March 2007


Winter in Afghanistan

By Debbie Whitmont
Winter in Afghanistan
Travels through a hibernating war

Just over five years ago, John Howard called Afghanistan the "front-line in the fight against terrorism", and Australia became one of the first countries to join the US and the Northern Alliance in the battle against the Taliban. For a while, it seemed a success: the Taliban fled Kabul, and the country held democratic elections for a new president and parliament. But more than 4000 people were killed there in 2006, the most violent year since 2001. In January this year, on his first visit to American soldiers, the new US Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, admitted that Al Qaeda is not only still active in Pakistan but is also launching more cross-border raids into Afghanistan.

Currently, around 500 Australians are serving under Dutch command in the country's south, fighting a "hearts and minds" campaign based around road works, training and rebuilding. So far, they've been lucky: unlike the British and the Canadians based in the adjoining province, the Australians and the Dutch haven't lost a single soldier. But now, as the snow melts in Afghanistan's high mountain passes, the Taliban is warning that spring will be the bloodiest fighting season yet, claiming that it has 2000 suicide bombers trained and ready to join the new offensive.

It's a winter morning and I'm standing on the tarmac of Kabul Airport, staring at the mountains that loom up from the end of the runway and being deafened by the rotors of four military helicopters. Last night, I stayed up too late watching some of the dozens of insurgency DVDs that pass from hand to hand across Afghanistan. I can still see them playing in my head: endless scenes of fighters tramping down mountain paths and shooting rockets.

After only a few days in the country, I've learned that the going rate for firing a rocket at a US soldier is about A$400, an ambush pays $2500 and a roadside bombing will net $4000 per victim. I'm about to visit what the Americans call "enemy central": the mountainous and largely inaccessible eastern province of Kunar, on the Pakistan border. I'm going with the US commander in Afghanistan, Lieutenant General Karl Eikenberry, and a group of Afghan ministers and high-ranking officials, and I can't help thinking that by any insurgent's reckoning, we're a prize target.

Lieutenant General Eikenberry brims with everything that makes me feel good about the US. Confident, straight-talking and smart - he has worked in China and speaks fluent Mandarin, has two masters degrees, and remembers everyone's names and where he last met them - Eikenberry, 55, also cares deeply for Afghanistan, and has been here longer than any other senior US commander. He has spent much of the past four years in the country, and his second posting ends shortly; if he could, Eikenberry says, he'd extend it.

Until October 2006, when 11,000 US soldiers came under NATO command,  Eikenberry controlled all of America's 24,000 troops in Afghanistan. The handover left him in charge of the southern and eastern regions, both of which are hot spots. In January, Eikenberry told Defense Secretary Gates that he needed more troops. It's probably the closest he has come to admitting that things aren't going well.

He outlines the US goal for Afghanistan: to defeat Al Qaeda and the Taliban, and make sure they can't return. It is, as he says, "a very broad mission" - broad enough to include diplomatic work, such as taking Afghan officials to places where they wouldn't usually venture. "When it comes to Afghanistan," says Colonel Tom Collins, almost shaking his head, "General Eikenberry is one of the most motivated people in the world."

Colonel Collins, America's military spokesman in Afghanistan, is trying to organise our motley group - the ministers and officials, along with Afghan police chiefs and a couple of journalists - into helicopters. It's clear that he isn't keen on travelling to Kunar, a region dominated by the insurgency. On the way over, he'd pointed out the spot near the American Embassy in Kabul where, six weeks earlier, a suicide bomber hit a humvee, killing two Americans and 16 Afghans. Suicide attacks used to be rare in Afghanistan, but in 2006 there were 139, five times more than the year before. "There are no checkpoints into the city," Collins said. "We know suicide-bomber cells are operating inside Kabul, looking for international or Afghan-government convoys." As we passed the embassy, he gestured to one of Kabul's busiest roundabouts. "Who's circling Massoud Circle right now, looking for targets of opportunity?" he asked.

