There is a new weapon in Afghanistan's dog-eat-dog war. It is invisible and omnipresent. The Afghan intelligence service, NDS, has authorized the use of firearms against the force of this weapon, but this has already led to deaths. In their Friday sermons, the imams condemn it as a diabolical instrument of infidels.
It is the number 39.
From Herat in the west, through Kabul and all the way to Kunduz in the north, it is a number associated with prostitution and evil. Car dealers, who always sell vehicles complete with license plates, must give customers large discounts if the number 39 appears on the plate number. Mullah Tarakhel, a Pashtun member of parliament listed as member No. 39, ordered his bodyguards to open fire when Tajik colleagues scoffed at him. Two men were killed in the gunfire. At the grand council, or loya jirga, held in mid-November, the delegates argued less passionately over a strategic agreement with the United States than over who was to be appointed to the 39th of 40 committees -- until they decided to simply skip the number. "In Afghanistan, the number 39 has a very strange meaning which it is not fair for me to tell you," said jirga spokeswoman Safia Sediqi.
The NDS announced that insulting someone by referring to them as a "39" is such a serious crime that the injured party is entitled to defend his honor with a weapon. The clergy sees the devil at work and surah 39 of the Koran in danger.
The belief in the evil significance of the number 39 reportedly began in Herat at the beginning of the year and spread around the country from there. As the story goes, there is a pimp living in Herat whose address begins with 39, and the loathsome digits also appear in his telephone number and on his license plate.
No one knows this pimp. And no one really cares whether the legend is even true. But almost everyone fears this unlucky number. As a result, a country that is being plagued by the Taliban and robbed by its politicians is also being held hostage by another calamity, one for which there appears to be no antidote. This begs the question of whether such cabbalistic nonsense can reveal the core of Afghanistan's plight.
It certainly can -- because it shows how far this country and its people are removed from the image the West has of it.
Ten years after the first Afghanistan conference at the Hotel Petersberg near Bonn, yet another international Afghanistan conference is taking place there on Monday. But observers expected little to come from it apart from fine speeches and more promises. Ten years after the overthrow of the Taliban regime, after the deaths of 2,734 soldiers from NATO's International Security Assistance Force (the official count as of last Friday), after tens of thousands of Afghans have died and a sum in the triple-digit billions has already been spent, large parts of the country are still combat zones, the Afghan government could not survive without foreign protection and the country is drowning in corruption.
But the politicians in Bonn are unlikely to have spoken about all that. When it comes to Afghanistan, the lie is now so entrenched that it has become the norm. Each side presents its own version of Afghanistan. NATO and the diplomats talk of "cautious optimism" and issue predictions of an uncertain future. President Hamid Karzai portrays himself as an innocent victim. He sees his country bullied by foreigners, even as he dismantles its institutions to secure his power.
The Afghans themselves have withdrawn into despair, mistrust and conspiracy theories, amid whispers of magical numbers like the evil 39, or talk of a secret conspiracy between the Americans and the Taliban. They see civil war brewing and they don't want the foreign troops on their soil, and yet they want them to stay. They see the foreigners' military might, and yet nine out of 10 Afghans don't even know why they are in the country. They see the façade of a government, but behind it they see only the despotism of the powerful who use violence to take what they want.
The optimistic word being thrown about by the international community is "transition." If the Afghan security forces can prevail against the Taliban on their own when international combat forces withdraw in 2014, then 10 years of military intervention and billions in aid will not have been wasted. And if the Afghan security forces do prevail, the international community will be able to withdraw without having to admit that its intervention has failed.
The international Afghanistan policy is still based on this assumption, despite all half-hearted attempts to negotiate with the Taliban. It is a world that has about as much to do with reality as maneuvers played out on a terrain model have to do with the real situation out in the field.
'The Hills Don't Look Right'
It's a cool morning in Kunduz, in a remote corner of a base operated by the Afghan National Army (ANA), which is adjacent to the German Bundeswehr camp. At about 9 a.m., roughly a dozen Afghan non-commissioned officers have gathered in front of the terrain model used by the German trainers.
