Mujib Mashal writes: Four large clocks tick out of sync, puncturing the silence of his Soviet-built apartment. A half-burned candle sits next to a stack of books. A small television is covered in soot.
This is where Rahnaward Zaryab, Afghanistan’s most celebrated novelist, locks himself up for weeks at a time, lost in bottles of smuggled vodka and old memories of Kabul, a capital city long transformed by war and money.
“We live in a vacuum, lacking heroes and ideals,” Mr. Zaryab reads from his latest manuscript, handwritten on the back of used paper. The smoke from his Pine cigarette, a harsh South Korean brand, clings to yellowed walls. “The heroes lie in dust, the ideals are ridiculed.”
The product of a rare period of peace and tolerance in Afghan history, Mr. Zaryab’s work first flourished in the 1970s, before the country was unraveled by invasion and civil war. Afghanistan still had a vibrant music and theater scene, and writers had a broad readership that stretched beyond just the political elite.
“I would receive letters from girls that would smell of perfume when you opened them,” Mr. Zaryab, who is 70, remembered fondly.
Mr. Zaryab’s stories are informed by his readings of Western philosophy and literature, the writer Homaira Qaderi said. He was educated on scholarships in New Zealand and Britain. But his heroes are indigenous and modest, delicately questioning the dogma and superstitions of a conservative society.
“He is the first writer to focus on the structure of stories, with the eye of someone well read,” Ms. Qaderi said. “We call him the father of new storytelling in Afghanistan.”
But after he became the standard-bearer for Afghan literature, Mr. Zaryab was forced to watch as Kabul, the muse he idealized as a city of music and chivalry in most of his 17 books, fell into rubble and chaos.
Some of the chaos has eased over the past decade, but that has caused him even more pain. He loathes how Kabul has been rebuilt: on a foundation of American cash and foreign values, paving over Afghan culture.
“Money, money, money,” he said, cringing. “Everyone is urged to make money, in any way they can. Art, culture and literature have been forgotten completely.” [Continue reading…]
The Washington Post reports: A massive portrait of a middle-aged man towers over the Ferris wheel and giant mushrooms at an amusement park here. At night, the image is bathed in an ethereal light, visible from a quarter-mile away.
His admirers call him “Ustad,” or “Teacher.” His critics call him the King.
For more than a decade, Atta Mohammad Noor, governor of Balkh province, has controlled this northern region with an iron hand, imbued with the authority of the freedom fighter he was and the ultra-rich businessman he has become. Guns, militias and guile, as well as his ability to provide security, have made him one of the country’s most formidable strongmen.
To many war-weary Afghans, former warlords such as Noor — who are accused of human rights abuses yet rule with impunity — have to be marginalized for the nation to move into a new era. To their supporters, these former warlords remain a bulwark against the Taliban, al-Qaeda and, possibly, the Islamic State, more vital than ever as the U.S. military mission edges to a close.
“If Ustad Atta is ever replaced as governor, there will be chaos here, and it will spread to other provinces,” declared Haji Abdul Wahab, a close friend who manages the park, which Noor built. “He’s got a special place in the hearts of Afghan people.”
Noor’s rise and endurance is a legacy of America’s longest war and an emblem of a fresh contest for influence. It pits the aspirations of Western-educated technocrats keen to transform Afghanistan against conservative ethnic and tribal strongmen determined to preserve the status quo. That struggle is becoming the definitive battle for the future of every aspect of the country’s affairs — from forming a new cabinet to tackling rampant corruption to engaging in peace talks with the Taliban. [Continue reading…]
The other day, as I was reading through the New York Times, I came upon this headline: “Powerful Afghan Police Chief Killed in Kabul.” His name was Matiullah Khan. He had once been “an illiterate highway patrol commander” in an obscure southern province of Afghanistan and was taken out in a “targeted suicide bombing” on the streets of the capital — and I realized that I knew him! Since I’ve never been within a few thousand miles of Kabul, I certainly didn’t know him in the normal sense. I had, you might say, edited Matiullah Khan. He was one of a crop of new warlords who rose to wealth and power by hitching their ambitions to the American war and the U.S. military personnel sent to their country to fight it. Khan, in particular, made staggering sums by essentially setting up an “Afghan Blackwater,” a hire-a-gun — in fact, so many guns — protection agency for American convoys delivering supplies to far-flung U.S. bases and outposts in southern Afghanistan.
