As the United States and NATO mark 10 years of war in Afghanistan on Friday, the difference between the often-optimistic assessment of U.S. generals and the reality on the ground for Afghans is stark.
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — Asif Khan sits on a dirty, once-white blanket in an abandoned cinema and fights back tears of desperation.
He can’t find a job for his eldest son, who “even knows computers,” without paying a bribe. He can’t afford uniforms, books or pencils for his nine daughters to go to school. So they all live with him in the old cinema, where mangled rebar dangles like tentacles from the ceiling and a cold wind whips through windows with no glass.
It’s a long way from the optimism Khan felt when he returned to Afghanistan from Pakistan after the United States drove the Taliban from power in 2001. Now, he says, “I have no hope.”
As the United States and NATO mark 10 years of war in Afghanistan on Friday, a grim picture emerges from scores of interviews over six months with ordinary Afghans, government officials, soldiers and former and current Taliban, along with recent data. The difference between the often-optimistic assessment of U.S. generals and the reality on the ground for Afghans is stark.
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There are signs of progress — an important one is that schools are open. More than 6 million children attend school, according to the United Nations. Girls were denied schooling under the Taliban, and most schools were closed because of fighting before that. The media also are flourishing, with several newspapers, weekly magazines and 10 television channels in operation.
For Afghans, though, the decade has been one step forward and two steps back.
Lack of security
Afghanistan is failing in two major areas in particular: security and good government. Violence is up this year with increasingly brazen attacks and has spread to the once-peaceful north. Widespread corruption also is bedeviling attempts to create a viable government and institutions to take over when the United States and NATO leave in 2014.
“You know right now we have no idea who to be afraid of. We are afraid of everyone. Every street has its own ruler, own thugs,” said Rangina Hamidi, daughter of Kandahar Mayor Ghulam Haider Hamidi. “I don’t feel safe going out of my house. To be honest I have no idea what will happen.”
Hamidi’s father was killed in a suicide bombing months after those comments.
Recent portrayals of the Afghan war by U.S. generals have been cautiously positive. International forces released data last month saying violent attacks are down. The generals claim that they have regained land in the south and that the morale of the Taliban are sinking.
“We … have wrested the momentum from the enemies. … It is clear that you [international forces] and our Afghan partners are putting unprecedented pressure on the enemies of a free and peaceful Afghanistan,” CIA Director David Petraeus said in a July speech, while he was still commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.
But other reports challenged Petraeus’ assessments. The International Crisis Group, based in Brussels, reported in August that more districts are coming under Taliban control, as the insurgency spreads to areas seen, until recently, as safe.
Poll after poll shows that the biggest issue for Afghans is the lack of security. Even in southern Kandahar, the former Taliban headquarters where U.S. generals claim to have made progress, violence is a part of life.
Ehsanullah Khan, who has run an education center for girls and boys in southern Kandahar for the past six years, says his life is constantly in danger. The Taliban, ultraconservative government officials, tribal elders, even his neighbors object to girls going to school. Khan says he will be killed if he leaves Kandahar and is unsafe even within the city.
“I play hide and seek,” he said. “Where is the security in this country? Where is freedom?”
There were 2,108 clashes and other violent incidents per month for the latest quarter, up 39 percent from the same period last year, according to the United Nations. And last year was the deadliest of the war for international troops, with more than 700 killed.
Brazen daylight attacks have been mounted with alarming regularity in recent months, including an assault on the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul in June, a 20-hour siege of the U.S. Embassy and NATO headquarters in September and an attack that killed a CIA contractor at one of the agency’s offices in Kabul, also in September.
In the north, several senior police chiefs and a governor have been killed, among others. A suicide bomber last month killed former President Burhanuddin Rabbani, head of the council tasked to talk peace with the Taliban.
The Northern Alliance, with whom the U.S. aligned in 2001, is secretly arming again, according to former anti-Taliban fighters interviewed in northern Afghanistan’s Panjshir Valley. A top U.S. official privately confirmed their information.
And attacks in the south have killed the mayor of Kandahar, the provincial police chief of Kandahar, the deputy governor of Kandahar province and the half brother of President Hamid Karzai. The Taliban also dug a tunnel under the main prison in Kandahar this year and freed more than 400 prisoners, mostly Taliban fighters.
The Taliban also have taken over highways, severely limiting people’s movements.
Moabullah, a Taliban fighter who would give only his first name, said the Taliban fled when the U.S. first entered Afghanistan a decade ago.
Like many foot soldiers, he returned to his village and tried to find funding to start an irrigation project. Before long, however, local government officials who had been thrown out by the Taliban on charges of corruption five years earlier returned. They demanded money and weapons and threatened to tell the Americans that Moabullah was Taliban. He escaped to Iran.
He returned to the Taliban two years later. He said the Taliban now are welcomed even in Kabul, where residents give them food and water.
Ordinary Afghans paid $2.5 billion in bribes in 2009, according to a U.N. report — roughly one-quarter of the country’s gross domestic product. A bribe typically runs about $160, a huge amount in a country where the average Afghan makes barely $425 a year, the report concluded.
Karzai has been attacked for silently and steadily allowing corruption to take over his government. He largely has ignored calls to rein in corruption as well as international allegations of widespread fraud in his 2009 presidential campaign.
Western forces are giving support to the newly formed Afghan Local Police, set up to supplement the national police and army in remote areas. But NATO soldiers who are training these village police in some parts of Afghanistan privately throw up their hands in despair.
NATO trainer Paul, who spoke on condition of using only his first name, said corruption makes impossible even a modicum of professionalism in the force. The first loyalty of most recruits is to the local warlord.
The new security forces sometimes also make life miserable for the local people. Mohammed Ali, a soldier in the Afghan army, said his first mission in northern Kunduz province was to stop local security forces from terrorizing a village.
“The Afghan government has responded to the insurgency by reactivating militias that threaten the lives of ordinary Afghans,” a September Human Rights Watch report said.
Ordinary Afghans fear a return to civil war after 2014, and blame both neighboring Pakistan and the United States and NATO for an emboldened Taliban.
“America is helping Pakistan, and Pakistan is helping the Taliban,” said Hamidullah who has seen war devastate his homeland.
Hamidi, the mayor’s daughter in Kandahar, hears similar complaints about the United States and NATO, who are actively pushing reconciliation with the Taliban.
“More and more you hear the accusation that they are in bed with the Taliban,” she said. “And sadly, it is a fact that many Afghans, men and women, say ‘good for them’ when a foreign soldier gets killed.”