In the model, crafted with great care by Sergeant Thorsten N. and Sergeant Sebastian D., a river made of blue plastic sheeting meanders past a camp made of building blocks and under a bridge consisting of a filter from an old air-conditioner and large screws. A string of hills and a valley are fashioned out of sand, while differently colored bottle caps represent the Taliban and soldiers. A minaret with battery-powered lighting completes the scenery.
The Afghan soldiers are here to practice setting up patrols in the terrain. In other words, they need to set up the bottle caps that represent their own troops in such a way that they avoid coming under enemy fire.
"How?" The sergeants and their interpreters are standing in front of a silent group of Afghans. One of the Afghan non-commissioned officers keeps nodding off and threatens to fall over. Then another Afghan pipes up and says: "Well, I don't like the river. Afghan rivers are green, not blue like that!" There is a murmur of agreement. "And the hills don't look right, either."
The German sergeants say something about "distinctive features in the terrain" and that this is only a model, after all. The Afghans prefer to discuss why the model doesn't appeal to them. After an hour, punctuated by breaks, one of the Afghans puts the bottle caps into position, in a straight line in the middle of the valley. As a result, all the Afghan army bottle caps would be shot and killed by the Taliban bottle caps. The whole thing ends after two hours.
"You can't expect too much of them," says Thomas B., the German in charge of the exercise, who will later say resignedly that nothing has improved.
'We Are A Sorry Army'
It's a paradoxical situation. It is often difficult to convince the Afghan army and police to fight, and yet the United States pays for most of their training, pay, weapons, meals, vehicles and equipment.
The Taliban, on the other hand, are diligently emulating modern methods of warfare, depositing gauze bandages and infusion bottles in their trenches days in advance, and organizing complex ambushes. They have even discovered the use of the terrain model. In a one-hour video on the attack on the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul in late June, the fighters are depicted in a conference room. A man with a pointer is walking the group through the planned attack, as they face a model of the hotel that is almost 1 meter (3 feet) tall, complete with secondary buildings and guard posts. It's enough to make a man like Thomas B. jealous.
The Afghan government troops do go into combat, but only when the soldiers haven't just gone AWOL for weeks, or when their officers haven't been selling gasoline on the black market. On several occasions, the Bundeswehr soldiers in Kunduz have used cameras and night-vision devices to observe their Afghan allies siphoning off gasoline from their own vehicles at night. General Fazil, who was the commander of an army unit in Kunduz until last year, was notorious for stealing and selling tens of thousands of liters of the army's diesel fuel every month. His nickname among the Germans was "Diesel Fazil." He had even got the gasoline-stealing expeditions organized for a period when he was attending training for senior staff in Germany.
"We are a sorry army," says a man who surely knows what he is talking about -- he is, after all, a senior officer. There is a meeting every week attended by colonels, battalion commanders and staff operations officers, all of whom have one thing in common: They were fighting on the wrong side in the 1980s. They all speak Russian.
Pushed Around by the Americans
As young officers at the time, they remained loyal to the government, even though it had been taken over by the Soviet occupiers. They went to Moscow and Leningrad. Colonel Nadir, who hosts the meetings, still wears the Soviet paratrooper's badge he earned with his 420 jumps.
Then came the civil war, followed by the Taliban regime and years in exile. After that, the Americans arrived and aligned themselves with the worst of the warlords. But even the Americans noticed that the most professional officers, the ones with the most integrity, were those who had learned their trade from the enemy back in the 1980s.
Many members of the military and police leadership can still converse in Russian today. They stayed for their country, their sense of duty and a meager salary that's barely enough to pay for their weekend vodka-drinking binges. But what sort of an army is it that allows itself to be pushed around by Americans -- or rather, one that has to allow itself to be pushed around, because the Americans are paying for everything?
"I will always fight. I am an officer," says Nadir, talking himself into a rage. "But the soldiers, they only show up because they are paid. For three meals a day. And if they're not paid anymore…" He makes a gesture in the air to illustrate the dilemma.
He doesn't like the Taliban, because they want to kill him. "But they have their pride. We don't."
And how is it with the Americans?
"Nye govori! Nye sprossi!" Don't talk! Don't ask!
