The Taliban’s revenge

A new generation of militants is rising in Afghanistan, turning its sights on former allies

The Taliban’s revenge

Bryan Denton/Corbis

There is nothing suggesting violence in the Taliban fighter quietly sipping tea in a corner of the room. In any case, the police headquarters for Afghanistan’s Sarobi district sit next to the safe house we’re in. He knows the building well. Not long ago, he was a member of the security forces, charged with protecting Afghans from the Taliban fighters he now calls his “brothers.”

Jawad speaks animatedly, between cautious sips from his teacup. “When the foreigners first came here, I thought, why not work with them?” says the 28-year-old, a native of Uzbin, northeast of Kabul, the Afghan capital. “I never felt animosity for foreigners,” he adds. That, however, was then.

Jawad joined the Afghan security services a decade ago, as a teenager newly returned from Pakistan’s dilapidated refugee camps, where he’d spent much of his life. It was an exciting time. Finally, his family would reclaim their land. There was the promise of a new future, of prosperity guaranteed by the money the outside world brought with it.

But a decade on, Jawad admits he has abandoned the police force, the government it protects and the foreigners who made it all possible. “Back then, we didn’t know what kind of people these were. When we realized,” he says, “we left them. We decided we should fight them.”

Jawad is not alone in his resentment and distrust of the international community in Afghanistan. These days, Naser, a recruiting officer for the security forces, spends much of his time trying to convince young men like Jawad not to take up the Taliban’s arms. Neither man would allow their real names to be used, for fear of reprisals. “More men are leaving the security services than are joining,” says Naser, who initially recruited Jawad to the police. “And the Taliban is getting stronger.”

Consider this strategic town of Sarobi, just 60 km east of Kabul. It’s the last stop before the steep cliffs of the Hindu Kush mountains which have guarded the Afghan capital for millennia. “Take Sarobi and you can strangle Kabul,” the locals like to say. A decade ago, the Sarobi region was firmly in the control of the central government. NATO supply trucks were a constant sight, rumbling through the town centre, filled with food and other supplies.

But Pakistan shut the supply route to Sarobi in November, after NATO jets and helicopters opened fire on two Pakistani border posts, killing 24 Pakistani soldiers. And the Taliban have reached Sappar, a town just south of Sarobi. In Sappar, there is increasing pressure on the men to “switch sides,” says Naser.

Clearly, many Afghans are taking up the call. And in an increasingly worrisome trend, some members of the security forces are not just switching sides, rather they are turning on NATO, using their access to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to attack members of the NATO-led coalition in once-secure compounds, bases and training facilities. A recent spike in attacks by members of the police and army on foreign forces—the so-called “green-on-blue” attacks—is shaking what little trust exists between Afghans and their international counterparts. Already this year, 11 green-on-blue attacks have claimed the lives of 19 ISAF members. Indeed, these attacks now rank as the second-most common cause of ISAF fatalities in Afghanistan. Five years ago, these attacks did not exist.

What has changed? Why are the security forces, as well as men like Jawad, choosing to turn their sights on their former allies? These questions loom large with just two years remaining before the military drawdown, as more of the country is being turned over to Afghan control every day. The answers, it seems, are complex.

“From what I’ve seen,” says Naser, “there are three basic reasons these men are switching sides.” First, he says, most defectors are from the villages, where government control is weak. “The Taliban are coming to these villages and telling their families that if they don’t stop supporting the government, they will be killed.” Second, he says, even after years of supporting the government, “they have not seen the benefits.” Their villages, he says, “are as underdeveloped as ever—despite all the money they see coming into the country, which seems to disappear.” Lastly, he says, they want power. Because they’ve had police or army training, they are given a high rank in the Taliban when they switch sides. “That means more money and power.”

The men Naser originally recruited for the security forces were mostly refugees, like Jawad. “They joined the police because they hoped to make their lives better.” But most have failed to see their lot improved. Rampant corruption in the aid industry and a confused, often destructive, military strategy has left them bitter and angry.

