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The current war in Afghanistan
Slow Views

The current war in Afghanistan

Tuesday 27 July 2021

As US forces depart, those left behind are hunkering down or arming up – all in anticipation of worse conflict to come. And who can blame them? The government is weak, and the Taliban rampant

Hairatan is one of the most important border points in Afghanistan. It sits on the Amu Darya, the ancient Oxus River dividing the country’s north from the states of Central Asia. It is wealthy, powerful, strategic and, usually, bustling. No longer. As Afghanistan’s journey towards failed state gathers momentum, those who can go have gone. Those who cannot are hunkering down, hoping to survive.

The streets are empty. The shops are shuttered. The Afghan National Army is nowhere to be seen. Nor are the “uprising militias,” as they are called – groups of armed citizens that have been deploying to fend off the Taliban’s nasty and alarmingly effective summer offensive. The Friendship Bridge that connects Afghanistan’s Balkh province and Uzbekistan – over which the retreating Soviets trundled after a disastrous decade of occupation – has been blocked from the northern side. And Uzbek jets are seen circling overhead. 

In Mazar-I-Sharif, the capital of Balkh, militias and local political power-brokers are vying for dominance. At the airport, which used to host a German military base, civilian planes must wait on the tarmac as the Afghan Air Force’s Super Tucano attack jets and Black Hawk helicopters buzz about.

Passenger planes to Kabul, the capital, are full as people pack up their families and a lot of their belongings to leave town and what they believe is a fast-approaching war. When I returned recently to Kabul from Mazar, I sent a message to a friend who works for the government’s security sector to share with him what I had seen where I had been. “We are at war,” he said.

Afghanistan is indeed at war. It’s a war everyone and no one can define. Is it a civil war, an insurgency, or terrorism? Does it have ethnic and sectarian elements? International or regional dimensions? Is it criminal gangs – like the drug-runners who call themselves the Taliban – and warlords battling for territory and assets? Is Afghanistan a proxy playground for the would-be Great Gamers of the 21st Century? Part of a Pakistani plan to render the country a vassal state and bulwark against India? Is it all of the above?

Whatever it is and however it can be defined, the prevailing wind is one of fear. And the government of President Ashraf Ghani, installed and supported by the United States and the Western alliance, is doing little to alleviate that fear by either word or deed. Even senior officials will tell me, over pasta and red wine in restaurants hidden behind massive concrete blast walls patrolled by armed guards, what a mess they believe the president and his coterie of diaspora yes-men have made. He’s blown it, they say, missed the opportunities offered by Afghanistan’s “golden age,” as many here call the years after the fall of the Taliban and the Western invasion of 2001. He has made such an awful hash of things, and his government is so horribly corrupt, that the door is now open to a Taliban return. And they tut and shake their heads – and dream of getting out.

Is it any wonder? Across the country, the Taliban are knocking over districts as they encircle the provincial capitals, cut off supply lines for government forces, and besiege population centres. I hear stories of sieges of Army bases lasting for weeks on end, with soldiers fighting on without resupply of food, water, arms or ammunition. They are fighting for their lives, their families, their country. But not for their government, and certainly not for their president. Everywhere I go, in Kabul and elsewhere in the country, people seem determined to show me that they do not support Ashraf Ghani. His portrait may hang in government offices across the land, but his cult of personality is confined to the tight circle around him, second passport-holders derisively called “tommies”. A bandoliered militia leader in a rural district of the north, reporting from the front, pointed at Ghani’s portrait hanging in the governor’s office, and said: “We do not fight the Taliban here on his behalf, we do it for ourselves because no one else is coming to defend us.” A senior government minister refused to sit at his desk during an interview, apparently to avoid being photographed with the president’s picture hanging above his left shoulder.

The capital is surrounded, with insurgent checkpoints set up on roads less than an hour by car from the President’s Palace. Neighbouring provinces are no-go zones. Power pylons are being damaged so that Kabul residents don’t have electricity for most of every day. Those able to afford the fuel have bought generators. And there is one outside almost every shop in the downtown Shar-I-Naw shopping district. Imagine the noise, the filth, the stench. It is unrelenting. And it is wearing people to a frazzle. For a long time, Ghani was referred to as the “Mayor of Kabul”. Since the former American President Donald Trump signed a bilateral deal with the Taliban’s leaders on 29 February last year, cutting him out despite billions spent on building democratic governance here, Ghani has been a ruler largely confined to his palace. 

