Page 1 of 2 The savagery of a surge that failed
By Anand Gopal
KABUL - A bit past midnight on a balmy night in late August, Hedayatullah awoke
to a deafening blast. He stumbled out of bed and heard angry voices drawing
closer. Suddenly, his bedroom doors banged open and dozens of silhouetted
figures burst in, some shouting in a strange language.
The intruders blindfolded Hedayatullah and, screaming with fury, forced him to
the ground. An Afghan voice told him not to move or speak or he would be
killed. He listened for sounds from the next room, where his brother Noorullah
slept with his family. He could hear his nephew, eight months old, crying
hysterically. Then came the sound of an automatic rifle, after which his nephew
The rest of the family - 18 people in all, including aunts, uncles, and cousins
- was herded outside into the darkness. The Afghan
voice explained to Hedayatullah's terrified mother, "We are the Afghan National
Army, here to accompany the American military. The Americans have killed one of
your sons and his two children. They also shot his wife and they're taking her
to the hospital."
"Why?" Hedayatullah's mother stammered.
"There is no why," the soldier replied. When she heard this, she started
screaming, slamming her fists on her chest in anguish. The Afghan soldiers left
her and loaded Hedayatullah and his cousin into the back of a military van,
after which they drove off with an American convoy into the black of night.
The next day, the Afghan forces released Hedayatullah and his cousin, calling
the whole raid a mistake. However, Noorullah's wife, months pregnant, never
came home: She died on the way to the hospital.
Surging in Afghanistan
When, decades from now, historians compile the record of this Afghan war, they
will date the Afghan version of the "surge" - the now trendy injection of large
numbers of troops to resuscitate a flagging war effort - to sometime in early
2007. Then, a growing insurgency was causing visible problems for US and North
Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces in certain pockets in the southern
parts of the country, long a Taliban stronghold. In response, military planners
dramatically beefed up the international presence, raising the number of troops
over the following 18 months by 20,000, a 45% jump.
During this period, however, the violence also jumped - by 50%. This shouldn't
be surprising. More troops meant more targets for Taliban fighters and suicide
bombers. In response, the international forces retaliated with massive aerial
bombing campaigns and large-scale house raids. The number of civilians killed
in the process skyrocketed. In the 15 months of this surge, more civilians have
been killed than in the previous four years combined.
During the same period, the country descended into a state of utter dereliction
- no jobs, very little reconstruction, and ever less security. In turn, the
rising civilian death toll and the decaying economy proved a profitable recipe
for the Taliban, who recruited significant numbers of new fighters. They also
won the sympathy of Afghans who saw them as the lesser of two evils. Once
confined to the deep Afghan south, today the insurgents operate openly right at
the doorstep of Kabul, the capital.
This last surge, little noted by the media, failed miserably, but Washington is
now planning another one, even as Afghanistan slips away. More boots on the
ground, though, will do little to address the real causes of this country's
Revenge and the Taliban
One day, as Zubair was walking home, he noticed that the carpet factory near
his house in the southern province of Ghazni was silent. That's strange, he
thought, because he could usually hear the din of spinning looms as he
approached. As he rounded the corner, he saw a crowd of people, villagers and
factory workers, gathered around his destroyed house. An American bomb had
flattened it into a pancake of cement blocks and pulverized bricks. He ran
toward the scene. It was only when he shoved his way through the crowd and up
to the wreckage that he actually saw it - his mother's severed head lying amid
He didn't scream. Instead, the sight induced a sort of catatonia; he picked up
the head, cradled it in his arms, and started walking aimlessly. He carried on
like this for days, until tribal elders pried the head from his hands and
convinced him to deal with his loss more constructively. He decided he would
get revenge by becoming a suicide bomber and inflicting a loss on some American
family as painful as the one he had just suffered.
