The second aspect of the Russian economic program he thought was better
was that they did not provide cash to the Afghans. Of course, he said, they paid
salaries, but they brought in the equipment that was needed and paid, directly, for
work done with it. So, he believed, the problem of corruption of the Afghan
government then was far less than today.
The military policy of the Americans, he said, was roughly comparable to the
Russian. That is, except that it was more simple then: you either fought or you
collaborated. Today, the mixing of civic action, counterinsurgency, military
occupation and special operations makes a complex combination. However, reliance
on the military did not work for the Russians and, he believed strongly, would not
work for the Americans today.
What about the Russian involvement today? I asked.
There are two aspects, he replied. First, the Russians are worried about the
Central Asians and Caucasians who have come to fight for the Taliban. What are
they going to do when they go home? He wondered. “Some people,” he said, “think
that they will have just grown old and become tired of war. But I am not so sure.”
They are hardened veterans, and maybe they will take home what they learned here.
The second aspect, he said, is that if the Taliban win, they and their version of
PanIslamism will make an impact on the republics of former Soviet Central Asia.
I laughed and said, “the Domino theory in reverse.” He nodded.
“However,” he continued, “wherever the al-Qaida people are today, it is
important to remember that they were involved here before the Taliban arrived. The
Taliban found Usama bin Ladin already here. I suppose their getting together was a
matter of money. The Taliban had almost none and the Saudis had a lot. It was a
I commented that I understood that about a year ago, the Taliban put Usama
under what I guessed could be called “cave arrest.” Avetisyan laughed and said
“there are many reports.” Unquestionably, there have been severe strains in their
relationship. I do not think that they will exercise major influence on the Taliban.
Nor will the Taliban give them a free hand.
Returning to my major interest, I pressed about how and when one could
think of getting out. He said that it would take at least 5 years to develop an Afghan
army, and that to get out quickly now would probably plunge the country back into
I pursued the point. Should we consider early negotiations or wait? He replied
that to negotiate now would be difficult because the Karzai government is so
obviously weak. The Taliban, he said, have their men in every office of the
government and there are no secrets from them. I mentioned that after the Vietnam
war ended, we discovered that the South Vietnamese President’s chief of office
admitted to having worked for the Viet Minh throughout the war. “Well,” he said,
“it is even more pronounced here. The Taliban are everywhere.”
I mentioned that I was hearing that there are three options: get out now or
very soon; pull out the main military forces but leave behind “Special Ops” forces;
He replied that, of course, we must negotiate. Indeed, he said, his
information was that it was now on-going among the Afghans, but that the Pakistanis
were disturbed when the Afghans tried to do it alone. He mentioned the Pakistani
arrest a couple of months ago of two senior Taliban who were involved in
negotiations. (This was reported and variously interpreted in the Western press.)
But we could and must help the negotiation process, he said. He felt that in the
context of negotiation, it would be possible to begin to pull out, but that it should
not be precipitate.
The worst of all, he said, was what I had set out as the second option: to take
out the regular military and leave behind the Special Forces which operate like the
Soviet Spetssnaz. It would be far better to keep the regular army even at the high
point it has reached (which is larger than the Soviet force level) than to rely on the
Special Forces. The Special Forces are particularly hated by the Afghans, as were the
Spetssnaz, and, actually, are responsible for most of the really glaring abuses here.
They would ruin what reputation we have left. That would not be good for anyone,
I remarked that of course we could not control negotiations. He agreed and
said that he thought the Afghans could handle that when they decided that they had
Could we not create that condition? I asked. That is, by setting a firm date
for withdrawal? That would not undercut our position or marked affect the Taliban
strategy. After all, I pointed out, assuming that they are reasonably in touch with
the outside world, the Taliban leaders will know that support for continued military
action here has dropped to near zero in much of Europe and is in free fall among
those Americans who previously were the war’s main advocates. As an example I
mentioned the recent Newsweek article by Richard Haass (the president of the
Council on Foreign Relations, which I have mentioned above) under the title, “We
can’t win and it isn’t worth it.”
