Michael Ware


TIME: Remember Afghanistan?


Hamid Karzai is lonely. He is huddled, as always, deep inside his presidential palace in Kabul, protected by towering stone walls, growling dogs and U.S. bodyguards. Visitors to the palace must undergo three separate body searches before passing through the arched gates, all under the gaze of trained marksmen standing sentry in a watchtower.

On this day in February, a driving blizzard has made Karzai's lair seem even more forbidding. Only one person gets through unchallenged: Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan. Inside Karzai's office, the two men converse in English and Dari, one of Afghanistan's two official languages. Karzai, who out of fear of assassination rarely leaves the palace, asks Khalilzad how things look in the country he governs but almost never sees. Khalilzad unfurls a large map and points out various reconstruction projects marked in red and green ink--a network of roads and schools and irrigation canals that will be built, he says, as soon as the U.S. and NATO bring order to Afghanistan. Karzai nods impatiently but brightens when he locates the one major rebuilding achievement of his tenure: a 300-mile road linking Kabul to Kandahar. "Do you know how long it took to reach Kandahar before?" he asks. "Twelve hours, sometimes 18. Now I had a delegation that made it there in 3 hours and 45 minutes." He laughs. "Of course," he says, "we have no speed limits."

For Karzai and for the Bush Administration, there is no time to waste. Two years have passed since several hundred U.S. ground troops and 15,000 Northern Alliance fighters ousted the Taliban in retaliation for the Sept. 11 attacks, ending the mullahs' oppressive rule and destroying the sanctuary from which Osama bin Laden directed his murderous minions. Having scored a blockbuster opening victory in its war on terrorism, the Bush Administration committed itself to winning the peace--pledging billions of dollars in aid, deploying 11,000 troops to hunt for remnants of the Taliban and al-Qaeda, and pinning its credibility on Karzai, the regal President who the U.S. hoped could manage the country's combustible ethnic mix and rein in its notorious warlords. Making Afghanistan a stable democracy friendly to the West would not just deal a blow to bin Laden and the brutes who once ruled the country but also help win over hearts and minds across the Islamic world. Says Khalilzad, the Afghan-American who took charge of the U.S. embassy in Kabul last November: "The reputation of the Bush Administration is associated with Afghanistan."

The White House says Afghanistan is on the right track. "The men and women of Afghanistan are building a nation that is free and proud and fighting terror," President George W. Bush said in January's State of the Union address. But that optimistic picture obscures the depths of the country's woes. In interviews with Afghans, diplomats and military commanders across the country, TIME has found that while Afghans have been freed from the Taliban's depraved strictures, their daily lives remain blighted by violence and fear. Because of the paltry number of foreign peacekeepers--about 20,000, in contrast to 130,000 troops in Iraq--and Karzai's inability to extend his grip outside Kabul, most of Afghanistan is under the sway of truculent warlords who in many cases finance armed militias through a resurgent opium trade. The Taliban show signs of a comeback, with forces loyal to Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar--believed to be hiding in Afghanistan or Pakistan--now controlling nearly one-third of the country's territory.

So another military showdown is looming. U.S. military officials believe that Taliban fighters are preparing to launch an offensive against the U.S. and its Afghan allies this spring. "As the weather gets better and as people are better able to travel in the rougher terrain, we expect an increase in violence," says General Richard Myers, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. A senior U.S. military official told TIME that U.S. forces will soon mount a spring offensive of their own, in the tribal areas along the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan. The goal is to flush out bin Laden from his lair and capture or kill him. The U.S. is not expected to openly announce the true intent of the offensive, which will focus on an area stretching from Jalalabad, near Afghanistan's eastern border, to Kandahar, a former Taliban stronghold in the south. The official says a small contingent of special-operations troops taken out of Afghanistan for the war in Iraq--including members of the elite Joint Task Force 121, which helped track down Saddam Hussein--will be reinserted for the offensive. While the U.S. pushes east along a broad front, Pakistani forces will push west, flooding the tribal areas in what Lieut. General David Barno, commander of U.S.-led coalition forces in Afghanistan, calls a "hammer and anvil" strategy. "The idea is to come up with O.B.L. in the bargain," says a senior military official. "They are not going to say that's the goal, but it's the goal."

