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.

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.

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?

Is Afghanistan a Failed State?

These are the cold weeks at the beginning of the year. A bomb explodes near the German Embassy in downtown Kabul, and soon an hours-long, coordinated attack by suicide bombers and gunmen on government buildings will leave 27 dead. Soon the Pakistani government will capitulate to the Taliban  in a region bordering Afghanistan, and it will promise to stop pursuing the militants and tolerate the introduction of Muslim Sharia law in the regions they control.

Day after day, foreign soldiers are killed and Afghan policemen are murdered, and the life of President Karzai is constantly in danger. Nowadays, his convoy only ventures into the streets outside the presidential palace walls in Kabul with an escort of two Apache attack helicopters. Is Afghanistan lost? Is it a failed state? A failed experiment by one of the biggest coalition of nations ever formed? Is this the end of the world order dominated by powers like the United States, the UN and NATO? And exactly how strong is the Taliban?

Anyone hoping to find answers to such questions must talk to many people. The quest leads to American military commanders and UN special envoys, to foreign embassies, Afghan ministries and tables at the Boccaccio restaurant in Kabul, a favorite dining spot for the powerful, the influential and the shady.

To gain a realistic picture of the current situation in Afghanistan, one should consult the grand old men of Afghan politics, representatives of the Aga Khan, provincial mayors, members of parliament and Turkish reconstruction workers, bankers involved in micro lending and telecommunications entrepreneurs, election monitors, bodyguards, school principals and even the owner of the "Humaira Aria" beauty salon, where wealthy Kabul girls come to prepare for their weddings. Their comments merge into a single conclusion, namely that their country is on the brink, that the global public is being strung along with empty promises that perseverance will lead to success, and that 2009 will be the decisive year for Afghanistan.

The first of the new US units are being deployed to the country for the last stand. The first of the new arrivals -- between 2,500 and 3,500 men, troops specialized in mountainous terrain and an airborne brigade complete with 120 helicopters -- are being sent to Wardak. They will replace the small previous contingent of 250 US soldiers, which, until then, had served mainly a symbolic purpose in Wardak, a mountainous region roughly the size of Cyprus.

Governor Fidai misspeaks several times when he says that little has happened in Wardak "in the last one-and-a-half years," that there were no small or large-scale attacks. He is in fact referring to the last one-and-a-half months, but he makes the mistake again and again. It must stem from a yearning for change and the desire to produce presentable results. The governor is convinced that the world is in the dark about Afghanistan. And he is convinced, or at least he is desperate to believe, that conditions in his country are better than everyone else assumes.

Fidai sits on the back seat of his overheated SUV. Automatic pistols hang in their holsters from the front seat headrests. The governor is sending text messages with his phone as he returns to Maidan Shahr, his small provincial capital, 2,200 meters (7,200 feet) above sea level. Fidai is exaggerating when he says that 15,000 live in the town. Its real population is about 5,000, a number that is perhaps augmented by refugees returning to Wardak from Iran and Pakistan, but no one has reliable figures. "Everything you see here," says Fidai, motioning vaguely toward the window, "didn't exist a year ago. The gas station over there is new, and the agriculture school back there is also new. I dedicated the new post office yesterday and laid the cornerstone for a technical school."

Afghanistan's traditional economy is in full swing in the midst of these new buildings. Merchants have converted rusty cargo containers into shops, where they sell life's basic necessities from shipping crates: coal-burning stoves, pipes, flour. Fidai says: "People are always talking about safety, and about the Taliban, and of course you hear a few gunshots here and there, but is that really such a big deal?"

Mohammed Halim Fidai, Afghanistan's youngest governor, is 38 and has only been in office since July 2008. He is a charming man whose looks and gestures sometimes seem as if he had copied them from Hollywood films. He has four children, aged 13, 11, nine and six, "and an enlightened wife," he says. Fidai's parents, like so many Afghans, once fled from the Soviets and later went to Pakistan to escape the Taliban. Their son, says Fidai, was fortunate that his father did not send him to fight in a holy war, but sent him to school instead.