He became the protector and benefactor of a remarkable Afghan woman who is a key character in Anand Gopal’s No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War Through Afghan Eyes, which I edited and published in the American Empire Project series I co-run for Metropolitan Books. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Gopal covered the Afghan War for years in a way no other Western journalist did. He spent time with crucial allies of Afghan President Hamid Karzai and with a Taliban commander, with warlords and American Special Ops guys, politicians and housewives. He traveled rural Afghanistan as few American reporters were capable of doing. In the process, he made a discovery that was startling indeed and has yet to really sink in here.
In a nutshell, in 2001, the invading Americans put al-Qaeda to flight and crushed the Taliban. From most of its top leadership to its foot soldiers, the Talibs were almost uniformly prepared, even eager, to put down their weapons, go back to their villages, and be left in peace. In other words, it was all over. There was just one problem. The Americans, on Washington’s mission to win the Global War on Terror, just couldn’t stop fighting. In their inability to grasp the situation, they essentially forced the Taliban back onto the battlefield and so created an insurgency and a war that they couldn’t win.
Reaction to Gopal’s book, published last April, was at first muted. That’s not so surprising, given that the news it brought to the table wasn’t exactly going to be a popular message here. In recent months, however, it’s gained real traction: the positive reviews began coming in; Rory Stewart made it his book of the year pick at the New Statesman (“Anand Gopal has produced the best piece of investigative journalism to come out of Afghanistan in the past 12 years”); it was a National Book Award finalist and is a finalist for the New York Public Library’s Helen Bernstein Book Award For Excellence in Journalism. Most strikingly, it just received the prestigious Ridenhour Book Prize for 2015. (“Through a blend of intrepid reporting and clear-eyed — even beautiful prose — we see and can begin to truly understand the violence and tragedy of our longest war.”)
So today, with thanks to Metropolitan Books, I thought I would give you a taste of a work of reportage that turns the American narrative about the Afghan War on its head. Here, from No Good Men Among the Living, is what it felt like when the war that rural Afghans thought was over just wouldn’t end, when the Americans couldn’t stop shooting and that new crop of Afghan warlords began using Washington’s war on terror for their own ends. The toll in wrecked lives, including most recently that of Matiullah Khan, is now 13 years old and unending. Tom Engelhardt
The real Afghan war
How an American fantasy conflict created disaster in Afghanistan
By Anand Gopal
[This essay is taken from chapter five of Anand Gopal’s No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War Through Afghan Eyes and appears at TomDispatch.com with the kind permission of Metropolitan Books.]
The sky clotted gray and the winds gusted cold as the men crowded into an old roadside gas station. It was daybreak in Band-i-Timor, early December 2001, and hundreds of turbaned farmers sat pensively, weighing the choice before them. They had once been the backbone of the Taliban’s support; the movement had arisen not far from here, and many had sent their sons to fight on the front lines. But in 2000, Mullah Omar had decreed opium cultivation to be un-Islamic, and whip-wielding police saw to it that production was halted almost overnight. Band-i-Timor had been poppy country for as long as anyone could remember, but now the fields lay fallow and children were going hungry. With the Taliban’s days numbered after the U.S. invasion, the mood was ripe for a change. But could they trust the Americans? Or Hamid Karzai?
In June 2014, as he was preparing to send 300 U.S. military advisers back to Iraq, President Obama hailed the American counterterror campaign in Yemen — Special Operations advisers (and CIA operatives) on the ground, drones in the air — as a “model” for what he hoped to do against the Islamic State. In September, as Craig Whitlock of the Washington Post wrote, President Obama “cited his Yemen strategy as a template for confronting jihadist threats in other places, including Iraq and Syria.” He was still making reference to its “success” this January when discussing what had become Iraq War 3.0.
Last week, however, with al-Qaeda militants taking a nearby town, Washington withdrew its final 100 Special Operations advisers in Yemen from a southern air base where U.S. drones had been stationed and halted all military operations in the country. By then, the U.S. embassy in Sana’a, the capital, had been shuttered for a month. Meanwhile $500 million in U.S. weaponry had reportedly gone missing in that country and might be in the hands of almost anyone, including al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the local branch of the terror franchise. That group had only grown stronger under years of American drone strikes.
