Monday, March 08, 2004
By TIM McGIRK / KABUL and MICHAEL WARE / KANDAHAR
Hamid Karzai is lonely. He is huddled, as always,
deep inside his presidential palace in Kabul,
protected by towering stone walls, growling dogs and
U.S. bodyguards. Visitors to the palace must undergo
three separate body searches before passing through
the arched gates, all under the gaze of trained
marksmen standing sentry in a watchtower.
On this day in February, a driving blizzard has made
Karzai's lair seem even more forbidding. Only one
person gets through unchallenged: Zalmay Khalilzad,
the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan. Inside Karzai's
office, the two men converse in English and Dari, one
of Afghanistan's two official languages. Karzai, who
out of fear of assassination rarely leaves the
palace, asks Khalilzad how things look in the country
he governs but almost never sees. Khalilzad unfurls a
large map and points out various reconstruction
projects marked in red and green ink--a network of
roads and schools and irrigation canals that will be
built, he says, as soon as the U.S. and NATO bring
order to Afghanistan. Karzai nods impatiently but
brightens when he locates the one major rebuilding
achievement of his tenure: a 300-mile road linking
Kabul to Kandahar. "Do you know how long it took to
reach Kandahar before?" he asks. "Twelve hours,
sometimes 18. Now I had a delegation that made it
there in 3 hours and 45 minutes." He laughs. "Of
course," he says, "we have no speed limits."
For Karzai and for the Bush Administration, there is
no time to waste. Two years have passed since several
hundred U.S. ground troops and 15,000 Northern
Alliance fighters ousted the Taliban in retaliation
for the Sept. 11 attacks, ending the mullahs'
oppressive rule and destroying the sanctuary from
which Osama bin Laden directed his murderous minions.
Having scored a blockbuster opening victory in its
war on terrorism, the Bush Administration committed
itself to winning the peace--pledging billions of
dollars in aid, deploying 11,000 troops to hunt for
remnants of the Taliban and al-Qaeda, and pinning its
credibility on Karzai, the regal President who the
U.S. hoped could manage the country's combustible
ethnic mix and rein in its notorious warlords. Making
Afghanistan a stable democracy friendly to the West
would not just deal a blow to bin Laden and the
brutes who once ruled the country but also help win
over hearts and minds across the Islamic world. Says
Khalilzad, the Afghan-American who took charge of the
U.S. embassy in Kabul last November: "The reputation
of the Bush Administration is associated with
The White House says Afghanistan is on the right
track. "The men and women of Afghanistan are building
a nation that is free and proud and fighting terror,"
President George W. Bush said in January's State of
the Union address. But that optimistic picture
obscures the depths of the country's woes. In
interviews with Afghans, diplomats and military
commanders across the country, TIME has found that
while Afghans have been freed from the Taliban's
depraved strictures, their daily lives remain
blighted by violence and fear. Because of the paltry
number of foreign peacekeepers--about 20,000, in
contrast to 130,000 troops in Iraq--and Karzai's
inability to extend his grip outside Kabul, most of
Afghanistan is under the sway of truculent warlords
who in many cases finance armed militias through a
resurgent opium trade. The Taliban show signs of a
comeback, with forces loyal to Taliban leader Mullah
Mohammed Omar--believed to be hiding in Afghanistan
or Pakistan--now controlling nearly one-third of the
So another military showdown is looming. U.S.
military officials believe that Taliban fighters are
preparing to launch an offensive against the U.S. and
its Afghan allies this spring. "As the weather gets
better and as people are better able to travel in the
rougher terrain, we expect an increase in violence,"
says General Richard Myers, Chairman of the Joint
Chiefs of Staff. A senior U.S. military official told
TIME that U.S. forces will soon mount a spring
offensive of their own, in the tribal areas along the
border of Afghanistan and Pakistan. The goal is to
flush out bin Laden from his lair and capture or kill
him. The U.S. is not expected to openly announce the
true intent of the offensive, which will focus on an
area stretching from Jalalabad, near Afghanistan's
eastern border, to Kandahar, a former Taliban
stronghold in the south. The official says a small
contingent of special-operations troops taken out of
Afghanistan for the war in Iraq--including members of
the elite Joint Task Force 121, which helped track
down Saddam Hussein--will be reinserted for the
offensive. While the U.S. pushes east along a broad
front, Pakistani forces will push west, flooding the
tribal areas in what Lieut. General David Barno,
commander of U.S.-led coalition forces in
Afghanistan, calls a "hammer and anvil" strategy.
