This week, Weekend Reader brings you Above The Din Of War by veteran journalist and author Peter Eichstaedt. Above The Din Of War details Eichstaedt’s interviews with Afghans who discussed with the author their experiences during the war. Afghans opened up about what they’ve seen, how they feel about the United States, the Taliban, and the direction they hope to see the country move in. As the U.S. prepares to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, the fear of the country slipping back into turmoil and chaos looms. Eichstaedt’s firsthand account of life in Afghanistan coupled with his suggestions for withdrawal and further U.S.-Afghanistan relations offer a valuable perspective.
You can purchase the book here. A Q&A with the author is included at the end of the excerpt.
The Afghan Failure
No one is more worried about their future than the Afghans. As of this writing, the Taliban is stronger than it has ever been in the prior ten years. Life is more dangerous than ever before. Afghanistan is among the world’s poorest countries, and the Afghan economy is totally dependent on the foreign military and civilian aid programs. If the international community packs up and leaves, Afghans know full well that the Taliban will come back to power and again make their lives miserable. As Afghans fearfully prepare for an uncertain future, they have grown increasingly sullen and hostile. Who can blame them? After ten years of war and the expenditure of billions of dollars, what has changed? More important, what has gone so wrong when at first it had been so right?
The failures in Afghanistan can be attributed to an emphasis on the military solution to the exclusion of most everything else. The nation and its people were put on life support while the militaries of some forty nations waged war against the Taliban, itself a creature of a significant portion of the society. Civil society and government were left to atrophy.
In ten years of war, little or nothing has been done to improve basic aspects of Afghan society. A look at the numbers is shocking. Life expectancy in Afghanistan is less than forty-five years, one of the lowest in the world. One in every four children will not see his or her fifth birthday. For those who survive, expectations are abysmal. Only one in five adults can read and write, which is a vast improvement in ten years but still far from adequate. Unemployment is consistently about 40 percent.
Basic infrastructure is abysmal. Electricity only reaches a third of the Afghan population. Though 70 percent of all Kabul households are connected to the grid, power cuts are routine and brownouts are expected. Those who can afford them rely on polluting and noisy portable generators or on bottled gas, kerosene lanterns, and candles. Afghanistan’s power is imported from Iran, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan and bolstered by a line from Uzbekistan, but it is hampered by antiquated and inadequate transmission lines. Although some $200 million annually is reportedly poured into improving the power supply, the projects languish due to cost overruns and the war.
Some people have suggested that Afghanistan would have been better off if countries like the United States had taken $500 billion of what it spent on the war in Afghanistan and given it directly to the people. Divided among the population, every man, woman, and child in the country could have been handed about $17,000. That is about ten years’ worth of income for the average Afghan. This notion points to the fact that while large amounts of international cash enter the country, little of it reaches most Afghans. Much of it comes into the country via nonprofit organizations that pay for high-priced international staff, their housing, their transportation, and their security.
As most Afghans have waited for their lives to improve, they have watched as heavily armed and well-equipped foreign militaries prowl the countryside, rolling down roads in every corner of the country. The presence of foreign armies has not made Afghans feel safe or protected. Rather, they feel the opposite. As the Taliban clumsily and ruthlessly detonates roadside and car bombs and launches suicide attacks, civilians bear the brunt of the bloodshed. Foreigners are viewed as the problem, not the solution, even though the Taliban has planted the bombs and conducted the attacks. It is no wonder that the Taliban is poised for a comeback. The lives of average Afghans have changed little in ten years of war, and international forces have gone from a cause for celebration to a thing to be hated.
What baffles most Afghans is why the U.S. and coalition forces have been unable to defeat the Taliban. Many Afghans insist that the United States could have defeated the Taliban any time it wanted but has intentionally dragged out the war. When I asked Afghans why America would do that, they responded with shrugs.
Three knowledgeable Afghans, each a behind-the-scenes player, told me that the Taliban were not the problem behind the Afghan dilemma and never had been.
It was not easy to meet with Sibghatullah Mojaddedi, the president of Afghanistan’s upper house of parliament, the Mushrano Jirga, or House of Elders. Among his other duties, he headed the Afghanistan National Independent Peace and Reconciliation Commission. I had wanted to talk with him because it was his younger relative in Herat, Safiullah Mojaddedi, who had been kidnapped by the Taliban and ultimately set free in exchange for the release of Taliban prisoners, a deal that involved the elder Mujaddedi.
After negotiating a gauntlet of security at a government building in a quiet neighborhood of Kabul, I was ushered into a long, carpeted hall where about twenty Afghan elders were seated, each wearing a large turban and sporting a long, graying beard. They nodded gravely as I ambled to the far end, where Sibghatullah Mojaddedi sat in a padded wooden chair and casually motioned for me to sit. Despite his eighty-five years, Mojaddedi was a striking figure, dressed in crisp white cotton clothing and a turban to match, much like his colleagues. His large glasses magnified his eyes, which by any measure had seen a lot.
An ethnic Pashtun, he was the patriarch of one of Afghanistan’s eminent and extended religious families. Throughout most of his life, Mojaddedi had been integrally involved in the fate of his country. A moderate Muslim, he had been Afghanistan’s president for just two months in 1992 when the country struggled to set up a government in the turbulent days that followed the 1989 withdrawal of the forces from the former Soviet Union. He was quickly succeeded by the late Burhanuddin Rabbani, who two years later presided over the Afghan civil war. Mojaddedi resurfaced in 2003 to head the Loya Jirga, the national council of elders that adopted the modern Afghan constitution. He was later named to head the Afghan upper house of parliament, a position he continued to hold.
