Things I’m reading this morning:
A second round of voting now looks probable; it could help calm the country, or it could make things worse. In any event, the election is not yet an utter catastrophe. Two years ago, in Kenya, Mwai Kibaki allegedly stole his reëlection to the Presidency, and the country erupted in mass riots and militia killings. In June, Iran’s fraud-riddled vote ignited a protest movement with revolutionary ambitions. In Afghanistan, despite possibly decisive fraud, the opposition has barely thrown a rock. Abdullah Abdullah, the aggrieved second-place finisher, just holds press conferences in his garden.
It goes without saying that Afghans have had enough of violence. Abdullah’s restraint signals a broader, resilient desire among many political and tribal leaders to avoid having their country descend into chaos again. This is the opening that American policy has repeatedly failed to grasp since the Taliban’s fall in late 2001: an opportunity to reject the false expediency of warlords and indispensable men, in favor of deepening participatory, Afghan-led political reform and national reconciliation.
So backward has the theocracy made its wretched country that it is even vulnerable to sanctions on refined petroleum, for heaven’s sake. Unlike neighboring secular Turkey, which has almost no oil but is almost qualified—at least economically—to join the European Union, Iran is as much a pistachio-and-rug-exporting country as it was when the sadistic medievalists first seized power. So it wouldn’t be surprising in the least if a regime that has no genuine respect for science and no internal self-critical feedback had screwed up its rogue acquisition of modern weaponry. A system in which nothing really works except the military and the police will, like North Korea, end up producing somewhat spastic missiles and low-yield nukes, as well.
But spastic missiles and low-yield nukes can still ruin the whole day of a neighboring state, as well as make a travesty of the Non-Proliferation Treaty and such international laws and treaties as are left to us. Thus, if it is true that Iran is not as close to “break-out” as we have sometimes feared, should that not make our deliberations more urgent rather than less? Might it not mean, in effect, that now is a better time to disarm the mullahs than later?
In other words, this military campaign is not just a matter of troops versus guerrillas. It is becoming a rallying point for Muslim radicals, with volunteers coming in from Afghanistan and others from madrasahs from all over Pakistan — and with Pakistan’s own security hanging in the balance.
Tariq took responsibility for the recent horrific bombings in the Punjabi city of Lahore, which targeted Pakistani security forces, thus claiming that South Waziristan had a very long reach into the rest of the country.
Pakistani security forces also arrested some 300 Afghans on Sunday.
Eight days earlier, a Taliban faction had kidnapped me along with an Afghan journalist, Tahir Luddin, and our driver, Asad Mangal, during a reporting trip just outside Kabul. The faction’s commander, a man who called himself Atiqullah, had lied to us. He had said we were being moved to southern Afghanistan and would be freed.
Instead, on Nov. 18, we arrived in Pakistan’s tribal areas, an isolated belt of Taliban-controlled territory. We were now in “the Islamic emirate” — the fundamentalist state that existed in Afghanistan before the 2001 American-led invasion. The loss of thousands of Afghan, Pakistani and American lives and billions in American aid had merely moved it a few miles east, not eliminated it.
Through seven years of reporting in the region, I had pitied captives imprisoned here. It was arguably the worst place on earth to be an American hostage. The United States government had virtually no influence and was utterly despised.
Since 2004, dozens of missiles fired by American drones had killed hundreds of militants and civilians. The Taliban had held Afghan, Pakistani and foreign hostages in the area for years, trading lives for ransom and executions for publicity.
“We’re in Pakistan,” I said out loud in the car, venting my anger.
Afghans and Americans alike describe the country in those days as a poor nation, but one that built national roads, stood up an army and defended its borders. As a monarchy and then a constitutional monarchy, there was relative stability and by the 1960s a brief era of modernity and democratic reform. Afghan women not only attended Kabul University, they did so in miniskirts. Visitors — tourists, hippies, Indians, Pakistanis, adventurers — were stunned by the beauty of the city’s gardens and the snow-capped mountains that surround the capital.
“I lived in Afghanistan when it was very governable, from 1964 to 1974,” said Thomas E. Gouttierre, director of the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska, Omaha, who met recently in Kabul with Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top NATO commander in Afghanistan. Mr. Gouttierre, who spent his decade in the country as a Peace Corps volunteer, a Fulbright scholar and the national basketball team’s coach, said, “I’ve always thought it was one of the most beautiful places in the world.”
This is our life, and as the only two Westerners living permanently in Kandahar without blast walls and intrusive security restrictions to protect us, it has been a mix of isolation, boredom, disarmingly potent realizations, and outright depression in the face of what is happening. In our 18 months here, we have witnessed up close the ruinous consequences of a conflict in which no party has clean hands. We have spent countless hours talking with people of all persuasions in Kandahar, from mujahedeen who fought against the Soviets in the 1980s, to guerrillas who fought alongside the Taliban in the 1990s, to Afghans who fight against the Kabul government and foreign forces today. And we have learned that Kandahar defies simple categorization; far more understanding is necessary before we can appreciate how (and how many) mistakes have been made by the Western countries waging war here, let alone begin crafting a vision for the future.
Our Kandahar has many faces, though, not all branded by conflict. Life here is also about swimming in the nearby Arghandab River, enjoying the cool caramel taste of sheer yakh, and sitting among the branches of a friend’s pomegranate orchard. It’s listening to tales of the past 30 years told by those who directly influenced the course of history, and it’s watching the traditional atan dance at wedding celebrations.