You only need to google Kunar to find out that it was the scene of America's worst military disaster in Afghanistan. In 2005, during Operation Red Wing, a hunt for Osama bin Laden, four Navy SEALs were cornered by enemy fighters on a mountain ridge. One of the two helicopters sent in to rescue them was shot down, killing 16 Special Operations Forces members, including eight elite commandos. It was the first time that the enemy had gained the upper hand in night-time fighting, and the Americans were convinced that bin Laden wasn't far way. One of the SEALs was later rescued, but two were found dead and the fourth, according to the Taliban, was beheaded.

We're going to Kunar in a convoy: two Black Hawks and a Chinook, with an attack helicopter, an Apache, behind as a "chase". "Flying through those canyons, it wouldn't be hard to bring us down," says Colonel Collins. "Ain't no Apache gonna save you then." Two machine-gunners stick their heads out of the Chinook's side hatches. Another is strapped to the open rear flap, one boot dangling out the back, catching the sunlight.

A few minutes later, we're flying low in a labyrinth of valleys, the tops of rocky ridges - the Hindu Kush mountain range, a part of the Himalayas that cuts across Afghanistan to the east - towering above. Looking down, it's easy to understand what the Americans call the "tyranny of terrain": there's nowhere flat enough to land a helicopter and not a road in sight; the only way in or out is on foot.

Before the flight, Lieutenant General Eikenberry cited road building as one of America's main development projects: "Roads bring ideas, and this is very much a war of ideas. Where the roads end, the Taliban begins." In the early 1990s, warring mujaheddin commanders had divided the country into private fiefdoms, each one extorting taxes through checkpoints placed every few kilometres. Mullah Omar, then just a religious teacher in a small village, organised a group of vigilantes to clear a few local checkpoints. Omar expected a fight, but the robbers fled; he became a hero and eventually the Taliban's leader, ruling Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001.

Now, highway robbery is reappearing in Afghanistan. There are 11,000 kilometres of new roads, but many are too dangerous to use, and those who have the choice prefer to fly over them.

Surrounded by files in the Kabul office of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, Nader Nadery spells out the frustration of many Afghans. Nadery, 32, grew up during the Soviet occupation - which ended in 1989 - and the subsequent civil war. Five years ago, he says, Afghans believed that international attention would mean a new start for their country. Instead, the government has restored power to many of the same mujaheddin and warlords who drove the country into the arms of the Taliban in the mid '90s.

"There was a feeling that the political structure would change," Nadery explains, "that these warlords who had all been leaders would have no part to play." He says that disillusionment began in 2002, at Afghanistan's first postwar assembly of tribal elders (loya jirga). Fifteen hundred delegates elected Hamid Karzai as the country's interim president. The first thing Karzai did, says Nadery, was to get up on the podium: "He was very upset and he said, ‘Why are the mujaheddin leaders and commanders not sitting in the front row?' A line of seats was added to make room for them. That showed them they had a place and could play a role. It gave them confidence." Among those moved in were Abdul Rasul Sayyaf and General Dostum, two of the most notorious of the warlords: they are believed to have been responsible for the civil war that left more than 50,000 Afghans dead in Kabul alone.

Nadery says it was a gift. "At that stage, they weren't as strong and powerful. They were trying to fight for the minimum, just to be recognised, to be treated like other delegates ... When they walked out of the tent, they were not the people they had been an hour ago. They thought, ‘Well, now we can be leaders.'"

Over a cup of tea in the presidential palace, in Kabul, President Karzai defends his actions. "They were the leaders of our jihad [against the Soviets]. So I remember that I was one of them. It was not fair to have them sitting in the second row. I would do it again. It is not about power; it is about respect. Our elders are respected in Afghanistan and these leaders are our elders." It was pragmatism, too: Karzai had no army, and the international coalition had made it clear that it wouldn't get involved in "green on green" (internal) politics. "The state did not have the means to deal with them," he says. "There was no will in the international community to do what the Afghan people wanted." Karzai was on his own.

