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By Syed Nazakat/Kabul & Jalalabad

Our convoy of armoured vehicles speed along the Kabul-Jalalabad Highway past rubble heaps that were once houses. Then the lead vehicle slows down and takes a turn, the others follow it down a narrow dusty road. Destination: Gazi Khan Khel village in Kapisa province. Small mud houses pockmarked by bullets and shrapnel flank the narrow road. A US helicopter gunship skims overhead in a whirl of rotor blades. As we near Gazi, all side roads are closed with makeshift roadblocks; the US army and the Afghan National Army are everywhere. The war seems closer than ever.

“This Pasthun dominated area was under the control of the Taliban,” says commander Arif Khan of the 201 Salaab Unit of the ANA. “Last month, we chased them off and now our focus is on restoring essential services and helping local residents.” He looks at his men distributing old clothes, tarpaulin sheets and precious packets of coal. As the two truckloads of relief material get over, those who got nothing fought with those who came first.

A few metres away from the fistfight stands Haji Abdul Bashir, stroking his long, grey beard. “They [ANA] are doing a good job. But I am not sure how much power they have. Once they go back to their camps the Taliban will return. They are just a mountain away,” says Bashir pointing southwards to the mountains. Until a few months ago, Kapisa province, 50km from Kabul, was considered to be under the complete control of President Hamid Karzai’s government. But now it is not.

Seven years after the coalition forces went in to capture Osama bin Laden and quash the Taliban, the Afghan situation has worsened with Taliban militants regrouping and fusing into a resilient insurgency. Many of them have returned from Pakistan where they had fled in 2001. According a NightWatch report by John McCreary, a former Pentagon strategic analyst, until September 2008 there were 1,880 Taliban attacks, up from 1,702 in entire 2007.

Now one does not need to drive far from Kabul to find the Taliban. A 30-minute drive south, on the main highway connecting Kabul with Ghazni and Kandahar provinces, will take you to Taliban country where insurgents patrol by night and run a parallel government by day. In Wardak and other southern provinces, and in some hot spots in the east, the Karzai government barely exists outside district towns.

Kabul’s growing security crisis was graphically exposed recently when a Taliban suicide bomber blew himself up in the heavily guarded information and culture ministry building, killing five and wounding 20. Foreigners are prime targets in the escalating violence. Despite the xenophobia, Indians are all over the war-torn country. At the Emergency Hospital in Kabul, Dr Anil Kumar sits beside Mohammad Noor, 10. The doctor from Bangalore has been in Afghanistan for the past five years. “Every day we receive patients injured in shootings and bombings,” says Kumar, who recently returned from the Taliban-dominated Helmand province. He pulls out his cell phone to play a video clip of a fierce gunfight between the Taliban and the coalition forces in Helmand. “Sometimes it is scary to work here,” he says. “But, honestly, I feel I am doing something very important. The people need us badly.”

Indian ambassador to Afghanistan Jayant Prasad is proud that Indian engineers have completed the work on the 220km road linking Afghanistan’s Nimroz province with Chah Bahar Port, Iran. The road provides an alternate access route to landlocked Afghanistan, which now relies mostly on Pakistan. Around 10 workers died in attacks during the road work.

The road is the centerpiece of New Delhi’s $1.1 billion reconstruction effort, which has Pakistan worried about India’s growing influence in Afghanistan. “There are forces which want India out of Afghanistan,” Prasad tells THE WEEK. “The embassy attack had a clear message—quit, or we’ll hit. We were not attacked because the Afghans hate us.” On the outskirts of Kabul city the Power Grid Corporation of India is putting in place a 220 KV transmission line that will bring power from Uzbekistan. “It was challenging to set up the line,” says V. Shakar, project director. “The terrain was snowbound, hilly and altitudes ranged from 1,800 metres to 4,000 metres above mean sea level.” All the raw material for the project, about 15,000 tonnes, was sent from India via Iran’s Bandar Abbas Port, around 2,500km from Kabul.

Shakar says the project will solve Kabul’s power shortage, which had forced industries to bankroll their own power plants. This resulted in high overheads and smaller salaries—salaries that could not lure young men away from the Taliban or opium trade. “There are a couple of things that can better life here, one is electricity,” says Shakar. At Khair Khana in east Kabul, retired colonel R.N. Kharbanda heads a project which imparts job skills to Afghans. Kharbanda says, “This year we have just 1,000 vacancies but have received more than 3,000 applications.” A third of the students at the Afghan-India Training Centre are girls, a marvel in itself. “The most important thing is education,” says Shafiqa Mirzat, a bubbly instructor at the Centre.

