Afghans on Edge of Chaos
As opium production and banditry soar, the country is at risk of anarchy, some warn, and could allow a Taliban resurgence.
By Robyn Dixon
Times Staff Writer
August 4, 2003
WARDAK, Afghanistan-Two months after a gun attack, the bullet holes in the Datsun sedan have been patched and it runs beautifully. But water engineer Asil Kahn walks with a limp and he still has two bullets in his body, one of them half an inch from his spine.
The vehicle's humanitarian logo made him a victim in the battle for Afghanistan's future, where water engineers, mine-clearers and humanitarian workers-people the country needs most-are prime targets for militants trying to destabilize President Hamid Karzai's interim government.
The May attack on the Afghanistan Development Agency car in Wardak province, south of Kabul on the road to Kandahar, injured Kahn but killed the driver.
"They weren't robbers or thieves," said Kahn, 46. "They just wanted to kill us. They're people against the government. They thought that maybe there would be some foreigners or some officials from aid organizations in the car. That's why they shot us."
U.S. forces have their hands full trying to subdue attacks in Iraq. But with the slow buildup of a national Afghan army, an inadequate U.S. and coalition presence and poor progress on reconstruction projects, Afghanistan is spiraling out of control and risks becoming a "narco-mafia" state, some humanitarian agencies warn.
Already the signs are there-a boom in opium production, rampant banditry and huge swaths of territory unsafe for Western aid workers. The central government has almost no power over regional warlords who control roads and extort money from truck drivers, choking commerce and trade.
If the country slips into anarchy, it risks becoming a haven for resurgent Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters. And the point of U.S. military action here could be lost-a major setback in the war against terrorism.
Money spent on the war may end up being wasted, and dragging the country back from chaos could be even more costly. America spends about $900 million a month on its forces stationed here, but little of the $3 billion authorized for aid in the Freedom Support Act has been spent.
U.S. promises of a Marshall Plan for Afghanistan raised Afghan expectations, but security and reconstruction woes are undermining support for the coalition among ordinary Afghans. Their disappointment and disillusionment plays into the hands of anti-government militants.
Humanitarian agencies, calling for a big boost in international funds for security and reconstruction, contend that the commitment to Afghanistan is relatively low. A CARE International paper in January stated that postwar international aid spent in Bosnia-Herzegovina was $326 per capita, compared with $42 promised for Afghans up to 2006. For every peacekeeping soldier there were 48 Bosnians, compared with one for every 5,380 Afghans, the paper said. Yet Bosnia poses no appreciable terrorist threat.
There are 8,500 U.S. military personnel leading the 11,500 anti-terrorist coalition forces in Afghanistan. An additional 5,000 international troops secure the capital city, Kabul. A key missing piece is an Afghan army, but with only 4,000 troops trained so far, it will take many years to reach the planned 70,000-strong force. It won't be ready in time to ensure free and fair elections scheduled for June. Some of the 4,000 trained soldiers have already defected because of poor salaries and low morale.
The security vacuum outside Kabul has emboldened Taliban fighters, who constitute the bulk of anti-government militants, some who cross from Pakistan, others based in the east and south. U.S. officials say the Taliban controls part of the opium business, a rich source of funds to attract fighters.
As security worsens, there are sharp differences between the aid community and Western leaders on how to prevent a deepening slide.
Many in the international aid community in Kabul believe the coalition's latest response to the security problem-small scale military teams tackling modest reconstruction projects-will have little impact and will put aid workers at more risk by blurring the line between them and soldiers.
About 40% of the $5.2 billion pledged by the international community last year has been spent but with little progress on big reconstruction projects like the Kabul-to-Kandahar road. Much of the money has been eaten up by emergency relief-food, medicine, blankets and tents.
Haji Abdul Khaliq, 54, arrived in Kabul exhausted by 14 hours on the shattering, rocky track of a highway from Kandahar. It was inconceivable to him that $2 billion had been spent in his country since January last year.
"From what we can see, they didn't spend more than a dollar," he spluttered angrily. "There are no paved roads, no reconstruction of government buildings, no help for the people and no government salaries.
"I think at first people were very hopeful, [but] day by day they lose hope," said Khaliq, a turbaned, white-bearded general from a Kandahar military base who is fighting Taliban militants in the south.
The term Taliban can be a little confusing in a city like Kandahar, where most people in power were once with the Taliban.
