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ASPIRATION AND AMBIVALENCE
STRATEGIES and REALITIES of COUNTERINSURGENCY and STATE BUILDING in AFGHANISTAN
By Vanda Felbab-Brown
BROOKINGS INSTITUTION PRESS
Copyright © 2013 THE BROOKINGS INSTITUTION
All right reserved.
Chapter One Bullets over Kabul's Broadway
On the bright and breezy Sunday morning of April 15, 2012, my colleagues and I left NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) headquarters in Kabul to meet with Afghan journalists, government officials, and civil society leaders to discuss the security and political situation in Afghanistan and the transition to a much reduced international presence after 2014. For once, I was participating in an official, NATO-sponsored trip of five researchers, whom NATO called "opinion leaders," from the United States, Europe, and Australia.
After several days under NATO auspices, I would stay on in Afghanistan and travel around the country on my own, as I did on previous trips—continuing my research, unencumbered by formal security restrictions and free to interact with many different Afghan interlocutors. This book, in its policy analysis and personal reflections, is based to a large extent on that fieldwork in Afghanistan and recounts some of my experiences that are emblematic of the political and social contentions, violent struggles, and mafia rule with which Afghanistan is grappling on the cusp of the new post-2014 situation, when most Western soldiers will have departed. Many Afghans fear this impending change, even as they are tired of Western presence in their land.
My analysis is well introduced by what transpired on that day, April 15, as we met or were affected by the behavior of many of the types of actors that have Afghanistan's future in their hands. The experience would turn out to be a micro example of what life in Afghanistan after a decade of Western intervention has become: a combination of social progress, an uncertain and worrisome economic outlook, politics and intrigue, violence by insurgents and terrorists, and fighting back by Afghan security forces.
One of the brightest developments in Afghanistan since 2002 has been the growth of vibrant media in Afghanistan, which increasingly have been able to expose government corruption, abuses by power brokers, and the brutality of the Taliban; challenge oppressive but deeply ingrained social mores; and seek greater accountability for the Afghan people. Yet the morning meeting with Afghan journalists, even though carefully supervised by Afghan government officials, revealed not only the life-threatening pressures that Afghan journalists face from Afghanistan's armed groups and power brokers but also the increasing effort by the Afghan government to undermine and muzzle independent media and other critics of its rule. Moreover, since many independent media outlets in Afghanistan are still fundamentally dependent on Western financial support for their economic survival, the likely decrease in Western funding after 2014 could severely hamper their ability to challenge those who hold formal and informal power and to demand truth for the Afghan public.
Later in the morning, our research group's planned meeting with the secretary-general of the High Peace Council, an institution established to support the Afghan government's negotiations with the Taliban and other insurgents, was canceled. A delegation from one such insurgent group, Gulbudin Hekmatyar's Hezb-i-Islami, had arrived for meetings with the secretary-general. Negotiations with Hekmatyar have been on and off over the years as part of an effort to bring a negotiated solution to the intense insurgency that, by the end of the post–9-11 decade, had swept across Afghanistan and which the Afghan government and ISAF had struggled to suppress during that same period. But as with the Taliban, the negotiations had failed to achieve much traction, despite the fact that many politicians and power brokers associated with Hezb-i-Islami have positions of official and unofficial power in Afghanistan. Unlike some of its key allies in Afghanistan, such as the United Kingdom, the United States had long been reluctant to embrace negotiations with the Taliban, believing that it first had to significantly weaken the insurgents militarily before negotiations could produce any lasting positive results. Yet by the middle of 2012, military progress on the battlefield turned out to be far more elusive than Washington and ISAF had hoped. Negotiations did start in 2010, but as of fall 2012, they were stalled with little achieved.
Still, the morning was cheerful; and after a snack of roadside kebab, our group headed to the Ministry of Mines to meet with the deputy minister, Mir Ahmad Javid, an impressive young man determined to steer the ministry toward good governance and sustainable development. Under the leadership of Minister Wahidullah Shahrani and Mir Ahmad Javid, the Ministry of Mines was working hard to transform itself from a notoriously corrupt government institution—the pervasive characteristic of governance in post-2002 Afghanistan—to one that could support the emergence of a robust, legal economy in the country. One of the poorest, most underdeveloped countries in the world and ravaged by three decades of war, Afghanistan would benefit enormously from being able to extract the large mineral riches—worth as much as $1 trillion—that lie beneath its soil. And indeed, Western budgeting for economic assistance to Afghanistan after 2014 has been banking on Afghanistan's ability to generate substantial economic revenues from the mining sector, which, under optimistic scenarios, the government of Afghanistan estimates will grow from a meager $100 million in 2009 to as much as $1.5 billion in 2016 and $2.3 billion in 2025.