"The idea is to come up with O.B.L. in the bargain,"
says a senior military official. "They are not going
to say that's the goal, but it's the goal."
The hunt for bin Laden is intensifying at a time when
the Administration is struggling to pull off its
other major goal in Afghanistan: the holding of the
country's first free elections, scheduled for June.
So far, the U.N. has managed to register just 9% of
the country's 10.5 million eligible voters. Taliban
rebels have threatened to kill U.N.-sponsored
election teams and burn down schools and mosques
where Afghans are signing up to vote. Karzai said
last week that the elections may be postponed because
of lagging voter registration. Despite the Bush
Administration's desire to trumpet the birth of
Afghan democracy, a delay is almost inevitable. "We
should have five years to pull off these elections,
not four months," says a U.N. official. Lieut.
Colonel Christopher Bentley, U.S. commander for
security in Kandahar, concurs: "The country is not
ready. [The election] will probably have to be pushed
back. We've still got a long road to go."
Does the U.S., consumed by another conflict 1,400
miles to the west, have the will to see it through?
In general terms, the U.S. intervention in
Afghanistan has been less costly than the war in
Iraq. The military spends $900 million a month on
Afghan operations, in contrast to $4 billion a month
in Iraq. While U.S. soldiers in Iraq are dying at a
rate of about one a day, in Afghanistan the U.S.
suffers an average of one casualty a week. But in
both countries, the U.S. has attempted to
nation-build on the cheap, limiting the numbers of
troops committed to postwar tasks, and in both
places, the military has been undermined by the
challenges of trying to keep peace where it doesn't
yet exist. Only now are U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan
starting to make up for lost time. The U.S. recently
moved 40-soldier platoons into villages along the
Afghanistan-Pakistan border, where they live among
the locals and glad-hand tribal leaders in exchange
for intelligence on the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
As long as bin Laden and his lieutenants remain on
the loose, the fate of Afghanistan and its 28 million
people will remain inseparable from the security of
the U.S. Both American and Afghan officials say that
if the U.S. fails to stabilize Afghanistan and
establish conditions for democracy, the country could
quickly slide into the kind of chaos that bin Laden
and his ilk would no doubt love to exploit. "If the
U.S. military pulls out," Karzai tells TIME,
"al-Qaeda would be back within six months, plotting
attacks against America."
--WHERE IS BIN LADEN?
U.S. military and intelligence officials are
cautiously optimistic that their prey is within
reach. The U.S.'s military spokesman in Afghanistan,
Lieut. Colonel Brian Hilferty, said in January he was
"sure" bin Laden and Omar would be captured this
year. The deployment of special-forces teams to
border villages has produced a spike in intelligence
from locals about possible al-Qaeda hideouts. A U.S.
officer in Afghanistan says American forces are
employing techniques similar to those used to capture
Saddam, combing bin Laden's network of contacts and
interrogating anyone with information about the
people who might be giving him shelter. The drive to
snare bin Laden has been bolstered by improved
cooperation with Pakistan, which has dispatched a
70,000-man force to the tribal region.
For all that, the U.S. has only a rough idea of where
bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, are
hiding. A Pakistani tribal elder told TIME he
believes bin Laden may be holed up somewhere in a
sprawling, mountainous swath of territory that
extends from Khost, in eastern Afghanistan, south to
Angoorada, in the Waziristan region of Pakistan.