Typical of many Afghan moujahedeen fighters, Khaliq is loyal only to his commander. Though he's fighting anti-government militants, he is contemptuous of Americans and despises Karzai and his government.
Khaliq said Taliban forces in the region were growing bolder. A June 30 explosion at a Kandahar mosque that injured more than a dozen was apparently aimed at the anti-Taliban mullah there. A day later another anti-Taliban mullah was shot dead in Nakobak village, six miles south of Kandahar.
In the same week, said Khaliq, Taliban fighters from Pakistan set up a base northeast of Kandahar in Zabul province. Afghan forces attacked, killing a dozen Taliban fighters and capturing about five.
The Taliban rebels offer local people good salaries-more than $100 a month-to fight, while Khaliq grumbled that he and his men are not being paid at all. Afghanistan's severe budgetary problems are leaving many civil servants unpaid.
In Afghanistan, U.S. forces have not suffered the steady casualties borne by the much larger force in Iraq. But anti-government militants in recent months have killed aid workers, attacked mine-clearers and burned girls schools. In June, a suicide bomb attack in Kabul killed four German soldiers from the International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF.
The security problem delaying the Kabul-Kandahar road project is denying the country the economic fillip of a six-hour trade route between the cities. Taxis can do the road in 14 hours, but truck transport takes at least two days.
Taxi drivers working the road daily tell hair-raising tales of armed attacks by thieves and bandits. With something akin to nostalgia, they recall the security of the Taliban era, when they could drive all night without fear.
U.S. forces are focused on eradicating remnants of the Taliban. But to many Afghans, a more immediate problem is bandits, often associated with the venal commanders and warlords who control the roads.
Sher Alimad, 38, a driver from the western city of Herat, said he was attacked in mid-June by five gunmen at Gereshk, about 40 miles west of Kandahar. He was beaten, tied up and thrown into his trunk, driven to a deserted road and robbed of 12,000 Afghanis (about $250).
A surge in trade by small businessmen after the Taliban's fall is being slowly strangled by extortion and banditry.
A group of truck drivers sat wearily in the dust at Dashte Deh Sabz on the northern outskirts of Kabul, after their loads of gravel for the thriving brick industry were seized by a local commander named Maulana. They said he had taken over the gravel trade.
"He's collecting from everyone. No one else can bring it into the city except for him," said driver Khalifa Yakub, 21, who said he was beaten by checkpoint soldiers and jailed for three days when he tried to protest. His dream of running his own small gravel transport business has died. He's become an employee.
"These people, they're commanders, they're dealers, they're businessmen, they're killers, they're everything," he said ruefully.
President Karzai has repeatedly called for the deployment of ISAF forces outside Kabul, a request echoed by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and international aid agencies, but resisted by U.S. and European leaders. Last month an open letter from 80 aid organizations called for a national ISAF presence, warning that efforts to rebuild and hold elections were at risk.
Karzai has called for international donors to offer $20 billion over five years to help the country rebuild. CARE International called for at least $10 billion.
Playing down the security problem on a recent visit, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said provincial reconstruction teams, or PRTs-military-civilian teams of 50-100 people deployed to rebuild infrastructure-would play a key role in improving security. Four are working, independent of ISAF, and eight are planned.
Lt. Gen. Norbert van Heyst, the German commander of ISAF forces in Kabul, described the city as a "safe island" because of ISAF's presence, but expressed concern that militant attacks in the south and east could spill into the capital. However, he said, extending ISAF beyond Kabul was unrealistic.
"For the entire country you would need 10,000 additional troops, and nobody is willing to do that," he said, adding that PRTs were a more realistic first step. "I'm convinced that this concept can improve security."
It's a view contested by many in the humanitarian sector. Barbara Stapleton of ACBAR, the coordinating body for Afghan relief, said the military should focus on improving poor security, not duplicate the role of humanitarian agencies.
PRTs "have neither the mandate nor the resources to have a significant impact on either reconstruction or security," she said, adding that the teams eroded Afghan confidence in the neutrality of humanitarian agencies. "In a highly complex security situation, they further muddy the waters."
Stapleton said some U.S. military anti-terrorist forces had conducted crude searches in a village in southern Afghanistan, bursting into homes and offending cultural sensibilities.
"Then they went in later with sweeteners and built wells. And the people refused to use them. It's actually a crude way of dealing with a highly sophisticated and very intelligent people."
Dixon was recently on assignment in Afghanistan.