-conflict zones. In a table of aid per person donated by the West, Bosnia came up top, receiving $326 per head. Kosovans received an average $288 while citizens of East Timor got $195 each. Afghans are scheduled to receive just $42 per head over the next five years. This is despite the fact that Afghanistan is almost, as Karzai says, 'the poorest country in the world' and in a far worse state than either Bosnia or Kosovo.
Take roads. After 23 years of war Afghanistan barely has any. The bandit-infested journey between Herat and Kandahar - once one of the world's great trading routes - takes on average 17 hours today, requiring a perilous overnight stay at a local town or village. Back in the 1970s it lasted a carefree six hours. There are no meaningful plans to rebuild this vital route.
So far donor countries have committed just $300m to road-building in all Afghanistan, by coincidence exactly the same amount of money as is being spent on reconstructing the US embassy in Kabul. Much of that $300m is being spent on building an 80km stab of road south from Kabul towards Kandahar. The contractor is Bechtel, the US construction giant whose Kabul representative says that 1km of road costs almost $400,000 to build in Afghanistan's hostile environment. That means that more than $1bn is required just to recreate the 3,600km main ring road linking the country's main cities: Mazar, Herat and Kabul. That money is not forthcoming, let alone the cash needed to pave over the numerous smaller roads.
Nor will the West put in the resources to provide safety. There are a number of different security organisations, each with distinct and contradictory objectives. Some 11,000 US troops, mainly Special Forces, still prosecute the war against terror. This is now an unending conflict, with echoes of Vietnam, fought in the untracked wasteland of the southern mountains and around the Pakistan border. But its aim is emphatically not the protection of the population at large. General security is the responsibility of the International Security Assistance Force. But Isaf confines its peacekeeping to Kabul, and has repeatedly turned down requests from President Karzai to stretch its tentacles around the country. Currently manned by Spanish and Italian troops, Isaf's local nickname is the international shopping-a-lot force.
Karzai's pressure for countrywide security has been urgently supported by Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN special representative in Afghanistan. Brahimi told us that even a few thousand troops, placed at key trouble spots around the country, would have prevented the lawlessness that drags down the reconstruction operation. 'If we had had this kind of support,' he claimed, 'the Afghans would have been able to look after themselves after one or two years.'
Once again, statistics highlight the staggering scale of the Western betrayal. In Bosnia there was one peacekeeper for every 113 people, in East Timor every 66, in Kosovo every 48. There is one Isaf soldier for every 5,380 Afghans. Without an international security presence the Afghan countryside has fallen back into the hands of the warlords and their militias, conservatively estimated at some 200,000 strong. The international presence is feebly trying to counter-balance the power of the warlords by building up the central government security framework. So far those attempts have been at worst disastrous and at best meaningless.
The rudiments of a police force now exist, supposedly being trained by Germans. We visited the District Four police HQ in central Kabul. Downstairs a young Bavarian with a wispy beard studied papers at his desk. Upstairs the local police chief, a gnarled veteran of the Mujahideen wars against Russia, offered green tea and almond sweets and spoke of his despair that there was no money to pay his officers.
He spelt out the consequences of this neglect: 'There's a proverb in our country that a hungry stomach doesn't know any logic or any reason. So since he is hungry, he's collaborating with criminals.'
One rainy morning we travelled to District Fourteen, an outer suburb of Kabul where Afghanistan's underclass, the Hezzara tribe, gather together for mutual protection. To them the local police HQ was simply a place of terror. The Hezzaras told us how the police had not even attempted to solve any of the 20 murders that had taken place over the past few months. They were certain that police officers were behind a spate of recent burglaries. There were claims that some policemen were really agents for a powerful local warlord, and exacting revenge on the Hezzara people for being on the wrong side during the Kabul wars.
This inability to pay the police reflects a wider problem. There is no money for the civil service, so government officials too are forced into corruption. President Karzai is a brave man. But he is facing intractable problems, few of which are of his own making. The West's refusal to give adequate financial aid or security has castrated the President: it means that he has little direct authority outside Kabul. The remainder of the country is in the hands of warlords and local commanders. Gul Agha Shirzai is dominant in the Kandahar area, Generals Dostum and Atta in the north, and in the west Amir Ishmael Khan of Herat.
Our plan was to drive from Kabul to Herat to visit Khan. But all security experts advised against, so reluctantly we flew. On arrival we found Ishmael Khan hard at work. He was sitting at a small table in his Governor's Hall ministering to his people. They came up to him one by one, and were invited to sit next to their warlord. He listened intently, brow furrowed, as he took in their problems. One woman needed assistance to set up a workshop: he ordered her to be given some money.
