Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostam.
The general receives visitors beside the swimming pool of his guest house in the northern provincial capital Shibarghan, a fantasy house with lots of glass and a wild mix of colors, including brown, blue and purple. Complete with a sauna, whirlpool and chandeliered ballrooms, locals refer to it as the general's "palace." And it's notorious for Dostam's raucous parties, which, despite the prohibitions of Islam, never suffer from a shortage of either vodka or women. "There are no mullahs here," says the master of the house, who is wearing a chapan, the traditional Uzbek coat made famous by the country's elegant president, Hamid Karzai.
Dostam fought with the Soviets against the mujahedeen in the 1980s, and later went to war against the Taliban. Then, in the fall of 2001, he became one of the Americans' closest allies, helping guide their special forces through the rugged country's ravines and into Mazari Sharif and Kabul. It's said that Dostam is responsible for the death of hundreds of Taliban who, following their surrender, were shoved into containers and left to die in the desert near Shibarghan.
Now the Americans would like nothing more than to get rid of their erstwhile ally. But a man like Dostam isn't that easy to shake, and the Germans too could soon get a taste of his thirst for power. Only 140 kilometers (87 miles) east of Shibarghan, the German defense ministry is in the midst of its biggest overseas construction project. Camp Marmal, a self-contained city, is being built with 75,000 tons of steel and 300,000 tons of concrete -- at a cost of 53 million. The German military's new Afghan headquarters, which will house some 1,500 German soldiers, is being built at the airport of the lively provincial capital Mazari Sharif, at the base of a picturesque mountain chain. Two kilometers (1.25 miles) long and two kilometers wide, the settlement is intended to serve as the cornerstone for a political and economic recovery in the country's north -- a construction project built for eternity.
Becoming more dangerous
But exactly how long is an eternity in Afghanistan? Violence and attacks have become a permanent feature of the new Afghanistan and it's hard to see where it is headed. In the north, considered relatively safe, German troops were recently attacked with bicycle bombs, weapons and grenades. Five German soldiers were injured in the attacks, some seriously. On Wednesday, two Canadian soldiers were wounded in a roadside bomb in the more volatile south and a massive explosion rocked Kabul as a rocket landed near the US Embassy.
Instead of becoming safer in the past five years, Afghanistan has become more dangerous. Since the war in Afghanistan began in October 2001, 284 American soldiers have died, including 99 in the past year alone. And last year was the deadliest year since the arrival of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in December 2001. A total of 1,600 Afghans were killed by terror attacks in 2005.
What's going wrong in Afghanistan? Kabul is blossoming. Real estate prices have skyrocketed, luxury hotels and shopping centers are springing up downtown, and more and more women are venturing into the streets without the traditional burka. Things are moving forward, at least in the capital.
But things look a little different in the countryside. In Kabul, a member of Germany's foreign intelligence service, the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), recently classified the north, where the Germans will assume responsibility for nine provinces in June, as a special danger zone. Taliban leader Mullah Omar has apparently given orders to attack the Germans in Mazari Sharif, because they're a much easier target there than in Kabul.
"Where are the new roads?"
The situation in the country's south and southeast is already alarming. Despite the almost five-year-long, US-led campaign against the Taliban, the organization once again controls large portions of Pashtun provinces Nimruz, Oruzgan, Helmand, Kandahar and Paktika. There is virtually no sign of reconstruction in these areas, which still lack electricity and running water, paved roads, schools and hospitals. Aid organizations hardly ever venture into the region anymore.
"Where are the new roads, the irrigation systems and the jobs you promised us?" complains an elderly man wearing a large, white turban in a village near Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital of Helmand, a region that leads the world in opium production. He has a low opinion of Karzai and the West, and most in the village share his views. Disappointment with the status quo makes them all the more receptive to militant groups.
According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), $55 million have been invested in programs intended to shift farmers away from opium production in Helmand. But other than a couple projects which employ Afghans to perform manual labor in infrastructure development projects -- cleaning sewage canals for example -- the programs have been virtually ineffective. For many farmers, switching crops doesn't make financial sense. Others are forced by the Taliban to continue growing poppies.
German tanks exercising with Afghan forces near Kabul.
Massive opium revenues
All of this has very little to do with a religious war against infidel occupiers. Instead, the Taliban and their allies are protecting a lucrative business. The sale of Afghan opium generates annual revenues of about $2.7 billion, and experts estimate that hundreds of millions of that income goes directly to funding terrorism.
To this day, the drug trade and traditional agriculture are the only two significant sectors of the Afghan economy. Even in Kabul, many government officials are apparently involved in the drug trade, directly or indirectly, ranging from the lowliest of customs agents up to high-ranking government officials. Karsai has repeatedly pledged to prosecute all those involved in the opium business.
But it hasn't helped. The police chief of Badakhshan Province, Shah Jahan, recently used his own vehicle to smuggle 100 kilograms (220 pounds) of heroin toward the border with Tajikistan. The governor of Kunduz Province is said to demand a 10 percent share of the value of all drug shipments through his region, a hub in the opium trade and part of the zone controlled by the German army. Police officers steer clear of the drug war -- and it's not hard to see why. Officers who earn a monthly salary of $60 can earn another $100 by merely guaranteeing safe passage for a drug transport. Actually arresting those responsible, on the other hand, is a potentially deadly proposition.
General Dostam, for his part, makes money wherever dollars change hands. And even when Afghanistan was hurting the most, he never had much difficulty maintaining his lifestyle. On this day, he is drinking green tea and his broad face glows as he emerges from the sauna. He claims that all accusations against him are false. He offers himself as a solution to Afghanistan's problems as someone who would stamp out the cancer of terrorism. He would "mercilessly wipe out" the Taliban and al-Qaida. After all, he says, war is one thing he knows a lot about.
Maimana in Faryab Province is also part of Dostam's sphere of influence. The ISAF reconstruction team in Maimana is the international peacekeeping force's outermost post within the northwestern region of Afghanistan, for which German troops will soon be taking responsibility. It takes ten hours to drive the 339 kilometers (212 miles) from Maimana to the future German headquarters in Mazari Sharif, a journey through mountainous desert, hilly green countryside and flatland. The region, stretching 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) all the way to Badakhshan near the Chinese border, is immense.
Respect, fear or precaution?
In Maimana, Finnish ISAF soldier Lieutenant Tuomas Kainulainen was on duty when, on Feb. 7, a raging mob stormed the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) headquarters in the center of the small city. Local mullahs, angered by the Prophet Mohammed caricatures published in a Danish newspaper, had organized a demonstration. They tore down the iron gate, tossed Molotov cocktails into the courtyard and rained bullets and rocks on the three dozen Norwegian and Finnish soldiers. It took three hours before the Germans were able to helicopter in reinforcements.
Over a beer in "Red Mig Down," a local basement establishment that sports the wing of a downed Russian "Mig" fighter jet above the bar, Kainulainen says that he is proud of the fact that he and his fellow troops stood their ground after the attack. If they hadn't, he says, NATO's concept in Afghanistan would already have failed.
There isn't much the small PRT team can actually do. The soldiers are there to establish contacts and serve as a sort of early warning system in the region, and they constantly have one man in their sights: Abdul Rashid Dostam, who, of course, is also the local strongman in Faryab. Photographs of Dostam are everywhere here. But whether they're being displayed out of respect, fear or as a precaution is anybody's guess.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan