Afghanistan Falls Apart

A string of disasters has left the Kabul elite wondering whether it's possible to pick up the pieces of their shattered alliance with the United States.

Majid Saeedi/Getty Images
Majid Saeedi/Getty Images

KABUL – Near a busy intersection where burqa-clad women beg for spare change at car windows, Mahmoud Saikal, Afghanistan’s former deputy foreign minister, sat under a photo of this capital city’s crowded hillside neighborhoods in the stately living room of his compound.

"If you are from Kabul," he says, "you can find your place of birth in this photo."

It’s the only landscape not changing in Afghanistan.

A series of American blunders in the past few months has raised questions about whether the decade-long U.S. mission in Afghanistan is doomed to failure. In February, reports that copies of the Quran had been burnt at a NATO base sparked protests across the country that left dozens dead. And last month, Staff Sgt. Robert Bales murdered 17 Afghan civilians in cold blood — returning to his base in Kandahar province mid-massacre before going out to kill again. Meanwhile, the Afghan security forces are increasingly turning on their trainers: Three NATO soldiers were killed by Afghan police and military members on March 26 — the latest of more than 80 coalition troops who have lost their lives in this way since 2007.

The escalating string of disasters has led to an increasingly contentious debate within President Hamid Karzai’s inner circle between officials who say Afghanistan is better off without the United States and those who see the American presence as necessary for security. But even among America’s erstwhile allies, there is a profound disappointment at the gap between the grandiose U.S. pledges and the dismal reality on the ground in Afghanistan.

"The U.S. could have been a more responsible superpower, a caring superpower," Saikal says. "It’s important for them to stand for [their] values around the world. But I think the last three incidents were definitely deliberate acts that tarnish the values the U.S. stands for."

U.S. efforts to forge a lasting relationship with the Afghan government has been complicated by the eclectic makeup of Karzai’s inner circle and the often haphazard nature of its decision making process.

"We make foreign policy decisions on the run on the steps of a ministry," laments Saikal, a former ambassador to Indonesia and Australia. The disarray, he says, makes it easier for those in power "to twist the law in their own personal taste."

That taste is only growing more anti-American. With popular anger at the U.S. military hitting an all-time high, Karzai has increasingly been forced to stand up to the United States to prove that he is not in the pocket of the foreign occupiers. He has renewed his demand that U.S. Special Forces end nighttime raids, and looks set to win a concession that would subject the raids to review by Afghan judges. But even with that victory, Karzai’s advisors are increasingly debating whether cooperation with the Americans has brought more trouble than it’s worth.

"Karzai’s inner circle is split between a group that’s very Afghan nationalist and suspicious of the West the other that has the technocrats and more Westernized elements that are pro-West," says a former senior U.S. military officer who commanded in Afghanistan.

Recent American missteps have rocked Afghan officials’ faith in the coalition’s ability to help govern the country’s tenuous political situation. "The Afghans have to be wondering how incompetent we are," adds a former civilian advisor to ISAF in Afghanistan. "[Afghan parliamentarians] have to be very, very frustrated because we’ve undercut their ability to work with us. How do you now go about selling working with the Americans to people on the street?"

There is a pervasive fear on the streets of Kabul that, once coalition forces leave, the traditional hard-line nationalists — known, during the Taliban’s era in power, for gruesome torture and punishment — will reemerge in full force.

"We see no sign to prove that the mentality of using violence for political [gain] has changed," Saikal says. "Whatever we’ve done [to counter it], the mentality is still strong. If that doesn’t change, I’m afraid the future looks bleak."

The Afghan government’s disarray means personal interests and opinions can become official policy without a thorough debate.

"No doubt, there are some left [close to Karzai] who do have some wisdom and do see the relationship between Afghanistan and the U.S. as in the interest of both countries," Saikal says. "But those would be their personal views because the government simply doesn’t have policies."

Omar Samad, an advisor to Afghanistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and formerly the country’s  ambassador to France and Canada, has seen his country’s political dysfunction up close.

"Contradictions [between the politicians’ competing views] have existed for a while," Samad says. "And it’s reflected in the upper echelons of the Afghan government and the inner circle around the president. It seems that each incident … restricts the space that exists for those who believe that a long term strategic relationship with the U.S. is important."

But the debate among Afghan officials is not only based on ideology — many high-rollers have profited immensely from the influx of American riches, overriding any personal antagonism that might have been stirred in the wake of Bales’s rampage. Wartime corruption has been rampant in Afghanistan: According to a 2010 report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Karzai and his attorney general "refused to allow any action to be taken against corrupt leaders," and likely blocked cases against dozens of top officials from going forward.

"This situation is highly unlikely to change in the middle of a war where Karzai needs all of the internal support he can get, and the rest of the Afghan political and legal system either is too weak to pose a challenge or would like a share of the money," the report reads.

It’s not only the upper echelons that are reaching into the government’s coffers — the massive influx of funds that the United States and its partners have poured into the country has created a whole class that is dependent on foreign money.

"A lot of people have been benefitting enormously from the U.S. presence in terms of patronage, grabbing a slice of aid money, being in positions of authority where they could take money from the Afghan state," says Stuart Gordon, an Afghanistan researcher at the London think tank Chatham House.

Not all of that money has stayed in Afghanistan, much less gone to improve the life of its citizens. In March, a senior Afghan official told Reuters that his wealthy countrymen were smuggling $8 billion in cash out of Afghanistan each year. According to a 2009 State Department cable published by Wikileaks, former Vice President Zia Masoud was caught bringing $52 million in cash through the Dubai airport and was released without question.

Indeed, while popular anger against the United States is undoubtedly rising across Afghanistan, it may not be a decisive factor for the Afghan elite. Those Afghan officials have an incentive to keep their eye on the bottom line: the flow of U.S. dollars into the country.

"I’m not sure that the power brokers in the Afghan government have a particular hatred for the Americans," says Samad. "The hatred of the Americans tends to be more amongst the conservative rural Afghans, who have a more shortsighted view, but have also suffered at the hands of the police and government brutality. The upper echelons of the Afghan government are probably more calculating. They think the gravy train is leaving."

On a gusty day in Kabul, one of Karzai’s former ministers wedges a chair into a doorknob of her drafty home to keep the door from slamming over and over.

She expresses concern that the country is backsliding into its conservative, Taliban-era ways. Some female officials, she claims, had been told to wear traditional scarves only over half of their heads, to appease Western officials. After the Americans leave, she says, they will be told to cover the entire head.

The minister echoes the views of many of the president’s past and present allies, who say the latest incidents are the straw that broke the camel’s back — cherries on a sundae of broken promises to a female population that remains largely marginalized, and a dysfunctional government that is a democracy in little more than name only.

"The U.S.’s beliefs failed here, and that was their enemies’ intention from the beginning," she says.  "Afghanistan is a world of extremism. The world should be helping that Afghan people get rid of terrorism and give us a civil government with men and women participating equally."

In the past five months, cracks in the foundation of the U.S.-Afghan relationship have been exposed. The question is whether Karzai’s men want to put the alliance back together again — or whether America’s indiscretions in their country are too much to overcome.

"I have talked to [members of] the Taliban," Saikal says, the thick security walls around his house a reminder of the precarious situation on the streets. "The Taliban called me a fool. They said, ‘You’re working with a political process that is a waste of time."

Karen Leigh is a Berlin-based journalist. Follow her on Twitter at @leighstream.