The Taliban had stopped women from attending school. But after years of war and infighting, Ministry of Education reports show that more than half the schools have no buildings. Classes are now held in tents, beneath trees or even in the open. The Ministry of Education says 6.2 million children are now enrolled—about half the school-aged population. Uniformed children pour through the streets of Kabul, Panjshir and even troubled Jalalabad, flooding classrooms in two and three shifts. At Kabul University, students say girls are refusing to marry until they finished school. “The future Afghanistan looks bright with a good education system and schools for boys and girls,” says Shukriya Barakzai, a member of parliament. But ironically, her children are unable to go school for fear of being kidnapped by criminal gangs, warlords or the Taliban. The rampant unemployment has made kidnapping for ransom a profitable business. The ministry of interior says around 170 kidnappings were reported until June.

Despite all this, Kabul seems to be regaining at least a semblance of normalcy. Million of refugees have returned home. Roads and hospitals are being rebuilt. Rents are sky-rocketing, thanks to expatriates. Women are now allowed to vote and hold seats in parliament. A new beauty parlour has opened, close to Gandamak Lodge where Osama bin Laden reportedly has rendezvous with one of his wives. Sportsmen are back at the National Stadium, where the Taliban once staged regular public executions. Though the general consensus is that women should wear burqa, many Afghan girls wear pants, as a Kabul University student says, “to be a little trendy”. Young couples meet, talk and listen to Bollywood music at Everest Pizza in Wazir Akbar Khan, a posh locality in Kabul.

Nobody seems to regret the Taliban’s fall; not many are happy with the Karzai’s government, either. “The Taliban rule was constant oppression…. But the present situation is frightening,” says Haji Abdul Rouf, who runs the Insaf Hotel in Kabul. “There was hardship during Taliban rule, but there was also peace. You could travel from Kabul to Kandahar and no one would touch you.”

Today, the highway is one of the more dangerous roads in Afghanistan. On October 19 the Taliban stopped passenger buses on the highway and killed 30 civilians; some were beheaded. While the Taliban says they were ANA soldiers, the government says they were job-seeking civilians on their way to Iran.

Many think that Karzai has surrounded himself with corrupt leaders and drug lords. And some of Karzai’s earlier supporters will not back him in the 2009 elections. One of them is Noorulhaq Olomi, member of parliament and chairman of the committee on defence and territorial affairs. “Things are out of his [Karzai’s] control,” says Olomi. “He became a victim of America’s wrong polices. They [the US] invaded our country on the pretext of capturing Osama. But nobody is telling them that their bombing is killing more civilians than Taliban insurgents.”

This lack of a strong and effective government has led to frustration. Afghans complain that they are being forced to pass through security checks and parade before the foreign troops. Others say they pay bribes to the Afghan police to save their goods and life. Part of the solution, Olomi says, is the ANA. “If you want a better and stable Afghanistan, then we need a stronger ANA. Instead of increasing foreign troops, the US should help us build our own strong army.” The need is for a well-trained and armed one lakh-strong force, he says. The current troop strength is 35,000.

Meanwhile, the Taliban is winning support in the Pasthun-dominated southern provinces. The Taliban’s parallel administration is more popular despite being brutal. In Wardak province, 40km away from Kabul, people tell stories of how the Taliban courts settled tricky property disputes in a one sitting. At the heart of the Taliban’s growing strength is the support from the Pasthuns, a dominant ethnic group peeved over the US support to their worst enemies—Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras.

“The Pasthun unite briefly against an outsider—Alexander the Great, the Soviets and now the US,” says Hamidullah Tarzih, chief, national committee for trade. “It is against the Pasthun ethic to help an outsider against their own people. The tribal loyalties are revered. The whole US policy in Afghanistan is a disaster. There is an Afghan proverb—for love Afghans will go with you to hell; force them, and they will not come to paradise.”

The ground situation, too, seems to be changing. Pakistan, which once supported the Taliban, now has insurgency at home. The Taliban is using Pak territory as a sanctuary and as a launching pad. Pakistan says it cannot stop infiltration unless the Durand Line—the 2,640km-long mountainous border—is fenced. “The only way is to fence the extremely porous Afghan-Pakistan border,” says Muhammad Naeem, spokesman, Pakistan embassy in Kabul. “But the Afghan government is not willing to do it.”

Though the Afghan and Pakistan governments often clash over the border dispute, Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar has been exhorting Pak militants to attack US interests at home rather than fight across the border. Hekmatyar, an Osama aide, represents a typical Afghan irony—during the mujahideen’s war against the USSR, he was the CIA’s warlord, funded and armed by the US. The coalition forces, too, have realised that the Afghan psyche is not all black and white. On October 5, Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith, the British commander in Kabul, said that the UK public should not expect a “decisive military victory” but should be prepared for a possible deal with the Taliban. Carleton-Smith’s 16 Air Assault Brigade lost 32 men and had 170 injured.

