Thousands of Afghan mercenaries are believed to be helping America battle Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and their allies. But they’re accused of flagrant human rights abuses.
With his broad cheekbones, hair swept back under a sequined cap, and the gentle manner of a well-to-do Pashtun, Atal Afghanzai might easily pass for a doctor or an engineer.
Instead, his career path led into a cloak-and-dagger world of covert armies and foreign agents, until a rare lethal run-in with an Afghan police chief landed him on death row in Kabul’s most notorious prison.
Young and motivated, Mr. Afghanzai is one of thousands of Afghan mercenaries believed to be working with the CIA to help America battle Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and their allies. His story – confirmed by US diplomats, other Western officials, and Afghan authorities – illustrates the military advantages of this secret war. But, with the US poised to ramp up reliance on paramilitaries like Afghanzai as it pulls out frontline troops, the practice is raising the ire of Afghans who accuse the groups of human rights abuses. Read the rest of this entry »
View from Sangin: A tentative peace accord struck at the start of the year is holding, at least to the extent that it still exists
Seven months ago 500lb bombs were tearing into Taliban positions outside Sangin district centre in Helmand province as the US Marines here launched an aggressive and costly campaign against Taliban insurgents. What was already Afghanistan’s bloodiest district for foreign troops quickly became more so.
The infusion of troops, including US Marines, was part of President Obama’s surge and despite widespread suspicion of Nato’s spin, it genuinely seems that their arrival had an impact, especially in Helmand and neighbouring Kandahar – although neither province is yet safe, nor going to be in the immediate future. The Taliban matched Obama’s surge with their own escalation, knowing full well that tactical defeats matter little, provided they can simply hang-on under the drawdown.
But the gun battles and roadside blasts that once took place in Sangin’s heart have migrated to its fringes – and it’s hard to see that as anything but a vindication of the Marines’ aggressive tactics. Yesterday there was barely a single explosion within earshot of the Marines’ main base. Read the rest of this entry »
Afghans have voiced fears that aid will dry up when foreign troops are replaced by the country’s own forces later this year.
They were speaking after President Hamid Karzai announced on Tuesday that Afghan forces would take responsibility this summer for security for seven areas, including Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital of Helmand where British troops are currently deployed.
“The Afghan nation doesn’t want the defence of this country to be in the hands of others anymore,” he told hundreds of dignitaries, police and soldiers. “This is our responsibility to raise our flag with honour and pride.”
The plan will also see Afghan forces take charge of security in areas including Kabul and Panjshir provinces, Herat city in the West, Mazar-e-Sharif in the north and Methar Lam to the east of Kabul as part of the overall strategy to start bringing Nato troops home. Read the rest of this entry »
Taliban gunmen have begun assassinating their own rank and file in a desperate bid to stop a remote mountain valley sliding from their grasp, as well as bringing in new commanders to oversee their fightback in Sangin, Afghanistan’s most violent district, The Independent can reveal.
They are also attacking tribal elders trying to broker a peace deal between disillusioned members of the insurgency – resentful of Taliban commanders from other tribes and districts ordering them about – and government officials eager for peace.
Speaking by phone, a tribal elder in the upper Sangin valley said Taliban gunmen ambushed an elder from the Alokozai tribe called Badar Agha as he left home for morning prayers earlier this month. Aware an attempt on his life was likely, the elder shot back with his Kalashnikov, apparently wounding an assailant before being taken to hospital for medical treatment. Read the rest of this entry »
Kandahar is the Taliban’s stronghold and target of an allied assault in Afghanistan. Can NATO win hearts and minds as well as territory?
NEAR ZANGABAD, AFGHANISTAN
First came the nightly rocket bombardments, targeting abandoned mud houses about 30 miles southwest of Kandahar City, where Taliban insurgents stored 82mm antitank guns, grenade launchers, and rifles, and where they made bombs and staged attacks on NATO and Afghan forces.
For weeks, NATO and Afghan commando units launched covert raids against Taliban leaders, shattering the insurgency’s local command structure. So many commanders were killed that local tribal elders said even they weren’t sure who was in chargeof insurgent groups any more. The mishmash of vineyards, rivers, and marijuana fields in this slice of Kandahar Province is so easy to defend and so difficult to penetrate that militants and outlaws have sheltered here for as long as anyone can remember.