According to diplomats in Kabul, the area's unique
vegetation was seen in bin Laden's latest videotaped
statement. The tension in the border region is
already high. On Saturday, Pakistani soldiers shot up
a bus that tried to force its way through a
checkpoint in South Waziristan, killing 11 people.
--IS KARZAI IN CHARGE?
Many Afghans wonder whether Karzai is tough enough to
rule a land long defined by tribal rivalries and
blood feuds. "Karzai?" says a waiter at a kebab
restaurant in Kabul. "He's too nice. He should be a
schoolteacher." Educated in India, the President, 46,
says he was influenced by Mohandas Gandhi, which may
account for his conciliatory style. He seems more at
ease asking questions than he does issuing orders.
"No one is close to having Karzai's control and
popularity," says Khalilzad. "He has moral authority,
and he's not seen as ethnically prejudiced." But
that's different from being fully in charge of the
At best, Karzai's government has managed to restore
dignity to parts of the country brutalized by the
Taliban's tyranny. The sky above Kabul is filled with
kites, which were banned as un-Islamic under the
Taliban. Giggling teenagers pack the capital's 40 or
so Internet cafes. Since 2002, some 3 million new
students have enrolled in Afghan schools, partly as a
result of the lifting of the Taliban's ban on
education for girls ages 10 and older. A few young
women in Kabul have shed the burqas that were the
most obvious symbols of the Taliban's oppression,
replacing them with jeans and overcoats. As a result
of the lifting of sanctions and the infusion of $5
billion in foreign aid, the Afghan economy has grown
more than 20% in each of the past two years. "After
two years, people are more confident in the
government," says Abdul Jamil Sapand, a radio
broadcaster in Kandahar. "They feel more free to
That said, there's still plenty to complain about.
Afghanistan is years away from stability. The new
national army has enlisted just 5,700 soldiers and
last year suffered a 22% desertion rate, according to
NATO officials. It doesn't venture far outside Kabul.
In an interview with TIME, Karzai acknowledged that
he needs help. "Afghanistan is not yet capable of
standing on its own feet, of defending or sustaining
itself," he says.
--RISE OF THE WARLORDS
For now, political power in Afghanistan is
concentrated in the hands of people like Hazrat Ali.
On a typical day, Ali chats with visitors while
nibbling sugared almonds in the garden of his
two-story house in Jalalabad. A few gunmen wearing
wraparound sunglasses prowl outside. Ali is
stoop-shouldered and has an affable air that belies
his steeliness. Since December 2001, when U.S. forces
gave Ali control of an area of Jalalabad in exchange
for his assistance in the siege of the al-Qaeda
stronghold of Tora Bora, Ali has steadily expanded
his power, refusing to brook challenges to his
authority. Last month, when Ali was the dinner host
of a brash young Taliban-friendly commander named
Ismatullah, his men opened fire on Ismatullah's
bodyguards, killing five of them. Ali now controls
town hall, pays salaries to traffic cops and settles
land disputes. "Before, I was commander of 100 men,
and now I'm in charge of a city of 1 million," he
says. "It's not easy."
For the Afghans and the Americans, the rise of
warlords like Ali has proved one of the most vexing
obstacles to progress. There are more than a dozen
major regional warlords, all former commanders in the
mujahedin who defeated the Soviet army in the 1980s.
The most powerful ones, like Ismail Khan in Herat,
lead armies of as many as 40,000 men, with old Soviet
tanks and artillery pieces at their disposal.
America's role in supporting the warlords has been
mixed. Many, like Ali, owe their power to the
patronage of the U.S., which handed control of swaths
of territory to local commanders after the fall of
the Taliban. That decision was born of necessity: the
U.S. never intended to commit a military force big
enough to secure the entire country, and Karzai still
doesn't have much of an army. "It seemed a reasonable
thing to do," says Khalilzad. "If we went in with a
large force, then the Afghans might have thought we
were behaving like the Soviets." A senior U.S.
military official says, "A lot of these guys are
doing the right things. They are paving roads and
building schools. The rule is this: You don't mess
with me, and I won't mess with you."