Francesc Vendrell, who has spent four years in Afghanistan as the EU's special envoy, feels that the blame for the country's current problems "can be spread quite thinly". "In early 2002, the Americans were relying on the warlords and commanders to pursue the War on Terror. There was a lot of emphasis on stability, and therefore justice had to wait. These unsavoury characters were seen as providing stability," he says. And the warlords were not disarmed, despite the millions of dollars spent on buying back weapons. "The weapons handed in were old. It was an exercise that neither disbanded the networks nor reduced significantly the number of weapons. It could have been done. The Afghan people would have been our best allies. Now it's much harder."

Nader Nadery argues that many of the old warlords have simply adapted to the new political situation. "Slowly, slowly, there has been some disarmament, and that's a great achievement. But the disarmament resulted in them becoming government officials. The militia leaders became part of the structure and began using their powers again. They made institutions unprofessional, unqualified and corrupt because they themselves were unprofessional, unqualified and corrupt. There's a culture of impunity. Everyone thinks they're immune from prosecution, so they do whatever they want."

He tells me about a family from a northern province that came to the Human Rights Commission when their daughter was murdered. "A local commander, who was a follower of the governor, had wanted to marry her. Her family refused. So the commander kidnapped the girl, raped and killed her, and cut her up into pieces. The family went to the police, the governor and the court. No one listened. They came to us. We had to investigate where the police would not. We had to find the grave and stop the governor protecting the soldier. Then the prosecutor didn't want to go ahead because he was afraid of the governor. The prosecutor asked for a light sentence that wasn't proportionate. We had to get the case transferred to Kabul.

"There are hundreds of cases like that. Lower commanders keep their positions because their leaders still have influence. The governor had a large number of militias; he is still in power. He wears a suit and tie and talks about democracy to the international community, but his behaviour hasn't changed. He brings the culture of the battlefield."

Nadery says that when President Karzai was first appointing district police chiefs, he was given a list of 86 names from which to choose. When Karzai saw the list, according to Nadery, he said, "Where are the mujaheddin? I must have them."  Fourteen were added to the list. "One had kidnapped a young boy, and can't read or write. Another was involved in trafficking women and drugs, and in property occupation. All 14 were like this. We provided evidence that these people should be removed and it was submitted to the president, but all 14 were appointed." His anger is obvious. "You put all this effort into cleaning up the police, and at the last minute, President Karzai puts all these people back."

The most famous tourist guide to Afghanistan hasn't been reprinted for 30 years. The Afghan Tourist Organisation published An Historical Guide to Afghanistan, by Nancy Hatch Dupree, in 1977. In the chapter on Kunar province, Dupree writes, "The interior ... is inaccessible to all but those on foot, for the trails are so difficult and precipitous, the foot-wide bridges 30 feet and more above angry, frothing waters so dizzying, that horses simply cannot manoeuvre them." But as we approach our destination, the mountains smooth out to a plateau and a river meanders below. We're flying so low I can smell the damp soil.

The head of the Forestry Ministry, a short and friendly man, is leaning out to take photos with a disposable camera. He tells me that we're over his home village, Khass Kunar. I can't help noticing that there isn't a tree in sight. The local mafia steals the timber, he explains, and takes it across the mountains to members of the Taliban, who sell it in Pakistan. The health minister is telling General Eikenberry a similar story. Long straight lines of stones arranged across the fields mark out property boundaries, he says. But lately, the local mafia has been moving them and grabbing the land. Some of the health minister's own property has been stolen, but there's nothing he can do about it. Much of the country has no formal land-title system.

The American base, the PRT (Provincial Reconstruction Team), is in a compound near the regional capital, Asadabad, which is little more than a collection of dusty villages.  The most important allegiances here, the base commander says, are tribal. There are ten main tribes; three straddle the Pakistan border and three are troublesome. The tribes who live here don't recognise the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan: to them, this is "Pashtunistan", the Pashtun-dominated area spanning the two nations. The commander tells me later that he spent nearly a year studying Afghanistan before taking up his post.

