What I Saw in Afghanistan: A Decade of Nation-Building Has Not Made Kabul-Or America-Any Safer

By Bandow, Doug | The American Conservative, December 2010 | Go to article overview

What I Saw in Afghanistan: A Decade of Nation-Building Has Not Made Kabul-Or America-Any Safer


Bandow, Doug, The American Conservative


KABUL, AFGHANISTAN--Barbed wire is sold by the mile here. No building of any consequence sits unprotected, open to the public. Most insecure of all, as measured by the amount of so-called security barriers deployed around them, are U.S. and European bases and embassies. You can't even see the American Embassy from the street. Entire city blocks are consumed by allied facilities.

This is after nine years of nation-building. Banks, hotels, and NGO offices also are mini-fortresses. The Serena is a high-walled, well-guarded luxury hotel where many Westerners stay. Unfortunately, not too long ago the Taliban staged a raid there with fighters dressed as Afghan police. They made for the gym and killed several Westerners.

My colleagues and I instead stayed at a low-key British lodge, which was hidden behind two walls. Our driver knew where to turn before being waved through the unmarked gate where our vehicle was checked for bombs.

Roads are strewn with metal barriers, concrete blocks, sandbagged positions, and machine-gun topped trucks and Humvees. Some side streets are entirely closed to locals. Traveling even a short distance can take an hour or more. Kabul is a collection of small islands rather than a unified city.

Armed men are everywhere: Allied troops. Afghan National Police. Private guards. None of this may come as a surprise in a city at war. But this is the capital of a country where the U.S. has been fighting longer than it did in Vietnam or World Wars I and II. The city is more dangerous than when our troops first arrived.

This land is an almost continuous anomaly. It has a reputation as the "Graveyard of Empires," but only the Afghanistan of the 19th century and latter 20th century warranted that label. Prior to the "Great Game" between Britain and Russia, empires routinely conquered the country. Most conflict came from foreign invaders rather than domestic insurgents.

And for most of the 20th century, Afghanistan was at peace. Its monarchy wasn't particularly liberal, but there was little instability--until a 1973 coup sparked nearly four decades of war.

About the only surviving symbol of that era is Darul-Aman, the old royal palace, now a fire-ravaged shell. We took in the site. A couple of weeks afterwards a Taliban suicide-bomber hit a NATO convoy on the same road, slaughtering allied troops and Afghan civilians alike.

With its variegated ethnic make-up, Afghanistan looks like a country on the verge of collapse. The Taliban is dominated by ethnic Pashtuns, while Tajiks, Uzbeks, and other groups made up the Northern Alliance, which took the lead in ousting the Taliban in 2001 with American support. Yet despite the demographic fault lines, there's little obvious sentiment for secession even in distant and safer cities, such as Herat and Mazar-e Sharif. Afghan nationhood looks surprisingly robust.

What most Afghans crave is federalism. The monarchy survived by ruling only lightly outside of Kabul. But Hamid Karzai wants to do much more.

Afghans and Western expatriates agree that if there was a moment when nation-building had a chance, it was in 2002 and 2003, when the Bush administration was instead planning for Iraq.

George W. Bush succeeded in ousting the Taliban on the cheap. But his administration ignored Pakistani support for the Pashtun-dominated Taliban even as Islamabad sacrificed the foreign "Arab" fighters. Washington never sent sufficient U.S. troops, preferring to rely on corrupt warlords to round up Taliban and al-Qaeda forces. And the Pentagon soon began shifting intelligence assets and other forces to Iraq.

Meanwhile, we seemed to work overtime to make enemies. An American consultant who served in the embassy after the Taliban's ouster told me of being visited by frustrated village elders seeking the release of people arrested by American forces based on secret intelligence. The problem worsened as the Karzai government expanded its authority. …

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