“Peace in this country is not possible with the ISI [Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence agency] and Pakistan,” Mojaddedi said. Ninety percent of Afghanistan’s problems are due to Pakistan, he insisted, as terrorist fighters, including Chechens and radicalized Arabs, enter Pakistan and then “cross borders and cause problems for us. The main [barrier to] peace is the ISI. The terrorists are exported from Pakistan.” Although the US-funded Pakistan army fought against the Taliban in the border regions with Afghanistan, Mojaddedi complained that “it’s not enough. [The United States] needs to put pressure on Pakistan. Attack the ISI [training] camps. If they want peace, that is what they must do.” Some ten thousand fighters had been trained in these ISI-sponsored Taliban camps, he contended. “They have training centers in Pakistan, so why don’t you fight the terrorists there?” Mojaddedi asked. He had complained repeatedly to US officials about their soft approach to Pakistan, he said, but with no result. “I tell them that they can’t recognize their enemies and their friends.”
“Pakistan is not the only problem,” I said. “The Taliban is growing stronger because Afghans are turning to them out of disgust with the government.”
“People support the Taliban because they are afraid of them,” Mojaddedi said. “If [people] don’t agree with them, they kill them.” The dislike of the Karzai government had been caused by Karzai himself, he said, who put his family and friends into important posts. Karzai’s people were interested not in a better Afghanistan but only in themselves. The climate of corruption was rooted in war. “The character and morals have been changed due to the war,” he said. “It’s the main reason for the corruption here.” Solving the problem was simple. “The people who are corrupt must be punished, and those who are good must be rewarded,” he said. But to do that, “we need a strong government,” he continued. Such a government would not exist with Karzai at the helm, he said.
Excerpted from Above the Din of War: Afghans Speak About their Lives, their Country, and their Future—and Why America Should Listen by Peter Eichstaedt, with permission from Lawrence Hill Books, an imprint of Chicago Review Press. Published April, 2013.
Q: Why was conducting these interviews and writing this book important to you?
A: Average Afghans often have a diametrically opposite view of the Afghan War and their future to those of generals, diplomats, and President Karzai’s circle — the ones most quoted in the media and all of whom have a vested interest in perpetuating the myth of American success.
The support of the Afghan people is critical to any definition of success in Afghanistan. yet, their attitudes and the effects of the 12 years of war by the U.S. and NATO forces have gone largely unreported.
The reality is that when the U.S. military takes control of an area, even with Afghan forces, that control disappears when U.S. forces move on and the Taliban returns. The Taliban controls about 75 percent of Afghanistan and has a shadow government in nearly every province. The Taliban tells the Afghan people, “They have the watches, we have the time.” The Taliban are limiting their losses, while creating as much chaos as possible as they wait for our departure.
Afghans are resentful and angry that they and their country are worse off and less secure than ever. They are painfully aware of what will happen when U.S. and NATO forces leave and are already preparing for the worst.
Q: What are you hoping Americans gain from reading Above the Din of War?
A: Americans should be angry at the misinformation and distortion they have been fed about the war in Afghanistan. This is the longest war in American history. What has been accomplished, other than the killing of Osama bin Laden? Despite spending billions of dollars, despite the death of thousands of American soldiers, Afghanistan is a disastrous example of misused military power and misguided foreign policy.
A recent case in point is the alarming number of deadly attacks by Afghan soldiers and police on their American and NATO “allies.” These are the same forces on whom the U.S. is pinning Afghanistan’s future. The situation is absurd and clearly not a success.
Q: What do you think is the biggest misconception Americans have of Afghans and vice versa?
A: As polls show, most Americans have no idea why we’re still in Afghanistan and probably have less of an idea of who Afghans really are. That’s why I wrote the book.
Conversely, most Afghans initially saw Americans as their greatest hope for a future of freedom and prosperity. It didn’t happen. Many Afghans now see America as the cause of, not the solution to, their problems. They rightly ask, “If the Americans can’t defeat the Taliban, then who can?” After all, the Taliban are very poorly equipped, yet fight effectively against the world’s most potent and advanced army. Afghans resent that America didn’t deliver.
Afghans admittedly have not resisted the resurgent Taliban in any meaningful way, in part because the Taliban is an organically Afghan entity that has taken advantage of international failures and anti-foreign sentiment. Peace in Afghanistan cannot be imposed from the outside without broad popular support, which is wholly lacking now.
Q: In your epilogue you sound optimistic for the future of Afghan/American relations. You advocate for continued American bases in Afghanistan and partitioning the country along ethnic lines–could Afghans be open to this idea and do you think American leaders will be open to taking these suggestions seriously especially since Afghanistan has largely fallen off the radar. Is partitioning the country a viable option to reducing violence and tensions in the region?
A: This week I watched a video of a CNN embed with a U.S. Special Forces unit that was attacked by the Taliban, who disappeared upon counter-attack. No one in the village knew where the Taliban went, or why they had attacked. This goes on every day in every corner of Afghanistan, and has for 12 years. The U.S. has never been in control and never will be. Any notions to the contrary are nonsense.
The only hope for a graceful exit from Afghanistan is a peace agreement that involves the Taliban and its primary supporters, Pakistan and Iran. To forestall the inevitable collapse of the Afghan house of cards, an extended U.S. and international presence is necessary, though unlikely due to the paucity of support and political will. There are long-term strategic reasons to stay, however, given Afghanistan’s proximity to Iran, Russia, and China.
Given the ancient and deeply entrenched ethnic divisions of Afghanistan, any workable peace deal demands semi-autonomous regions controlled by the various former Afghan warlords who are part of the parcel of the Karzai government. These strongmen will undoubtedly carve up Afghanistan along ethnic lines anyway in the case of civil war.
If America truly wants to finish the job it started, it must commit to rebuilding Afghanistan, not just making war. Such an attitude would be welcomed in Afghanistan.
Photo: Dina Horwedel