After the fall of the Taliban dictatorship, Fidai worked as a journalist in Kabul, where he established a journalists' union and hosted talk shows on local television. He was already a minor celebrity when the call came from President Karzai. Turning down the offer would have been impossible. It was a question of honor, and of being called upon to take on a historic task.

Now, as a politician, Fidai is in a tight spot. If the world sees Wardak as nothing but a dangerous, chaotic war zone, the world will stay away. Development will not continue, the flow of money into the province will ebb, and Wardak could become even more dangerous and chaotic than it is today. This is roughly his assessment of the situation, which explains why he is so adamant about whitewashing everything.

The governor does not believe that security should precede development. Instead, he is convinced that only development and economic success can lead to peace. But development requires investors and aid workers, and Fidai needs good news to attract them to Wardak. He is more than qualified to talk about matters of war and peace. After all, Afghanistan has been in a state of war for almost 30 of the 38 years of his life.

"You know," he says, "we really have everything. We have people, fields, minerals, 28 mines that are idle. Apples from Wardak are famous throughout the entire country. It's just that our hands," he says, searching for the right word, "are crippled. We cannot collect the treasures. We have too little of everything."

It has been snowing since the morning, and 30 to 40 centimeters (12 to 15 inches) of new snow will fall during the course of the day. Fidai looks outside and says: "If there is an accident in one of the villages out there in this kind of weather, for example, should I send the police? But how? We would need helicopters to get into the mountains. But of course, we don't have any."

Because of a shortage of funds, Wardak, like most of the country, is a lawless region. The province has 456 police officers, an intrepid crew dressed in multicolored parkas. They carry Kalashnikovs and wear boots or athletic shoes. Many are illiterate, and all of them earn barely enough to pay for rice.

These 456 men, without equipment, vehicle fleet, computers or radios, are expected to provide security and fight crime in an area that extends 120 kilometers (75 miles) from east to west and 100 kilometers (62 miles) from north to south, and contains more than 2,000 villages, countless mountain peaks, and caves and canyons where a sinister enemy lurks.

No one knows how many armed fighters are operating in Wardak and how they are organized. Perhaps there are only a few hundred, as Fidai claims, and perhaps communication and PR are the keys to their power. "When a truck drives into the ditch here, simply because the driver wasn't paying attention, or when an accident happens, the Taliban claim afterwards that they attacked a UN convoy," says Fidai. "It's crazy. And that's what the papers print."

A Vision for Wardak

Now US soldiers are arriving in his province, and the governor utters stilted sentences, like: "We welcome our foreign friends," and "We hope that they will contribute to our security." But these sentences cannot conceal the concern that the new soldiers will bring trouble first, and that the villages the Americans hope to liberate will become combat zones.

But doesn't the US troop buildup show that his province has problems? And that everyone except him assumes that Wardak has already fallen into enemy hands? "I never said that we didn't have any problems," Fidai replies. "All I am saying is that everything is greatly exaggerated, and that it is difficult for foreigners to understand our country."

In his governor's mansion, an unheated building in Maidan Shahr surrounded by high walls and barbed wire, the governor waves a thick stack of documents that are currently the focus of his attention. Bulky, copper-colored upholstered furniture is arranged in a rectangle in front of his desk, next to glass tables whose feet resemble polished liquor bottles. A servant brings in a laptop, holding it as if it were something precious. In fact, the entire provincial administration only has seven computers. Fidai used this computer to write his assessment of the situation in Wardak province.

Fidai, who is wearing his winter coat indoors, picks up the stack of documents. They contain plans for roads and dams, construction projects for agriculture, the police and hospitals. "This is the future," he says. He calls his chief of cabinet to verify his numbers, and then he concludes: "For 2009, we would need $234,662,334."

He says the number very precisely, but not, apparently, to seem clever or to make a point. He repeats the number three or four times, as if to make sure that he is not making a mistake, and as if to show that he is not simply making up some number but has in fact calculated everything down to the last dollar. He says "$234,662,334" because, in Wardak, every last dollar and every last cent really matters.