What setting a date would do, I argued, would take us to the position he had
just mentioned the Russians were careful to create, separating the economic from
the military policy. The purpose of what I had in mind, I went on, was to change the
“political psychology” of the war. Then, or gradually, village shuras, jirgas or ulus
would come to see that the opening of a clinic or building a canal was not a tactic in
the war. Rather, it was a benefit to the villagers. They would want those things and
would protect them. Then, if the Taliban opposed, they would lose the support of
the people. He said that he absolutely agreed with this. “It is the only way.”
I then laid out what I would like to see happen here: the reassertion, with
suitable modifications, of the traditional idea of the state. That is, a central
government with sufficient military power to protect itself and punish aggression but
with most emphasis on the economic and cultural means of integration. For
example, using foreign aid, controlled by the central government through something
like the American Corps of Engineers to undertake the major infrastructure
projects. Under this arrangement, the central government would control foreign
affairs including the generation of foreign aid while the provinces would handle their
local affairs in accordance with their cultural traditions. Over time their policies
would be influenced or swayed by the central government through the offer of
opportunities for technical training and education and funding for development
projects. Fairly rapidly, I thought, people in the provinces would be attracted to the
things the central government could offer. Again, he agreed, saying that is the only
real hope for the country.
“One can see,” he amplified my thought, “that we have done far too little on
education. There is no point in doing more big projects if the Afghans do not know
how to handle them and do not regard them as their own.”
We finally came to an issue on which he thinks we could beneficially
cooperate. The Salang Pass through the Hindu Kush mountains needs to be rebuilt. It
is the only feasible, economically viable passage between Central Asia and the Indian
Subcontinent. It would enable the Afghans to ship their goods more cheaply to the
outside world. It also is the supply route for the American army. And, perhaps most
important of all, it could be a joint Russian-American project which would both
symbolize and effect the transition from the still-remembered Cold War to a new era
of peace and stability. I promised to discuss it both with our AID director here and
with friends in Washington. I think it could really be the best thing to come out of
Afghanistan in many years.
Sadly, I was not able to see either the former Minister of Finance, Ashraf
Ghani, or the current Minister of Finance, Omar Zakhilwal, both of whom are out of
the country. Ghani, I am told, really ran Afghanistan for several years until
President Karzai became jealous and decided to get rid of him. Zakhilwal, I was told,
is not of his caliber but is also an able and intelligent man. As people here said – a
threat or a promise, I am not sure – “next time.”
Always seeking balance in what I was hearing, I arranged to have dinner with
the Afghanistan correspondent of The Guardian and The Economist, Jon Boone, and
the correspondent for The Times, Jerome Starkey, at a little restaurant with
banquets in place of tables and chairs, the Afghan style, called “the Sufi.” I was
wary about going there because the name sufi means “woolen” and is applied to that
group of Muslims who most closely resemble the mendicant followers of St. Francis
of Assisi – and they certainly did not care much about the quality of their food! It
actually turned out to be a very pleasant place – that is, after one passed through a
cordon of armed guards and the metal detector -- with an Afghanesque seating
arrangement on rugs with cushions. But after an hour, I began to feel my legs,
tucked up underneath me, grow numb. No longer am I the man who rode a camel
across Arabia! I could not be sure quite what I was eating in the dim light, but the
food, very Afghan, was very tasty. Anyway, I was not there for the food but to listen
to their opinions on the current situation.
Their opinions differed. Boone, an Oxford man who has been here three years,
thought that any serious move toward evacuation would throw the country back into
civil war while Starkey thought that a descent into civil war much less likely and
that, since leaving would happen anyway, it was a good idea to begin negotiation
soon. Both agreed that the current government is hopelessly corrupt and not really
reformable. Boone placed his hopes on the police, which he thought would take five
years to get in shape. He thought parts of the army, particularly the Afghan Special
Forces, some of whose officers had been trained at Sand Hurst, were relatively
sound, but only in the officer corps. The regular soldiers, he and Starkey agreed,
were at best unmotivated and at worst would swing quickly to the Taliban.