The hunt for bin Laden is intensifying at a time when the Administration is struggling to pull off its other major goal in Afghanistan: the holding of the country's first free elections, scheduled for June. So far, the U.N. has managed to register just 9% of the country's 10.5 million eligible voters. Taliban rebels have threatened to kill U.N.-sponsored election teams and burn down schools and mosques where Afghans are signing up to vote. Karzai said last week that the elections may be postponed because of lagging voter registration. Despite the Bush Administration's desire to trumpet the birth of Afghan democracy, a delay is almost inevitable. "We should have five years to pull off these elections, not four months," says a U.N. official. Lieut. Colonel Christopher Bentley, U.S. commander for security in Kandahar, concurs: "The country is not ready. [The election] will probably have to be pushed back. We've still got a long road to go."

Does the U.S., consumed by another conflict 1,400 miles to the west, have the will to see it through? In general terms, the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan has been less costly than the war in Iraq. The military spends $900 million a month on Afghan operations, in contrast to $4 billion a month in Iraq. While U.S. soldiers in Iraq are dying at a rate of about one a day, in Afghanistan the U.S. suffers an average of one casualty a week. But in both countries, the U.S. has attempted to nation-build on the cheap, limiting the numbers of troops committed to postwar tasks, and in both places, the military has been undermined by the challenges of trying to keep peace where it doesn't yet exist. Only now are U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan starting to make up for lost time. The U.S. recently moved 40-soldier platoons into villages along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, where they live among the locals and glad-hand tribal leaders in exchange for intelligence on the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

As long as bin Laden and his lieutenants remain on the loose, the fate of Afghanistan and its 28 million people will remain inseparable from the security of the U.S. Both American and Afghan officials say that if the U.S. fails to stabilize Afghanistan and establish conditions for democracy, the country could quickly slide into the kind of chaos that bin Laden and his ilk would no doubt love to exploit. "If the U.S. military pulls out," Karzai tells TIME, "al-Qaeda would be back within six months, plotting attacks against America."


U.S. military and intelligence officials are cautiously optimistic that their prey is within reach. The U.S.'s military spokesman in Afghanistan, Lieut. Colonel Brian Hilferty, said in January he was "sure" bin Laden and Omar would be captured this year. The deployment of special-forces teams to border villages has produced a spike in intelligence from locals about possible al-Qaeda hideouts. A U.S. officer in Afghanistan says American forces are employing techniques similar to those used to capture Saddam, combing bin Laden's network of contacts and interrogating anyone with information about the people who might be giving him shelter. The drive to snare bin Laden has been bolstered by improved cooperation with Pakistan, which has dispatched a 70,000-man force to the tribal region.

For all that, the U.S. has only a rough idea of where bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, are hiding. A Pakistani tribal elder told TIME he believes bin Laden may be holed up somewhere in a sprawling, mountainous swath of territory that extends from Khost, in eastern Afghanistan, south to Angoorada, in the Waziristan region of Pakistan. According to diplomats in Kabul, the area's unique vegetation was seen in bin Laden's latest videotaped statement. The tension in the border region is already high. On Saturday, Pakistani soldiers shot up a bus that tried to force its way through a checkpoint in South Waziristan, killing 11 people.


Many Afghans wonder whether Karzai is tough enough to rule a land long defined by tribal rivalries and blood feuds. "Karzai?" says a waiter at a kebab restaurant in Kabul. "He's too nice. He should be a schoolteacher." Educated in India, the President, 46, says he was influenced by Mohandas Gandhi, which may account for his conciliatory style. He seems more at ease asking questions than he does issuing orders. "No one is close to having Karzai's control and popularity," says Khalilzad. "He has moral authority, and he's not seen as ethnically prejudiced." But that's different from being fully in charge of the nation.