The colonel standing next to him says: "They're all assholes. Assholes!" It isn't that they are bad people, Nadir says, toning his rhetoric down a notch, but because they have spent billions to train an army of corrupt opportunists whose loyalty, if they have any at all, is reserved for their own ethnic group. "Without the Americans," Nadir predicts, "our army will break up into Pashtun, Tajik and Hazara units."
Success of 'Kill or Capture' Operations
As it happens, the Taliban, who, according to NATO, must be defeated if stability is to be restored, are far weaker militarily in late 2011 than they were only one or two years ago. The attempts to negotiate with them have not contributed very much in that regard. By mid-November some 2,700 insurgents had entered the Afghan High Peace Council's integration program for fighters willing to leave the Taliban, for which Germany alone has provided €50 million. But only a short time later, many of them were already complaining that the money, jobs or sheep they had been promised had never materialized.
Instead, it was the targeted American special forces "kill or capture" operations that did the most damage to the Taliban. A denser and apparently more reliable network of informants than in the past, as well as the massive expansion of telephone surveillance, have enabled US forces to target Taliban commanders, all the way down to village level. In Kunduz province alone, US units have killed more than half of the senior Taliban personnel. Gun battles against ISAF troops lasting several days, like the battles the German Bundeswehr faced in Kunduz until the end of 2010, have become less common throughout Afghanistan. Many Taliban commanders and fighters have been ordered back to the Pakistani cities of Peshawar, Quetta and Karachi to bide their time.
But they haven't been defeated. They are merely copying the Americans in their own way. They murder their enemies' leaders -- Afghan governors, generals and politicians -- with fatal precision, and are preparing for the day when the foreigners have withdrawn. Occasional attacks in Kabul, such as those on the Intercontinental Hotel and the ISAF headquarters, seem spectacular, and yet they require far fewer fighters than gun battles in the field.
Western intelligence agencies note with irritation that the Taliban have willingly handed over the command of current operations to Uzbek fighters and even to rival Afghan militants loyal to the warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. But despite all the setbacks, there is one thing the Taliban have not lost: their cohesion. And that is something their enemies do not have.
The District Threatened by Its Protectors
Khanabad is far behind Kunduz on the German mental map of Afghanistan. In fact, it is the district adjacent to Kunduz district that, for years, simply remained too peaceful to make headlines.
Despite the occasional complaints by local notables that the peace dividend is bringing them less help than the insurgent areas, the small city of Khanabad is flourishing. The markets are full, the European Union is spending €12 million to repair an irrigation canal, there are road construction projects underway and, most of all, the city is being run by people with integrity. This is the work of district chief Nizamuddin Nashir, the last scion of a legendary Afghan industrialist dynasty. His grandfather established the now defunct Spinzar cotton mill more than a century ago. In its heyday, the Spinzar company employed 30,000 people and maintained construction companies, a porcelain factory and hotels in Kunduz and throughout northern Afghanistan.
The shoeshine boys in front of the kebab stand share the Bundeswehr and US Army's assessment of Nashir, saying that he is indeed not corrupt and is an excellent manager to boot. Nashir himself says that he doesn't know how much longer he can last. Khanabad, this small, well-functioning island, is being threatened by those who are supposed to be protecting it.
Growing Like Chickens
"It started with exactly 28 Taliban," says Nashir, a trained lawyer who has a Clark Gable moustache and dry sense of humor. They had taken up a position at the most remote end of the district, he relates. Two years ago, the intelligence service deployed the Arbakai, or anti-Taliban militias, against them. "There were 300 men at first. After they had taken care of all the Taliban, it turned into 500, then 900, and the numbers just kept growing, like at a chicken hatchery." According to Nashir, the NDS paid the militias until their numbers had grown to 1,500, and then it officially cancelled all payments.
Nevertheless, there are now close to 4,000 militia fighters in his district, "who are now just fighting each other for power and protection money, or are carrying on old feuds," says Nashir, adding that the fighting has already claimed more than 100 lives. It takes him almost a quarter of an hour to draw an organizational chart illustrating the two dozen key commanders, their feuds and their shifting alliances.
When a battle among the militias erupted in late August, complete with mortars and rocket-propelled grenades, Nashir brought in the Afghan National Army to help, "to at least bring them to a cease-fire. But how long will that last?