But that strategy has come with costs. Afghans say
the warlords have engaged in behavior almost
comparable to the abuses of the Taliban. The
Kabul-based Afghan Independent Human Rights
Commission last year documented dozens of forced
marriages, scores of illegal land grabs in Kabul and
several executions committed by Afghan commanders who
at some point received U.S. support. Last month the
governor of Helmand province allowed a mob of 500 in
the village of Kajaki to put on display the corpse of
a Taliban fighter.
The Karzai government has attempted to rein in
recalcitrant warlords. Most recently Karzai appointed
Kandahar strongman Gul Agha Sherzai, a U.S.-installed
warlord who has been dogged by accusations of
corruption and nepotism, to a Cabinet position in
Kabul as a way of keeping him under close watch. But
Afghan officials say Karzai is wary of cracking down
too hard for fear that the warlords will lash back.
In Kabul alone, militias loyal to former President
Burhanuddin Rabbani and current Defense Minister
Mohammed Qasim Fahim number nearly 50,000. That's
enough to overwhelm, if they wanted to, the 6,000
NATO peacekeepers and take over the presidential
palace. Government officials outside the capital are
even more outmanned. "The warlords still have guns,
they still have men, and until that changes there's
nothing we can do," says a senior police officer in
Kandahar. "The areas they capture are theirs to
The warlords' land grabs have been sustained by the
return of Afghanistan's most lucrative cash crop:
opium. Outlawed by the Taliban in 2000, opium-poppy
cultivation has spread from eight provinces in 1994
to 28 today. U.N. experts expect this year's crop to
yield 3,600 tons of opium--75% of the world's heroin.
According to the U.N., the combined income of poppy
farmers and opium smugglers last year was $2.32
billion--equal to half of Afghanistan's official GDP.
A Western anti-narcotics expert in Kabul estimates
that 60% of the country's regional warlords are
profiting from the drug traffic, using the cash to
fund their armies and, in doing so, weakening the
reach of Karzai's government in the provinces. A
Cabinet minister who tried to stop traffickers two
years ago was assassinated in Kabul, reportedly by a
drug cartel. "Our national interests are at stake,"
says Mirwais Yasini, head of the Counter-Narcotics
Directorate in Kabul. "We're facing anarchy."
--THE TALIBAN'S REVIVAL
The country's disorder, U.S. and Afghan officials
say, has been a boon for the Taliban. The regime's
leadership survived U.S. bombs in 2001, retreating to
border towns in Pakistan. From there, the mullahs
reconstituted their military chain of command and
tasked followers to form bombmaking and sabotage
cells, according to a NATO source. A senior American
official says the U.S. has encountered the most
resistance from resurgent Taliban and al-Qaeda forces
in the Zabul province near Kandahar. Their fighters
move in groups of 15 to 20 and avoid attention. Their
aim: to kill anyone cooperating with U.S. forces.
"They are smart," says the official.
And now they are raising the stakes. Two months ago,
the Taliban claimed responsibility for two suicide
bombings that killed a Canadian and a British
soldier. Last week, just the day before Karzai
declared the Taliban "defeated," five members of an
Afghan nonprofit group were shot dead by suspected
militants. In Spin Boldak, a dusty smugglers'
crossroads in southeastern Afghanistan, the Taliban
have launched four major ambushes from Pakistani
hideouts against Afghan government outposts over the
past nine months, killing dozens. Abdul Raziq, the
pro-U.S. garrison commander in Spin Boldak, says he
has received intelligence from tribal allies in
border towns like Chaman that the Taliban are gearing
up for a major guerrilla campaign. "They are coming,"
he says. "It's only a matter of time."
