Tea in Kabul

October 19, 2010
A few vignettes to explain why I believe America’s strategy in Afghanistan isn’t working:

Scene 1: A home in Kabul where I’m having tea with a remarkable woman, Soora Stoda, who runs a logistics company serving the American military.

Ms. Stoda despises the Taliban and shudders as she remembers her terror as a seventh grader when the Taliban stormed her secret school for girls. She said Taliban thugs beat the girls and murdered the teacher, who was Ms. Stoda’s aunt.

Yet Ms. Stoda, like all contractors, has to pay off the Taliban directly or indirectly to work in insecure areas. She estimates that for every $1,000 her company is paid for work in such places, some $600 often ends up in the hands of the Taliban. “Sometimes, it’s even more,” she added.

Last year, she had a $200,000 contract to transport laptop computers to the American military in Kandahar. The Taliban seized the shipment, and she says she had to pay $150,000 to get it released.

It’s the same with all contractors, and the upshot is that the American taxpayer has become a significant source of financing for the Taliban, along with drugs and donations from Gulf Arabs. With the money they milk from the United States, the Taliban hire more fighters.

“In one way, it hurts the Taliban,” Ms. Stoda said of the American presence. “In another way, it helps the Taliban.”

One security expert here did the math for me. A single American soldier in Helmand Province, he estimated, causes enough money to leak to the Taliban to recruit another 10 fighters trying to kill that American.

Scene 2: A dusty shantytown in Kabul, where I’m with a group of hundreds of disgruntled men from war-torn Helmand Province.

The men say that they will probably end up joining the Taliban. My driver is nervous, and my interpreter says that he thinks that the men are already Taliban.

What intrigues me is that the men don’t seem particularly ideological. They admire the Taliban’s piety and ability to impose law and order, but they regard many Taliban commanders as overzealous and brutal. They said they were sickened when one commander recently beheaded seven of their fellow villagers.

These men say that their preference would be to get regular jobs and live in peace. But there are no jobs, and now they are being told that they will be kicked out of their camp. They say the threatened expulsion is the result of a corrupt land deal by tycoons tied to the government of President Hamid Karzai.

“If the government forces us out, then we’ll have to go and join the Taliban and fight,” says Muhammad Ibrahim, a mullah.

Another man, Abdul Muhammad, says he thought about joining the Taliban four years ago when his wife, three sons and two daughters were killed in an American air attack (he acknowledges that Taliban were shooting at Americans from the area). Instead, he came to Kabul because: “I go to whomever is strongest.” He added: “If they force me to leave here, I will join the Taliban.”

Several men say that they were recruited by the Taliban with a pitch that was partly ideological — “we must fight the infidels who have invaded our land!” — but also partly capitalist, promising hundreds of dollars a month and fringe benefits of free food, tea and sugar.

But our counterinsurgency doesn’t include enough counterrecruitment. Coalition forces go to any expense to kill the Taliban and need to be equally assiduous about providing jobs and outreach to prevent Afghans from joining the enemy.

Scene 3: A group of distinguished Afghans sit on a carpet with me in an office, telling stories.

They break my heart by wondering aloud whether the Russians or the Americans were worse for the Afghan people.

“America does development projects,” acknowledged Hajji Gulamullah, a brigadier general in the police force in Kabul. “But not as many as the Russians did.”

Amin Shah Mungal, a retired brigadier general in the army from Khost, added: “If you go to the villages and ask people who was better, the Russians or the Americans, they’ll say the Russians.”

Grrr! The Soviet invasion helped destroy Afghanistan, while American troops these days try hard to be respectful and avoid civilian casualties — and most Afghans acknowledge the difference when they’re in a reasonable mood. But after nine years, many Afghans are sick of us. Some actually suggest that America is in league with Osama bin Laden to keep Afghanistan weak and divided.

My latest visit to Afghanistan leaves me with 100 such vignettes suggesting to me that our strategy in Afghanistan is unsustainable. We’re inadvertently financing our adversaries. We’re backing a corrupt government that drives people to the Taliban. And we’re more eager to rescue the Afghans than the Afghans are to be rescued.

Stay tuned: In a future column, I’ll suggest what we might do instead.

I invite you to comment on this column on my blog, On the Ground. Please also join me on Facebook, watch my YouTube videos and follow me on Twitter.

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