Both commented on the massive flight of money, which I have discussed above.
Boone remarked that the amount being exported shifted, depending on the Afghan
evaluation of the length of the American commitment. He also pointed to an aspect
of the Karzai policy I had not been aware of: the government goes into the market
place, here literally a market place, once a week and buys up Afghan currency (Afs)
with dollars. This has the effect of driving up the price of the local currency, and so
enables those who want to take out dollars to buy them more cheaply and giving
them a profit even before the money gets abroad. In short, Afghan government
financial practice was subsidizing the flight of currency to the benefit of the inner
circle and the warlords.
What do the Americans know about this? I asked. Probably everything, both
men replied, but this thought led them to comment on the fact that practically no
American ever leaves the Embassy compound. That was only in part a criticism as
both Boone and Starkey men thought it was probably better that the Americans were
less evident because, decked out in their body armor and helmets and surrounded by
guards, they were not popular. Both said the most disliked were the Special Forces
(aka “Special Ops”) who are believed to carry out at least a thousand raids a month
(!) and often with considerable brutality and always with little regard for Afghan
customs. Both remarked that until WikiLeaks published some of records, no one even
here had any idea about the scale or impact of this intrusion. Both regarded these
raids as a major cause of hatred of Americans and a great danger to the American
My last journalist contact was Joshua Partlow of The Washington Post. He
very kindly invited me to his house – which he more or less inherited when an attack
on the UN guest house induced the UN to make all of its personnel leave outlying
houses. The house, by American standards, was modest, but like all the buildings I
entered, it mustered its complement of armed guards and the double door entry. As
I walked in, I mused on what percentage of our income is today devoted to “security.”
Here in Afghanistan, it must just about match the amount paid out in bribes.
As I walked into the living room, I saw a huge double bass in the corner. How
wonderful, I thought, for a young reporter way off in the Wild East to have brought
this monstrous fiddle with him. What a task that must have been! He must be really
devoted to music. When I asked, he laughed and said, no, he did not play and did not
even know where the fiddle came from. It was in the house when he moved in,
perhaps abandoned by some previous occupant. Now, he said, it was just decoration.
Partlow shared the house with several other people including another
Washington Post reporter, David Nakamura and, Victoria Longo, a young woman
working at the UN office here. Also joining us for dinner were Keith Shawe, a English
botanist who worked for The Asia Foundation, an organization that was already
active in Afghanistan when I first came here in 1962, and a young Chinese-American
women, fresh from working at the USAID mission in Kandahar.
To my astonishment, Partlow produced a rare bottle of wine, and powered by
the unusual event, we went unraveled the Afghan predicament. Of course, that
meant going over much the same ground as all my other conversations, violence,
corruption, the question of how much or little the official Americans saw or
understood of the country, and where this is all heading. In summary, I found that
they were just as pessimistic as the better informed of my other contacts. The young
Chinese-American woman, Bayfang, had worked as a reporter before joining AID to
work in Kandahar. So she had experienced both the freedom of the reporters and the
“security” of the officials. She remarked on how hard it was to get permission to go
out of the guarded compound where, as in Kabul, all the official Americans lived, and
then only in body armor and with guards. No wonder, she said, the Americans could
not understand the country. They hardly saw it. The reporters, of course, used local
transport, mainly taxis, and usually went by themselves to call on Afghans or
foreigners in pursuit of their stories. The evening turned into a sort of college bull
session. They were all pessimistic. Things are going downhill.
Now I have the last and most interesting of all my talks now to relate.
Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef was the Taliban’s head of the central bank, deputy
minister of finance, acting minister of defense and ambassador to Pakistan. In short,
he was one of the most important men in the Taliban establishment. When Pakistan
withdrew its recognition of the Taliban government in 2001, he was abducted and
packed off to Bagram prison, to another prison in Kandahar and finally to
Guantánamo. Among them, as he recounts in his autobiography, My Life With The
Taliban, he was humiliated, repeatedly tortured, almost starved, sat upon, spat
upon, cursed, almost always deprived of a chance to pray, had his Qur’an sullied and
deprived of sleep for days on end. Finally after four years he released in 2005
without charges and allowed to return to Afghanistan. He now lives, more or less
under house arrest, in Kabul.
Arranging to see him also brought back memories for me: many years ago in
Cairo, I met and got to know Prince Abdul Karim al-Khatabi, the leader of the failed
Rif war of liberation against the Spaniards and the French. He too was packed off to
exile and held incommunicado by the French during the entire period of World War II.
Khatabi’s and Zaeef’s lives and personalities and social background were very
different, as were their experiences – Prince Abdul Karim was treated with respect
whereas Mullah Abdul Salam was tortured -- but both were leaders of their national
revolts. So, I approached this opportunity with excitement. I thought I could learn a
great deal from him.
By taxi, I went to see Mullah Abdul Salam with a translator. It took about an
hour to reach his neighborhood. We wandered about for a long time, unable to find
the house. The district had been virtually destroyed in the civil war and the area
where his house showed all the effects of both war and Afghan poverty. The streets
were flanked by the usual open sewers (juis) and almost blocked by rubbish and the
remains of collapsed buildings.
When we arrived, I went into the doorway past the usual collection armed
guards and up a modest flight of cement steps, then, as custom required, after
taking off my shoes, I went into Mullah Abdul Salam’s bare, but sofa-encircled
Rising, Mullah Abdul Salam greeted me shyly. I was not surprised. After all, I
was an unknown American and from his book and the comments of my journalist new
friends, I expected that he would be at least wary if not hostile. I wasn’t sure what
language we would use so I said to my translator to say how much I had looked
forward to meeting him after reading his book. The translator spoke a few words to
him, paused and then said, “sir, he wants to speak in English.” Since Pashto is
Zaeef’s native language, my Farsi speaking translator was perhaps in as weak a
language position as I.
So, during our talk, we went back and forth between English
and Arabic which, as a religious scholar, he spoke very well.
Mullah Abdul Salam is now 42 years old and was born in a village near
Kandahar. His father was the imam of a village mosque and the family, probably even
more than any of his farming neighbors, was very poor. His mother died when he was
a baby, of what he does not know, perhaps in childbirth. His older sister died shortly
thereafter and his father, when he was still a child. As he recounts in his
autobiography, his youth was grim. He was shunted from one relative to another and
had to struggle for the little education, both religious and secular, he got.
When the Russians invaded in 1979, he joined the great exodus of millions –
ultimately 6 million or about one Afghan in each two – to Pakistan where he lived in
several of the wretched refugee camps. At 15, he ran away from “home,” if one can
call a refugee tent that, joined the resistance against the Soviet invasion, fought as
a guerrilla, was caught in some nine ambushes and was severely wounded. During
this time, he joined the Taliban, as he told me, because it was more honest, less
brutal and more religious than the other resistance groups. By the time, he joined
it, Mullah Muhammad Umar had become the Taliban leader. At the end of the Soviet
occupation, the various guerrilla factions split, fought one another and, in the
desperate struggle for survival, becoming “warlords,” preyed upon the general
population. Meanwhile, the leaders of the Taliban, as he recounted, had stood down
or, more accurately, had returned to their schools and mosques. Finally, in reaction
to the warlords’ extortions, rapes and murders, the Taliban coalesced and
reemerged. Then began a period of negotiation, missionary activity in the name of
Islam and finally fighting that led the by-then greatly expanded Taliban into control
of most of Afghanistan and catapulted Mullah Abdul Salam into its most difficult civil
Today, those difficult times, and his even worse years in prison, hardly show.