Then, last month, Afghan and US troops used the cover of night to storm the Horn of Panjwaii – an unruly spit of land posing the last direct threat to Kandahar City; southern Afghanistan‘s political center and the second-largest city in Afghanistan. Airborne assaults on October 15, 16, and 25 were the culmination of months of fighting in the city’s western fringes. Three Afghan National Army battalions – more than 2,000 men – and three companies of US paratroopers rode in on helicopters to attack the cluster of villages of Mushan, Zangabad, and Taluqan, considered key to Kandahar.
“There was fighting – bullets, bullets – and everyone was trying to get out,” says Mahmoud Dawood, a farmer who was caught up in the violence. Soldiers bound him and turned his house into a firing point, he continued, uncuffing him long enough to fill sandbags.
To the north, a US Army brigade – about 3,500 soldiers – had already swept into Zhari and Arghandab, rural districts that also served as staging grounds for militant attacks on Kandahar City.
All these maneuvers are part of an operation intended to scatter the Taliban in southern Afghanistan and provide breathing space for the West to better manage its exit strategy in 2011. The operation, called “Hamkari” (the Dari word for “togetherness”), is seen as the coalition’s best chance to win control of Kandahar from the Taliban. Similar operations touted as more successful than previous efforts are ongoing in the Arghandab and Zhari districts, and in Malajat, a suburb of Kandahar City.
Why is Kandahar so important?
Kandahar has more political and cultural significance than perhaps anywhere else in the country. For centuries, Afghanistan’s rulers have hailed from this patchwork of dense greenery and barren desert. It is home to the Shrine of the Cloak of the Prophet Muhammad, one of the country’s holiest sites. It’s also one of the nation’s most densely populated cities.
Kandahar was the de facto capital when the Taliban were in power, and is the insurgents’ most cherished objective.
Anarchy and warlordism here quickly pushed inhabitants toward the Taliban when the movement emerged 16 years ago. Following 2001, marginalization of the villagers in Panjwaii, Zhari, and Arghandab districts by the ruling Zirak Durrani tribes fed the movement with recruits and leaders and contributed to the violence and lawlessness here that have undermined NATO efforts.
As US Army Brig. Gen. Frederick “Ben” Hodges – until recently NATO’s director of operations in southern Afghanistan – put it: “Kandahar City and its environs are the cultural, spiritual, historical, political, religious center of gravity for the Pashtun belt” – the swath of southern and eastern Afghanistan where the Pashtun ethnic group, the one most closely affiliated with the insurgency, resides. That’s a main part of the reason NATO commanders consider the province the linchpin to winning over the country’s “hearts and minds” and ending the insurgency in Afghanistan.
The trick of the Taliban
Hamkari is one of the few operations where the coalition has the benefit of the full weight ofPresident Obama‘s troop surge, which saw America deploy 30,000 extra personnel to Afghanistan – there are some 6,900 NATO troops and 5,300 Afghan troops inside Kandahar. The US and NATO have more than 150,000 troops in Afghanistan. In Hodges’s words, the coalition will “never have it any better.” Yet for those troops in the Horn, the hard part has only just begun. As in nearly every place NATO has rolled into in southern Afghanistan, a Taliban retaliation in the shape of a brutal intimidation campaign is a near certainty.
“The trick of the Taliban,” a villager from the Horn says, is this: “They flee the fighting. Then slowly, slowly they return.” Asking not to be named for fear of reprisal, he added that everyone, “everywhere” was “scared [of] targeted killing.”
The one thing that is certain in the murky, indefinite war that has now enveloped the Horn, is a Taliban campaign that eschews military confrontation and terrorizes civilians, say inhabitants, tribal elders, local journalists, researchers, government officials, and NATO troops.
The point of such terrorizing? To show that NATO and the Afghan government may prevail on the battlefield, but they cannot provide the security, governance, and justice that would underpin the state’s political legitimacy, observers say.
Improving governance remains a NATO objective, but faced with little alternative to working with existing administration of one of the world’s most corrupt nations, officials are now downplaying this component of the campaign.