If there were decent roads, the drive from the Markazi Bihsud district to the provincial capital would be reduced from 12 to four hours. Villages could be linked to market towns and isolated houses with the world. Dams and a water supply could serve as a weapon to fight constant droughts, apricot groves and potato fields could be irrigated, and farmers could harvest far more than the 130,000 tons of apples they currently produce in Wardak every year.

The millions would be enough to train and pay an additional 1,000 policemen, and every family could receive two or three farm animals and seed for crocuses, so that they could sell saffron one day. Schools could be built for 60,000 children in Wardak who now attend classes in barns or outdoors. All of this is a dream. A piece of paper. Fidai's vision.

The real numbers are much smaller. The Turkish reconstruction team which is responsible for Wardak has spent $20 million (€14.7 million) on 51 projects in the last three years, and the American aid organization USAID has invested only about $88 million (€65 million) in Wardak in the last seven years.

The money has been enough to build a few schools, repair a few kilometers of roads and provide food hygiene training for 48 shop owners.

Ten water mills have been renovated, wells and sports fields have been repaired, a bank branch was built and mines were cleared along Highway One. Advisors have come to Wardak to instruct provincial officials and train town council members, seven pharmacists and seven judges. But even as all of this was happening, as the aid workers were sending home reports detailing their many successes, civil order disintegrated in Wardak, bit by bit, village by village. The enemy took over, giving the lie to any talk of development and refuting the persistent hopes of plucky Governor Fidai.

He spends much of his time driving through his province, just as he has done in recent weeks, as a crucial year begins for Afghanistan. President Obama declared the war in Afghanistan a priority at the very beginning of his term, and in February approved sending an additional 17,000 troops to the country. By the end of the year, a total of 30,000 new troops will likely have been added to the US contingent in Afghanistan. That will bring the total number of foreign soldiers in the country to about 90,000, two-thirds of them Americans.

The Americans will expand their deployment region in the east, as well as operating in the south: in Kandahar, Helmand and Uruzgan provinces, in the heart of darkness, side-by-side with British, Canadian and Dutch troops. But they are not being deployed to win this war. They are coming to Afghanistan to provide security for the elections in the summer.

The large coalition led by the West needs these elections, almost more urgently than Afghanistan itself, because if the country can celebrate a new or incumbent, democratically elected president in the summer it will bring calm to the situation on the home front. This reasoning has dominated actions in ISAF's concrete fortress-like headquarters in Kabul, a polyglot military camp where lunchtime lines consist of New Zealanders, Germans, Italians, Australians, Poles, Croats, Czechs and French.

'There Is No Doubt We Will Win This Fight'

Their generals are intent on establishing some sort of status quo. With the elections, they want to provide a symbolic success, something that looks like victory. Their goal is "to deliver," says Major General Michael S. Tucker, a thin gray man with a small office at ISAF headquarters, a concrete building surrounded by a sea of military barracks.

Tucker is the ISAF commander in charge of daily operations, the second-in-command after ISAF commander David McKiernan. A digital picture frame on his desk displays a different photo of his daughter's wedding every five seconds. Tucker doesn't sleep much, and the skin around his eyes looks pale. He constantly participates in videoconferences with the Pentagon that begin at 2 a.m. Nevertheless, he makes an effort to exude optimism and energy.

"We have to flood this country with capacity," he says. "People are hungry for it. They're keen on good governance in every village." Tucker is part of a new breed of American officers for whom civil reconstruction and social consciousness is not something for wimps but an important part of modern warfare.

His vocabulary is the language of local government and UN project groups, and his daily work sometimes has as much to do with wells and granaries as with troop movements and air strikes. But the enemy refuses to allow much in the way of civilian involvement in the remote reaches of the province.

"We're in the situation", says Tucker, "that we can drive out the enemy, the Taliban, others, what have you, that's not a problem at all. But we can't hold an area. And that is a problem."

In recent years, this problem has routinely meant that although schools were built in the country, they were immediately closed or even burned down the minute ISAF forces withdrew from an area. Power generators are installed under the watchful eyes of soldiers, but are immediately demolished when the foreigners move on. The same applied, and continues to apply, to hospitals, veterinary practices and market buildings. The international forces came, saw and conquered time and again, but their victories have always been and still are temporary.