Their goal, Afghan military officials say, is to
capture small districts in Afghanistan's lawless
hinterlands from which they can harass the U.S. and
its allies. "They haven't yet secured bases in the
cities to begin operations," says General Khan
Mohammed, a corps commander in Kandahar. "But in the
rural areas they are back."
Afghan security officials complain that their
Pakistani counterparts continue to tolerate--and even
encourage--militancy by the Taliban, which Pakistan's
intelligence service, the ISI, helped create in the
mid-1990s in a bid to make Afghanistan a client
state. At the highest levels, Pakistan's
Establishment remains "nostalgic" for the Taliban,
says a Western diplomat. Pakistani President Pervez
Musharraf has cooperated in the hunt for al-Qaeda's
top officials but has shown less enthusiasm for
rooting out the Taliban. Until Pakistan's security
services stop sheltering Taliban leaders, U.S.
officials say, Afghanistan will never be free from
the threat of their return. U.S. intelligence
officials in Washington told TIME that the U.S.
possesses satellite photos that purportedly show
Pakistani army trucks picking up Taliban troops
fleeing back across the border after a failed attack.
After the U.S. confronted Pakistani officials with
the photographs, signs of visible Pakistani aid to
the rebels ceased. U.S. and Afghan officials say the
U.S. has also provided Islamabad with specific
locations of two dozen suspected Taliban hideouts in
the tribal badlands. But so far no fugitives have
--WILL THE U.S. STAY THE COURSE?
No one is more cognizant of the threats to the future
of Afghanistan than the 11,000 U.S. soldiers who call
its deserts and redoubts home. Deployed at the front
line of Washington's war on terrorism, the U.S.
commanders believe they have the enemy on the run
even if bin Laden remains at large. "I don't think
we're facing 'good' al-Qaeda," says Lieut. Colonel
Mike Howard, who commands the 10th Mountain
Division's two bases at Orgun-e and Shkin, referring
to the battle-tested brigades that faced off against
the U.S. forces when they first arrived. "I wouldn't
have said that two years ago." Members of the 10th
Mountain Division who have returned to Afghanistan
for their second tour of duty say the change is
noticeable. "It's a different environment today from
what it was then," says Lieut. Colonel Bentley. "We
might be treading water, but we're not sipping air
through a straw like before."
While they sound upbeat, the commanders are worried
that one catastrophic event--like an attack on
Karzai, who will be campaigning outside Kabul this
spring--could shatter the current fragile peace. The
U.S. military presence in Afghanistan remains the
only guarantor that the country will not fall apart.
"If we left," says a U.S. official, "Karzai would be
dead within days." So the troops are staying--and
attempting, at least, to kick-start the
reconstruction of a country the U.S. has now
Is it enough to get Afghanistan back on its feet?
Marine General James Jones, the military chief of
NATO, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in
January that while the insurgents pose little
military threat to allied forces, the U.S. and its
allies do not have enough troops in Afghanistan to
carry out reconstruction tasks, train a new Afghan
army and hunt terrorists. The light footprint means
fewer American troops have been put at risk, but it
has left the U.S.'s Afghan allies even more exposed
to danger. After U.S. patrols retreat to their
firebases, Afghans say, the Taliban creep back into
villages to murder collaborators, usually local
policemen. "We are helpless," says Mansour Mehboob, a
police chief in an outpost along the Kunar River in
Afghanistan. "We have only the bullets in our [guns],
nothing more. And the enemy is all around us."
That should be enough to keep U.S. forces in
Afghanistan for years--if only because the enemy is
the same one that attacked on Sept. 11. But the war
in Iraq has strained the military's resources and
soured portions of the U.S. public on the virtues of
open-ended military interventions. In Afghanistan,
many believe that the Taliban and their sympathizers
are betting they need only wait until the U.S.'s
patience runs out. The military leaders, if not the
political ones, remain conscious of that possibility.
"We don't have to win," says Howard, the commander of
the Orgun-e firebase. "We just have to not lose." And
the game is a long way from being over.
reporting by Michael Duffy and Mark