Iranian-backed Houthi rebels now control the north of the country, including Sana’a, and recently seized its third largest city and headed south toward the port of Aden. Yemen seems at the edge of civil war and backers of the Islamic State may even have a foothold there. Strikes from U.S. drones based in Saudi Arabia, among other places, will undoubtedly continue, though assumedly with even less on-the-ground intelligence from Yemeni sources. In sum, as with the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and the intervention in Libya, hopes in Washington that once were so high have been dashed. This is, by now, a commonplace experience: the early moments of any U.S. military campaign seem so successful — and then, with the passage of time, the verdict comes in: another failure for the twenty-first-century American way of war.
Today, TomDispatch regular Dilip Hiro considers one of those failed efforts — in Afghanistan, where the planet’s former “sole superpower” now seems to be losing out not only to local Taliban militants, whose strength has been on the upswing, but to the power it may fear most: an economically rising China. In these years, from the Middle East to Africa, that country has had an uncanny ability to sweep up the imperial spoils, especially local energy resources, without sending a soldier into battle. Now, it seems, China may be in the process of doing just that in Afghanistan.
On this subject and the associated contest between Pakistan and India for influence in Afghanistan, Hiro, whom Jeremy Scahill has called “the quintessential non-aligned journalist… the master chronicler of some of history’s most epic battles,” knows a thing or two. His monumental new book, The Longest August: The Unflinching Rivalry Between India and Pakistan, is the first definitive history of one of the world’s most intractable conflicts. With a desperate Obama administration struggling over just how many U.S. military personnel to leave in Afghanistan for how endlessly and fruitlessly long, it makes sense to put Washington’s perspective aside for a moment and try to get a bead on what’s really happening in South Asia and Afghanistan through a different lens. Tom Engelhardt
The Great Game in Afghanistan (twenty-first-century update)
And the U.S. is losing out
By Dilip Hiro
Call it an irony, if you will, but as the Obama administration struggles to slow down or halt its scheduled withdrawal from Afghanistan, newly elected Afghan President Ashraf Ghani is performing a withdrawal operation of his own. He seems to be in the process of trying to sideline the country’s major patron of the last 13 years — and as happened in Iraq after the American invasion and occupation there, Chinese resource companies are again picking up the pieces.
The New York Times reports: Rahimullah used to be a farmer — just a “normal person living an ordinary life,” as he put it. Then he formed his own militia last year and found himself swept up in America’s exit strategy from Afghanistan.
With about 20 men loyal to him, Rahimullah, 56, soon discovered a patron in the United States Special Forces, who provided everything he needed: rifles, ammunition, cash, even sandbags for a guard post in Aghu Jan, a remote village in Ghazni Province.
Then the Americans pulled out, leaving Rahimullah behind as the local strongman, and as his village’s only defense against a Taliban takeover.
“We are shivering with fear,” said one resident, Abdul Ahad. Then he explained: He and his neighbors did not fear the Taliban nearly as much as they did their protectors, Rahimullah’s militiamen, who have turned to kidnappings and extortion. [Continue reading…]
Pajhwok: The administrative chief for Charkh district in central Logar province on Monday said Islamic State (IS) militants had killed a Taliban commander and ordered residents to stop watching TV programmes.
Khalilullah Kamal told Pajhwok Afghan News the Taliban commander was killed in an early morning clash between the two groups in the main district bazaar.
He said the masked gunmen, wearing black clothes, gunned down Abdul Ghani and wounded his three bodyguards. The Taliban have not yet spoken about the incident.
The New York Times reports: A series of kidnappings and robberies struck northern Helmand Province this summer, paralyzing residents and embarrassing the Taliban leaders who controlled the area.
Responding to growing complaints, the Taliban leadership based in Pakistan ordered a hunt to find the criminals, but soon discovered an inconvenient truth: Their own people were behind the banditry, earning thousands of dollars in ransoms every month. Within a matter of days, the culprits had been captured and executed, including two notorious fighters known as Pickax and Shovel.
Though the episode went largely unnoticed outside the Taliban stronghold, it highlights a question that is on the minds of many: More than 13 years after the war here started, who exactly are the Taliban? Are they the bandits responsible for the abduction and killings of numerous villagers? Or are they the disciplined leaders who hanged the fighters who had taken to criminal tyranny?
Increasingly, it appears, they are both. [Continue reading…]
Pamela Constable reports: Many winters ago, I stood in a vast, empty intersection of central Kabul. The only sounds were the jingle of passing horse carts and the ticking spokes of old bicycles. There were no other Westerners on the streets, and all eyes were upon me. Despite being wrapped in many layers of modest clothing, I felt naked.