This has been going on for more than seven years. For local residents, the foreigners' efforts seem like pointless gestures, accompanied by the terrible drone of bombers overhead. The helplessness of the occupiers is having an effect on the population. The slogans of NATO's enemies are finding a receptive audience. It is easy to suggest to villagers, most of whom are illiterate, that all these foreigners have no business being in their country. Because so few people have benefited from the dawning of the new era, and many are worse off than they were before, they are easily lulled into believing that life under the Taliban, who provided peace, discipline and order, was maybe not so bad after all.

One can sense Tucker's frustration over the fact that the coalition forces are not winning the battle for the hearts and minds of Afghans. For example, he can't stop himself from letting out a disparaging laugh when the conversation turns to the UN. But he is the energetic type, and he says that everything will change now, that the problems have been recognized and solutions are on the way.

A massive project, called "Operation Tolo" by the military, is already underway in 60 of Afghanistan's roughly 400 districts, with the aim of promoting sustainable and concerted efforts. According to Tucker the project, abbreviated as SCHB (Shape, Clear, Hold, Build), involves developing "islands" where real and sustainable progress can be made. "It will not be easy," says the major general. He spends too much time talking about problems, and yet he fails to mention the biggest problem of all.

In the east, along the supply routes in the Afghan-Pakistani border region, bridges are constantly being blown up  and roads covered in rubble. Convoys are attacked on the Afghan side or destroyed by the enemy in Pakistan before they can even reach the border. Because of constant attacks, the strategically significant Khyber Pass and another supply route farther south can only be kept open for a few hours every day.

Nevertheless, Tucker says, without a hint of doubt in his voice and body language, that all fears that the enemy could sever the ISAF operation's lifeline are laughable. He reaches into a Tupperware container on the table in front of him, filled with 30 or 40 Life Savers and the same number of Hershey's Kisses, and takes a piece of candy in his hand.

With a significant expression on his face, he says: "When I take this single piece of candy out of the box, do you think we still have enough candy left for both of us?" After a theatrical pause, he says: "That's exactly how relevant the enemy attacks on our supply lines are. They have no chance. There is absolutely no doubt we will win this fight."

Soft Power

ISAF headquarters is near Karzai's office in downtown Kabul, as well as many embassies. In recent weeks, the district has increasingly come to resemble Baghdad's Green Zone at the worst of times. The empty streets are blocked with checkpoints and lined with concrete barriers and walls of sandbags. A disquieting buildup is underway. Private citizens who can afford to do so have the walls around their houses topped with rolls of barbed wire and armed guards stationed at their front doors.

The images are the same everywhere. A visitor to the house of Burhanuddin Rabbani, on a street that is already off-limits to the public, is greeted with gun barrels. Rabbani, Afghanistan's president for many years, is a charismatic man who, with his trimmed beard and turban, has the look of a religious leader. He was the political leader of the United Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan, also known as the Northern Alliance, which managed to stand its ground against the Taliban in the north, and until he was toppled his government was the one that was officially recognized by the UN.

In today's Afghanistan, Rabbani wields a great deal of soft power, even though he has no official position. He is one of the few national figures respected throughout the country, and he is capable of shaping policy without being in office. He invites us to a private audience in his house, and even though he speaks English, he has his secretary, who refers to him only as "His Excellency," serve as his interpreter. He is a man of precise responses.

Rabbani was always in favor of negotiating with the Taliban, and he was by no means alone in his position. Long before the US government could even imagine talks with a group branded as its mortal enemy, there were already discussions within Afghan political circles over ways to integrate the radicals into the struggle for power and influence.

From the Afghan perspective, the Taliban was never merely the domestic enemy, and never merely the terrorist group it was constantly dubbed in the West. From the Afghan perspective, the Taliban and its worldview had always fit in to a spectrum of acceptable opinions. It may consist of the most radical of radicals, of dyed-in-the-wool Islamists, but Afghanistan is defined by its constitution as an Islamic republic. "We cannot continue to exclude them," Rabbani says. "The fighting must stop."

