Central Asia

Living in Fear in Afghanistan

A U.S. soldier searches a man outside Kandahar, Afghanistan. Checkpoints are in place across Afghanistan to find drugs, weapons, and remnants of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.
A U.S. soldier searches a man at a checkpoint outside Kandahar (Photo: Darren McCollester/AFP-Getty Images).

Kabul, June 2003. Once again, the sky over the “pacified” capital of Afghanistan is the scene of a continuous waltz of aircraft, whose throbbing engines are enough to freeze the city’s people with fear. “It’s the Taliban supported by Al-Qaeda, and they’re transporting their troops. They’re going to attack Kabul anytime now,” remarks the taxi driver. “No, they’re not,” rejoins my interpreter, in a soothing tone. “Those are American planes protecting the takeoff of Hamid Karzai’s aircraft. The president is leaving on an official
visit abroad.”

Nearly two years after the Taliban’s fall, the city of Kabul, a display window for the victory of the “progressives” over the “obscurantists,” has a hard time believing peace is at hand. The peace promised by the Americans hangs more than ever in a precarious balance.

The lack of security in the country over the last few months testifies to this hard truth. Western nations are taking seriously a recent United Nations report stressing the danger of kidnapping in the provinces of Kabul, Kunduz, and Kunar. Westerners shiver at the idea that the Americans may get bogged down in the Middle East, an eventuality that could have explosive consequences in Afghanistan. And yet, the Afghans haven’t shown much solidarity with Iraqis who oppose the American occupation.

“The overthrow of Saddam was good for the Iraqis,” acknowledges Ali, a student at Kabul University. A single demonstration against the war in Iraq took place in Laghman province, eastern Afghanistan. Even the mullahs have refrained from calling for jihad, a holy war against the United States. They have merely called on Afghans to pray for the Iraqi people.

Still, fear is well and truly present here. And as the fear grows, protective walls around offices and residences in Kabul sprout and grow, too. Barbed wire, dazzling spotlights, armed guards: All kinds of security measures are on the increase.

“We’re protecting ourselves against either politically motivated attacks or bandit raids,” explains the security chief of one humanitarian agency. “We tell our foreign staff to avoid moving around except when necessary, and to shun public places. You can bet that groups linked to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the rebel leader of the Hezb-e-Islami, and Taliban forces with ties to Al-Qaeda won’t miss a chance to put on big shows of force in the capital. And Westerners are at the top of the target list.” Incidents reported in recent months—thefts, robberies, intimidations, beatings—seem to back up these dark predictions.

The offices of U.N. programs— UNICEF and the World Food Program—were burgled in the middle of the upscale Kabul neighborhood of Shar-e-Nao. In late January, near Kandahar in the south, a bus set off a land mine: Twelve people were killed. On March 27, an expatriate employee of the International Committee of the Red Cross was shot down in cold blood by an unidentified group of men near Oruzgan, south-central Afghan-istan. On March 30, a rocket hit the headquarters of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) peacekeeping troops in Kabul, wrecking a building and two cars. On May 13, an ISAF patrol came under fire on the Shamali plain, north of the capital. The camps of U.S. Special Forces along the Pakistani-Afghan border are attacked with rockets nearly every day. Two American soldiers were killed on the border at the end of April. Mines and rockets have exploded in front of the U.S. general headquarters at Bagram, near Kabul. On May 23, guerrillas opened fire on two Special Forces vehicles on the main road linking Khost and Gardez, south of Kabul. On June 7, a suicide attack on ISAF forces in Kabul killed four German soldiers and an Afghan civilian.

These repeated incidents can only hinder the reconstruction of the country. After an attack on one of its convoys in Zabul province, southeastern Afghanistan, in May, the U.N. Mine Action Center Afghanistan suspended its work in the south. The main highways are still not safe to travel, not to mention the secondary roads. Since December, there have been at least a dozen armed robberies of cars from nongovernmental organizations or the U.N. in southeastern Afghanistan.