Jawad’s story is telling: after joining the government security services in 2002, he was assigned to guard the Kandahar compound of Blue Hackle, a security contractor headquartered in Washington. “It was strange for us,” he says. “The foreigners lived in the compound and never talked to us. They came and went but we never saw any good they did. After three years working for them, I could never understand why they were in my country.”

Among Afghans, that theme is finding fertile ground. According to Susanne Schmeidl, co-founder of the Liaison Office—an NGO that helps the international community navigate the country’s complex socio-political order—foreigners have failed Afghanistan. “What we have done to this country—it’s really sad,” she says. “All of the money pouring in, for a lot of people, Afghanistan has become a livelihood. A lot of organizations no longer have a development or humanitarian model in Afghanistan—just a business model.” Ordinary Afghans understand this, she adds, “they know the system isn’t about rebuilding Afghanistan, but about getting rich.”

A growing number of foreign aid workers and diplomats agree with Schmeidl’s analysis. “It’s a difficult balance,” says one diplomat, who requested anonymity. “On the one hand, you need to attract the best minds to a monumental nation-building process like Afghanistan. On the other hand, by offering so much money, you also invite war profiteering.” Recently, his embassy paid an adviser $20,000 per month to write a two-page preliminary assessment for a project they were considering. This person was flown in, did a terrible job by all accounts, and flew out, weeks later, $40,000 richer.

But $40,000 is a drop in the bucket in Afghanistan, where monthly salaries ranging from $10,000 to $20,000 for multi-year contracts are common. Already, Afghanistan, Canada’s biggest recipient of bilateral development aid, has received more than $36 billion in international aid, with little to show for the huge influx of spending. “I often wonder,” says Schmeidl, “if you draw down the aid here, how poverty would rise in the U.S. If you look at the contractors here, you see a lot of people who would not otherwise be employed.”

“The good people don’t want to come here,” she explains. So the country is filled with young people who come because “in a short time you can be somebody.” And “you can rub shoulders with embassy types and party in ways you could never party” elsewhere. In Kabul, aid workers live the high life, sequestered in heavily guarded compounds, chauffeured around the city by personal drivers, fed by cooks and cleaners. “There’s this status they feel that they can’t feel in other parts of the developing world,” Schmeidl adds, “of being rich, and maybe a little famous because they get drunk with diplomats and ambassadors.” By the end, most don’t know an Afghan “unless he’s their cleaner or their driver.”

Jawad says he’s grown tired of working for people who live in palatial homes, who throw around the equivalent of his monthly salary in a day, while he struggles to survive. “All this money the foreigners have, if they spent even half of it on Afghanistan, things would be very different,” he says. “With the Taliban, I’m paid better, and my family is safe.”

This is the problem often overlooked in the analyses of Afghanistan’s so-called green-on-blue attacks. Analysts and experts point to events they feel incite retributive outbursts—incidents of Koran burnings, the desecration of the dead—but ignore the disgust and anger over waste and corruption.

After all, aid money is the resource that drives everything, says one embassy official. Locals use it to gain influence over their local constituencies. The Taliban tap into it through the bribes they’re paid by foreign contractors and then use it to extend their influence into the villages. And some international aid workers are making their fortunes from it, which is a kind of power unto itself.

In the end, working for a foreign aid agency is one of the few ways to make it in Afghanistan. For those Afghans with the right skills—often simply speaking English or French—NGO work can pay huge dividends. But that leaves the rural poor from places like Uzbin and Sappar out in the margins. The problem is twofold, according to Schmeidl: the money pouring into Afghanistan is promoting corruption, among both Afghans and internationals, while at the same time stunting the growth of domestic industry. There’s no real industry or private sector. “So if you’re an Afghan,” she says, “where can you get jobs?” The only real opportunity lies with the Taliban. The Taliban allows young men to profit from road taxes and protection money, says Naser, and to grow and sell opium—“all this,” he adds, “in addition to what the Taliban pays.”

As the international exodus from Afghanistan intensifies, jockeying for a last piece of a dwindling pie is intensifying along with it. And Naser expects to lose many more policemen to the Taliban in the process. “These guys are not stupid,” he says. “They know what’s going to happen here. They know the foreigners will leave and the money will leave with them. The Taliban are offering them safety at home in their villages and a steady income. Why would they say no?”

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