Temperature is rising in Kabul

With the arrival of spring, the war in Afghanistan returned in full force. All parties involved are struggling to be ready for the announced withdrawal of the international military presence, and for potential negotiations between rebels, government and international community. An eyewitness report from Jalalabad, Kabul and surrounding areas.

Jalalabad, capital of the Eastern province Nangarhar, has the raw energy of a border town. When traveling from Kabul, the trip takes roughly the same time as going to Peshawar at the other side of the Khyber Pass. But due to troop movements, NATO supply convoys and ordinary traffic accidents things can take a turn for the worse. ‘People here in Jalalabad are more enterprising than anywhere else in Afghanistan’, says Mohammad Qasim Yousufi, director of the local Chamber of Commerce and Industry, not without a hint of pride. ‘Jalalabad is safer than other provinces as well’, he adds. But everything is relative, especially in Afghanistan.

Conversations at the border

While I am talking with Yousufi and the big boss of the Alokozai Tea Company, shots are fired at a truck with fuel supplies for NATO, just outside Jalalabad. Two days ago a bomb exploded in a van that transported police recruits to their barracks. Three died. The day before that a NATO transport was attacked by a suicide bomber, and a month ago a suicide attack killed eighteen people in Kabul Bank, where police officers were collecting their paychecks. And two days after the reassuring promo talk with the entrepreneurs, a roadside bomb blew the car of one of the tribal leaders right off the road. Nobody was killed, but four passengers had to be hospitalized. Moments ago Malik Usman Shinwari, also a tribal leader, had invited me to drive with him to his district in the mountains. He guaranteed my safety, but his promise did not sound convincing. Especially when he told me about threatening calls and the recent attack killing his brother and his son. The Taliban were behind this, angered by the decision of the Shinwari tribal council to deny the rebels access to their territory.

‘People ask me why I don’t join the Taliban’, maulana Abdulaziz Cherchwa says, one of Jalalabad’s most respected religious leaders. A straightforward question, given the apologetics of the maulana (Islamic scholar) towards warriors on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border. Cherchwa emphasizes the Taliban’s religious inspiration – ‘Islam is a political religion’ – and attributes all violence – bombings, car bombs and suicide attacks – to the NATO troops ‘occupying the fatherland’. He interrupts his speech to answer his cell phone. It’s a call from a village suffering regular raids. The caller complains that soldiers took his money and jewelry. ‘What do you want us to do?’ the maulana asks rhetorically when he puts away his cell phone. ‘Reject the Taliban? Condemn suicide attacks?’

According to the maulana, suicide attacks are a display of courage. ‘Without the belief in Islam, I would not even be able to cut the little finger off my hand. Thanks to Islam, I am prepared to give my life.’ So why is he a respected maulana awho even ran for parliamentary elections, instead of a Taliban warrior? ‘It’s not necessary for me to join the rebels, because all Afghans are Muslims who pray for a true Islamic government. And when Pakistan becomes Islamic, all borders and border disputes will disappear, which will put a stop to the conflict.’ Life can be pretty simple when looked at from the pulpit.

Throughout this journey I am constantly asking the same questions. Has life improved the last ten years? Is the prospect of negotiations with the Taliban reason for hope? Do you want the NATO troops to stay or leave, and when? On a Friday afternoon I set out to ask these questions to the average Javed in the villages surrounding Jalalabad. A group of men working in a factory that makes concrete garden ornaments are enjoying a day off. It’s too expensive and time-consuming to visit their families in the mountains more than once a month. Tasbihullah thinks the country is doing well. There’s freedom, work and hospitals. Things one could only dream of when the Taliban ruled the country. If only the Karzai government could make a deal with the new Taliban generation, then trade would increase and wages and work would soon follow.

A couple of miles up the road, I meet a group of men and boys under a canopy of grass and leaves. They pass the slow hours after Friday prayer by drinking tea and chatting. Mohammad Shafi is speaking. He remembers the Taliban years as a time when you could leave your money on the streets, because nobody took something that didn’t belong to him. Since the arrival of the foreign troops, the life of the poor has worsened, he says. The other farmers nod. ‘We’re running out of patience’, Shafi concludes. ‘NATO must leave. Now.’

Tasbihullah’s and Shafi’s conflicting views and Usman’s and the maulana’s different perspectives are symptomatic for every search for a common “Afghan” opinion on the war, the negotiations and the foreign military presence. There’s not even consensus on the actual number of Afghans – estimates range from 26 to 34 million – let alone on what they think of things that are so polarized that they lead to armed conflicts.

Talking with the enemy

In Kabul I was confronted with the same diversity of sentiments among opinion leaders and decision makers. A dozen interviews with researchers, development workers, journalists, international representatives and other all-round experts clearly show the rising nervousness in the Afghan capital. President Obama promised that the US would reduce the number of combat troops in Afghanistan. In April, nobody expected this to be more than a symbolic change without real impact. In South and East Afghanistan the ISAF (International Security Assistance force, a coalition of 48 countries led by the NATO aiming to guarantee the stability of Afghanistan under the current constitution and government) claims that they made ‘significant but fragile and reversible progress’ in the fight against the Taliban since the increase in American forces. That was not going to be given up soon, was the reasoning. After the execution of Osama bin Laden early May, President Obama gambled that that war could not be focused more on the remaining treath of Al Qaeda, and so he did decide to reduce US military presence significantly with 30.000 troops by the summer of 2012 -wich will bring Amerincan troop numbers to “only” double the amount that were in Afghanistan at the beginning of Obama’s term.