An effective, corruption-free investment of the potential financial profits, focused on community and human-capital development, could be the economic engine of the country, reducing its grinding poverty. But for that to happen, Afghanistan would have to develop its nonexistent infrastructure, establish the rule of law, tame the corruption that makes it the third most corrupt country in the world after Somalia and North Korea, and significantly reduce the insecurity and violence that have wracked the country and its people since the late 1970s. Otherwise, the mineral riches, just like the influx of foreign aid and other money into Afghanistan, could stimulate violent conflict instead of equitable economic growth, mimicking the detrimental outcomes of such mineral riches in countries like the Congo, Sierra Leone, and Liberia.
That morning when we were at the ministry, its officials and Western advisers were drafting new mining laws, seeking to reinforce anticorruption provisions and incorporate a development component into tender rules, all while trying to balance these considerations with incentives for foreign companies to invest in their highly insecure country, such as establishing some guarantees that a company that conducts exploration would get to exploit what it found. A few weeks later, a group of other senior Afghan cabinet officials objected to the new legislation, arguing that the proposed law yielded too much of the profits and influence to foreign companies, thus placing the legislation and five open tenders in limbo. That decision caught off guard Western governments, who were eager for Afghanistan's mining to expand rapidly and thereby avert a massive economic crisis in the country after 2014.
As we were leaving the Ministry of Mines building, we were stopped by guards who informed us that militant attacks were under way in the area, Wazir Akbar Khan, the select, "Broadway" center of Kabul, where ISAF headquarters, foreign embassies, and Afghan government buildings are located and where security is the tightest. This launch of the Taliban and Haqqani network (an affiliate insurgency) yearly spring offensive would strand us at the ministry for the next eight hours. Although we were only about 400 meters away from ISAF headquarters, the streets were deemed too insecure to cross; and, anyway, both ISAF headquarters and much of Wazir Akbar Khan went into immediate lockdown. No foreigners and few Afghan civilians remained on the streets. In fact, no locals should have been moving around during a militant strike either; but after several years of periodic insurgent attacks, many Afghans are no longer all that fazed by such terrorist incidents. Thus, although rocket-propelled grenade explosions and shootings were occurring throughout the quarter—with the Afghan parliament and the Kabul Star Hotel under the most serious attack and various nearby embassies receiving fire—at least some Afghans continued digging ditches (which somewhat eerily resembled graves), selling their wares, and going about their lives, however fraught with peril, insecurity, poverty, and injustice.
Six hours later, despite the firefights still going on in the city, most of the ministry employees left to be with their families. But since NATO headquarters were still under lockdown, our international group had to stay in the ministry, confined to a room where we could watch Al Jazeera's television coverage of the attacks continuing around us in Kabul. Eventually, however, the ministry guards moved our group out of that room, significantly reducing our access to information (by then most of our smartphone batteries had run down) and increasing our frustration. Eight hours after the beginning of the attacks, even our charade game of Taliban impersonations or sharing of spy stories could no longer relieve our confinement-induced boredom.
After yet another hour, we were running out of not only entertainment and patience but also water. Dinner too began to seem like a really good idea, with lunch a faint memory. Not being battle- and hardship-toughened ISAF or Afghan soldiers or guerrilla fighters, we attempted to persuade the ministry guards to allow our two Afghan drivers to leave the compound, go to a kebab place, and come back with food and water. That request, however, ended our stay at the Ministry of Mines since it brought us to the attention of the Afghan National Army (ANA) unit commander just outside of the ministry's gate. For the first time in nine hours, the ANA commander became aware of the fact that several VIP farangis (outsiders, an expression used for Westerners) were holed up in the ministry. That discovery extremely displeased the commander. He strongly berated the forlorn ministry guards, who had been as undisturbed by the attacks as the Afghan civilians on the streets, for not informing him of our presence. Then he ordered us out of the compound, not wanting responsibility for protecting six foreigners.
That set off a round of back-and-forth calls with ISAF headquarters. Our NATO handlers continued to be under lockdown and still considered the streets too risky for movement, especially with unexploded ordnance lying around. Perhaps the greatest security danger came from accidently provoking friendly fire from Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) patrolling the streets while major buildings continued to be under attack and rumors of more suicide bombers in the city persisted.
Clearly determined that no foreigners would be his headache, the ANA commander wanted us off his hands irrespective of NATO's instructions and insisted that we vacate the building immediately. Over the course of the previous several hours, I had repeatedly suggested that we move to Serena Hotel, one of the luxury hotels in Kabul frequented by foreigners and also only 400 meters from the Ministry of Mines—in the opposite direction of ISAF headquarters. Although the Serena had been a popular target for the Taliban in the past (in 2008 the Taliban attacked the hotel and killed six people and injured another six), ISAF security now had no choice but to agree to our being moved there. Promptly we jumped into our two cars and made a mad dash for the hotel a short distance away down the now dark and deserted streets, narrowly avoiding a crash with another vehicle that was also barreling along at high speed. Near the front gates of Serena Hotel, the Afghan National Police (ANP) officers became extremely agitated and pointed their machine guns at us—understandably, since our two cars had arrived right in the middle of a siege and could have been driven by suicide bombers. Rolling down the car windows, we shouted that we were Westerners and the police should not shoot. After a few tense moments, all was resolved and we got safely into the hotel.