A row of humvees is waiting to take us into town. The soldier driving the one I get into says that the reconstruction team "comes under fire pretty regularly. We get rocketed at the base a couple of times a month. Ninety-nine per cent of people here have a good attitude, but it only takes 1%. They've got that 1%. Might even have 2%."

We reach the Asadabad town hall, which overflows with hundreds of men. The health minister is first to the microphone, reminding the audience that in the Koran, Mohammed emphasised good health. The American military has allocated around A$1.9 million for local health projects. "We're trying to build health clinics in remote areas so you don't have to walk tens of kilometres to get to health care," the minister says. "I am trying to bring female doctors and nurses to our hospitals here. We'll build a school to train midwives and nurses. What I want from you is to send your women here so they can train. I know male doctors are not allowed to see your females, so you need your daughters to get training."

Looking around the hall, I can see only three women. Two of them, young girls, are giggling. Finding female midwives won't be easy. Just recently, two female schoolteachers and their families were shot dead by the Taliban. The minister is talking about a new health clinic in the next province that was burned down almost as soon as it opened. "The enemy burned it. Will you let them do that here? Why are you listening to the enemies of Afghanistan and their propaganda instead of the government? I urge you not to listen to propaganda. We build roads, schools, clinics; what do they do? What do they offer you?"

Kunar's newly appointed governor, Shalizai Didar, looks like the swashbuckling mujaheddin commander he once was. He is here to convince the local elders to send their sons to join the new Afghan National Army. "This is the province where the fight against the Soviets began," enthuses Didar. "We helped the jihad throughout Afghanistan. But when we asked people to send their sons to the military, we only got 15. Two or three hundred years ago, 10,000 would join the army."

Didar has only been in Kunar a few months: he was appointed after the international community pressured Karzai to get rid of his predecessor. He'd like to see Kunar have a university, but this is one of the poorest provinces in one of the world's poorest countries. Of Kunar's 300-odd schools, only about 50 even have buildings. There are only three buses in the whole province and no such thing as a fire brigade; most of the region is without power.

In better days, Kunar was known for its cattle and sold meat to other parts of Afghanistan. Now, cows are too expensive, so Governor Didar has come up with a plan for a goat-led economic recovery. He tells the elders, "I've asked General Eikenberry for one and half million goats, to be given out to the people. Next year, they will each bring us back a baby goat, and we'll give them out, too. So to those people who are against this government, it's true we don't have resources yet and you can't see progress. But you will see the goats." Eikenberry likes the idea of fighting the insurgency with goats, but it's hard to judge how seriously he takes it. Later, the elders' lunch is dominated by talk of goats.

It's not hard to find citizens of Kabul who have been affected by the Afghan government's appointments, and who echo the criticisms of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission. For the last two decades, Nasrin Akhmad and her husband, a policeman, have lived in a mud-brick house in the Sherpur district. The area used to be run-down and was partly occupied by an old Defence Ministry warehouse. But Sherpur was next door to Afghanistan's most expensive real estate, the suburb of Wazir Akhbar Khan, a favourite haunt of foreigners.

Three years ago, Nasrin and her family of nine children woke to hear bulldozers and shouting. Four mud-brick houses like theirs had been demolished. "I found one of our neighbours covered in blood; he'd been beaten with a Kalashnikov. His house had already been destroyed," she says. The city's Police Chief General, Abdul Basir Salangi, was there with three carloads of armed men. One of Nasrin's neighbours contacted the presidential palace, and NATO troops arrived a little later. People began throwing stones at the police chief, and he left. A week later, the bulldozers came back and demolished more homes.

About 20 families lost their homes before the bulldozers were finally stopped. The Human Rights Commission investigated and found that General Mohammed Fahim, then Afghanistan's defence minister, had divided the warehouse land and surroundings - around 120 plots - between his friends and allies, including six cabinet ministers, Kabul's mayor, the governor of the Afghan National Bank, and two former military commanders. Salangi, an old friend of Fahim's from the days of the Northern Alliance, approved the demolition order for the warehouse.