For the West, ‘Taliban’ equals the enemy. In reality, things are far more complex. First Deputy Minister of Defence Enayatullah Nazari stated in a parliamentary committee that there were 1820 insurgent groups operating in Afghanistan alone, most of them with connections to larger networks. Facing them are 150.000 foreign soldiers, ten thousands of private security guards, an Afghan army consisting of nearly 160.000 soldiers and an Afghan police force of 120.000 officers. The US reinforcements last year were mostly deployed in the countryside – the US army alone has over two hundred military posts in Afghanistan, beside major NATO bases. This limited the Taliban’s room for manoeuvre even in the Pashtun heartland. But there’s no such thing as real control, not even in the cities. Examples are manifold. Only a few months ago, nearly five hundred prisoners escaped from Kandahar prison.

On January the 28th 2010 at the Afghanistan Conference in London, it was agreed that the international community would give diplomatic and financial support to President Karzai’s efforts to reach a peace agreement with the rebels. The strategy was twofold: the American surge would take the military initiative out of the hands of the Taliban, and it would split up the insurgency. The West would never talk with the old guard of the ideological Taliban. But with money and jobs they hoped to convince the lower echelons of the insurgents to defect, men driven by economic exasperation or personal vendettas. This strategy has not really proven successful.

Meanwhile, the West feverishly works on negotiations with the higher-ups of the insurgency: the Quetta Shura – Taliban leaders in or around the Pakistan city of Quetta, led by the ‘Commander of the Faithful’ Mullah Omar, the Haqqani network (a remnant of the war against the Soviets, rumored to have close bonds with Pakistan’s military intelligence) and the Hezbi Islami, led by Gulbuddin Hekhmatyar, whom the Pakistanis and Saudis saw as the preferred Afghan soldier during the eighties and early nineties.

New initiatives, old problems

For the West, negotiating with the insurgents, all of whom are on the international list of terrorists, is formally out of the question. And in the eyes of the insurgents, the Afghan government lacks the credibility. That is why president Karzai organized a Peace Jirga, an assembly of tribe elders, in 2010. He also set up a High Peace Council, which consisted of three major parties: former higher-ups of the Taliban in Kabul, former mujahedeen or warlords, and representatives of civil society. Heading the council is Burhannudin Rabbani, the Tajik leader of the Jamiat-e Islami and president of Afghanistan during the civil war against the mujahedeen (1992-1996). His vice-chairman, Ata Muhammad Ludhin, admits in an interview that the job of the Peace Council won’t be easy.

Hekhmatyar gave the Peace Council his fifteen points list with propositions and conditions. The Taliban provided four basic conditions for negotiations, which send any hope for future dialogue, let alone peace agreements, to rock bottom: foreign forces have to leave Afghanistan, the leaders of the insurgency have to be erased from the international blacklists, the imprisoned Taliban have to be set free and a safe address for negotiations must be established. ISAF on the other hand, will only talk with the insurgents if they put down their arms. This seems hopeless, but a dialogue between warring parties always is, especially before it even started.

American think tanks regularly produce new ideas and perspectives, which are closely followed in Kabul. In particular Negotiating Peace, the recent report by the Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi, who led the 2001 Bonn Conference on post-Taliban Afghanistan, and the American diplomat Thomas Pickering. There was also plenty of speculation about the preliminary discussions that would allow the Taliban to open an office in Turkey, where the negotiations would take place, if they take place at all. A starting point for the Peace Council, Ata Muhammad Ludhin says, is the fact that final decisions about the future of Afghanistan, the future government end the constitution should be made by the Afghan people. In other words, elections and democracy are non-negotiable for the Peace Council.

A lot of interlocutors are skeptical, to say the least: ‘The Peace Council is part of the problem rather than a step towards resolving the conflict’, says Mir Ahmad Joyenda, deputy director of the independent think tank Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit .

‘It’s again about the same people, the people who call the shots in Afghanistan since the 2001 Bonn Conference, so what news can they bring?’ In Jalalabad, senator Mohammad Isa Khan Shinwari takes it even further: ‘We don’t need a Peace Council or Peace Jirga, but a Pashtun Jirga. This whole conflict ultimately revolves around the Pashtun (an ethnic group representing half of the Afghan people) participating in central power, and it’s a fight among Pashtun. The Pashtun can articulate their problems freely among each other anyhow, and since we are all related, we will reach an agreement eventually.’