He has just been removed from the UN and US “blacklist,” and now, as I found, lives
modestly in Kabul. He is a big man, not fat but portly, with penetrating black eyes
and a modest black beard. I was at some pains to establish at least the beginnings
of trust between us and must have succeeded because we spoke with some humor
(always a good sign) and candor. In our talk, I found no sign of animosity toward me
or even, as I expected from his autobiography, toward America and Americans.
After preliminaries, I asked what he saw ahead and how the Afghan tragedy
could be solved.
In reply, he said, “ it is very hard to devise a way, but we should know that
fighting is not the way. It won’t work. And it has many bad side effects such as
dividing the people for the government.”
Given his background I was surprised by his concern for Karzai’s government.
But as we talked, it was clear that he was thinking in terms broader than Karzai. He
meant that the Afghans must have an accommodation to government, per se, if they
are heal their wounds and improve their condition.
The only realistic way ahead, he went on, “is respect for the Afghan people
and their way whereas America is now relying wholly on force. Force didn’t work for
the British or the Russians and it won’t work for the Americans.” (I doubt that Mullah Abdul Salam could have heard it, but his opinion was borne out by the
commander of one of the US strike forces in southern Afghanistan, Lt. Col. David Flynn, a
career officer who also had served in Iraq. He told a reporter from The Mclatchy Newspapers
on August 19, “We’ve killed hundreds and thousands of Taliban over nine years, and killing
another thousand this year is not going to be the difference.”) The word
“respect” often figured in his remarks, as from my study of Afghanistan and the
Arabs and Iranians, I knew it would.
But instead of working toward peace, he said and I paraphrase, America has
created obstacles to peace which only it can remove. But here, he said, was a
complete block: America has put the Taliban leaders on a black list, a “wanted”
list, and they know that they will be killed if they surface to negotiate. Without
their removal from the “capture or kill” list and a guarantee of safety from kidnap
or murder, they cannot negotiate; trying to make contact with the Karzai regime is
sure to get them killed. Perhaps they have even tried. He said that he did not know
if Karzai and any of the Taliban leadership were in contact, but under these
circumstances, he doubted it. While he admitted (and the Taliban have
announced) that he is not authorized to speak for Mullah Muhammad Umar, he
thought that the American troops did not need actually to pull out before
negotiations could begin. If it was certain that they were going to do so, then
negotiations could be got underway. That seemed to contradict some of the Taliban
pronouncements, demanding withdrawal before negotiation, but it is, I believe, itself
a negotiable issue.
So how do the Taliban see a post-US-controlled Afghanistan? I asked.
He replied that “it all depended on how it comes about. If it comes through
negotiation, then probably the Taliban will be content with genuine participation in
the government, but if it comes through force, then the Taliban will take
I asked about what he has been doing since his autobiography was translated.
He perhaps did not quite understand my question and said that he was in Guantánamo
until he was released. He suddenly asked me how old I am and, when I replied with
my august status, he said “good. There was a man in Guantanamo who also was old
and he was gentle with me. The younger men were not.”
That brought up the question of the American policy of targeting and killing
the leadership. I said that I thought that such actions would open the way for
younger, more radical men. Yes, he agreed, that would certainly happen but the
senior, “old,” leadership is still intact, living, he said, off somewhere in Pakistan.
The usual guess is in the city of Quetta, which historically was a part of Afghanistan.
I turned to the issue of al-Qaida, saying that their activities, their composition
and their relationship with the Taliban was what really interested most Americans.
He confirmed what the Russian ambassador had told me: Usama bin Ladin was
already operating in Afghanistan before the Taliban came into power. Of course,
Mullah Abdul Salam said, almost echoing the words of the Russian ambassador, the
Taliban needed money and Usama was almost the only available source. All the
Afghans, Mullah Abdul Salam emphasized, have the tradition of granting sanctuary
(melmastia) to a guest. It is mandatory. Moreover, Usama was the enemy of the
enemies of the Taliban. So there was an understanding. But after 2002, he said,
“that understanding lapsed, asylum for Usama was withdrawn and the Qaida fighters,
including Usama, are no longer in Afghanistan. [American military and intelligence
sources have publicly confirmed this.] They will not come back. The Taliban will not
allow them to return.”