The U.N. has barred its staff from using most of the roads in the south. Any authorized travel is done in the daytime with a heavy escort. Even Afghans don’t dare travel at night. And now, Afghans are thinking about rearming to defend themselves. “So where is this security the Americans promised?” storms Najibullah, proprietor of a small import-export business. “What are they doing apart from protecting the government and making themselves comfortable? Yesterday, my driver had a whole shipment of merchandise stolen by bandits between Kandahar and Kabul. That’s enough. I’ve lost all faith in their promises. I’m going to hand out guns to my drivers.”

Even nongovernmental agencies are weighing whether to arrange armed guards for all their travel. “We’re back at square one, in a situation like the early 1990s, during the internecine war before the Taliban’s seizure of power. But at least the Taliban brought security,” bitterly remarks Hassibullah, an administrator in a humanitarian aid agency. Comments like these are proof that the lack of security has seriously dented the Americans’ standing here.

Clashes among armed factions, with the accompanying brutalization of the populace, have heightened the climate of fear. Warlords, local commanders, and tribal leaders struggle among themselves for power. The situation is deteriorating in the north, south, and west. In Kandahar, intertribal tension reached a climax last winter when Provincial Gov. Gul Agha, who is from the Barakzai tribe, attempted to disarm police operating under Gen. Akram, from the Alkozai tribe. Tribal leaders had to be called in to defuse the conflict. In the far west, rivalry between Ismail Khan, governor of Herat, and the leaders of various factions has deepened, leading to bloody clashes in Shindand, south of Herat, and Badghis province, northeast of Herat.

President Karzai hasn’t managed to bring these powerful commanders under his central authority. His word is law only as far as the outskirts of Kabul. Backed up by a network of local militias, the warlords have taken up their former positions in their strongholds. They draw up their own laws and raise taxes that are diverted to their own use. It would be dangerous to try to eliminate the warlords; they control most of the smaller commanders in their regions and are thus able to ensure a degree of order and security. There is no one in President Karzai’s entourage with sufficient authority to replace the warlords.

And so, force of arms, not the law, reigns in Afghanistan. Local commanders press nongovernmental organizations to give aid and housing to people loyal to the commanders. National unity remains elusive. Ethnic tensions persist. Refugees who fled to other regions during the war still don’t dare return to their villages if they’re in the ethnic minority at home.

To curb the warlords and strengthen security, Afghanistan would have to disarm hundreds of thousands of former combatants and find something for them to do in civilian life. As it happens, the disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration program kicked off in May 2002 in the north, under the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, has run into major problems. Since the fall of the Taliban, the three main armed factions—the Hezb-e-Wahdat (dominated by the Hazaras), the Jombesh-e-Melli Islami (mainly Uzbek, led by Abdul Rashid Dostum), and the Jamiat-e-Islami (led by the Tajik Ostad Atta Muhammad )—have been fighting over territory in the north. Many commanders refuse to disarm their men until a political settlement favorable to them is reached. And the warlords have no trouble maintaining the loyalty of their fighters, who are eager to sell their allegiance for a steady wage.

President Karzai, supported by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, has called for an extension of the ISAF’s mandate outside Kabul, but the Western nations who furnish the troops have not heeded his pleas. For now, the Afghan government lacks the means to ensure national security. The army and police still do not operate as national forces. Only six battalions have been created and are being trained by French and American instructors.

The Americans remain the only force capable of armed action in most of the country. But how far will the GIs be able to go? The south still isn’t pacified. Around 1,000 Al-Qaeda fighters supposedly remain active there. In the Spin Boldak area, an offensive by 800 American soldiers killed 18 Taliban fighters in February. In Helmand province, southwestern Afghanistan, men loyal to Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar ambushed a government convoy and killed 15 soldiers. On May 23, about 100 rebels attacked an Afghan military control post 25 kilometers east of Khost, on the border with Pakistan, wounding four Afghan soldiers. Kabul accuses Pakistan’s military intelligence apparatus, known as Inter-Services Intelligence, of protecting Taliban fighters on Pakistani territory and helping them regroup.