Karzai, too, seems to be moving in the same direction. On October 28, a delegation headed by former Afghan foreign minister Dr Abdullah Abdullah went to Islamabad to work out a formula for engaging the Taliban and other warring factions in talks. Interestingly, US Defence Secretary Robert Gates endorsed the two-day mini jirga of politicians, clergy and tribal chiefs.

A senior Afghan leader, who was a part of the Islamabad delegation, met ambassador Prasad. Afghanistan’s security and India’s strategic interest in the country form the linchpin of New Delhi’s resolve to remain engaged there. In August, India pledged an additional $450 million. By helping rebuild Afghanistan, India is aiming at greater regional stability. Says Prasad: “Our goal for development in Afghanistan has not changed. It is not being watered down.” But he says the Afghan government has to be careful about whom to talk to and when.

But regardless of the optimism and good intentions, few in Kabul believe peace is in the offing. On Friday thousands of people throng Kabul’s famous Pul-e Kheshti mosque. They bow, asking for God’s mercy and forgiveness. “God forgive us and bring peace to this land,” says the Imam leading the prayers. In one voice the followers say “Ameen”. In their hearts, they have the humbling knowledge that, perhaps, only divine intervention can bring peace to their country.

Side Story:

America at cross-roads

“We have seen Afghanistan worsen, deteriorate. We need more troops there. We need more resources there.”

Barack Obama, September 26, 2008

“We cannot win the fight against terrorism with air strikes. This is my first demand of the new president of the United States… put an end to civilian casualties.”

President Hamid Karzai, November 5, 2008

Syed Nazakat in Kabul

To put it mildly, the US is caught in a confounding bind. The Afghanistan mission eclipsed the Iraq war with a record numbers of casualties and the Taliban and al Qaeda are as strong as ever. The steady increase in the number of US troops in Afghanistan shows how much the security condition has deteriorated. From 20,000 troops in 2005, the US presence has grown to 32,000, the most since the Afghan war began. Recently, the US commander asked for 20,000 more.

Early in his presidential campaign, US president-elect Barack Obama called for deploying two or three more combat brigades in Afghanistan. President George W. Bush has already approved such an increase, although the timing of the deployments depends on the withdrawal of forces from Iraq. But the Afghan government is frustrated with US military tactics, especially the widespread use of air power which kills more civilians than insurgents.

Military commanders in Afghanistan say that increasing the number of foreign troops in Afghanistan may not turn the tide against the Taliban, and may turn more Afghans against the western-backed government of President Hamid Karzai.

Obama, who made the Afghanistan war the centrepiece of his election campaign, is quite aware of ground realities. He visited Afghanistan during his campaign, met military commanders and Karzai and hinted at having talks with Iran, an important player in Afghanistan. Reportedly, the new administration has plans to support talks between the Karzai government and ‘liberal’ elements of the Taliban. During a recent visit to Washington, General David D. McKiernan, commander of NATO and US troops in Afghanistan, said the idea of “reconciliation, I think, is appropriate, and we’ll be there to provide support within our mandate.”

At the centre of Karzai’s reconciliation programme are two top former Taliban leaders—Wakil Ahmad Muttawakil and Mullah Abdul Salam Zaif. The initiative has the support of the US, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Both Muttawakil and Zaif were released by the US after holding them for around two years in Guantanamo Bay. When THE WEEK tried to contact Zaif he said he was out of the country, but didn’t say where. Later, informed sources said he was in Saudi Arabia to meet Taliban leaders.

The bad news is security experts predict an increase in attacks by the Taliban aimed at thwarting any fresh attempt by Washington to gain control in Afghanistan. Though US officials say the Taliban is using civilians as a human shield, everyone will continue to hold America responsible for whatever happens.

(THE WEEK, Nov 23, 2008)

Meet Mullah Rocketi

Syed Nazakat in Kabul 

In Afghanistan, he is known as Mullah Rocketi. During the anti-Soviet jihad, Mullah Abdul Salam, 47, became famous for his unerring aim with the shoulder-fired Stinger missile and RPG-7, hence the funny nickname. His favourite targets were Russian tanks and helicopters, the rusting remains of which now dot the Afghan landscape. An official estimate says Soviets lost 333 helicopters and 147 tanks in Afghanistan.

Salam’s fame increased with his joining the Taliban, and he rose through the ranks to become the right hand of Taliban chief Mullah Mohammad Omar. Later he became commander-in-chief of the strategically important Jalalabad province, from where Osama bin Laden moved to the fortified hideouts in Tora Bora mountains.