The hardest part: establishing security
Defeating the Taliban militarily is one thing. But success in southern Afghanistan, and thus the rest of the country, will depend far more on the coalition’s ability to protect Kandaharis from Taliban threats and terror tactics – and transforming the government into something worth supporting.
Taliban “kill elders, the officials, the doctors, the engineers,” says Abdul Haq, an Achekzai tribal elder who lives in the Horn. “This will put pressure on the people. Last year they killed many people in Panjwaii district, and the government couldn’t stop this killing.”
Rubbing his cropped gray hair and speaking softly, Mr. Haq recalled the murder of a teenage boy who had joined the police. The Taliban “had spies within the government who [sold him out], and after questioning him and hearing out his story, they killed him” in the mulberry grove where he had gone to pick fruit. “It was the third time they had arrested him. He was 17.”
Even in Kandahar City, which is nominally under government control, Taliban assassinations of authority figures have proven extremely effective. Kandahar’s deputy mayor was gunned down earlier this year, and his successor met the same fate. A senior warden at Kandahar jail was killed in a drive-by shooting on Nov. 6. The deputy head of the provincial adult literacy department was shot two days before.
Although exact figures are hard to come by, local media have reported more than 600 local government vacancies following a string of murders. The fact that empty posts outnumber assassinated officials is evidence that the fear campaign is working.
How to keep ‘ghosts’ away
As troops prepared for their final air assault on the Horn last month, US Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez, one of the most senior NATO officers in Afghanistan, quizzed Afghan commanders at a vantage point overlooking the Horn on how they planned to stop the insurgents – known locally as “ghosts”– from sneaking back into the Horn and terrorizing inhabitants.
“These operations you’ve been doing are going very well … the challenge is, after that, how do we continue to provide security for the people?” he asked. No one answered.
“What we need [to] do with every asset we have out there,” he continued, “is figure out how to make it bigger than it is, so that the people say, ‘OK, we’ll be protected.’”
Creating that sense of security has largely proved elusive for the Afghan and NATO security forces. In Marjah, in neighboring Helmand Province, a US Special Forces captain said that persuading people whose chief motivation is survival to stick their necks out was – not surprisingly – difficult.
“The Taliban are quick to take out tribal leaders,” said Captain Matt, whose full name can’t be disclosed under NATO press rules.
In one of the most notable examples of the Taliban targeting tribal strongmen, Abdul Hakim Jan, a powerful figure from Arghandab district (Kandahar City’s northern gateway) was one of 80 spectators killed when a massive car bomb detonated at a dog fight two years ago. His murder, which came soon after the death of Mullah Naqib, another Kandahar politician and elder from of the Alokozai tribe, signaled the fall of Arghandab to the Taliban.
Captain Matt said the same phenomenon was visible in Marjah. “This place has largely been stripped of its leadership…. We try to tell people that if you want yourselves to be represented then you need to do x, y, and z. We try to emphasize that, hey, it’s your leaders,” he said. “We want to emphasize that, not impose it.”
But progress is slow, with potential leaders choosing to remain in the shadows. “A man with a gun rules 100,” Matt says. “The coalition doesn’t rule by fear – [and] a carrot doesn’t do so much.”
Tribal wars even more fierce
The Taliban have also been quick to exploit tribal enmities. When NATO and Afghan forces swept into the Horn in 2006, in one of three previous campaigns to rid the place of insurgents, the arrival of Afghan Border Police from a traditional rival of the predominant Noorzai tribe sparked such fierce fighting that it made the struggle between pro- and antigovernment forces look tame. By backing the Noorzais, the Taliban bought themselves an entire tribal block.
Local history is also a factor, especially in the Horn, which has traditionally supported a lot of illegal activity. Criminal networks existed here long before the coup in 1973, the communist countercoup in 1978, and the subsequent Soviet invasion in 1979. Government writ didn’t really extend this far, and so the militants filled the vacuum.
Residents of Zangabad, a bucolic slice of orchards and irrigation ditches that Afghan troops stormed on Oct. 16, claim there was a Taliban court there, dispensing swift if brutal justice, and reportedly in direct competition with Kandahar City courts, which are perceived as sluggish, expensive, and corrupt.
