Impressions of Afghanistan

Kabul today provides a very different experience from those. First of all, signs of danger are all about. Thousands of armed private security guards from many nationalities as well as Afghans are scattered throughout the city on virtually every block. Cars are checked at intersections by Kalashnikov-wielding Afghan policemen or men who I assumed to be police although some I saw were not in anything resembling a uniform. Never mind the “bad guys,” gun toting policemen, many said to be high on drugs and virtually all untrained, were enough of a menace.

Most Kabulis feel that menace, since Kabul is said to be now under the control of President Karzai’s police, and the police are rough with civilians and often shake them down. But the 140,000 American and American-led troops and the scores of thousands of mercenaries and private security guards pay no attention to the police. Nor, as I was to find, do various privileged Afghans. Anyone who counts has his own private army. So, taken as a whole, the 50,000 or so “security” forces constitute a new virtual nation – or actually nations, plural -- as they come from everywhere, Gurkhas from Nepal, Malays, Samoans, various Latinos and Europeans with a mixture of what looked like a delegation from an American weight-lifting club -- alongside of Afghanistan’s already complex mix of nations. (The Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks, Turkmen, Aimaqs, Kirghiz, Nuris, Baluchis and others; no one group is the majority of Afghans. They tend to be grouped in discrete areas, but there is much mixing, particularly here in the capital, but throughout the country. This would make any notion of the division of Afghanistan along ethnic lines either impossible or would cause horrible suffering.)

President Karzai would like to rid Afghanistan of the “private security forces,” whom he accuses of fostering corruption and committing human rights violations. He announced as I began my tale on August 17 that he will abolish these private armies within four months, withdrawing their visas, expelling them and closing down the 50 or more firms that hire them, but he probably cannot. They are “embedded” with our military and with all the diplomatic missions and the Afghan power elite.

Without any sense of irony, diplomats and generals admit that they do so actually to protect their own officials and even their soldiers. Our ambassador, to cite one example, travels with a guard of mercenaries rather than one of Marines who, in my days in government, were charged with guarding the embassies. British Deputy Ambassador Tom Dodd told me, with what I thought was a flash of pride, that the British had a ratio of 1 mercenary for each Englishman whereas the American ratio was 3 to 1. The numbers are so large, I asked him to account for them. “Money,” he replied. “They are cheaper than regular soldiers.”

I find that hard to believe. It must be a toss-up. Each soldier costs us $1 million a year, but foreign (as distinct from Afghan) mercenaries earn $1,000 or more day just in salaries, not counting housing and food, transportation several times a year back and forth to their homes and, perhaps most significant, life insurance.

So much for the foreigners, so why do Afghans hire bodyguards? Partly prestige, no doubt, but also because of a genuine fear of private vendetta or assassination by one or other of the scores or even hundreds of warlords. These men cannot, or at least do not, trust the regular police to protect them. Having a dozen or so gunmen is also the road to riches. And, most believe, it is the best way to stay alive to enjoy those riches.

But it isn’t just the rich and powerful whose condottierri lord it over the ordinary Afghans: assorted other gunmen, including unemployed young men and even off-duty policemen, routinely shake down passers-by, shop keepers and even households. Scruffy fellows they may be, but loaded down with Kalashnikov machineguns, grenades and pistols, and cavalier about reading government documents, they pose an implicit threat to almost everyone. The “on-duty” police can do nothing about them because no one can tell who they are or who stands behind them – ministers, heads of government departments, bigger warlords or the Taliban.

Let me dilate on that. We think of the Taliban as a coherent unit. No doubt it is partly that. But it is diversified in command structure because of the weakness of their embattled communication system. So whatever the “center,” which is presumed to be far away in Quetta, Pakistan, decides may not be known in a timely fashion, if at all, by more or less isolated cadres. Moreover, the organization has many, perhaps not always wanted, part-time volunteers. Although they may operate in the name of the Taliban. Many of these people are not auxiliaries but opportunists. Because of an insult or the presence of a target, groups of young thugs often carry out assaults or kidnappings on their own. Such events are different from the well-planned attacks (like the one on this hotel a few years ago) involving suicide bombers and commando units. The aim of the independents is not political; it is either revenge or money, or both. This makes their danger unpredictable.

Unpredictable it is but it is more or less ever-present. It comes not only from these casual thugs, the Taliban or even other major insurgent groups. Indeed, almost anyone with enough money or willing kinsmen can set himself up as a “power broker.” A Washington Post reporter earlier this month wrote about what must be a fairly typical minor strongman whom she described as “an illiterate, hashish- producing former warlord who directs a semiofficial police force…he is also a key partner of US forces.” He has 40 “soldiers” and rules only about 4 square miles. So you have all the elements: drugs, protection money, command over a small piece of the supply route – and alliance with US forces.

