In early October, the president's plan for a surge was once again contradicted by his top advisers. American intelligence agencies drafting a classified report on the war warned that Afghanistan is in a "downward spiral" fueled by worsening violence and rampant corruption. Defense Secretary Robert Gates also admitted to Congress that the Pentagon is stretched so thin in Iraq, it will be unable to meet even a modest request for 10,000 more troops in Afghanistan until next spring at the earliest.
But those closest to the chaos in Afghanistan say that throwing more soldiers into combat won't help. "More troops are not the answer," a senior United Nations official in Kabul tells me. "You will not make more babies by having many guys screw the same woman."
It is a point echoed in dozens of off-the-record interviews I conducted in Kabul with leading Western diplomats, security experts, former mujahedeen and Taliban commanders, and senior officials with the U.N. and prominent aid organizations. All agree that the situation is, in the words of one official, "incredibly bleak." Using suicide bombers and other tactics imported from Iraq, the Taliban have cut Kabul off from the rest of the country and established themselves as the only law in many rural villages. "People don't want the Taliban back, but they're afraid to back the government," says one top diplomat. "They know the Taliban will ride into the village and behead anybody who has made a deal with the coalition."
According to the diplomat, military solutions are simply no longer viable. "The analysis of our intelligence people is that things are getting worse," he says. "CIA analysts are extremely gloomy and worried. You have an extremely weak president in Afghanistan, a corrupt and ineffective ministry of the interior, an army with no command or control, and a dysfunctional international alliance."
As one top official with a Western aid organization put it, "We're simply not up to the task of success in Afghanistan. I'm increasingly unsure about a way forward — except that we should start preparing our exit strategy."
To travel with the Taliban and see firsthand how they operate, I contacted a well-connected Afghan friend in Kabul and asked him to make the introductions. He knew many groups of fighters in Afghanistan, but said he would only trust my security if those I accompanied knew that they and their families would be killed if anything happened to me. Through a respected dignitary, I was connected with Mullah Ibrahim, who commands 500 men in the Dih Yak district of Ghazni. We met at my friend's office in Kabul on a hot, sunny afternoon. Midlevel Taliban leaders like Ibrahim move freely about the capital, like any other Afghan: U.S. forces lack the intelligence and manpower to identify enemy commanders, let alone apprehend them. (To protect Ibrahim's identity, I agreed to change his name.)
Now in his 40s, Ibrahim has been fighting with the Taliban since the 1990s. He walks with a pronounced limp: He lost his right leg below the knee in the country's civil war, and he had undergone surgery only the week before to repair nerve damage he suffered in a recent firefight. At first he told me his wounds were from an American bullet, but I later learned he had been injured in a clash with a rival Taliban commander.
After our meeting, Ibrahim promised to contact the Taliban minister of defense and request approval for my trip. As I waited for word, I went to a market in Kabul and bought several sets of salwar kameez, the traditional tunic and baggy pants worn by Afghan men. I had grown my beard longer to pass as an Afghan, and before leaving New York I had supplemented my Arabic and basic Farsi with a week of Berlitz classes in Pashtu, the language spoken by the ethnic group that dominates the Taliban. Pashtu is not exactly in high demand, and the book Berlitz gave me was clearly designed for military purposes. It contained a list of military ranks, including "General of the Air Force," and offered a helpful list of weapons, including "land mines" and "bullets." It also provided the Pashtu translation for a host of important phrases: Show me your ID card. Let the vehicle pass. You are a prisoner. Hands up. Surrender. If I wanted to arrest an Afghan, I was now prepared. The book did not include the phrase I needed most: Ze talibano milmayam. "I am a guest of the Taliban."
On a Saturday afternoon, Ibrahim picks me up in a white Toyota Corolla, its dashboard covered in fake gray fur. His friend Shafiq is behind the wheel, wearing a cap embroidered with rhinestones. Afghan culture places a premium on courtesy, and Shafiq comes across as unfailingly polite. At one point, almost casually, he mentions that he has personally executed some 200 spies, usually by beheading them. "First I warn people to stop," he says, emphasizing his fair-mindedness. "If they continue, I kill them."
Shafiq, who fought the Soviets with the mujahedeen, now commands Taliban fighters in the Andar district of Ghazni. "Andar is a very bad place," an intelligence officer in Kabul tells me. "The Taliban show a lot of confidence and freedom of movement there." While coalition forces have focused on driving the insurgents from the south, they failed to maintain a buffer in central regions like Ghazni, where the Taliban now routinely pull people off buses and execute them. "They have that level of control right on Kabul's front door," the officer adds. "Environments regarded as extreme two years ago are much worse now. There has been a staggering intensification."
As we head south, Shafiq tells me that fighters from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Uzbekistan have come through the Andar district. Most are suicide bombers, but some fight alongside the Taliban. He is impressed with their skill, but like many Taliban, he doesn't care for their politics. "Pakistan and Iran are not friends of Afghanistan," Shafiq says dismissively. "They don't want peace in Afghanistan — they want to take Afghanistan." Despite their extremely conservative views on religion, most Taliban are fundamentally nationalist and Afghan-centric. They accept the support of Al Qaeda, but that doesn't mean they approve of its tactics. "Suicide attacks are not good because they kill Muslims," Shafiq says.
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