Much has changed in the Afghan capital since those haunted days under Taliban rule. Bombed-out ruins have been replaced by multi-story apartment buildings and ornate mansions. The populace has quintupled and traffic jams are constant. Cellphone and computer shops with picture windows line the streets, and beauty parlor signs feature women with pouting lips and geisha makeup.
But this winter, even as a frequent foreign visitor to Kabul, dressed modestly and with my head covered, I feel naked once again. Almost every Westerner I once knew here has left the country for good, their missions suspended or shut down, and several of my longtime Afghan acquaintances and colleagues have fled abroad and sought asylum. [Continue reading…]
The Daily Beast reports: Few sayings of the Prophet Mohammed have a stronger hold on the imagination of the world’s jihadists than his prophecy about the flags: “If you see the black banners coming from Khorasan, join that army, even if you have to crawl over ice,” he is supposed to have admonished the faithful. “No power will be able to stop them and they will finally reach Baitul Maqdisi”—Jerusalem— “where they will erect flags.”
And where was this magical land of Khorasan, whence the conquerors would come? Think Afghanistan and pieces of all the countries that surround it, including and especially Iran.
For the great ideologues of modern jihadist terror, Ayman al Zawahiri of al Qaeda and Abu Bakr al Baghdadi of the so-called Islamic State, the strategic and symbolic importance of Khorasan is huge, and there are already signs that they are competing for control there. Some factions of both the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban and some members of al Qaeda in the area have pledged allegiance to Baghdadi’s self-proclaimed caliphate in Syria and Iraq. Zawahiri’s most elite group of operatives, meanwhile, has become known as the Khorasan Group.
As terrorists compete for prestige and authority, they are under attack by the governments of the region. To make their mark on the minds of potential followers, they carry out ever more desperate and horrifying acts, like the slaughter of children at a school in Peshawar, Pakistan, earlier this week.
A central figure in these dangerous wider developments is a soft-spoken scholar, journalist and poet, Sheikh Abdul Rahim Muslim Dost, who spent more than three years as a prisoner of the Americans at Guantanamo, then found himself imprisoned again by the Pakistanis. News reports in the region recently named his as the Islamic State-appointed governor or wali of Khorasan. [Continue reading…]
The Guardian reports: Jihadi groups killed more than 5,000 people last month, with Iraq topping the league table of deaths, followed by Nigeria, Afghanistan and Syria.
In 664 incidents recorded in November by the BBC World Service and researched jointly with King’s College London, the overall death toll was 5,042, or an average of 168 deaths per day and nearly twice the number of people who were killed in the 11 September 2001 attacks on America.
After Iraq, Nigeria, Afghanistan and Syria, Yemen was fifth in the deadly league table, tying with Somalia, with 37 incidents each.
The data, shared with the Guardian, provides a unique insight into the human cost, intensity, scale and geographical distribution of a phenomenon that has captured headlines and driven political and security agendas across the world. [Continue reading…]
Matthieu Aikins reports: Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan is named for the wide river that runs through its provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, a low-slung city of shrubby roundabouts and glass-fronted market blocks. When I visited in April, there was an expectant atmosphere, like that of a whaling town waiting for the big ships to come in. In the bazaars, the shops were filled with dry goods, farming machinery and motorcycles. The teahouses, where a man could spend the night on the carpet for the price of his dinner, were packed with migrant laborers, or nishtgar, drawn from across the southern provinces, some coming from as far afield as Iran and Pakistan. The schools were empty; in war-torn districts, police and Taliban alike had put aside their arms. It was harvest time.
Across the province, hundreds of thousands of people were taking part in the largest opium harvest in Afghanistan’s history. With a record 224,000 hectares under cultivation this year, the country produced an estimated 6,400 tons of opium, or around 90 percent of the world’s supply. The drug is entwined with the highest levels of the Afghan government and the economy in a way that makes the cocaine business in Escobar-era Colombia look like a sideshow. The share of cocaine trafficking and production in Colombia’s GDP peaked at six percent in the late 1980s; in Afghanistan today, according to U.N. estimates, the opium industry accounts for 15 percent of the economy, a figure that is set to rise as the West withdraws. “Whatever the term narco state means, if there is a country to which it applies, it is Afghanistan,” says Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who studies illicit economies in conflict zones. “It is unprecedented in history.”