The role of neighboring Pakistan complicates the realization of peace talks even further. Islamabad supports the Taliban since the mid-nineties through their military intelligence ISI, and it’s obvious that this support continued after 2001. Documents made public by Wikileaks revealed that interrogators at Guantánamo deemed a link between a prisoner and ISI as dangerous as a link with Al Qaeda. The ten year long war has reached the endgame, and Pakistan wants a center spot, between Afghanistan and the US. On the 16th of April, a powerful Pakistani delegation paid an official visit to Kabul. Prime Minister Gilani, General Kayani, Chief of the Army, and General Pasha, head of the ISI, ensured President Karzai of their good intentions and support.

According to Karzai’s assistants, who took their story to the Wall Street Journal, Pakistani rulers would also have insisted on a new triangular relationship between Afghanistan, Pakistan and China, in order to reduce their dependency on an unreliable America. Pakistan denies everything, and the US act like they don’t believe the story, but the American high commander in the region, General Petraeus, paid three visits to Karzai’s office immediately after the summit. ‘If the Taliban want to be treated as an Afghan movement, they should talk with Kabul on their own responsibility. We’re not talking about a war between Pakistan and Afghanistan, but about a war between the Afghan government and Afghan insurgents’, says respected journalist and author Abdul Mueed Hashemi. But he nuances his statement: ‘The Taliban are of course first and foremost fighting the ISAF, the presence of the West on Afghan soil.

Ten years after

Everyone I meet, wants peace. An end to the violence. The departure of foreign troops. Though there are quite a lot of people who want the troops to stay until the government is strong enough to defend the country against neighboring countries with sinister intentions and to guarantee the achievements of past years. Others believe that the presence of the West in Afghanistan is the source of internal conflict and the reason for the constant interference by neighbors like Pakistan, Iran, Russia, China, India and the Central Asian republics. They believe that Hamid Karzai uses the West’s long-term support to strengthen his authoritarian government, against the democratic principles the West actually carries out.

President Karzai distrusts political parties, but the advisory bodies he appointed himself are becoming more and more essential to the Afghan political structure. He kneads Afghanistan’s cultural traditions until they support his own right to power. In March, Karzai confirmed that the US insist on maintaining their permanent bases, even after the ‘complete withdrawal’ of American troops scheduled for 2014. In order to make a decision, the president will assemble a loya Jirga, or a national ‘grand council’, of tribal leaders. He prefers to avoid real political debate.

One of the ‘achievements’ that receive a lot of international attention, are the political rights for women as stated in the post-Taliban constitution. In Afghanistan, even conservative religious leaders affirm that girls should receive education and that the voice of women should be heard in public debates. Afghani, a woman with a big black chador from the province of Ghazni, does not trust the Taliban. ‘I can accept armed men, regardless of their nationality’, she says grimly, ‘but not the Taliban’. She lost her mother and sister-in-law to Taliban violence and could not send her daughters to school because of Taliban threats.

The other women I meet in the waiting room of a health project of the Belgian NGO Mothers for Peace in Kabul, refuse to go back to the repression they remember from the late nineties. They want to move forward, they want a better life for their daughters. Most women in the Dast-e Barchi neighborhood came from Ghazni and migrated to Kabul to escape from the violence of the insurgency and the conflict with the nomadic Kuchi. Rahimi: ‘I’m glad to be in Kabul. We’re free here and I can send my daughter to a good private school.’ Fatima, the fourteen-year-old daughter of Rahimi, shares the ambitions of her mother. She wants to become a doctor when she grows up.

The new opportunities for women are not only the result of principles enshrined in a constitution that is rarely applied, but are equally the result of cracks in the traditional and patriarchal culture due to thirty years of war. Still, the continual violence also resulted in ideological radicalization, which caused more negative effects for women than the war itself, says Sippi Azarbaijani-Moghadam, a British-Iranian development expert who works in Afghanistan since 1995. According to her, the presence of Western forces has little long-term impact on women: ‘Military logic asserts a time perspective which is incompatible with real development. The programs Europe supported were mostly intended to convince the people of the West’s good intentions, more than to make real changes in the everyday life of men and women. Women still suffer under the dictatorship of their reputation, which is constantly under fire from a community that fears women who can act on their own.’

A high ranking representative from the Western donorcommunity, who prefers not to be named because Western capitals don’t want to hear fundamental criticism on their efforts, is very much aware that it is a bit far fetched to think of human rights and democracy in Afghanistan as “achievements”.  ‘The tensions between the Afghan society and the West arise from cultural choices and values’, he says in his office. Through the windows you can see the center of Kabul, but the chances of a Kabul inhabitant getting past the many layers of security and control to the European side, is very small. Ramakers: ‘The European Union increasingly stresses its values in its international cooperation. A poor country like Afghanistan cannot refuse help, but the Afghans will express their dissatisfaction with the values they experience as alien to their culture. And often do so in a way that we do not understand or want to acknowledge.’

Gie Goris visited Afghanistan ito write Opstandland, a book  that will be published in September, with the support of the Pascal Decroos Grant for exceptional journalism. Photographer Brecht Goris is working on an exhibition with the support of deBuren, the Beursschouwburg and Warande (Turnhout).



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