Most locals dislike either option
Yet a major factor in the outcome of Kandahar, say top commanders, is the Afghan government’s ability to deliver. That’s the Achilles heel of NATO efforts to stabilize the country.
Although villagers who have lived under the Taliban’s austere sway have little love for the insurgents, they are not altogether convinced by the other side’s offer. Tales of police arranging for kidnappings, private militias snatching land, and government officials extorting civilians are commonplace in Kandahar.
“One man says he likes the Taliban,” explains Haji Abdul Karim, an elder from the Noorzai tribe and an old acquaintance of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar. “One man says he likes the government. But the majority hate both.”
In contrast to earlier NATO promises to sideline “malign actors” (also known as the Kandahar mafia), military commanders in southern Afghanistan are taking a new approach and have now quietly dropped their opposition to the region’s power brokers, and instead have reconciled themselves to working with them.
The alienation factor this tactic creates is undeniable: “There are many warlords in the government working to acquire money, not bring security,” says Haji Mohammad Zahir, a businessman from the Zhari district. People join the insurgents “because of the government’s corruption, bribes, and extortion,” he says.
Still, the security in Kandahar is a big step toward allowing locals to even consider such issues Hodges says: “There is a presence of security that is a lot more prevalent and reassuring than at any time in the past.”
Almost as quickly as the international community rushed to praise Saturday’s parliamentary elections in Afghanistan, complaints of widespread irregularities began pouring in, echoing the protracted wrangle over vote-rigging that returned President Hamid Karzai to power last year.
Representatives from the US, UN and EU hailed the bravery of Afghans for heading to the polls on Saturday despite pre-election violence and Taliban attacks on polling day that killed 18 people. However evidence was mounting yesterday of polling stations opening late, intimidation of voters, and the widespread use of fake voting cards. There were also reports that there were not enough ballot papers and that children had cast ballots.
President Hamid Karzai praised “the courage of the people” in voting, saying it was “a positive and major step for strengthening democracy in this country”. Nato’s secretary general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, applauded voters for turning out “despite the violence carried out by those attempting to deny the people’s most basic democratic right”. But the courage of many ordinary Afghans notwithstanding, what the evidence suggests so far is that power is disbursed across Afghanistan not by universal suffrage but through coercion, bullying, bribery, cronyism, patronage and fear. Read the rest of this entry »
The 386 women running in Afghanistan’s election Saturday have been touted as a clear sign of success. But others say that many of them are merely puppets for rich powerbrokers.
In a cynical reminder that Afghan politics is rarely what it seems, activists in Kabul question whether many female candidates running in Saturday’s parliamentary elections are actually champions of women’s rights.
The record 386 women running for parliament is seen by many as one of the few clear-cut successes of an election campaign that has been marred by violence and fraud. Yet some women’s rights campaigners say that many of the female candidates are merely puppets for shadowy figures trying to garner influence in the new Afghan parliament.
“It’s quite clear that there are many, many women who are running not because they have interests themselves, but to represent the interests of warlords and power brokers,” says Nargis Nehan, director of Equality for Peace and Democracy, an Afghan nongovernmental organization.
“Those being supported by a bank, a warlord, a tribal leader, these are the people able to spend money,” adds Wajma Frogh, a member of the Afghan Women’s Network, an NGO in Kabul. “I know villagers who have sold their votes [to a female candidate] for $20. People will vote for her. Another very honest women’s rights activist is not able to pay $20 a vote. She’s not going to make it into parliament.”
An age-old rhythm of patronage?
If Ms. Frogh, Ms. Nehan and others like them are right, it’s an uncomfortable truth for those trying to portray women’s participation in Afghanistan’s fledgling democracy as a beacon in an otherwise dark and stormy country. And the proliferation of proxy candidates represents a wider problem in Afghanistan – the country’s politics still beat to an age-old rhythm of patronage.
But not everyone says that competition between female candidates has been compromised.Samira Hamidi, an activist with the Afghan Women’s Network, strikes an optimistic note.
“I know some of the [female candidates] and I know there is no one behind them, no warlords, mafia, drug dealers. We’ve been working closely with the election commission and people at the grassroots level and I haven’t heard anything,” says Ms. Hamidi.