Even more shocking is the fact that the Afghan narcotics trade has gotten undeniably worse since the U.S.-led invasion: The country produces twice as much opium as it did in 2000. How did all those poppy fields flower under the nose of one of the biggest international military and development missions of our time? The answer lies partly in the deeply cynical bargains struck by former Afghan President Hamid Karzai in his bid to consolidate power, and partly in the way the U.S. military ignored the corruption of its allies in taking on the Taliban. It’s the story of how, in pursuit of the War on Terror, we lost the War on Drugs in Afghanistan by allying with many of the same people who turned the country into the world’s biggest source of heroin. [Continue reading…]
Reuters reports: Pakistani Taliban militants holed up in Afghanistan are being squeezed by U.S. drone strikes and a revolt against them, a trend that could disrupt the insurgents’ capability to strike in Pakistan.
For years, Pakistani Taliban commanders fighting the Pakistani state have been hiding in remote areas of east Afghanistan, plotting attacks and recruiting.
But in recent weeks, officials say the insurgency has been weakened by a spate strikes by U.S. drones and a rebellion by tribesmen in Afghanistan’s Kunar province.
The Pakistani and Afghan Taliban are allied and share the goal of toppling their respective governments and setting up an Islamist state across the region.
Their presence on both sides of the border has been a bone of contention between Afghanistan and Pakistan, with the two trading accusations of sheltering insurgents.
But the ascent to power of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has raised hopes for more cooperation in tackling the insurgency.
Four Pakistani Taliban commanders told Reuters drone strikes and tension with tribesmen had forced them to move from small Afghan towns to mountainous border areas. [Continue reading…]
Karl Kaltenthaler writes: The landscape of violent extremist Islamism is changing in Asia. Al-Qaida, once a growing and potent threat, particularly in Afghanistan and Pakistan, is now a shadow of its former self.
In the late 1990s, al-Qaida co-ran Afghanistan with the Taliban. It also had a strong presence in Pakistan and close ties with many of that country’s myriad jihadi groups. Now al-Qaida’s core group is down to a few dozen members. Security operations against the group in Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere have cut its numbers and operational capacity substantially. The organization is fighting for survival in Pakistan, its last real refuge in Asia.
The same cannot be said of the Islamic State group. The militant group, which has had spectacular success in Syria and Iraq, is now making inroads in many parts of Asia, but particularly in Pakistan and Afghanistan. [Continue reading…]
The New York Times reports: The government of the new Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, has quietly lifted the ban on night raids by special forces troops that his predecessor had imposed.
Afghan National Army Special Forces units are planning to resume the raids in 2015, and in some cases the raids will include members of American Special Operations units in an advisory role, according to Afghan military officials as well as officials with the American-led military coalition.
That news comes after published accounts of an order by President Obama to allow the American military to continue some limited combat operations in 2015. That order allows for the sort of air support necessary for successful night raids. [Continue reading…]
The Washington Post reports: The 18 Afghan soldiers were trapped in a mountainous outpost about 50 miles south of the capital, running out of ammunition. Taliban insurgents had surrounded them. There was only one way out: the Americans.
So the Afghans made the call, and soon Apache attack helicopters, F-16 fighter jets and Predator drones were in the sky overhead. Not a single weapon was fired by U.S. forces, but their presence was enough to send the militants running for cover. That allowed the Afghan military to send in reinforcements.
“The Americans saved the lives of my soldiers,” said their brigade commander in recounting the incident, which he said happened two weeks ago. He spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media. “They would have all died without the air support.”
The incident helps explains why Afghan military and police commanders in some of the most volatile areas of the country welcomed reports Saturday that the Obama administration plans to expand the U.S. military’s role here next year. [Continue reading…]
The New York Times reports: Through three decades of war, waves of Afghans have fled their homes along the eastern border areas, many of them seeking shelter in the Pakistani tribal regions next door.
Last summer another wave of refugees surged through the area. But in a reversal, it is Pakistanis, not Afghans, who are fleeing war at home.
“There was fighting everywhere,” said Sadamullah, a laborer who fled with his family last month from Dattakhel, a district in Pakistan’s tribal areas. “There was shelling, and military forces were firing mortars on our villages. They carried out an operation in our area, and a woman was killed by them.”
Mr. Sadamullah, who like many tribesmen here has only one name, was speaking about the Pakistani military’s continuing offensive against Islamist militants in the North Waziristan region. The military has been clearing territory in the region since June, forcing an exodus of at least 1.5 million residents. As many as 250,000 of them have since crossed the border into Afghanistan, officials say. [Continue reading…]