The real Afghan war

The Taliban and the insurgency are not Afghanistan's worst problems. The country is now ruled by a n

"If we had a resistance movement to join," one Afghan aid- worker from the north said, "there'd be an insurgency here as well." Afghanistan is touted as a success story. In reality, many of the problems fuelling the insurgency are nationwide. Corruption, abusive provincial officials and a growing hostility towards the west and the government of President Hamid Karzai are found north and south. Even those who benefited most from the United States intervention in 2001, America's allies from the Northern Alliance, show little loyalty to their old backers. The ability of foreign powers to influence events in Afghanistan has also waned. "Whatever happens now, however bad it gets," said one senior diplomat, "it will be up to Afghans. We've had our chance - and I think we've failed."

The insurgency and the fate of British and other Nato forces ranged against the Taliban has rightly grabbed headlines this year; the scale and ferocity of the fighting and the growing menace of the Taliban has shocked everyone. This autumn, I travelled to areas of the north that are under no threat from the Taliban. After five years of international support, they should be havens of democracy, human rights and prosperity. Yet, the situation there is just as troubling.

"We don't know who to turn to, who to complain to," said the father of a six-year-old girl who had been killed in the provincial capital of Badakhshan, the mountainous province in the far north-east of Afghanistan that the Taliban never occupied. The target of the bomb had been the commander of Nato forces deployed as part of the International Security and Assistance Force, or Isaf. The only casualties were three of Ahmad Fawzi's children: the one who had been killed and two, silent and clinging, who had been injured. "The local authorities are corrupt," he said, "and Isaf works hand in hand with them. Isaf is too soft. It just keeps compromising." Grief had made him franker than most people in his city, nicknamed during the civil war as the place of a hundred commanders. It was the end of Ramadan and like families across Afghanistan, cakes, biscuits, fruit and flasks of sweet tea had been set out ready for visitors coming to wish the household a Happy Eid. But the guests coming to this home were giving their condolences. It was like seeing the newly bereaved struggling to celebrate Christmas.

This was not a Taliban attack. Locals blamed relatives of a commander from one of the mujahedin factions of the old Northern Alliance who had been killed by Nato fire after a patrol came under attack. Elsewhere, in another apparent revenge attack, armed men had come in the night and set fire to a school. The principal, Bakr Shah, an inspirational man who had lost an eye and an arm during the war, was absolute in his insistence that the school would not close. "These men will not put out the light of knowledge," he said. "We will carry on, even if the children have to study in a metre of snow." Indeed, lessons had only been cancelled for a single day.

The complaint of many locals in Badakhshan and elsewhere is that their lives are still controlled by the old factional networks. In the north-east, every state official I met was a former mujahid, almost all from the same Jamiat-i Islami faction. This is not to say there are no decent former mujahedin commanders in positions of high office, or that some former communists and returning civilian exiles do not also exploit the machinery of state for personal gain. However, the networks, which combine state positions, civil-war era loyalties, and criminal activities are extremely strong - and look like a mafia.

Civilians complain that Isaf never challenges local commanders because "force protection" - protection of its own soldiers - comes before protection of Afghan civilians. In Faizabad, for example, the most powerful commander has the contract to guard the Nato base. It is a strategy favoured by many of the foreign forces and UN agencies nationwide, but for local people, seeing former militiamen guarding a foreign base is hardly encouraging.

Reclaimed fiefdoms

The Nato commander, a German, Colonel Martin Robrecht, was frank about his dilemma. He condemned the commander killed by his forces as a criminal, saying he had been running three heroin laboratories. He would like to be more proactive, he said, but was held back from acting against commanders accused of abuses. "The problem is that our mandate doesn't allow us to take away any former commanders. This is a purely Afghan problem . . . It's up to Kabul and up to the government and if they need the support it will be provided." No request for action, he added, had ever been made.