When one decides to become a suicide bomber, it is pretty easy to find the
Taliban. In Zubair's case he just asked a relative to direct him to the nearest
Talib; every village in the country's south and east has at least a few. He
found them and he trained - yes, suicide bombing requires training - for some
time and then he was fitted with the latest model suicide vest. One morning, he
made his way, as directed, towards an office building where Americans advisors
were training their Afghan counterparts, but before he could detonate his vest,
a pair of sharp-eyed intelligence officers spotted him and wrestled him to the
ground. Zubair now spends his days in an Afghan prison.
A poll of 42 Taliban fighters by the Canadian Globe and Mail newspaper earlier
this year revealed that 12 had seen family members killed in air strikes, and
six joined the insurgency after such attacks. Far more who don't join offer
Under the Bombs
In the muddied outskirts of Kabul, an impromptu neighborhood has been
sprouting, full of civilians fleeing the regular coalition aerial bombardments
in the Afghan countryside. Sherafadeen Sadozay, a poor farmer from the south,
spoke for many there when he told me that he had once had no opinion of the
United States. Then, one day, a payload from an American sortie split his house
in two, eviscerating his wife and three children. Now, he says, he'd rather
have the Taliban back in power than nervously eye the skies every day.
Even when the bombs don't fall, it's quite dangerous to be an Afghan.
Journalist Jawed Ahmad was on assignment for Canadian Television in the
southern city of Kandahar when American troops stopped him. In his possession,
they found contact numbers to the cell phones of various Taliban fighters -
something every good journalist in the country has - and threw him into prison,
not to be heard from for almost a year. During interrogation, Ahmad says that
American jailors kicked him, smashed his head into a table, and at one point
prevented him from sleeping for nine days. They kept him standing on a snowy
runway for six hours without shoes. Twice he fainted and twice the soldiers
forced him to stand up again. After 11 months of detention, military
authorities gave him a letter stating that he was not a threat to the US and
Starving in Kabul
If you're walking his street, there isn't a single day when you won't see
Zayainullah. For as long as he can remember, the 11-year-old has perched on the
sidewalk at one of Kabul's busiest intersections. Zayainullah has only one arm;
the Taliban blew the other one away when he was a child. He uses this arm to
beg for handouts, quietly in the mornings, more desperately as the day goes on.
Both his parents are dead so he lives with his aunt, a widow. Given the mores
of modern-day Afghanistan, she can't work because a woman needs a man's
sanction to leave the house. So she puts young Zayainullah on the street as her
sole breadwinner. If he comes home empty-handed she beats him, sometimes until
he can no longer move.
He sits there, shirtless, with a heaving, rounded belly - distended from severe
malnutrition - as scores of other beggars and pedestrians stream by him. No one
really notices him though, because poverty has become endemic in this country.
Afghanistan is now one of the poorest countries on the planet. It takes its
place among desperate, destitute nations like Burkina Faso and Somalia whenever
any international organization bothers to measure. The official unemployment
rate, last calculated in 2005, was 40%. According to recent estimates, it may
today reach as high as 80% in some parts of the country.
Approximately 45% of the population is now unable to purchase enough food to
guarantee bare minimum health levels, according to the Brookings Institution.
This winter, Afghan officials claim that hunger may kill up to 80% of the
population in some northern provinces caught in a vicious drought. Reports are
emerging of parents selling their children simply to make ends meet. In one
district of the southern province of Ghazni last spring things got so bad that
villagers started eating grass. Locals say that after a harsh winter and almost
no food, they had no choice.
Kabul itself lies in tatters. Roads have gone unpaved since 2001. Massive
craters from decades of war blot the capital city. Poor Afghans live in
crumbling warrens with no electricity and often without safe drinking water.
Kabul, a city designed for about 800,000 people, now holds more than four
million, mostly squeezed into informal settlements and squatters' shacks.
Washington spends about $100 million a day on this war - close to $36 billion a
year - but only five cents of every dollar actually goes towards aid. From this
paltry sum, the Agency Coordinating