Another woman, the widow of one of his Mujahideen heroes, was at her wits' end because the hospital would not admit her sick son. Khan called the hospital personally to secure admittance. Apart from the armed guards with machine guns who surrounded the hall, it was a scene that could have come straight from the Bible. The warlord was dressed in white robes and grey headdress. He is a small man, with a face that has seen and experienced everything. Watching him, you realise how a successful medieval English monarch must have looked. He fought against the Russians, and then the Taliban, who held him prisoner for three-and-a-half years before he sought exile in Iran. He came back to claim the governorship after the US invasion of Afghanistan.
From Herat he pays nominal fealty to Hamid Karzai - a portrait of the President hangs in his office - but in practice he runs his own fiefdom. Ishmael Khan's well-equipped private militia, estimated at some 50,000 strong, easily outnumbers the 4,000 soldiers in the national army. He runs his own schools, hospitals and public parks. He finances it all by customs imposts taken at the Iranian border worth up to $800,000 a day. Practically none gets passed back to a despairing Karzai. The depth of the problem is so bad that last week Karzai threatened resignation unless warlords such as Khan start to pass their revenues back to the central treasury.
Ishmael Khan plays a delicate political game. In the west neighbouring Iran tries to suck him into its sphere of influence, while the central government tries to claim him from Kabul. He has developed his own doctrine of Islamic rule, but he is a moderate compared to the Taliban. We joined Khan on a Friday morning progress through some country villages. Not only did he open a girls' school - the Taliban banned girls' education - but at the end he gave a stern lecture to his warriors about the benefits of educating women.
Western human rights groups condemn him - a Human Rights Watch report recently claimed that single women who stray into his public parks are vulnerable to crude virginity tests. We found it impossible to verify these reports in Herat. Opposition figures whom we met were literally quivering with fear, so much so that they were scarcely able to speak. In at least one case they were followed by the secret police. Recently a human rights group set up an office in Herat. Ishmael Khan's chief of police beat one of the guests, a journalist, unconscious at the launch. The journalist is now in exile in Iran, and in fear of his life.
While we were in Herat the same chief of police launched another thuggish personal attack, this time on a doctor who refused to allow him to commandeer one of Herat hospital's two ambulances for his private use.
But there is no doubt that Khan is a popular and successful ruler of his own people. He is a more attractive figure than most warlords. But he, and others like him, do pose a giant challenge to the modernising project upon which Karzai and his British and American backers are engaged. A centralised state cannot function without the revenues which Khan withholds. It is impossible to establish law and order while private armies flourish.
Karzai knows that one part of the solution is the Afghanistan National Army. 'If you want a better Afghanistan,' insists Karzai, 'a peaceful Afghanistan, a stable Afghanistan, we must have a national army. The ambition is that we should have a 70,000-strong force, professional, well-trained, well-equipped, well-paid and mobile.' That ambition is a long way from being realised. Currently, it is just 4,000 strong. It has been plagued by desertions as recruits slough off back to their homes, though instructors insist that this retention problem is improving.
Many of the new entrants into the ANA are battle-hardened Mujahideen with embedded tribal loyalties: the art is creating a national allegiance. But progress is being made. We watched a platoon from the Royal Anglians instructing trainee NCOs at a military base outside Kabul. There was a palpable esprit de corps. I asked Ghulam Farook, a Pashtun from Wardak, whether he would fight against his fellow tribesman. 'I have to work for my country,' he replied. 'My country has rights on me. If the enemies of peace and my country are my brother I am going to fight against him.'
Building an army is one thing: even more complex is destroying the militias. We attended the signing of the historic demilitarisation agreement, overseen by Brahimi in the UN compound. The aim is to disarm 100,000 militiamen within a year. Some will be absorbed into the army, others found jobs. The mechanics of the scheme are simple. Troops hand over their rifles, and a certificate from their warlord, in return for a sum of money. Administrators of the scheme have not decided how much. 'One thing is certain,' says a UN official drily. 'It has to be less than a rifle costs on the open market.'
The scheme is fraught with problems. Marshall Fahim, Karzai's Defence Minister and a powerful warlord in his own right, failed to attend the signing ceremony amid rumours of sharp disputes.
There are fears among the Pashtuns in the south that the scheme is merely a device by the Northern Alliance to rob them of their weapons. No one will say when the attempt to disarm Ishmael Khan will be made. Publicly Khan supports the scheme, but privately is said to be bitterly opposed.
But that is not the biggest problem. Out in the provinces the US army continues to arm and to pay the warlords who help them in their battle against al-Qaeda. Even as Hamid Karzai battles to establish his national army, he is being undermined by his allies. Hopelessly under-funded, without the security he pleads for, crippled even by his American backers, the Afghan President is perilously isolated. He, and Afghanistan, are being daily betrayed by Britain, America and the West.
ˇ Peter Oborne's
documentary Afghanistan: Here's One We Invaded Earlier will be shown on
Channel 4 on Saturday 31 May. He will be live online to answer your
questions on Wednesday 4 June at 3pm. Email questions to email@example.com
or post online at www.observer.co.uk/afghanistan
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