The pervasiveness of the old militia networks was not inevitable when the Taliban collapsed. In 2001, the decision to arm and support the Northern Alliance and other tribal and mujahedin groups, despite their history of war crimes, brought a speedy victory over the Taliban. However, commanders who had been defeated or weakened by earlier Taliban military victories filled the political vacuum left by the fleeing regime. They appointed themselves as police and army commanders, provincial governors and cabinet ministers. Some literally drove back across the border to reclaim their old fiefdoms. Many I spoke to at the time assumed they would not be allowed to keep their new offices, but Hamid Karzai, the United Nations, and Washington preferred to work with them. When I questioned Jack Straw, the then foreign secretary, about this strategy in early 2002, he was unapologetic: "The more we can get people in who have occupied positions of force and strength in the past but who now say they're committed to a political process and the more we can close off the options for people who resort to violence, the better the future of Afghanistan will be."

When the militias were last in charge of the country in the 1990s, murder, rape and kidnapping were extensive. The current situation is not as grave. Making money from drugs in a country where a third of the economy is drug-based is easier than making money directly out of the people. People also say the presence of foreign troops leads to better behaviour from the former militiamen, although, as one peasant farmer said, the foreign deployment gives no guarantee for the future. "Who knows what they'll be like again when Isaf goes." Mawlawi Ibrahim, a defence lawyer with the Afghan Human Rights Organisation, says abuses have certainly not disappeared. "We get cases of torture in police detention, for example," he said. "They come mainly from the south and north, but they still occasionally pop up in the capital." He said the same old methods were used - beating, electric shock using the old-fashioned, wind-up telephones, "usually to extort money from prisoners, although sometimes to get information for criminal investigations".

Across the country, intelligence reports that it is often the police themselves who smuggle drugs and commit crimes have driven the international powers to demand reform. A US government report recently described endemic corruption and incompetence in a force which it largely funds. About 70 per cent of policemen are former mujahedin, recruited wholesale from their old militia units and maintaining loyalties to their factional commanders. One senior diplomat described Afghan police simply as, "the providers of violence".

Despite a little progress, about a third of Afghanistan is still being policed by men accused of serious crimes. All but two of the senior police chiefs are from the old mujahedin factions of the Northern Alliance, the vast majority from the Jamiat/Shura-i Nazar faction, the faction that captured Kabul in 2001 after receiving the bulk of America's arms and funding. The deputy minister of the interior, General Daoud - himself a former Shura-i Nazar commander - admitted the existence of corrupt officials, but denied that the apparatus of state and the mafia had become one and the same thing. "The mistake the international community made was not focusing on police reform earlier," he said.

Afghans have never had much faith in the state, which traditionally concentrates on taxes and conscription. However, expectations did rise after 2001, with talk of democracy, human rights, and aid. What has emerged is a state that cannot or will not protect its citizens, and in some places actively abuses them. In the past year, I have not met a single civilian with anything good to say about President Karzai. This used to be a country where, before 2001, I rarely heard anti-western or anti- American sentiment. That goodwill has ebbed away - as has the deterrence of foreign armies. Where, in 2002, just the mention of a B52 bomber was enough to frighten armed men, now commanders north and south, pro- and anti-Taliban, just shrug their shoulders.

Even those who benefited most from the anti-Taliban invasion are often now disgruntled. In the Panjshir Valley, the political heartland of Shura-i Nazar, people were discontented about aid, services and jobs. "The foreigners should help us more," said one man in the bazaar, with his companions agreeing with him, "because the devil makes work for idle hands and we don't want to take up arms again."

One of the local leaders, Kaka Tajuddin, was furious about the substandard US-funded road, now being built in the valley. "This road is like a symbol," he said, saying that it showed the lack of sympathy the foreigners and the government had for the people of the area. "We got rid of you lot [ie, the British]," he said. "We got rid of the Russians and the Chinese, and we can get rid of these others, too."

Kate Clark's programme "Unreported World: Never mind the Taliban" will be shown on Channel 4 on 1 December at 7.35pm

This article first appeared in the 27 November 2006 issue of the New Statesman, The real Afghan war