The result, of course, is a vacuum of leadership. Afghans cannot see their leader, and so they effectively do not have one. Ghani rarely emerges from the confines of the peaceful, calm, cool, green Arg, as his enclave is called. Its rarified air does not seem to be even the same temperature as that of the charmingly clamorous Kabul that exists outside its soaring, tessellated walls. Afghans and expatriates alike will sometimes sneer about the dwindling number of locked-down diplomats and non-government charity employees who “never visit Afghanistan”. Ghani and his wife, Rula, a Lebanese Christian who has said in the past that she doesn’t like wearing a head scarf (who does?), are like precious, cloistered creatures unknown and unseen by the people they purport to rule over. “It’s like they dropped down here from Mars,” a former diplomat said to me as we sat in adjacent recliners for pedicures at a chichi downtown spa. “They even speak a different language to normal Afghans,” she said.

Many Afghan people cannot understand why their government is so remote at such a perilous time. Why isn’t Ghani visiting the frontlines, telling Afghanistan and the world that he is prepared to die for his country, peering through binoculars and squinting through the sites of a sniper rifle at enemy lines? But no. Ghani doesn’t even talk to his own media. Officials who invite me for dinner ask me: “What should we do?” Talk to your people, I say. Talk to your journalists. And don’t tell them everything is fine; everyone knows it’s not. Tell them it’s bad, acknowledge their fears. And then tell them what you’re going to do about it. They nod. And sip Scotch.

Hairatan is just one of Afghanistan’s eight major border crossings. The Taliban have taken control of three of them – two on the border with Iran and another on the border with Uzbekistan – and are closing in on others. Billions of dollars’ worth of goods pass through these ports, and they are important transhipment points for the vast quantities of contraband, including drugs and illegally-mined minerals, that the Taliban control. The foreign minister, Mohammad Hanif Atmar, told me that sometimes he gets confused about “whether this war is about Afghanistan or about narcotics and the war economy”. Truth is, they go together. Opium poppies grown here account for almost all the world’s heroin. Ephedra plants are the new Taliban crop, for producing methamphetamine that is already turning up in Europe, Asia, Australia, North America. A counter-narcotics official described cheap “Made In Afghanistan” methamphetamine as a coming catastrophe for the entire world. This is, essentially, what the Taliban are fighting for: money.

Their ferocious advance has given them control over a quarter to a third of the districts in the country. In Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, there are 407 districts – administrative regions akin to counties. By taking the districts, the insurgents encircle the provincial capitals, which then puts pressure on the urban populations. It is a terror campaign having the desired impact – shaking the very foundations of government. Many fear it will fall. “It could collapse at any minute,” a friend said. “This is the peak of its fragility.” Foreign journalists are now thick on the ground. “What’s your calamity time estimate?” a television cameraman asks me as he makes plans for his arrival. “I like to be on the early side where possible. I’ve seen Kabul fall twice before.”

The insurgent campaign does seem inexorable. No provincial capitals have fallen yet, and officials say the United States has assured them of a new tough diplomatic approach to the insurgents. “They’ve been warned that if they threaten Kabul, the US will have no hesitation to bomb their positions,” said someone I’ve known for many years, who talks with the Americans. Others have told me that Trump’s deal commits the insurgents to leave the provincial capitals alone, too. The terms of the deal have not troubled the Taliban. It is likely that they have learned a lesson from their past, and know they cannot run cities that need services like power, water, roads, hospitals, schools. Instead, they are conquering largely rural districts and terrorising everyone – beating elderly men, forcing women to wear the burqa or stay at home, kidnapping and marrying young girls, taking over television and radio stations, shutting down newspapers. It’s a sign of things that could come. But the world is mostly silent, including the people who brokered the deal. 

Afghan soldiers have been forced across the border into Tajikistan twice in recent weeks, fleeing massacre – but Uzbekistan is having none of that. Indeed, the neighbouring countries of Russia’s sphere of influence are sending troops to their borders, and President Vladimir Putin has called the leaders of the Central Asian states to reassure them that he has their back. No one wants Afghanistan’s war to spill into their territory. No one wants the Taliban’s extremist Islamist influence – and criminal impunity – infiltrating their own potentially restive Muslim populations. 