Many of the officials, who paid nominal fees for the land, made quick profits by selling the plots, which were each worth between A$90,000 and $200,000. Fahim and Salangi kept several blocks for themselves. Under enormous pressure, President Karzai sacked them both. But Fahim was later appointed to the country's senate, and then became a senior adviser to Karzai.

Today, Sherpur is full of embassies, mansions and building sites. Turkish and Pakistani companies have been brought in to construct enormous, garish houses in a style best described as mullah gothic. Each one is, or promises to be, bigger and uglier than the next, with more concrete, more glass, more elaborate wrought iron and glittering tiles. The finished houses, worth around A$1.2 million each, are mostly rented out to foreigners for an average of A$9000 a month. A concrete monstrosity the size of a small block of flats has been erected only a metre from the gate to the Akhmads' small garden. "I'm the wife of an honest police officer," she says. Her husband earns about A$100 a month. "If he wasn't honest, we could have a house like that."

A block away, Nasrin's eldest son, Tamim, shows me the single water pump shared by 190 families whose mud-brick houses haven't yet been demolished. After two days of rain, the unpaved streets have turned to pools of stagnant water edged with slimy grey mud. For the last four nights, Tamim says, there's been no electricity.

 "I really respected Karzai; I voted for the government," Nasrin tells me. "I forced my son and husband and everyone else. Even my 16-year-old daughter: we lied and said she was 18. But the real people who voted for him are suffering now. We used to have ration cards here because this is a poor area - a monthly supply of food, rice and beans. The [international] NGOs used to do it under the Taliban. But we've lost that, because the NGOs have stopped relief. Now they call it ‘development'. They stopped emergency aid, and it's all about reconstruction. It's worse for us. The poor need two things to survive: flour and oil. That's what we need to not die. Democracy is a luxury."

In Asadabad, General Eikenberry suddenly creates havoc for his staff by striding off on an unscheduled walkabout. The soldiers detailed to look after him already have their hands full: the general hates wearing his flak jacket unless in combat, so a soldier always runs next to him, holding it open. ("Don't mention that," Eikenberry says to me, "my mother was furious when she heard I don't wear it.") The general ignores a waiting humvee and heads down the street to see the local mullah, Maulvi Najibullah. The mullah used to be a follower of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, an old CIA favourite who received billions of dollars for weapons to use in the fight against the Soviets. Now allied to the Taliban in Pakistan, Hekmatyar is fighting the Americans, while Maulvi Najibullah says the Americans are his allies. The general and the mullah share a joke about their friendship. Survival in Afghanistan is all about shifting alliances, as it has been for much of the past two centuries.

"Look at where this country has been in the last 30 years," says Eikenberry. "The international community picks up and leaves, and there's a civil war. Now we're back, but from an Afghan perspective, how long-lasting is this? Do the Afghan people have confidence it will hold? If we were to wake up tomorrow and every Afghan were confident that the international community would be here for the next 20 years, the effect would be transformational."

As Eikenberry puts on body armour and straps himself into a Black Hawk for the next part of the trip, his mood changes. "This flight up the valley has come at a price," he says. We are following the Pech River to Camp Blessing, a small US base at the end of a valley. The American battalion there has had the highest casualties in Afghanistan: more than 30 soldiers have been killed in and near the Pech. Six from one company have died in the last few months.

During the war against the Soviets, the Pech and nearby valleys were centres for Arab jihadists. Many stayed on, marrying into local tribes and smuggling timber. Now the old militias, many still funded by Saudi sheikhs, and the tribal mafias are entwined. A couple of months before our trip, Kunar's Governor Didar backed a US military blockade of one valley to pressure villagers to not support the Taliban. "We tried very hard to convince the people to stop helping the Taliban, but they wouldn't, so now we are using the last option," Didar said at the time. It backfired. Tribal elders complained that people were starving, and the Americans turned people against them by raiding houses, looking for Taliban fighters. "The Taliban accuses us of helping the government, and the government says we help the Taliban," one villager told journalists. When the blockade ended, the Taliban killed 12 local Afghans who'd been working at an American base.

