Until recently, Ghazni, like much of central Afghanistan, was considered reasonably safe. But now the province, located 100 miles south of the capital, has fallen to the Taliban. Foreigners who venture to Ghazni often wind up kidnapped or killed. In defiance of the central government, the Taliban governor in the province issues separate ID cards and passports for the Taliban regime, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Farmers increasingly turn to the Taliban, not the American-backed authorities, for adjudication of land disputes.
By the time we reach the town of Salar, only 50 miles south of Kabul, we have already passed five tractor-trailers from military convoys that have been destroyed by the Taliban. The highway, newly rebuilt courtesy of $250 million, most of it from U.S. taxpayers, is pocked by immense craters, most of them caused by roadside bombs planted by Taliban fighters. As in Iraq, these improvised explosive devices are a key to the battle against the American invaders and their allies in the Afghan security forces, part of a haphazard but lethal campaign against coalition troops and the long, snaking convoys that provide logistical support.
This highway — the only one in all Afghanistan — was touted as a showpiece by the Bush administration after it was rebuilt. It provides the only viable route between the two main American bases, Bagram to the north and Kandahar to the south. Now coalition forces travel along it at their own risk. In June, the Taliban attacked a supply convoy of 54 trucks passing through Salar, destroying 51 of them and seizing three escort vehicles. In early September, not far from here, another convoy was attacked and 29 trucks were destroyed. On August 13th, a few days before I pass through Salar, the Taliban staged an unsuccessful assassination attempt on the U.S.-backed governor of Ghazni, wounding two of his guards.
On American plans to put more troops into Afghanistan:
...those closest to the chaos in Afghanistan say that throwing more soldiers into combat won't help. "More troops are not the answer," a senior United Nations official in Kabul tells me. "You will not make more babies by having many guys screw the same woman."
It is a point echoed in dozens of off-the-record interviews I conducted in Kabul with leading Western diplomats, security experts, former mujahedeen and Taliban commanders, and senior officials with the U.N. and prominent aid organizations. All agree that the situation is, in the words of one official, "incredibly bleak." Using suicide bombers and other tactics imported from Iraq, the Taliban have cut Kabul off from the rest of the country and established themselves as the only law in many rural villages. "People don't want the Taliban back, but they're afraid to back the government," says one top diplomat. "They know the Taliban will ride into the village and behead anybody who has made a deal with the coalition."
On the isolation of Kabul:
To return to Kabul from a feudal province like Ghazni is to experience a form of time travel. The city is thoroughly modern, for those who can afford it: five-star hotels, shiny new shopping malls and well-guarded restaurants where foreigners eat meals that cost as much as most Afghans make in a month, cooked with ingredients imported from abroad. If you can avoid falling into the sewage canals at every crosswalk, and evade the suicide bombers who occasionally rock the city, you can enjoy the safety of Afghanistan's version of the Green Zone.
But the barbarians are at the gate, and major attacks are getting closer and closer to the city each day. Upon my return to Kabul, I discover that the Taliban have fired rockets at the airport and at the NATO base; the United Nations has been on a four-day curfew; and President Karzai has canceled his public appearances. The city is being slowly but systematically severed from the rest of the country.
"The road from Kabul to Ghazni is gone," an intelligence officer tells me, "and most of the rest of the roads are going. The ambushes are routine now, which tells you that the Taliban have a routine capability." The Parwan province, which borders Kabul to the north, has also become dangerous. "All of a sudden we see IEDs on the main road in Parwan and attacks on police checkpoints," the intelligence officer says. "It's the last remaining key arterial route connecting Kabul to the rest of the country."
Nathan Hodge, writing for Wired's Danger Room, provides only more grim news:
The most unsettling news, for me at least, was the report of a suicide attack that killed two German soldiers and five children in Kunduz province, once the most quiet and secure corner of Afghanistan. What the hell happened? Four years ago, I felt comfortable enough hiring a pickup truck to drive from Kabul to Kunduz. Today, I don’t think I would chance it.
In the fall and early winter of 2004, I traveled pretty widely outside the capital, usually by road. And Kabul felt, well, reasonably safe. You could walk everywhere, and with knowledge of a little Dari, flag down a taxi or visit a chaikhana. Not today: the foreigners are hunkered down inside their guesthouses.
Outside Kabul, the situation looks even more bleak. You hear regular reports of illegal roadblocks on the highways; attacks on police checkpoints; and constant ambushes. As the Financial Times reported this summer, supplies at some bases became dangerously low because of insurgent attacks on fuel convoys.
It is less important to ask "what happened?" at this point than "what are we going to do now?" That is a fine question, with no good answers. Just in August I was writing about Bartle Breese Bull's proposal that we (essentially) drastically limit our goals in Afghanistan from nation-building and democracy development to keeping Karzai in power and killing terrorists, and that either of these goals requires far less troops in Afghanistan than we are considering stationing there. Rosen's column makes it clear that, at present, we are barely capable of even that. We could no more establish an Afghan democracy or destroy the Taliban than we could fly to Pluto and back. Beyond that, some Afghans-tired of years of war-are beginning to call for a negotiated settlement with the Taliban (talks which yes, are already taking place) a move that legitimatizes the Taliban and would certainly bring them back to power to one extent or another. Seven years of war in Afghanistan, and is it possible that we are faced with the prospect of negotiating with the enemy that we ran out of the country? It seems the only answer to that question is yes.