There is progress in Afghanistan, but the danger is increasing

PAUL WELLS on assignment


On Dec. 5, a sunny Friday morning in Kabul, three SUVs pulled up to a bustling street corner near the north bank of the Kabul River. A dozen people tumbled out onto the sidewalk, including Ron Hoffman, Canada’s ambassador to Afghanistan, his scowling and vigilant bodyguards, and a handful of visitors from home, including me.

We stepped briskly away from the main street along a back lane split down the middle by a shallow V-shaped drainage ditch. Merchants’ stalls lined the lane: a man selling hand-hammered axe blades, another popping formidable quantities of popcorn on an open fire. Our destination, a few dozen metres off the thoroughfare, was the Turquoise Mountain redevelopment site, an ambitious attempt to reclaim one of Kabul’s oldest districts as a haven for traditional arts, crafts and architecture.

Only three years ago the whole area was buried in layers of accumulated trash to a depth of several metres, Sayed Majidi, a handsome German-born Afghan architect, told us. That’s when former British diplomat Rory Stewart wrangled funding from the Aga Khan Foundation and Prince Charles to restore the neighbourhood, known as Murad Khane, to its 18th-century glory. The land was cleared, crumbling buildings rebuilt. Elder craftsmen and a new generation of their students set to work carving intricate woodwork doors and window frames. Ceramic wall fixtures were rebuilt with local clays mixed with a plant fibre called gul-e loch. Students started flocking to Turquoise Mountain from across Afghanistan to relearn the ancient techniques.

Last year the Canadian International Development Agency gave a grant of $3 million to continue Turquoise Mountain’s work as an architectural site, school for the arts, and high-end craft export business. These will seem like lofty concerns in Afghanistan, a war zone and one of the world’s poorest countries. But there is something magical about these elegant buildings tucked away from the clamouring streetscape. No society can get by for long on survival and subsistence alone. Every community needs craft and lore, some living link to the higher aspirations of the mind and heart. “Of course this is good for all of Kabul,” Hedayatullah Ahmadzai, Turquoise Mountain’s head of engineering, told me. “Afghan people don’t know their history. They need to see it. This place is the father and mother of all Kabul. Of all Afghanistan.”

While the engineer spoke, Hoffman, a superbly well-connected diplomat with a lopsided grin and a fly-away shock of greying blond hair, stepped away to take a call on his cellphone. The ambassador listened more than he spoke and ended the call with a quiet, “Well, thanks for letting me know.”

That night, after the next of kin had been properly notified back home, we learned that the call had been to inform Hoffman about the roadside bomb west of Kandahar that killed the 98th, 99th and 100th Canadian soldiers to die in Afghanistan.

The work of life and hope continues in Afghanistan. So does the work of unimaginable savagery. Each task has drawn practitioners of uncommon dedication. Even today, seven years into this mess, it is not clear who is winning. If victory has any decent meaning, we are nowhere close to being able to claim it. And a very dangerous year lies just ahead. Afghans will elect a new government in 2009. The Taliban and other insurgents will try to stop the voting. Drug lords will try to corrupt it. And a massive influx of American troops, perhaps 20,000 by 2010, will mark the arrival of a new American president determined to tip the balance of a stalemated war.

Even soldiers who eagerly await the arrival of U.S. reinforcements worry about what will happen when they arrive. Many—though certainly not all—believe the level of violence will skyrocket in the short term and that the heart of the carnage will be the country’s south, including Kandahar, where most of the soldiers in the Canadian deployment are already stationed. It may be salutary violence; perhaps this war needs to get worse before it gets better. But one U.S. general put it this way.

“If you put three brigades in the heart of the Pashtun south, the insurgents are gonna come from Baluchistan [across the porous border in Pakistan], they’re gonna come from far and wide. And you’re going to see a level of violence that we have not seen in a long time. This is not the Taliban that we all know and love. You know, one little IED [improvised explosive device] takes a wheel off a vehicle, everybody gets bumped up but they’re all okay. You’re going to be seeing world-class IEDs. You’re going to be seeing [rocket-propelled grenade] fire that is incredibly accurate. You’re going to be seeing mortar fire that is incredibly accurate. And my belief is, you’re going to see new weapons introduced into the theatre.”

I took this second trip to Afghanistan, a year after my first, as a guest of the Department of National Defence. My travelling companions were academics and a think-tank fellow from Washington. In just over a week in Kabul and Kandahar, we met with more than 40 high-ranking members of the Canadian, allied and Afghan militaries; representatives of the Afghan government and civil society; and civilian aid and development workers from Canada and an array of NGOs. Most of our discussions were off the record to encourage candour.

A year ago, Afghanistan seemed to be at a crossroads. Western forces, increasingly supported by a homegrown Afghan army, were holding their own against insurgents, who were fighting a low-level guerrilla war of harassment against the Westerners and intimidation against local politicians. Development work was spotty and poorly coordinated. A year later it’s as though the volume knob had been turned up on all of that.