During the conversation, he becomes increasingly aggressive in his verbal attacks on a different enemy: the Karzai government. He talks about what he calls the erroneous decisions it made from the very beginning, and about the mistakes it has made when it comes to anti-drug policies and combating corruption. Rabbani says: "The government has no strategy. It has no program. The president has all the power, but he takes no action. We have not achieved significant progress in a single area."

A Cycle of Bribery

These are the cold weeks at the beginning of the year. Wardak province is under a blanket of snow, and its capital Maidan Shahr is receiving a lot of visitors. Ministers and other government officials are there frequently. In good weather, the town is only a 40 or 45 minute drive from Kabul on Highway One.

Today's visitor is the education minister, Ghulam Farooq Wardak, a broad, effervescent man with the same name as his native province. The biggest assembly hall in the town is reserved, in a flat, functional building 500 meters from the governor's offices. The convoys arrive in the morning, and the area is soon bristling with guns.

Members of parliament from all of Warzak's districts are assembled in the hall. Many have 12-hour trips behind them, on icy roads and across mountain passes. Despite the snowfall, everyone arrives on time, including village elders, members of parliament, imams and teachers. By the time everyone is seated, there are 500 men and eight women in the audience. To Western eyes, it looks like a scene out of an exotic novel, a dancing sea of Afghan headgear, magnificent turbans and the soft, round-topped Afghan beret known as the pakul, topping the ancient faces of mountain people with imposing beards, faces that never reveal what is going through their heads.

The topic is a serious one. Minister Wardak says that things must change. He says that the Taliban have tried to infiltrate the new education system, intimidating teachers and placing their own people in schools. "I would like to take the politics out of education," says Wardak. He is a good speaker and has the audience's full attention. "Afghanistan's schools are not there to malign Afghanistan."

An army of security waits outside the door, including soldiers, policemen and Turkish special units. Ahmed I. is also standing in front of the door, smoking a cigarette.

Ahmed I. -- his real name cannot be given for safety reasons -- is a mayor. He gave up a position with an American security firm, where he was earning $3,000 (€2,205) a month, because he felt a sense of duty to do something for his country.

But when he took office, his friends derisively congratulated him on having finally made it into the big leagues. He soon realized what they were talking about. Whenever Ahmed I. registers the sale of a piece of land or issues a building permit, he almost automatically receives threatening letters from people who assume that he is corrupt and who want a share of the spoils. "There is an unbelievable cycle of bribery underway, in all sectors and at all levels."

In fact, there have already been credible reports that $20,000 (€14,700) is the price of bribing one's way into the job of a district police chief, and that seats in the national parliament, governorships and judgeships are all available for purchase. SPIEGEL has also learned that majorities can even be bought in the parliament in Kabul. The going rate for a majority on an important vote is about $1 million (€735,000).

The sums are smaller in Wardak, where the spoils consist of modest development aid. Mayor I. says that he himself does not line his own pockets. Perhaps this is even true. The way he speaks openly about corruption makes him seem credible, and he cautions against treating the Taliban issue as one of only war or peace. "The Taliban are everywhere," he says, "and they are not just fighters. They are in my administration, they are in charge of villages, and they are in our midst."

Minister Wardak soon moves on to his next point. "I want to know what the mullahs want, what the Taliban wants," he asks his audience, "and I am willing to make many concessions. As far as I'm concerned, they can be teachers in our schools, as long as they respect the lesson plans. And schooling can also take place in mosques, if you ask me. But why are they burning down the schools? What good does it do them? What good does it do any of us?" Wardak receives applause at the end of his speech, the only speaker to get such a reception during the whole morning. The caps and berets move up and down approvingly. The minister has given a good speech.

He keeps it up during the ensuing meal at the governor's palace, where the guests are served bowls of salad, knuckles of lamb, Pepsi-Cola and the soft drink Mirinda. Wardak sits next to Governor Fidai, both wearing their coats, at the head of a table surrounded by 50 or 60 invited guests.