We land at the end of the Pech Valley. Camp Blessing, overlooked on three sides by mountains, looks awfully hard to defend. It was named after a sergeant killed by an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) when the camp was being established.

General Eikenberry argues that the strategy behind outposts like Camp Blessing is about a smarter, not larger, use of forces: that territory can be gained gradually by small units. But critics argue that the war in Iraq has overstretched the US military, leaving its Afghanistan campaign desperately short of troops. "How many military forces do you need to cover every valley? Six hundred thousand? Seven hundred thousand? A million?" asks Eikenberry. He admits that attacks in the area have increased recently, but says that it's because the Americans are taking the fight to the enemy with patrols, many of them on foot, into previously inaccessible insurgent hideouts.

At Camp Blessing, the new commander, Captain Joe Evans, looks no older than a teenager. He is still shell-shocked from an attack that occurred only a few days ago, during a two-and-half-week patrol in which he was being trained for promotion by the camp's outgoing commander, Major Douglas Sloan. Three remote-controlled bombs exploded on the road. One missed, another hit a truck, and the last hit Major Sloan's vehicle. Sloan and one other soldier were killed immediately; a third died later in hospital. Evans had been in the vehicle behind Sloan's.

Evans tells me he's from Pennsylvania. When I ask him what he thinks of Camp Blessing, he doesn't miss a beat. "It's beautiful," he says. "Just north of here, you can see snow-capped mountains, waterfalls and pine forests. You know the smell of pine forests?"

It is widely accepted that many of the attacks in southern and eastern Afghanistan are made by militants who come across the Pakistan border. The attacks increased late in 2006, not long after a peace deal made in September between the Pakistan government and tribal leaders near the border. Pakistan said the deal meant that tribal elders would be left alone if they agreed to not run raids into Afghanistan and to not attack Pakistani troops. What it really did was guarantee the insurgents a sanctuary.

Within weeks, the American military saw the results. An officer tells me that one night, he and his troops watched a group of about 80 militants advance on their camp. "The leader was a mullah. We watched them come, and waited till they got close. The mullah was up at the fence with a pair of wire cutters. We could see him cutting the fence. Then we hit them." The officer says the Americans identified the bodies as known militants from Pakistan. "We took photos and identified them. We told the Pakistanis. But nothing happened." (Later, I speak to a political analyst working for an international agency in Kabul, who puts the border problem this way: "How can you drain a swamp when it's being fed by a river?")

As we fly back up the Pech Valley, following the new road built with American money, the sun is going down. General Eikenberry tells me how much he will miss Afghanistan, that his years here have been the "most memorable and rewarding" of his military career and that his fear is that the international community will abandon Afghanistan yet again. He also admits that there are some things that foreigners will probably never fix. "The problems of corruption, bad governance, bribery: the Afghan leadership must take on those themselves," he says. "A corrupt police chief can be a bigger enemy to all of us here than a terrorist."

There are few lights visible on the ground below the helicopter, and I think of Nader Nadery, of his disappointment at how little has changed in Afghanistan, even after so much effort and money. "Five years on, there are villages where there is no electricity, no health centre, and a bad governor," he says. "Even in Kabul, there's no electricity in places; you don't see education; life doesn't change. As long as this situation continues, it acts as a catalyst for the Taliban to find their way through the country and to the capital."

As Afghans celebrate their new year this month, they know that a deadlier season of fighting will shortly be upon them. Even now, before the snow has finished melting in the passes that shelter the Taliban, there are signs that the new offensive has begun. In late January, five Dutch soldiers were wounded when a suicide bomber attacked their vehicle just north of the Australian and Dutch base, in Oruzgan.  It was the first suicide bombing ever reported in the province.

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