The Americans, who suspect the Taliban of readying an offensive, are convinced that to crush Mullah Omar’s men they have to strike into tribal territory inside Pakistan. They’re trying to get approval from the Pakistani central authorities to coordinate military operations on both sides of the border. Recent American bombing in Spin Boldak and along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border was probably intended to head off an attack by the Taliban.

Meanwhile, Kabul has seen a growing number of demonstrations against the occupying forces and their Afghan government allies since early May. The most recent demonstration, on May 24, involved 200 to 300 protesters who were angered by the death of four Afghan soldiers mistakenly killed by GIs. The mostly teenage protesters chanted slogans against the government and the Americans, and attacked Western symbols with sticks, stones, and iron bars. Two ISAF soldiers were hurt, and passersby were beaten.

The Americans, aware of the danger that the lack of security poses, have reinforced their presence in Afghanistan. Trying to keep it low-key, they’re playing the humanitarian card.The American forces have set up provincial reconstruction teams (PRTs) to carry on joint military and humanitarian actions. These teams, which are criticized by some nongovernmental organizations, have begun working in Gardez, Bamiyan, and Kunduz. PRTs are to be sent to four more strategic cities by the end of the year.

Nevertheless, Afghans are worried that U.S. aid will be diverted to Iraq. Promises by the United States (which budgeted $820 million in Afghan aid for 2003) and other donor countries to keep their commitments in Afghanistan haven’t dissipated people’s doubts. And yet, in 2002 the country did receive the full amount of aid promised in 2002 at the Tokyo donors’ conference.

The impact of this capital injection can already be felt. In Kabul, new businesses open every day. Foreign companies are coming in, especially American ones. Young people rush to the movies to see the latest Indian films, and wealthy Afghans pile into the capital’s fashionable restaurants. And since February, Kabul residents have been able to access the Internet at home.

But the people are still full of complaints. “What’s Karzai been doing since the Loya Jirga?” grumbles Rahim, a teacher in a Kabul elementary school, referring to the first meeting of the national grand council in June 2002. “He’s unable to ensure our security. What do we get from having all these foreigners around? High rents, that’s what! We’ve got no running water at the house, and the electricity is on only a few hours a day. My son still hasn’t been able to find a job.”

On the positive side of the government’s ledger, civil servants’ salaries in most provinces are being paid on time. The value of the afghani, the country’s currency, is rising. A new constitution is being written and will be submitted to the Loya Jirga in October; a committee is working on reforms of the judicial system; another one is making preparations for the 2004 elections. Meantime, President Karzai is trying to keep an ethnic balance in the army. To end the domination of the Defense Ministry by Tajiks from the Northern Alliance, Gen. Fahim, the minister, replaced 16 Tajik generals with Pashtun, Uzbek, and Hazara officers.

But these positive developments can’t hide the fact that the economic situation of most Afghans remains tough. Aid has arrived, but not enough to deal with the flow of returning refugees into a country devastated by war and drought. After a campaign of persuasion by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, 1.7 million people chose to return to Afghanistan in 2002; the U.N. agency is expecting another 1.2 million to come back this year. These refugees, most of them landless peasants, can’t find work in their home villages and so seek elusive employment in Kabul, where they swell the ranks of the poverty-stricken urban masses.

Remedying economic woes is one of President Karzai’s main challenges. If he can make his authority respected, he’ll be able to refill the state coffers with taxes collected from the warlords. This would come on top of international aid. The program to integrate former combatants into the army or civilian life is crucial at a time when peace depends on the emergence of a sturdy economy. The head of state and his allies will need all their intelligence to find a way to break the vicious circle in which peace depends on economic development and vice versa.

Afghanistan will have to wait for many more months before it can join the ranks of the developing countries. But there’s no guarantee that the people, exhausted by 23 years of war and four of drought, will be patient enough to avoid the traps laid by those who could again plunge the country into torment.