Development work has markedly accelerated and there have been tentative steps toward better coordination. Roads are being paved, schools being built. Canada is distributing $1.2 million worth of wheat seed to 5,000 farmers so they might not have to plant opium poppies. Our government is financing the rebuilding of Sarpoza prison, the site of a spectacular and deadly prison break in June, into perhaps the most secure and humane prison in Afghanistan. The professionalism and imagination of the Canadian public servants I met at the Provincial Reconstruction Team in Kandahar were a tonic for a journalistic refugee from the inanity of the coalition-government brinksmanship in Ottawa.

Canada’s civilian work in the south is led by Elissa Golberg, a loquacious career civil servant whose title—she is the first official “Representative of Canada in Kandahar”—is sewn in short form onto her body armour, as “THE ROCK.” Soldiers are told to treat the Rock with the deference a general officer would get. She frets over her colleagues’ safety, but she spends more time bumping along the dangerous roads around Kandahar than most other civilians.

Golberg has more discretion over her budgets than do many cabinet ministers in Ottawa. While she must account for her spending decisions, she is well clear of the leaden cloud of so-called “accountability” that most of today’s Ottawa interprets to mean, “Don’t do anything and you won’t get into trouble.” In Kandahar the cost of inaction is far too visible for such nonsense. Golberg will talk your ear off about wheat seed. Her enthusiasm is infectious.

One constant guideline for the Canadian civilians in Kandahar is to resist doing by themselves what they can goad or entice the Afghan government to do. This takes discipline. The Canadians have considerable resources, whereas getting and holding the Afghans’ attention can be like trying to push string uphill. There will not always be Canadians in Kandahar, and before they leave they hope to instill some of the habits of a democratic government in Afghanistan’s administration. Too much still rides on the personal attention of the local governor, who can be dedicated or corrupt. Rules and processes need to evolve so Afghans can depend on their government for basic services even if a third-rater is in charge.

And yet this whole conversation about government services is slightly surreal because the roads are booby-trapped and the country is racked with insurgent violence. Every single NGO we met in Kandahar identified “security”—the local euphemism for war—as its primary challenge. Here too, last year’s standoff between allies and insurgents seems to be holding, but at a higher level of carnage.

Abdul Rahim Wardak is Afghanistan’s defence minister, a towering bear of a man who, 25 years ago, was fighting the Soviet occupiers alongside many of the mujaheddeen who became the insurgents he now combats. “Last year, in 2007, we thought we had experienced the bloodiest year ever,” he said in his Kabul office. “But this year, unfortunately, the level of violence is 30 per cent to 40 per cent higher.”

Wardak spent the first few years after the 2001 coalition invasion complaining that his Afghan National Army, which then stood at barely 10,000 undertrained troops with no modern equipment to speak of, could not ensure the country’s security. As late as 2006 he was pleading for Western help to train a 150,000-strong Afghan army. Today he is nearly getting his wish: the ANA is on track to hit 86,000 soldiers by next year and 134,000 by 2011. Soldiers from NATO countries rarely do anything now without their ANA colleagues. In 60 per cent of combined operations this year, Wardak said, the Afghans took the lead. “We have inflicted very heavy damage on the enemy leadership,” he said.

But that is merely inciting the insurgents to more desperate measures, including the endemic use of roadside bombs that just killed six Canadians in eight days. And no matter how many insurgents the Afghan and Western troops kill or capture, more appear. Many come from Pakistan.

“I’ve got a 1,100-km open flank,” said Maj.-Gen. Mart de Kruif, the newly arrived Dutch commander of Regional Command South, which includes Kandahar and the provinces on either side. The turbulent Pakistani elections a year ago, whose low point was the terrorist assassination of Benazir Bhutto, took the Pakistani authorities’ attention away from the border mountains for months. Almost inevitably, violence in Afghanistan’s eastern and southern regions climbed.

In the last six months, NATO authorities in Afghanistan have tried to re-engage their Pakistani counterparts. When U.S. Gen. David McKiernan arrived in June to assume command of all NATO forces in Afghanistan, one of his first meetings was with Pakistan’s chief of defence staff. Now they meet every month, and the two meet with the head of Afghanistan’s army every two months. Hoffman, the Canadian ambassador, has begun regular meetings with Randolph Mank, Canada’s high commissioner in Islamabad. Len Edwards, the deputy minister of foreign affairs, was in Afghanistan when I was there. One item on his agenda was to begin coordinating a broader regional response to the Afghan conflict.

But open lines of communication can only accomplish so much. The Pakistani army’s heavy-handed tactics make it ill-suited to fight a counterinsurgency. And most of the country’s troops are on the eastern border with India, Pakistan’s eternal nemesis. “It’s not rocket science to know that if we can improve the relationship between India and Pakistan it will improve the situation here,” de Kruif said. Unfortunately, the murderous attack on Mumbai by terrorists trained in Pakistan is driving those countries’ relationship in the other direction.