The minister knows his figures and rattles them off like a machine. He says: "In 2001, we had less than a million children in the schools. Today there are 6.35 million. In 2001, we had 3,400 schools. Today there are 11,600. In 2001, we had 20,000 teachers. Today we have 167,000. You want to talk about progress?" says Wardak, reaching for a piece of knuckle of lamb. "I mean, is that not progress?"

Too Little

Adrian Edwards, the spokesman for UN special envoy Kai Eide, can also rattle off evidence of progress. Nevertheless, in a conversation leading up to an interview with his boss, Edwards admits that "there's not much peace to be found." Calls for a new debate over the logistics and strategy for Afghanistan are absurd, says Edwards. "We know all about the strategy," he says. "Everything is on the table and we've discussed it a hundred times. We don't need new debates, we need action."

Edwards is a pale, levelheaded media professional who can be counted on to answer every email. In responding to criticism of the UN mission, he says: "Our biggest mistake was to believe that we can get far with just a small effort. But that's what the member states wanted. And as a result, we haven't done too much over the years, but far too little."

According to Edwards, the UN's budget for the operation in East Timor was eight times as big as its Afghanistan budget. "In Darfur," he says, "they have 112 people working in the media department alone. Here in Afghanistan I have three colleagues." One of those three knocks on the door and walks in. He says: "Save your work, Adrian. The power will go out in 45 minutes."

The dance of the expats and the powerful begins when night falls in Kabul. They drive up in their large SUVs, jostling in front of the Bella Italia, the Gandamack Lodge and the Boccaccio, where Russian waitresses serve large T-bone steaks from Nebraska with heavy Sicilian red wine.

Everyone knows everyone else here, and newcomers are quickly integrated into the cliques that pull strings and control rumors in the Afghan capital. The members of ministers' staffs converse with UN employees, intelligence agents accompany ambassadors, and members of the Afghan parliament known throughout the country as the most devout Muslims, drink grappa and order cigars. Anyone lucky enough to score a spot at the table next to Aly Mawji, the Afghanistan head of the Aga Khan Foundation for Development, can expect to learn a lot about the situation in the country over dessert.

Mawji is an Ismaili Muslim from England with manners as impeccable as his suits. As head of the largest aid organization operating in Afghanistan, he supervises a staff of 3,500 employees. The Aga Khan Foundation has invested $750 million (€551 million) in the country since 2001, more than any other aid organization. It created the successful Roshan telecommunications company and operates a bank for microloans. The Aga Khan is renovating entire downtown areas, and he built Kabul's five-star Serena Hotel.

But the Aga Khan's local representative, Aly Mawji, is worried. He considers the Taliban to be the most successful grassroots organization in the country, a group that has contacts everywhere, voluntary and otherwise, and wields power over daily life. The government, says Mawji, is nothing compared with the Taliban, holed up as it is in the capital, invisible to people outside Kabul and, as a result, virtually incapacitated.

'An Isolated Case'

These are the cold weeks at the beginning of the year. A decisive year is beginning for Afghanistan, perhaps even its final showdown. "Have you heard the news?" asks Governor Fidai, traveling through his province again in an armor-clad SUV. US soldiers have just this morning apprehended a would-be suicide bomber in Wardak. "An isolated case," says Fidai. He makes a phone call.

Dawn is still breaking over Wardak, in Maidan Shahr, bisected by Highway One. At this early hour, long-distance buses with luggage piled high on top, with old German lettering on their sides, are heading toward Kabul. A highway police force once existed, a special force assigned to handle nothing but the highway, but it was disbanded when police officers began demanding bribes from drivers at checkpoints.

Fidai still has his day's work ahead of him. It is so cold in his office that you can see your breath. His cabinet chief, his eyes rimmed with kohl, brings in signature folders. Fidai signs his name to 20 or 30 documents, orders to increase wages for road crews, who will now get an additional 50 afghani a month -- only a dollar, but a decent amount of money in Wardak.

When the steaming green tea arrives -- there is always tea in Afghanistan -- Fidai repeats something he has already said several times. "In three villages here, the people rose up against the Taliban and drove them out." But there are 2,235 villages in his province. And Afghanistan has 34 provinces.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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