Groups like this are all over the country and in the aggregate the payoff to them is huge. An American Congressional investigation entitled “Warlord, Inc., Extortion and Corruption Along the U.S. Supply Chain in Afghanistan,” published in June this year, showed that to implement a $2.16 billion transport contract the US military is paying tens of millions of dollars to warlords, corrupt public officials and (indirectly) the Taliban to ensure safe passage of its supply convoys throughout the country.” Dexter Filkins of The New York Times (who incidentally won a George Polk Award) put it bluntly, “With U.S. Aid, Warlord Builds an Afghan Empire.” He described “an illiterate former highway patrol commander [who] has grown stronger than the government of Oruzgan Province, not only supplanting its role in providing security but usurping its other functions, his rivals say, like appointing public employees and doling out government largess. His fighters run missions with American Special Forces officers, and when Afghan officials have confronted him he has either rebuffed them or had them removed.” How did he do it? Money. Filkins points out that his company charges $1,200 for each NATO cargo truck to which it gives safe passage and so makes about $2.5 million a month. How does he get away with it? As Filkins wrote, “His militia has been adopted by American Special Forces officers to gather intelligence and fight insurgents.”

Afghanistan today is somewhat like medieval Italy, a land of warlords. The big ones are just the more impressive of hundreds if not thousands of small bosses, some with only a dozen “guns,” who operate in a single neighborhood or along a short stretch of road. While many are involved in the drug trade, others draw their funds from offering protection or engaging in casual kidnapping. They are known to work with or at least around the police or even, themselves, may be part-time members of the police force and/or private security details. I imagine that every Afghan knows who’s who in his neighborhood, but an outsider can easily blunder into a messy situation. Canny outsiders, like the members of the resident press corps, as Dexter Filkins later told me, feel relatively safe because they know where not to go.

In two ways, this is a very old system in the Middle East. In the cities, merchants kept a sort of peace because they wanted people to visit their shops, but Nineteenth century European and native travelers in outlying areas often “rented” free passage from local lords. Payment for passage is common – and very profitable, as the Congressional study made clear -- today in Afghanistan. Trucks moving fuel or supplies, even for the American Army, almost anywhere in the country do so by paying off the local strongmen. The American command is criticized for this practice, but it is notable that even when they supposedly ruled Afghanistan, the Taliban engaged in the same practice. What is new is that this system has spread to the cities. Even restaurants are fenced in with huge concrete walls and steel gates and “rent” protection.

I went Thursday evening to a little Lebanese restaurant called “The Taverna” for dinner with Dexter Filkins. I found it to be packed with people. The owner happened to be from the Lebanese Shuf mountains. On a silly impulse, I asked him if he were a Junbalti or a Yazbaki. He looked astonished and asked how I knew of such things. When I replied that I had written a book on his land, he sent over dish after dish, “on the house.” Nevertheless, the meal was fairly expensive. The reason was obvious: four armed men, in fact moonlighting policemen, were guarding the entrance. They are the new thing – not bouncers but “doorstops.”

The biggest doorstop of all, of course, is the American embassy. Embassy is hardly the right word. It is a vast urban fortress, a city in its own right. Indeed, it is now the largest in the world with roughly 1,000 civilians and is flanked by a military garrison that is far larger and a comparable but unmentioned CIA complex. The American “city” has its own water purification and electrical system, roads, dormitories, offices, shops, coffee houses and an “eating facility.” (It would be libelous to call it a restaurant). Virtually every piece of the American bureaucracy – representatives of more than 60 agencies -- is in residence. And by residence I mean working, eating, sleeping, exercising, and being entertained. I spoke to several people who had left the grounds only a few times in their one- or two-year tours of duty. They are not allowed to walk anywhere in Kabul (or elsewhere) but must go only in armored cars, wearing a full suit of body armor and helmet. The Embassy compound is less than a mile from the airport, but to get there is to run an obstacle course through a man-made valley of high, concrete blast walls. Every few yards is a steel telegraph poll to be raised, a group of security guards to be satisfied, a guard dog to sniff the car’s contents, a mine detector to be run under it. Then, as each barrier is passed, the driver zigzags, like a giant slalom skier, around massive concrete blocks to the next check point. I counted half a dozen. At each check point the identification procedure starts all over again to satisfy a new group of sober-faced, heavily-armed mercenaries. I particularly noted that in addition to their weapons, each man carried in his flak jacket at least a dozen extra clips of bullets – ready, no doubt for a prolonged siege. Overhead, a sausage-shaped balloon equipped with sensors keeps watch on the entire city and helicopters circle frequently. Armored cars and machinegun nests are discretely scattered about. No wonder the Afghans believe they are under occupation and that the Americans intend to stay. Not your typical happy neighborhood.

I had been invited to spend my first night as a guest of Ambassador Lt. General (rtd.) Karl Eikenberry and his charming wife, Ching. I will come back to them in a few moments, but I want first to continue with the physical aspect of life in Kabul.

Since Senator John Kerry had swooped in, unannounced until the last minute, I had to move over to a hotel on the morning of my second day in town. Getting there was not easy, but (obviously to clear the way for the Senator – my threat to become Republican did not save my bed) the embassy “speeded” me on my way in an armored car with an American-employed Afghan guide.

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William R. Polk served as an advisor to President John F. Kennedy and later became a professor of history at the University of Chicago, where he established the Center for Eastern Studies. More

William R. Polk served in President John F. Kennedy's administration, where he was the member of the Policy Planning Council responsible for much of the Islamic world, including Afghanistan. He later became professor of history at the University of Chicago and president of the Adlai Stevenson Institute of International Affairs. He is the author of 17 books including Understanding Iraq, Violent Politics and Understanding Iran. He is now at work on a book on Afghanistan to be entitled The Cockpit of Asia. His website is

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