In the meantime, the open border helps ensure that there will always be more bad guys than NATO and the Afghan army can handle. Someone else has to fill the gap. Ideally, somebody local who can spot suspicious behaviour by outsiders who, being Pashtun, are in most ways indistinguishable from the locals. “Police, police, police,” Denis Thompson, the laconic Canadian brigadier-general who commands Joint Task Force Kandahar, said. “That’s my number one worry. If you don’t have the cops you can’t hold the ground. And if you can’t hold the ground you can’t do anything else.”

Traditionally, Afghan police were just an extension of local warlord clans, ill-equipped, unpaid except by bribes, and fabulously corrupt. On top of it all, since the insurgency began in 2002, Afghan National Police (ANP) officers have been the most vulnerable targets for attacks. More than 1,000 ANP officers have been killed this year alone.

NATO was slow to take an interest in the ANP’s training. Some Western authorities still doubt the good faith of President Hamid Karzai’s government in training the police. “You get all the Afghan leadership together, from Karzai on down,” one senior NATO officer said. “Put ’em in Ghazi stadium [Kabul’s main athletic venue] and ask them, ‘Do you want a competent, professional, dedicated police force?’ And give them some sort of truth serum. My guess is that fewer than 30 per cent of them would say yes. Shaking down a corrupt police force is how these guys make their money. People say, ‘Clean up the police.’ It’s a cop-out. We need to clean up the government.”

Despite that atmosphere of malign neglect, Western authorities have finally begun making strides toward training and professionalizing the police. One is salary reform: police are now paid at the same rate soldiers are, so taking bribes is no longer a necessity for simple survival. And they’re now paid by electronic transfer using personalized smart cards—so the pay gets to the individual cop rather than to his boss or the local warlord.

The other big innovation is effective training. Western authorities wasted too many years training Afghan police one by one, teaching an officer new techniques—often beginning with basic literacy—and then sending him back to a corrupt and corrupting precinct station. Last year the westerners introduced Focused District Development, which trains every man in a police station together, while members of an elite national police squadron hold the fort in their absence. “Bring them in to train alone, they fail,” one trainer said. “Bring the group in, even if you need to trim the group because of hot urinalysis and a couple of other problems, the rest of the group succeeds.” Focused District Development is now key to a lot of other decisions about how to allocate resources in a theatre of war that’s way too big for the NATO resources at hand. Military commanders now prefer not to clear an area of Taliban unless the police in that area have gone through FDD, because they’re likeliest to be able to keep the Taliban out later.

In Kandahar, where many members of the ANP have been trained by members of Canadian police forces, Precinct 9 has doubled its rate of IED discovery this year. In Canada we only hear about IEDs when they kill our soldiers. But most victims of insurgent violence are Afghans. NATO soldiers hope the insurgents’ shift from direct military conflict, which they can’t win, to IEDs, which they can’t target, will cost them local support. “The Taliban have lost ground with the local population,” one soldier insists. “They don’t deliver any services. The only service is, ‘You pissed me off so I’m going to hang you from a lamp post.’ ”

But some Western authorities think even a U.S.-reinforced NATO contingent and a swiftly improving Afghan army and police corps won’t be enough to end the standoff with the insurgents. That has some senior NATO officers mulling a dangerous and controversial option: recruiting and arming local tribal militias to help out. There is no formal plan along these lines, but we heard the option discussed at senior levels of the NATO leadership.

We also heard it contested, especially in the south, where tribal affiliations are infernally complex. Arming or paying one faction could have repercussions nobody could predict or control. “On a scale from smart to dumb,” one officer said, holding his hands apart in front of him, “arming the tribes is over here.” He nodded at the “dumb” end of his scale.

If anything, it was harder after this trip to measure the room for optimism in Afghanistan than it was a year ago. The civilian and military resources Canada and its allies are deploying far exceed anything we have put to the task before. Reinforcements are on the way. But the challenge is growing too.

Meanwhile, soldiers keep dying. One of the many who have had to become authorities on that subject is Warrant Officer Colin Clansey. The compact, thoughtful 33-year-old believes he is the first bagpiper deployed to a combat theatre in that role by the Canadian Forces since the Second World War. Since only two soldiers at Kandahar Air Field know how to play the pipes—the other is a truck driver Clansey used to teach—they have been kept busy playing at the ramp ceremonies when transport aircraft fly soldiers’ remains home. Not only to Canada, but to the U.S., Britain, Australia. Clansey has played at 25 ramp ceremonies in his nine months at Kandahar.

Soldiers from every country come, if their operational duties permit, to attend the ramp ceremonies. When the three who died on Dec. 5 went home, 2,000 of their comrades were on hand. Clansey sometimes plays Amazing Grace or songs associated with specific regiments, but this time he played a new song he wrote in November, Task Force Kandahar. “It’s a funeral march, so it’s very sombre at the start,” he said. “But as it progresses, I tried to give it a more positive tone, so it has elements of hope and joy at the end. As if to express the hope that all this isn’t in vain.”

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