Instead, Hamidi says, the participation of a record number of women is due to growing political awareness among Afghans and the march of women’s rights across the country.
Still, says Frough, the corruption that runs through Afghanistan’s political structure has also affected the new role of women in politics.
“It’s a patronage system,” she says. “Here democracy does not mean that people’s voices are important. Whoever is in power is in power because of coercion, because of someone else’s power…. This parliament is only a check-the-box formality so the international community can say, ‘Yeah, Afghanistan has a democracy.’ “
Women’s seats used to garner broader influence
Saturday’s election will simply reflect how power is disbursed across Afghanistan as a whole, she says. Although parliamentarians in Afghanistan don’t wield the influence they do in some countries, they do retain important powers, such as a veto on cabinet appointments and oversight of the government’s budget.
“Although we have a very centralized government, there is still power in the parliament,” say Nehan, the director of Equality for Peace and Democracy. “Now everyone’s realized that they don’t want just one seat, they want as many as possible. The easiest and least challenging way of doing this is to fill the women’s seats because the competition between men is quite tough.”
With 25 percent of the 249 available seats reserved for women and just 386 candidates contesting them, the women’s field is far less packed than the men’s, where competition is about twice as fierce. Trying to exploit the women’s vote provides good value for money for patrons.
Proxy candidates entrench corruption
The problem with proxy candidates is that it entrenches the political corruption that has become a byword for Afghanistan.
“The country is already damaged and there is no room for more damage,” says Shinkai Karokhail, a female member of parliament (MP) from Kabul. Most MPs, she claims, are “in the service of others,” while others are only “thinking about their own pocket, how to empower their own group.”
“The country is sinking because of corruption,” she says, and every powerbroker wants “to take advantage” of the politicians they bankroll.
On the eve of a new film about the sport that inspired a shattered nation, Julius Cavendish reports from Kabul
Gunships growl above the city, Humvees roll by blasted buildings and a radio programme passes a dismal verdict on Afghanistan’s deepening troubles. In a car stuck in Kabul’s traffic, an impish-looking man gives his prognosis: “Everywhere there is fighting, you know,” Taj Malik says. “The solution of all the problems is – cricket!” And then he doesn’t so much laugh as gurgle with joy.
Mr Malik is the coach of the Afghan national team, and he has spent much of the last few years dragging his squad on a quixotic mission to qualify for the ICC World Cup. On the way, the group have given a country doing a brisk trade in bad news a real-life fairytale.
Tomorrow, a documentary about their rise, Out of the Ashes, will be premiered at the Edinburgh film festival. But while the film opens with Mr Malik’s paean to his beloved sport in a Kabul snarl-up, his team first grew in far less hospitable circumstances. Go back to the side’s early days and you’d have to travel to the refugee camps outside Peshawar, near Pakistan’s north-west frontier. It was on these stony, rubble-strewn plains that many of the players first picked up bat and ball. Even at an early age Malik was living and breathing the sport, playing truant to play cricket. Read the rest of this entry »
It was billed as the national conference that brought together the country’s senior figures in a concerted push for peace. It was never going to be that easy.
When Burhanuddin Rabbani, the former president, was appointed chairman of the peace jirga yesterday, it sparked outrage among the 1,600 delegates and led to an hour-long halt to proceedings. The plan had been to elect a chairman. But shortage of time meant that organisers appointed him to the post.
It was not just that Mr Rabbani is so closely linked with some of the most notorious warlords in the country that he has been referred to as their “godfather”. Read the rest of this entry »
Afghanistan’s cricket team, the ultimate underdog, is competing with the world’s best at the ICC World Twenty20 opening today in Guyana. Afghanistan faces heavyweight India on Saturday.
No matter that the best cricket facilities in war-torn Afghanistan were barely on a par with the baked earth strips where most of the players had learned the sport in Pakistani refugee camps.
They still haven’t made it to the World Cup, but the underdog team is lining up with the world’s best at another major international championship: the ICC World Twenty20 in Guyana. The 12-nation tournament opens today, with Afghanistan facing off against heavyweight India on Saturday. The story represents a stark contrast from much of the grim news out of Afghanistan. Read the rest of this entry »