Afghanistan on the Brink The West Stares into the Abyss

Afghanistan is on the brink of chaos: That is the stark message from local leaders, the US military and development workers in the troubled country. The elected government, they warn, can no longer compete with the Taliban.

By Ullrich Fichtner in Wardak province, Afghanistan

On the Red Bridge across the Red River, protected by watchtowers on both sides, Mohammed Halim Fidai orders his convoy to stop so that he can take a short, symbolic walk through enemy territory 50 kilometers (31 miles) west of Kabul. His three Toyota pickups, with machine guns mounted on their beds, block Highway One at the front of the convoy, while another three Toyotas bring up the rear in the snow-covered landscape. Policemen, their weapons at the ready, fan out, forming a cordon around Fidai.

Fidai, who is the governor of Wardak province in central Afghanistan, walks around in thin-soled shoes that turn dark from the melting snow. "Look at me," he says. "I walk where I please. I can move around anywhere without any trouble at all. All this talk about the Taliban controlling everything is nonsense."

Fidai is on his way to visit a resident of the village of Badam who has just returned from a pilgrimage to Mecca. After the stop on the bridge, the convoy heads away from the highway, traveling along ice-covered dirt roads and crossing crumbling bridges before reaching Badam, a tiny market town in the Nirkh district often described as a Taliban stronghold. There are said to be many such places in Fidai's province. Indeed, six of the eight districts in Wardak are allegedly under Taliban control.

A collection of mud buildings -- farms, huts, barns -- is scattered across the vast plateau. The mountains dominate the horizon like a massive wall. Offshoots of the Hindu Kush range, these peaks, most of them between 4,000 and 5,000 meters tall (13,120-16,400 feet), are so numerous that most are unnamed.

The house of the returned pilgrim in Badam is surrounded by neighbors and friends who have come to congratulate him. They drink water from the holy land in small glasses and accept gifts from the pilgrim. Children stand barefoot in the snow, and men protect their faces from the cold with their turban scarves. The governor's convoy is greeted with smiles. Tea is served and pleasantries are exchanged, and the visitors and their host embrace. Fidai nods approvingly, as if to say: I go where I please. You see, all this talk of the Taliban is nothing but talk.

But the talk which the plucky governor is trying to resist is loud -- and getting louder. The enemy has been steadily gaining ground in Afghanistan for at least two years now. The Taliban already controls the south, the east and the west of the country, but now it has gained a foothold once again in central Afghanistan, in Wardak, Logar and Paktia, the provinces south and west of Kabul, not far from the capital.

Internal reports by the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) paint grim pictures of the situation. US generals say that they are seeing a "significant challenge from insurgents" in Wardak, and their commander-in-chief, President Barack Obama, recently responded with a simple "no" to the question of whether the United States and its allies are currently winning the war in Afghanistan.

Wardak and the other provinces in central Afghanistan, long seen as relatively calm and peaceful, are now being described as a deployment zone for the resistance movement, a new power base for old tyrants and a base camp for an assault on Kabul. And attacks along the entire length of Highway One, the main artery for north-south traffic between Kabul and Kandahar, have made it one of the world's most dangerous roads.

The narrow, two-lane highway is lined with the charred remains of trucks and tankers, blown up with remote-controlled bombs during the course of 2008. "We found 32 explosive charges last month," says Governor Fidai. He considers this to be good news, especially since the finds were based on tips from the local population. "In three villages here, the people have stood up to the Taliban and driven them out," he says, neglecting to mention that his province has 2,235 villages. "This is the news that the world does not hear."

The world has turned a deaf ear to good news from Afghanistan, and it has long tired of bad news coming from the troubled country. International interest in events in Afghanistan diminishes with each new attack. In many countries, the majority of people want a speedy end to the operation and the withdrawal of troops. The lack of good news, after seven years of tremendous efforts, is indeed frustrating.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) classifies the situation in 26 of Afghanistan's 34 provinces as "insecure." But this is not exclusively the doing of terrorists. The world is too quick to lump all those standing in the way of positive development in Afghanistan together under the term "Taliban." In fact, the Taliban is only one of many groups struggling for political and military power in the country.

The radicals of the Hezb-e-Islami militant group are no less active, nor are the Hakkani and al-Qaida terrorist networks any less dangerous. Chechen and Yemeni fighters, possibly diverted from Iraq, are already being picked up in the country. Complicit in their acts of terror are all sorts of criminals, local warlords, tribal leaders and their militias, regional governors and their corrupt police forces, drug barons and their henchmen, who systematically subjugate the people in the regions they control. Murder and murder threats, torture, kidnappings and rape are the tools in this confusing war, one in which clear fronts disappeared long ago, and in which everyone seems to be fighting everyone else.

Map: Secure and insecure areas of Afghanistan

Map: Secure and insecure areas of Afghanistan

The only thing that is clear about this war is that it is increasingly dominated by "asymmetrical" attacks -- carried out with remote-controlled car bombs, buried land mines or suicide bombers -- on soft targets such as schools, hospitals, mosques, kindergartens and markets. The number of "incidents" involving IEDs, or improvised explosive devices, buried along roadsides increased from 1,931 in 2006 to 2,615 in 2007 and, finally, 3,295 in 2008. And all of this has happened under the eyes of NATO.

Instead of progress, NATO is constantly forced to report setbacks, even in areas that seemed to have been turned around after the Taliban regime was toppled in the fall of 2001. Violence against women remains a plague in Afghan society. The newspapers are full of gruesome but true stories of men allowing their wives to starve to death, children forced into marriage, and crude knife-and-scissor abortions performed on girls impregnated by rapists.

Peace has proven elusive after the supposed military victory over the Taliban seven years ago. Officials in the world's capitals must now contemplate the terrible possibility of failure, the likelihood of defeat for NATO, the UN, the European Union and the United States and the prospect of capitulation by 41 countries that once formed a coalition to shape a new Afghanistan. Given this situation, the interview that US President Obama gave the New York Times two weeks ago is a dramatic contemporary document.

Obama's announcement of his intention to negotiate with the "moderate" Taliban looks like the move of a commander-in-chief who no longer believes in victory. His words are those of a leader who sees his position as so weakened that he must make concessions to the enemy. And they demonstrate that the world was misled over the situation in Afghanistan for years.

Whether Obama's proposal will amount to anything given the realities of Afghanistan is completely unclear. So far the Taliban has shied away from high-level contacts. For the moment, however, Obama's overture has put an end to the cycle of mutual finger-pointing that had been going on for months. The leaders of the unsuccessful protective power, NATO, have accused the unsuccessful Afghan leadership of weakness and corruption, while the Afghans have blamed their plight on the failed strategies of aid and reconstruction workers and the brutality of the NATO-led forces, especially the US military.

But in the eighth year of the Afghanistan mission, at the beginning of an Afghan election year that could spell the end of President Hamid Karzai's government this summer, there are still many difficult questions to be asked: What exactly are the 60,000 international troops stationed there fighting for, if Afghanistan, despite their presence, actually dropped by 59 positions on Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index, to 176th out of 180 countries, in only three years? How is it possible that Afghanistan's opium production did not shrink during the years that NATO has been present in the country, but in fact grew larger, so that 92 percent of worldwide opium production today comes from Afghanistan?


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