I challenged Caldwell about reports of 90 percent illiteracy in the Afghan security forces. He answered: “The recruits may not know how to read, but they are incredibly street-smart. They’re survivalists. Basic soldiering here does not require literacy. We give them a course in how to read and issue them pens afterwards. They take tremendous pride in that. In Afghanistan, a pen in a shirt pocket is a sign of literacy. We’re three or four years behind Iraq in building an army, but if the ground situation improves, like in Iraq, political and media pressure will dissipate, and that will buy time.”
A deal with the insurgents constitutes another part of a withdrawal strategy. While becoming more organizationally formidable since 9/11, the Taliban have also modified their behavior. Mullah Omar has sent out a directive banning beheadings and unauthorized kidnappings as well as other forms of violent and criminal activity, according to both Al-Jazeera and ISAF officials. “In a way, we’re seeing a kinder, gentler Taliban,” said both Commander Eggers and General Flynn. Moreover, in working with the tribes in the spirit of Churchill’s Malakand Field Force, Flynn, the intelligence chief, went so far as to suggest that the insurgent leaders Jalaluddin Haqqani and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar are both “absolutely salvageable.” “The HIG already have members in Karzai’s government, and it could evolve into a political party, even though Hekmatyar may be providing alQaeda leaders refuge in Kunar. Hekmatyar has reconcilable ambitions. As for the Haqqani network, I can tell you they are tired of fighting, but are not about to give up. They have lucrative business interests to protect: the road traffic from the Afghanistan-Pakistan border to Central Asia.” Lamb, the former SAS commander, added: “Haqqani and Hekmatyar are pragmatists tied to the probability of outcomes. With all the talk of Islamic ideology, this is the land of the deal.”
Again, the resemblance to the 1980s is telling, with leading anti-Soviet combatants like Haqqani and Hekmatyar central to the military equation, and a partially irrelevant Karzai: today ISAF officials talk quietly about working around Karzai by dealing directly with the ministries of interior and defense, and with the offices of the provincial governors, all of which they are fortifying with Western advisers.
The possibility of reaching an accommodation with some insurgents against others, as elusive as it may be, suggests how nonlinear the future is, and how deterministic a linear perspective can be. As in Iraq, surprises lie in store, and they might even be good ones: in so many places in Afghanistan, I saw the raw potential of this country. Despite a deadly, intimidating geography of steep and icy peaks that seem to stretch into infinity when seen from the air, in Afghanistan’s cities I encountered many an intellectual in a cold room with boxy furniture, passionately seeking to move beyond ethnic politics to a democratic, liberal universalism. They reminded me of the civil-society types I had met in Eastern Europe during the Cold War, in cities that, like Kabul, stank of lignite in winter. Then there was Herat, an old Silk Road nexus in western Afghanistan, which, despite 30 years of war, had changed remarkably for the better since I had last seen it, as a backpacker in 1973. Back then it was a ramshackle, Wild West town with barely a paved road. Now it is a sprawling, bustling city with malls, on the same level of development as many places in central Turkey that I knew from the 1980s: an improvement replicated in Mazar-e-Sharif, Jalalabad, and other urban areas here, with Kandahar being the striking exception. “Despite 30 years of war,” McChrystal said, in his office, rubbing his eyes from lack of sleep, “civilization grows here like weeds.”
Now the American military is about to bear down hard on Greater Kandahar, where Taliban- and Karzai-affiliated warlords hold considerable sway. “We will get to about 33 percent of the Afghan landmass in the next 15 months or so, affecting 60 percent of the population,” Rodriguez assured me. Once again, we might be poised to overcome the vast, impersonal forces of fate, even as we contribute to our own troubled destiny as a great power.