Since the overthrow of the Taliban, most media reports on Afghanistan have warned of rising lawlessness throughout the countryside. Outside the capital Kabul, which is patrolled by international peacekeeping troops, we are told that “anarchy” prevails. The reports attribute this state of affairs to America’s military alliance with provincial “warlords.” These regional and local leaders–mostly mujahideen, veterans of the 1980s jihad against the Soviet occupation army and its Afghan client regime–are portrayed as incessantly feuding robber barons, whose armed bands routinely exploit their relationship with the Pentagon to brutalize the populace.
The country is “sliding back into chaos, poverty and despair,” Newsweek insisted on September 8. The BBC, quoting a letter to British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw from several private charities active in Afghanistan, reported on August 10 that “large swaths” of Afghanistan “are under the control of warlords where people live daily under the threat of violence.” On May 6, UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi insisted the security issue “casts a long shadow over…the whole future of Afghanistan.” That remark contradicted U.S. defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s May 1 claim that “the bulk of [Afghanistan] is permissive and secure.”
But in fact, Rumsfeld was right, as I ascertained during a September visit. Claims of widespread and deteriorating security are simply not true.
During my travels, I concentrated on populous areas under the sway of anti-Taliban leaders, since it is here that U.S. policy is most often said to have failed. I visited three of the country’s five largest cities–Kabul, Mazar-e Sharif and Jalalabad–and the countryside around each, with side trips to the Panjsher Valley and to the Pakistan border. I traveled overland, on public transport, unarmed, unaccompanied, and among ordinary Afghans, querying them about conditions near their homes and along the highways. I haunted bazaars and teahouses, interrogating fellow patrons and the staff.
The highways are wide open, the cities calm. With very few, localized exceptions, the countryside is at peace. Checkpoints run by renegade gunmen are notably absent, so food and fuel are cheap. More goods and passengers are moving farther and more freely than they have in decades. These are sensitive indicators of good local security and nationwide economic recovery. It’s clear the so-called “warlords” are not running amok. If they were, extortionate roadblocks on the main highways would be the first sign of it since that is where the money is. Transit trade is a pillar of the Afghan economy.
Afghan visitors and Herat residents alike give regional leader Ismail Khan particular praise for maintaining security and protecting commerce. Truck and bus drivers plying the Kabul-Kandahar-Herat road say that highway robberies, their main concern, are relatively rare. I met a Panjsheri driver for a transport cartel who had recently traveled to Herat via Kandahar, then driven back a new vehicle: a journey unthinkable for a northerner before the U.S. intervention. The biggest health hazards on Afghan highways today are drivers passing on blind curves and the unprecedented clouds of dust and diesel fumes.
Granted, there are exceptions, such as a recent outbreak of fighting near Mazar-e-Sharif. But rare instances such as this help to prove the rule that ordinary Afghans–at least the majority living in areas not contested by terrorist remnants–have it better today than at any time since 1978.
In the mountainous, sparsely populated area along the southeastern border, Pakistan-based Taliban fighters this year intensified their campaign of small scale raids targeting both coalition troops and their Afghan allies. Some reports credit them with having seized a handful of remote district headquarters on the border. But they have neither closed major roads nor besieged large towns–historically easy tasks even for marginal Afghan factions, thanks to foreign backing and the country’s fragmented politics and tortuous geography. Despite retaining such advantages, plus a relatively small U.S. troop presence and plentiful local collaborators (most of whom simply trimmed their beards and went home when the Taliban regime was overthrown), the purportedly resurgent Taliban have yet to make much headway.
Outside the border region, disgruntled ex-Taliban occasionally attack Karzai officials, aid workers and international peace keepers. But aside from a handful of terrorist attacks in Kabul itself, this threat is limited overwhelmingly to the former Taliban heartland.
Afghan and foreign critics alike told me that aid workers, particularly UN officials, have exaggerated the security issue. One Kabul-based expatriate and longtime observer argued, “A disproportionate number of aid workers and media types have been so dulled by Western society that they lack the ‘edge’ necessary to do their job…[They] are ill-informed simply because they are increasingly afraid to take the risks inherent in completing their research.” A Western military officer rolled his eyes over opposition to military-led Provincial Reconstruction Teams based on the argument the PRTs blur the distinction between humanitarian and military activities. The officer speculated that the real objection was fear of being upstaged by military engineers and medics, who unlike many civilian aid workers, will not flee at the first rumor of unrest.
Dozens of other foreigners also ignored reports of supposed widespread instability. While I was in Afghanistan, thirty-odd British trekkers left on a 100-km hike up the Panjsher Valley northeast of Kabul. Then I met Mariko, a Japanese travel agent who had just returned from leading a group of seven tourists on a two-week jeep trip through Afghanistan’s central highlands. While there, her party met yet another band of foreigners. They were traveling in a vehicle bearing the distinctive logo of a Western “humanitarian” agency, driven by an Afghan employee of same who was moonlighting as a tour guide. Mariko and I joked that the driver probably explained his absence by claiming the local “warlord” had held him hostage.
Mariko had first visited Afghanistan in June to verify security conditions firsthand. Yet, just as she decided the situation was good, UN special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi warned that security was so bad that the UN might not be able to supervise next year’s elections.
Afghans have grown somewhat accustomed to media caricatures of their country, its society and politics. But today more than ever, they find that international news reports raise disturbing questions that are never addressed, let alone answered. Brahimi’s election backtracking is one example. Others include:
–the campaign to disarm and demobilize anti-Taliban forces while parts of the country are still in the midst of a terrorist campaign;
–calls to replace defense minister Qasem Faheem, an experienced anti-terrorist campaigner, with a Pashtun figurehead;
–the planned expansion of the international security force, ISAF, to regions that in many cases are relatively secure;
–and the Karzai government’s new order banning “armed factions” from elections which, depending on whether and how the order is enforced, could disenfranchise a majority of Afghan men.
If inadequately addressed by Western policy makers, these and other issues will fan the flames of conspiracy theories that could prove destructive. For obvious historical reasons, it is crucial that Afghans not come to regard the post-Taliban state as an imposition by foreigners–whether American, NATO, Pakistani or even the UN.