It is one of the last mild summer evenings in Kabul. A group of Western diplomats and military officials is meeting for a private dinner in one of the embassies in Wazir Akbar Khan, an upscale residential neighborhood. Almost all of the 12 envoys and generals represent countries that have troops stationed in southern Afghanistan and the mood is somber. "Nothing is moving forward anymore, and yet we are no longer able to extricate ourselves," one of the ambassadors says over dessert, a light apple pastry. He gives voice to that which many here are already thinking: "We are trapped."
If only that were the extent of it. The diplomats feel abandoned, a feeling that stems in part from attitudes toward their concerns at home. Conscious of domestic political sentiment, many Western governments have taken to disavowing and tuning out the unpleasant news from Afghanistan.
As such, it seemed almost treasonous when the outgoing supreme commander of the British contingent, General Mark Carleton-Smith, recently said unequivocally that the Taliban will never be defeated. A military victory over the Taliban was "neither feasible nor supportable," he told the Sunday Times. Carleton-Smith has lost 32 of his men in six months.
The commander's words were intended as a wake-up call for politicians at home, but the underlying meaning is this: The situation in Afghanistan is far more serious than you can imagine in your government offices. People are dying here every day. It's time for politicians to come up with a new plan.
'Doomed to Fail'
At almost the same time, a diplomatic briefing between the British ambassador in Kabul, a man known for his directness, and a French diplomat was leaked. Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles said the current situation in Afghanistan was "bad; the security situation is getting worse -- so is corruption -- and the government (of President Hamid Karzai) has lost all trust." The American strategy, he said, "is doomed to fail."
Internally, US intelligence agents have arrived at a similar assessment. In the most thorough analysis of the war in Afghanistan to date, the National Intelligence Estimate, which is to be released after the US presidential election in November, the 16 US intelligence services involved write that Afghanistan is in a dangerous "downward spiral." The report mentions mounting violence and a government consumed by corruption and barely capable of resisting the Taliban uprising. Last Thursday Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the US Armed Forces, spoke of a similarly poor outlook when he predicted that the situation would become even worse next year.
In short, pessimism about the situation in Afghanistan has never been so high.
Indeed, the mood has become so dark that it almost seemed like a ray of hope when the news broke of possible "peace talks" between the radical Islamist Taliban and the Karzai government in Mecca. Saudi Arabian King Abdullah had invited envoys from Kabul and the Taliban to attend a joint Id al-Fitr, the banquet traditionally held to mark the end of the holy month of Ramadan.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai had repeatedly asked the Saudi monarch to use his influence, as the political leader of the country that watches over Islam's holiest sites, to reconcile the two hostile groups.
Karzai also issued a passionate appeal to the Taliban leader, Mullah Omar: "Esteemed brother, return to your home, return and work for peace and stop killing your brothers."
Two government officials from Kabul and one of the Karzai brothers traveled to Mecca, along with Fazl Hadi Shinwari, the ultra-conservative head of the Ulema, or council of Islamic scholars, as well as the former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, Abdul Salam Saif and the former Taliban foreign minister, Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil. Saif and Muttawakil are now seen as moderate forces with whom Karzai confers.
The other side was represented by 11 members of the Taliban who supposedly had access to the group's supreme decision-making body, the Quetta Shura. A representative of the notorious Pashtun leader Gulbuddin Hekmatjar -- allegedly his son-in law Ghairat Baheer -- was also among the guests.
A concrete result was hardly to be expected, the positions are simply far too hardened. Instead, the participants downplayed the meeting as a "pilgrimage." The Taliban "were not authorized" to conduct peace talks, former Ambassador Saif said after returning to Kabul.
It is possible, however, that the meeting did mark the beginning of a political reconciliation process, which could have two different outcomes: A participation of the Pashtun Taliban in the government or a separation of the ideologically less rigid insurgents from the hardliners.
United Nations Special Envoy Kai Eide, arguing for a dialogue with the Taliban, says: "Anyone who wants relevant results must talk to the relevant people." But experts on the extremist movement in Afghanistan believe that its radical leadership is "incapable of entering talks." They say only those insurgents who joined the Taliban as nominal members simply out of disappointment in the government could be more open to discussion -- and they are the majority.
