Spectre of civil war haunts Afghans


There are fears that the Afghan army will not be able to stand alone against its enemies, writes JOHN D McHUGHin Kabul

THE WAR in Afghanistan is complicated, and the more time I spend there, the more I am convinced of one truth: anyone who thinks himself an Afghan expert is a fool. I am no expert, but I have spent a lot of time in the middle of the war, a war that has progressively lost its way, and a war that many would have us believe is in its final phase.

US president Barack Obama wants to convince American voters that the war is almost over. In May, he said that by the end of 2014 “the war as we understand it” will be over. A deliberately obtuse political statement if ever there was one. He was widely quoted as saying the “war will be over” and the phrase “as we understand it” was dropped by many reporters. But this is the crucial point.

“The war as we understand it” is a disaster. The Taliban, far from being beaten, are conducting an effective insurgency, fighting from the shadows and inflicting a “death of a thousand cuts” on the coalition. The Americans in particular find this infuriating, and are quick to call the Taliban cowards. They repeatedly point out that the enemy is unable to defeat them on the battlefield.

But this is why the Taliban use these tactics. In this battle between David and Goliath, the aim is not to defeat the Americans on the battlefield but to defeat them at home. By convincing the American people that the war is unwinnable, the Taliban win. They have made the war too costly: financially, morally, politically. And this is why the Americans are leaving in 2014.

Amrullah Saleh, former head of the Afghan intelligence service and now a political activist, assesses the situation succinctly: “The mission is not accomplished. The mission is not done, the enemy is not dead. You can call your exit anything, you can give it any title, for as long as the mission is not done it will mean retreat.”

So if “the war as we understand it” will be over, what comes next? Well, over the course of 2013, US troops will begin a phased withdrawal, closing some bases and outposts, and handing control of others to the Afghan National Army (ANA). But even the Afghans themselves don’t believe this will work.

Lieut Jan Aqa joined the ANA as soon as it was created, or recreated, in 2002, and has been fighting and killing the Taliban for the past 10 years. Originally a foot soldier, he graduated as an officer in 2010, and was posted to a base on the edge of Kabul. He believes the ANA will not be able to stand alone against Afghanistan’s enemies, and without international help the country’s future will be ruined. “Without artillery or an airforce, our infantry can’t succeed. Everywhere the terrain benefits the enemy.”

Aqa is sitting in a sun-soaked garden, with the sound of water trickling from a fountain and songbirds filling the air with their beautiful voices, which makes his warning all the more chilling. “I’m not afraid to say it: Iran and Pakistan will interfere and Afghanistan will turn into an al-Qaeda camp. It will be worse than during the Taliban era.”

The accusation of interference in Afghanistan’s affairs by outsiders is nothing new. But as 2014 draws closer, Hajji Agha Lalai says interference must be resolved. Lalai is a tribal elder and member of the Kandahar provincial council. He says most Afghans, including himself, believe that if the US wants to, it can force Pakistan to join the peace talks and stop supporting the Taliban. But, he says, “to this day, America has not taken a tough stance towards Pakistan”.

Amrullah Saleh is even more forthright. “The big solution,” he says, is “either you heavily, heavily invest in Afghanistan, increase the cost of security, or, strategically, you treat Pakistan as a hostile state, and ask them to stop. The option two is more doable because Pakistan has never been confronted in a serious way by the West.”

He compares the West’s treatment of Pakistan to that of a spoiled child, misbehaving without punishment. But, he says, “if they treat Pakistan as a serious misbehaving, deceptive, ill-intent adult, things will change”.

Pakistan is just another name on a long list of countries that have tried to meddle in Afghanistan.

On top of Bibi Maru hill in Kabul stands an empty Olympic swimming pool. It is a monument to the folly of invaders trying to impose their will on the Afghans. It was built by the Soviets during their occupation in the 1980s, but was never filled with water. After the Soviets left, and Afghanistan sank into a brutal civil war, the hill was heavily mined, and the combination of high diving board and concrete pool below was reputedly used for grisly executions.

Today the pool is fenced off, and the mines are gone. A garden has been laid out, with roses, a lawn and intricate paving. It is a popular spot for walkers and joggers. And skateboarders.

Skateboarding was imported by backpacking Australian Oliver Percovich. He arrived in 2007, following an ex-girlfriend who was posted to Kabul. “I started to skateboard with kids in the street, and basically it was very fast to get kids involved,” says Percovich.

“They weren’t interested in watching me skateboard, they wanted to skateboard themselves, and I thought that was so cool.”

So he set up Skateistan, an NGO focused on youth development, using skateboarding as a hook to bring young people into an education programme. “The reason that we do what we’re doing is to build trust,” he says.

This means reaching out to the kids of Kabul, regardless of social class, ethnicity or gender. More than half of Skateistan’s pupils are marginalised street kids, and almost 40 per cent are girls.

“The biggest problem is that there is very little communication between different ethnicities,” says Percovich, “and everybody is trying to solve problems by throwing financial capital at something that actually requires basic trust.”

Madina Saidi is a young Afghan skateboarder, and an instructor at Skateistan. When she skateboards through Kabul without a burka, and without a male member of her family accompanying her, some people say “bad words” to her, she says, but she doesn’t care.

With her sharp wit, good humour, and cheeky smile, she is the epitome of what the Americans claim to be delivering to Afghans: women’s rights, human rights, freedom of speech, freedom of association, and access to education. She is brave and confident, but she too fears for the future. “If the Taliban come,” she says, “I will leave my country.”

A return of the Pakistan-backed Taliban is not the only fear in Afghanistan. With another superpower getting ready to abandon the country, there is a real possibility that Afghanistan will be plunged into civil war, with the collapse of a government that has already lost legitimacy in the eyes of many ordinary Afghans.

Old warlords are waiting in the wings, and new ones are emerging, as is evidenced in the “Andar uprising” in Ghazni, lauded by the Americans as similar to the Sunni awakening in Iraq, when clearly it is nascent warlordism. The Taliban are strong and confident, with 11 years experience of hard fighting. The Haqqani Network and Hezb-e-Islami hold power in large swathes of land also. As one former Taliban told me: “The dark clouds of civil war hang over Afghanistan.”

Series concluded

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