When THE WEEK met him in his Kabul house, Salam looked so unlike the guerilla he was. “I don’t like talking to journalists,” he said. “The more you write about us the more trouble for us.” Now a member of parliament, Salam does not regret his Taliban days. He said he joined them because the people wanted him to. The Taliban and President Hamid Karzai’s government have the same agenda, he said—a centralised government and reduced power to regional warlords. Sitting cross-legged and sipping green tea, he said: “During the Afghan civil war, Mullah Omar went to every village asking warlords to cease fire. If they refused, he would threaten them. Surprisingly, these warlords who loved their weapons more than their children listened to him. Thus began the legendary rise of the Taliban and Mullah Omar.” He said that though Mullah Omar was madrasa-educated, he was a mediocre orator.

Following the Taliban’s collapse in 2001, Salam spent eight months in the custody of the US forces. After his release, he moved to Kabul from his hometown of Qalat, 96 km north of Kandahar. Meanwhile, the Karzai government was reaching out to moderates in the Taliban as part of a reconciliation programme. Salam was given a house a few hundred metres away from the parliament. Former senior Taliban functionaries like its foreign minister Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil and its ambassador to Pakistan Mullah Abdul Salam Zaif live in the area. But unlike their houses, Salam’s has no heavily armed sentries. The burly guard at the gate did not even have a sidearm.

Salam said he was not in contact with the Taliban fighters who had regrouped in south Afghanistan. After 2001, he has turned away from the Taliban leadership, he said, and now urges his former comrades to reconcile with the government. But in Kabul, people believe that he is still held in high esteem by many senior Taliban commanders. Last year he volunteered to help negotiate the release of 23 Koreans abducted by the Taliban. Though two of the hostages were killed, the others were released later.

The former Taliban commander lost three brothers in the war—two to the Soviets and one to the mujahideen. He prefers not to speak about the possibility of the Taliban returning to power and says they should stop killing innocent people.

“I’m convinced a unified government supported by all forces in the country can ensure peace and stability in Afghanistan,” he said. “We have lost everything in the decades of war and infighting. It should stop somewhere.”

Salam said the Taliban went wrong when its fanaticism led to Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda becoming guests of Afghanistan. He said he had expressed public concern at Osama’s idea of a jihad against the west. Later, in early 2001 he was invited to lunch with Osama, where he outlined his objections. But Osama just smiled and turned away. Salam’s hunch was correct. Post-9/11, a ferocious US came Osama-hunting and bombed the Taliban out of power. Osama fled, Omar went into hiding near Kandahar; the US is still searching for them.

Salam met Omar one last time before he went underground. “It was three days before the fall of Kandahar and I asked him for final instructions on how to proceed,” Salam said. “He said the US was invading, but if we stayed united and continued to believe in Allah, we’ll defeat them, just like did the Russians.” He said Osama was not with Omar during the last meeting. That is, perhaps, the last time anybody saw Mullah Omar before he went into hiding. The US army has asked Salam umpteen times if he knew where Osama and Omar were hiding. His answer remains the same: “I never saw him after that meeting. Seven years have passed now; I have no clue where he and Osama are.”

The End

The Boy Who Won Afghanistan first Olympic medal

Syed Nazakat in Kabul

For Rohullah Nikpai, 21, his triumphant exit from Kabul International Airport will remain unforgettable. He had returned from the Beijing Olympics with Afghanistan’s first medal—a bronze in men’s 58kg taekwondo—and thousands of jubilant Afghans thronged the streets to greet him. Helicopters crisscrossed the Kabul sky showering leaflets with his picture. For once, Afghanistan was united. “It was wonderful and unbelievable,” an excited Nikpai told THE WEEK. “I come from a humble family and never thought I could achieve this.” Coming from the marginalised Hazara community, he was touched by the countrywide jubilation. Prominently displayed in Nikpai’s house is a portrait of Abdul Ali Mazari—popularly known as the father of the Hazaras—who was butchered by the Taliban in March 1995.

Nikpai started learning taekwondo, a Korean martial art, when he was 10. Soon the Afghan civil war broke out and Nikpai’s family fled to an Afghan refugee camp in Iran. Even in the camp Nikpai found time for practice, after attending school and helping with the family chores. In 2004, the family returned to Kabul, where he continued training. “Sometime in my sleep I feel my legs flying, trying to hit the target,” he laughed. Definitely, it is this dedication that helped him defeat two-time world champion Juan Antonio Ramos of Spain at Beijing.

Life, surely, has changed for Nikpai after the Olympic bronze. “I cannot really go out and meet my friends,” he said. “People ask for my autograph.” He is also learning to drive the new Toyota Corolla gifted to him by the Alokozay tea company. Though other prizes and gifts have come through, he is yet to get the house promised by the Karzai government.

Training hard for the 2012 Olympics in London, Nikpai is aiming for gold. His greatest kick, he said, comes from hearing other Afghan sportsmen say: If Nikpai can do it, so can we.

(THE WEEK, November, 2008)

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