Handful of Cash
The Taliban leadership is estimated at only a few hundred men, while the core of their militia consists of roughly 5,000 fighters. Nevertheless, the radicals can count a total of 16,000 armed men in their camp, including fighters from the Pakistani tribal regions, foreign Islamists and so-called part-time fighters -- mercenaries willing to fight at the side of the religious fanatics for a handful of cash.
Ideology plays more of a secondary role in the insurgency in southern and eastern Afghanistan, where concrete struggles for economic resources and political power are the real source of conflict. The governors often favor a specific clan, thereby excluding other Afghans from the distribution of jobs and aid funds. If the disadvantaged ones object, they are disparaged as Taliban and declared the enemy, not infrequently with international support. This, more than anything, drives them into the arms of the extremists.
Dutch soldiers stationed in Oruzgan Province complain that the governor installed there last year, who is not a member of the same clan as the Karzai family, has no access to the president and receives virtually no government funds for his province. The man who actually holds the power in the province, say the Dutch troops, is the former provincial governor and Karzai protégé Jan Mohammed Khan, who is given regular access to the president.
The Dutch have announced their intention to withdraw from Afghanistan in 2010. The Canadians, who are holding the fort in Kandahar, where they have suffered heavy losses, plan to follow suit a year later. The British in neighboring Helmand Province are incensed because positions and funds are awarded primarily to Karzai loyalists.
With at least five million Afghans about to face the hardships of winter, some of their fellow citizens have become immensely wealthy. Anyone who has managed to become a police chief, governor or high-ranking ministry official under Karzai often has it made. Many stole land and then had themselves registered as the legal owners. Others used easy access to international aid money to establish bustling bazaars or managed to acquire licenses to mine for minerals or drill for oil. Obtaining contracts to build streets or schools was likewise not difficult.
But nothing has proved to be as lucrative as the drug trade, which accounts for 53 percent of Afghanistan's gross domestic product. In the province of Helmand alone, the drug trade is a business worth several billion dollars per year.
So far not a single corrupt minister or leading drug baron has so much as been charged with a crime much less sentenced. Karzai allowed the profiteers to do as they pleased -- as long as they supported him.
Many Afghans have been left disappointedly wondering if this is what democracy really means. Indeed, the word "democracy" has for many become little more than an expletive used to describe extortion and moral decay.
Finally, NATO agreed last Friday that ISAF soldiers will be permitted to fight drug dealers and destroy heroin laboratories from now on. But the German military, the Bundeswehr, continues to hold back, limiting its drug-related activities to helping local drug enforcement officials.
One year before the presidential election, President Karzai's popularity is at a low point. And the Western press isn't helping. Just recently, the New York Times published a story about the alleged involvement of Karzai's brother, Ahmed Wali, in the drug trade. President Karzai himself denied the allegations in an interview with SPIEGEL, saying, "I have thoroughly investigated these accusations; none of them are true." The New York Times article, though, listed several witnesses who worked as informers for the Americans in an investigation against the influential head of the provincial council in Kandahar. With growing disagreement over the conduct of the war and other issues, the Americans could very well withdraw their support for Karzai.
The United States is determined to stop the downward spiral. Washington plans to send another 20,000 troops to the country by 2011, hoping to repeat the surge strategy that has seen some success in Iraq, where the addition of 30,000 troops has helped bring relative stability to the situation.
The British, on the other hand, fear that additional US soldiers could be more likely to heat up the conflict. "We don't need more GIs, but more reconciliation, more reconstruction and more offers for those who want to get out of the conflict," says an English advisor who has been working in Afghanistan for almost two decades. The West, he says, seems to be repeating the same mistakes the Soviets made. Despite an Afghan army of 100,000 men and 120,000 of their own soldiers, Moscow's military campaign in Afghanistan was ultimately a failure -- not least because support for the war back home dried up.
In Afghanistan, there is a simple barometer for the condition of the country. The cost of transporting one truckload along the notorious road from Kabul to Kandahar was about $1,800 (€1,315) in the spring. Because of the increased danger, the price is almost 10 times as high today.