Nashir maintains unorthodox alliances. "I have good connections to the Americans and to the Taliban. If they wanted to kill me, there would be nothing easier. But I'm not corrupt and people like me, so they leave me alone." According to Nashir, the enemies of the development of a true state in Afghanistan are mainly "the mafiosi in the government itself. They don't want a state! They just want to preserve the status quo and continue to cash in! If we had peace here, there would be no place for them anymore."
In the meantime, says Nashir, everyone is preparing for year zero after the international forces withdraw in 2014. "When the foreigners leave, the civil war begins," he says. The harbingers of that civil war could be felt in the south years ago, when commanders like Matiullah Khan in Uruzgan and Abdul Raziq in Kandahar established their own fiefdoms, with the help of the Americans and the millions they were paid to escort their convoys.
Making Their Own Mistakes
But now the once-quiet north is beginning to crumble. In Mazar-e-Sharif, Governor Mohammed Atta is using millions in revenues from oil smuggling, the drug trade and protection money to arm his own militias. Vice President Mohammed Fahim has made the notorious warlord Nazri Mohammed the mayor of Faizabad in the northeast. In Baghlan, Tajik units of the national police force and Pashtun fighters with the local police opened fire on each other in late August, after a police colonel had raped a boy from the Pashtun commander's neighborhood.
The local police, supported by the Americans and under the supervision of the Interior Ministry, was in fact supposed to fight the Taliban. But its commander, Nur ul-Haq, protected by American special forces in the province, is collecting protection money from local farmers, and his men have been accused of committing several murders. "What do you want from me?" he snaps on the phone, as the sound of beatings and screams can be heard in the background. "I have nothing to do with the government. I do as I please!"
The Americans are not repeating the mistakes of the Russians, as they are often accused of doing, but are in fact making their own. Just as they armed warlords and war criminals in the 1980s to fight the Soviet occupation and again in 2002, merely because they were the enemies of their enemies, they are now turning gangsters into allies.
But there is also growing dissatisfaction within the ISAF community of nations. An assessment by the Swedish military in Mazar-e-Sharif classified as "secret" harshly criticizes the formation of the militias. According to the report, the fighters in the so-called Critical Infrastructure Protection Project (CIPP) "will likely (…) commit more violations against basic human rights than the regular police due to lack of education and oversight." And, the report continues, it only aggravates the situation "that there is no mechanism for disciplinary actions against CIPP within the Afghan sphere. As a result this may possibly make parts of the population more prone to join or support the insurgency." Besides, the Swedish report notes, there is no plan for how the militia can be dissolved and disarmed again in the future -- as if the Americans don't care about what happens after they leave.
German Major General Markus Kneip, as the "COM RC North," or commander of all ISAF troops in northern Afghanistan, is caught in the middle. When the Swedes don't want something, the Americans pursue it with all the more determination. "I take the Swedes' concerns very seriously," he concedes. It isn't even the Americans, he adds, who are applying the pressure, "but the Afghan government. They want more men and more bases, while we are applying the brakes. Of course we don't want to support known criminals!"
In an interview with SPIEGEL, President Karzai insisted that he had never heard of the CIPP and that he is fundamentally opposed to militias that are "outside the purview of the Interior Ministry."
'A Recipe for Civil War'
The international forces intend to hand over the security of the Afghan state to the Afghans in two years' time. But the state itself has long been disintegrating from within. "Loyalty," says Thomas Ruttig, the co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, is what is missing at the core. Ruttig helped the United Nations organize the loya jirga in 2002 at which then US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and then Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld ensured that the warlords from the civil war were able to gain power once again -- with Karzai in tow, a man who was considered a puppet by all sides. "What we are now seeing," explains Ruttig, "is an uncontrolled proliferation of competing militias, as well as oversized armed forces whose loyalties tend to lie with their former commanders rather than the Kabul government -- and with nothing that could hold them together, especially not after a withdrawal of the Western troops. This is a recipe for civil war."
The Taliban may never have understood very much about the rest of the world. But they understand Afghanistan. They also know that it isn't about who wins first -- but about who is left in the end.