Now that the Allied forces are all but gone, the recriminations are reaching a crescendo and Joe Biden is being accused of abandoning Afghans to a marauding, brutal band of misogynist murderers. It hasn’t helped that the U.S. military turned off the lights at Bagram Air Base outside Kabul, which was the epicentre of their war here, and left in the middle of the night just before Independence Day. And a Happy Fourth to you, too. Local looters stole what they could. Then Afghan soldiers arrived to clean up and settle in. After 20 years and a couple of trillion dollars, it has come to this.

Fifty miles back down the road in Kabul, the Bush Bazaar is an ad hoc market named after former President George W. Bush who ordered the invasion of Afghanistan in retaliation for the Al Qaeda attacks on American targets. It sells military surplus – anything from US Army boots to the pre-cooked fighting man’s rations called Meals Ready to Eat, or MREs. You can pick up fake branded clothing, blankets, enormous catering packets of pasta and huge tins of cooked peas, very handy for large Afghan families and all freshly fallen off the back of a truck. The MREs on sale the day I visited included a pork stew. I was told a telescopic night-vision sight for an automatic weapon would cost me US$700.

As the fighting intensifies, soldiers have been giving up, handing over their weapons and their vehicles and sovereign territory in return for their lives as the insurgents barrel across the country. In June, I was told, the army and police together lost about 5,000 people – dead, wounded, desertions, resignations. Recruitment then was just 300 to 500 a month. A month later, someone inside the government put the death rate at 300 men a day. “Numbers are melting away. Because of that, sustainability is under question. And this is increasing our dependency on local militias.”

It was the southern provinces in March and April – coinciding with the poppy harvest – now it is the north, a much more complicated region with a history of resistance against the Taliban while they held what passed for government here between 1996 and 2001. The mixture of ethnicities is also more visible north of Kabul than south. For sure, Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras are spread across the geography of the entire country, but their populations are concentrated in specific areas. The south, where the Taliban rose, is predominantly Pashtun; Tajiks are in the Panjshir Valley, Hazaras in the central highlands, and Uzbeks in the north. 

Mention of ethnic and sectarian divisions can lead to heated arguments that often descend into abusive dismissal. A senior Kabul official and his wife, who invited me to join them for dessert in a Kabul restaurant one evening, started a rambling, almost incoherent discourse on Afghanistan’s ethnic divisions that included reference to the Third Reich. I am pretty sure I couldn’t make that up under torture. He is Pashtun, he told me, and his wife “mixed” – which usually means Pashtun and Tajik parentage – and they were talking about Hazaras. 

Hazaras are Shia, whereas most Afghans are Sunni. They have delicate, distinctly Asiatic features and are believed to be descendants of Genghis Khan’s 13th-century hoards. They make up about 15 per cent of the population, work hard, educate their girls, and have become vocal in recent years about the way they have been treated for more than a century. They now openly call it genocide – murdered, forced off their lands, imprisoned, enslaved, inter-married, pushed to the bottom of Afghanistan’s socioeconomic hierarchy. And now, it seems, candidates for a final solution. Earlier this year, a Hazara school was bombed as the girls’ classes were being let out, and around 100 people, most of them young girls, were killed. A teacher at the school pointed to the deep drainage ditches that run alongside Kabul’s streets and said: “They ran with blood that day.” A year earlier, the maternity wing of a hospital in a Hazara neighbourhood was attacked – pregnant women, women giving birth and newborn babies were shot dead. Hard to imagine; impossible to justify. 

Now the region they regard as their homeland, Hazara Jat, in the centre of the country, is being surrounded and squeezed by the Taliban. They have cut off the valley passes leading from Kabul to Bamiyan city. This is where it all began in early 2001, when the Taliban and their Al Qaeda overlords caught the world’s attention by blowing up the massive Buddha statues that had stood for more than 1,500 years. For 20 years, Bamiyan – the city is the eponymous capital of the province – has been peaceful. Now Hazara militias are gathering against what many fear, and believe, will be another massacre in a history of massacres. The Taliban appear to have saved Hazara Jat for last.  

To be sure, emotions are running high. Bucks are being passed, blame is being apportioned, tempers frayed, patience tested. Will Kabul fall? I wouldn’t put my money on it just yet, after hearing that US drones have already been deployed against Taliban positions around at least one provincial capital. But as the brutal criminal cartel that waves a white flag of victory marches on, it is clear that the fight for peace, for decency, for rule of law here in Afghanistan is going to be long and hard.

Photograph by Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times

Read up

Lynne’s previous dispatches from Afghanistan