When Mullah Abdul Salam returned to Afghanistan, he said, he three times
met with President Karzai who asked him to participate in the great national
assembly, the Loya Jirga. He said he told Karzai that it was not proper to have a
Loya Jirga during occupation by foreign forces and urged him not to hold it. He also
told Karzai, he said, he personally could not, under the circumstances, participate.
I asked if he saw Americans. Yes, he replied an American general once came
to call on him, asking what was the best way to arm Afghans to fight the Taliban.
He didn’t laugh, as I expected he would.
What about the American aid program? I asked. Granting aid, he said, had a
bad effect “because it split families. If a man took American money, making him a
traitor to Afghanistan and to Islam, his own brother was apt to kill him.” But, I said,
in other circumstances would it not be good? “Oh, certainly,” he replied. So, I
added, then we must change the circumstances. He nodded.
Musing, he said he was often asked to compare the Russians and the
Americans. On the good side, he said, the Russians came by invitation from an
existing government whereas the Americans invaded. But, on the bad side, the
Russians were far more brutal than the Americans, bombing whole villages, killing
perhaps a million people. On their side, he went on, the Americans at least brought
the UN with them and that was a good thing for Afghanistan. The Americans,
however, were here only in opposition to the Russians and when there was no Russian
threat they left. I was surprised by what I inferred was almost nostalgia in his
remark. It was nearly what I had heard from Dr. Samar on the role America could
have played in 2002.
I then raised the issue of the brutality of the Taliban. I did not mention the
recent UN report on the injuries inflicted by the Taliban on Afghan civilians as I am
sure he would think that these are inevitable in a guerrilla war. Instead, I raised the
issue of the execution by stoning of an Afghan woman. I remarked that such barbaric
practice gave a horrible image of the Taliban even though such execution was
authorized by both the Old Testament and the Qur’an. But we no longer believed in
it. Can the Taliban modernize? I asked.
He shrugged. “What can you expect now? The Taliban are completely
isolated, under constant attack, and naturally this throws them back onto old ways.
They cannot afford to relax even on such matters.”
I asked about his own religious observance. It being Ramadan, he was of
course fasting. I asked if he went to the little mosque I had seen nearby in his
capacity as a mullah. Oh no, he said, he was not allowed to for his own safety. That
remark also surprised me. Was he afraid of the Taliban? I asked. He rather ducked
that question, saying only that he did go to the mosque for the Friday congregational
prayer. But, although he did not specify, it was clear that in the circumstances of
Afghanistan today, as I saw everywhere I turned, almost anyone of any standing was
unsure where danger might arise. Also, the government would not probably not
approve his attendance at a place where he might influence the population. Better
to pray at home.
He said he has written a second book, also in Pashto, somewhat like his first.
The publishers of his autobiography, he said, refused to pay him royalties as he was
on the black list. So he asked that they just hold the money, but, in the end, they
refused to give him anything. I suggested that he should write an article on how to
end the war and plan to contact Rick MacArthur to see if Harpers would be
Abdul Salam has been invited, he said, by the European parliament to visit
Europe. But he had not applied for a visa. He said he had only recently been free to
do so, and he had to remember that he was a guest in the country and must not do
anything that might embarrass his hosts. [WRP: I have discussed elsewhere the limits
of refuge and the control of “guests.”]
As I was leaving, he said that he was expecting the German ambassador.
And, indeed, as I went out, there were four big armored cars with a dozen or so men
armed with wicked looking machineguns, eyeing me suspiciously, and a small group of
German diplomats, waiting to go in.
I was amused that they did not even look sheepish when, by myself without
armed guards, I walked passed them to my taxi.