For Mohammed Nader Ashraf, the most important thing is to make sure they don't find him. That would be dangerous, because he is crouched behind a wall on the edge of a cornfield, talking to strangers.
Ashraf, who has a dark wrinkled face and is wearing a light-colored turban, spits on his right index finger and scrubs it with a small stone. The finger is still colored bluish-black with ink, the method used in Afghanistan's Aug. 20 presidential election to prevent multiple voting.
But in Ashraf's native village, near Khalaj in Afghanistan's Helmand province, the mark is also a curse. Helmand is Taliban country, the province where the insurgents are strongest in Afghanistan. They view participating in the presidential election as an act of treason. The Taliban have denounced voting as un-Islamic and threatened to cut off the inked fingers of anyone who votes.
But Ashraf is smiling. Despite the threats, he rode for four hours to the provincial capital Lashkar Gah early on the morning of the election, taking secret routes along irrigation canals and dusty paths. Then the 42-year-old placed a cross next to the name of President Hamid Karzai, not out of a desire for democracy, but out of a lust for revenge. In the spring, a Taliban court ruled against him in a land dispute, and he lost two of his fields. "If President Karzai stays in office, even more American soldiers will come to Helmand, and I'll get my property back," says Ashraf, licking his finger.
The second presidential election since the ouster of the Taliban from Kabul was not without incident, but it was also not a failure. An estimated 17 million Afghans were officially eligible to vote, although most village elders and clan leaders had decided in advance who their followers were to support or whether they should vote in the first place.
Dirty deals were made, votes were bought and voting permits were distributed on good faith. There were 135 incidents last Thursday alone, including more than a dozen Taliban attacks on polling places and one police station. About 50 people were killed, most of them attackers. The relatively high voter turnout, given the circumstances, was partly attributable to the fact that provincial councils were also being elected. These councils are often more relevant to the daily lives of Afghans than the relatively weak president in faraway Kabul.
Nevertheless, incumbent Karzai is likely to have won the vote, and Ashraf's hopes of having his farmland returned to him could in fact come true.
The American soldiers he is pinning his hopes on are already there. Four thousand troops arrived in Helmand last month in an attempt to drive out the Taliban, who are stronger in the region today than at any time since the American invasion eight years ago. Operation "Khanjar" ("dagger") is the test case for US President Barack Obama's new strategy for achieving a turnaround in Afghanistan.
'We're the World's Most Feared Military Unit'
The US Marines include men like Captain Robert Tart, a wiry, 33-year-old New Yorker whose angular face, under his sand-colored helmet, makes him look at least 10 years older. Wearing a flak vest and outfitted with an assault rifle, night-vision goggles and a radio, he is standing in a forward operating base, a US camp with protective walls, on the border with Helmand province.
It is a region of seemingly endless desert, where the air is filled with yellow sand and jagged mountains form the horizon. The air temperature is 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit).
Tart is ready to go. His company is waiting for him, 24 men standing in front of their Humvees. They received a tip that drugs are being hidden at a remote farm south of Delaram.
From the moment Tart leaves the camp, the enemy is observing him. Tart knows it, and he feels it. The Taliban lay roadside bombs and fire anti-tank grenades at the soldiers from the surrounding farms. Anyone here could be a potential attacker: the goatherd on a hill, or the motorcyclist standing on the side of the road.
Before coming to Afghanistan, Tart served three tours of duty in Iraq's Anbar province, at a time when the situation there seemed hopeless. His unit took part in the siege of Fallujah when it was a terrorist stronghold. Eventually, a former general under Saddam Hussein was installed to keep order on behalf of the Americans, and the situation stabilized. "We're the shock troops, we're the world's most feared military unit," says Tart, who apparently believes that this will make his unit just as effective in Helmand.
'This Will Not Be Easy'
Helmand is Afghanistan's Anbar, the heart of the insurgency. It is the world's largest opium-growing region, responsible for 42 percent of total production. Helmand, Afghanistan's largest province, is almost one-and-a-half times the size of Switzerland. It is also the Taliban's main money-maker in Afghanistan, providing the extremists with up to $300 million ($210 million) in annual revenue from the drug trade.
Although President Obama in faraway Washington merely inherited this war with the Taliban, he has now tied the outcome of the conflict to his own political fate. Afghanistan, he says, is a "war of necessity," not a "war of choice" like the Iraq war, entered into for the wrong reasons.
In a speech to war veterans in Arizona last week, Obama said: "If left unchecked, the Taliban insurgency will mean an even larger safe haven from which al-Qaida would plot to kill more Americans." Difficult times are ahead for his fellow Americans, he said, adding: "This will not be quick. This will not be easy."
Obama wants to win the war at all costs, and he is prepared to spend even more money on the conflict in this difficult country, despite the massive US budget deficit and the healthcare reform debate. Almost 800 US soldiers have died in Afghanistan since 2001 and the war effort costs American taxpayers $4 billion a month.
Defeating the Taliban and al-Qaida will take "a few years," said Defense Secretary Robert Gates, adding that it is still "completely unclear" when American forces will be able to withdraw. He also noted that rebuilding the country's economy and government will take even longer -- at least "10 years."
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