In a somewhat surreal scene, given that firefights were raging all around, we spent about half an hour negotiating with the Afghan receptionist over whether we could get NATO's discount rate for the Serena's pricey rooms. The young man, at least overtly oblivious to the mayhem outside, remained perfectly composed yet intransigent over the price. This behavior epitomized the Afghans' tough bargaining about the terms of the Westerners' presence in their country until and after 2014, such as during the protracted negotiations with the United States over the U.S.-Afghanistan long-term Strategic Partnership Agreement, even as their country continues to be deeply troubled by insecurity and dependent on the Western security and economic assistance.
After a rather opulent dinner—considering the circumstances of the firefight and Afghanistan's persisting poverty—we checked into our rooms. As luck would have it, I wound up alone in a junior suite in a distant wing of the hotel, far from the rest of my colleagues. While a more luxurious accommodation, it also happened to be on the side of the hotel closest to major explosions, machine-gun fire, armored truck movements, and chopper flyways—all just outside my windows. Renewed military action against the Haqqani attackers by ANSF kicked off just after midnight and lasted until about 6:30 a.m., guaranteeing I would not get one minute of sleep.
Moreover, in the first hour of that firefight, the gunfire was so close that I wondered if the Serena itself was under attack. Given the attractiveness of the hotel as a target for the Taliban and the Haqqanis, I decided to lie in bed fully dressed, just in case a quick getaway was needed, and watched Al Jazeera's coverage of the war in Sudan and the environmental problems in Australia, punctuated by the sounds of the battle taking place outside my windows. At eight in the morning, bleary eyed, I met up with my colleagues for breakfast. All of them were outrageously well rested, having slept through the night and not having heard one single gunshot.
The April 15 attacks were spectacular in their level of coordination and the sheer number of terrorist actions that the Taliban and the Haqqanis were able to carry out simultaneously in Kabul and across Afghanistan. The attacks also clearly exposed a serious intelligence failure. In what had become his standard political ploy, Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai (earlier in the decade a close interlocutor of President George W. Bush but now an embattled leader deeply alienated from and suspicious of Washington) blamed the intelligence failure on ISAF. But given that Afghanistan was well into the so-called transition—the NATO-Afghanistan agreed process to transfer control of the country's security, economic development, and governance to the Afghans, after a decade of Western presence—responsibility for the failure to prevent the attacks lay just as much with the Afghan intelligence and security services. (The term transition is at times used differently by various stakeholders in Afghanistan policy. NATO frequently uses the term in a restricted sense as a military phase to be followed by redeployment. The U.S. government often uses the term more broadly as one pillar of a larger political engagement with Afghanistan. And President Karzai sometimes uses the expression to denote the period through 2014, after which he talks about "transformation." My use of the term refers more broadly to the entire process—before and after 2014—of handing responsibility for security, political, and economic affairs over to the Afghan government, as well as any changes in the security, political, and economic order in Afghanistan resulting from that process.)
During the several weeks following the April 15 attacks, the ANSF managed to prevent at least two other large-scale attacks on Kabul but were unable to prevent a dramatic attack on the nearby Spozhmai resort hotel at Lake Qargha, which Kabulis use for a little bit of recreation. The ANSF were also unable to prevent an attack by a female suicide bomber near the Kabul airport in September 2012 in response to a video mocking the Prophet Mohammad made by several individuals in the United States. Although such attacks do not alter the balance of power on the battlefield, they do significantly affect Afghans' perceptions of security—which of course is the intent of the insurgents. And indeed, although the April 15 attacks took the lives of less than a dozen Afghan security forces and only six Afghan civilians (the attackers let over ten civilians walk away unharmed), they did have a significant, if complicated, psychological impact. They demonstrated that even the most secure parts of Kabul can be breached. At the same time, the reaction of the ANSF for once inspired Afghans. In particular, the special commando forces of the Afghan National Police who responded to the April 15 attacks performed well, demonstrating a real growth in capacity in the ANSF, our own group's experience with the Afghan National Army commander notwithstanding. The Afghan National Police forces managed to maintain better personal security than they did during a previous terrorist attack in Kabul on the Intercontinental Hotel when they charged headlong into fire and certain death. This time, throughout the day and night of the attacks, they were able to maintain command and control. Two months later, however, the Afghan National Security Forces' performance at the Spozhmai resort hotel attack was more mixed. The Afghan forces managed to evacuate over 250 hotel customers—no small feat—but ultimately needed to lean on their Western counterparts to end the Taliban siege.
Excerpted from ASPIRATION AND AMBIVALENCE by Vanda Felbab-Brown Copyright © 2013 by THE BROOKINGS INSTITUTION. Excerpted by permission of BROOKINGS INSTITUTION PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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