At best, Karzai's government has managed to restore dignity to parts of the country brutalized by the Taliban's tyranny. The sky above Kabul is filled with kites, which were banned as un-Islamic under the Taliban. Giggling teenagers pack the capital's 40 or so Internet cafes. Since 2002, some 3 million new students have enrolled in Afghan schools, partly as a result of the lifting of the Taliban's ban on education for girls ages 10 and older. A few young women in Kabul have shed the burqas that were the most obvious symbols of the Taliban's oppression, replacing them with jeans and overcoats. As a result of the lifting of sanctions and the infusion of $5 billion in foreign aid, the Afghan economy has grown more than 20% in each of the past two years. "After two years, people are more confident in the government," says Abdul Jamil Sapand, a radio broadcaster in Kandahar. "They feel more free to complain."

That said, there's still plenty to complain about. Afghanistan is years away from stability. The new national army has enlisted just 5,700 soldiers and last year suffered a 22% desertion rate, according to NATO officials. It doesn't venture far outside Kabul. In an interview with TIME, Karzai acknowledged that he needs help. "Afghanistan is not yet capable of standing on its own feet, of defending or sustaining itself," he says.


For now, political power in Afghanistan is concentrated in the hands of people like Hazrat Ali. On a typical day, Ali chats with visitors while nibbling sugared almonds in the garden of his two-story house in Jalalabad. A few gunmen wearing wraparound sunglasses prowl outside. Ali is stoop-shouldered and has an affable air that belies his steeliness. Since December 2001, when U.S. forces gave Ali control of an area of Jalalabad in exchange for his assistance in the siege of the al-Qaeda stronghold of Tora Bora, Ali has steadily expanded his power, refusing to brook challenges to his authority. Last month, when Ali was the dinner host of a brash young Taliban-friendly commander named Ismatullah, his men opened fire on Ismatullah's bodyguards, killing five of them. Ali now controls town hall, pays salaries to traffic cops and settles land disputes. "Before, I was commander of 100 men, and now I'm in charge of a city of 1 million," he says. "It's not easy."

For the Afghans and the Americans, the rise of warlords like Ali has proved one of the most vexing obstacles to progress. There are more than a dozen major regional warlords, all former commanders in the mujahedin who defeated the Soviet army in the 1980s. The most powerful ones, like Ismail Khan in Herat, lead armies of as many as 40,000 men, with old Soviet tanks and artillery pieces at their disposal.

America's role in supporting the warlords has been mixed. Many, like Ali, owe their power to the patronage of the U.S., which handed control of swaths of territory to local commanders after the fall of the Taliban. That decision was born of necessity: the U.S. never intended to commit a military force big enough to secure the entire country, and Karzai still doesn't have much of an army. "It seemed a reasonable thing to do," says Khalilzad. "If we went in with a large force, then the Afghans might have thought we were behaving like the Soviets." A senior U.S. military official says, "A lot of these guys are doing the right things. They are paving roads and building schools. The rule is this: You don't mess with me, and I won't mess with you."

But that strategy has come with costs. Afghans say the warlords have engaged in behavior almost comparable to the abuses of the Taliban. The Kabul-based Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission last year documented dozens of forced marriages, scores of illegal land grabs in Kabul and several executions committed by Afghan commanders who at some point received U.S. support. Last month the governor of Helmand province allowed a mob of 500 in the village of Kajaki to put on display the corpse of a Taliban fighter.

The Karzai government has attempted to rein in recalcitrant warlords. Most recently Karzai appointed Kandahar strongman Gul Agha Sherzai, a U.S.-installed warlord who has been dogged by accusations of corruption and nepotism, to a Cabinet position in Kabul as a way of keeping him under close watch. But Afghan officials say Karzai is wary of cracking down too hard for fear that the warlords will lash back. In Kabul alone, militias loyal to former President Burhanuddin Rabbani and current Defense Minister Mohammed Qasim Fahim number nearly 50,000. That's enough to overwhelm, if they wanted to, the 6,000 NATO peacekeepers and take over the presidential palace. Government officials outside the capital are even more outmanned. "The warlords still have guns, they still have men, and until that changes there's nothing we can do," says a senior police officer in Kandahar. "The areas they capture are theirs to exploit."

The warlords' land grabs have been sustained by the return of Afghanistan's most lucrative cash crop: opium. Outlawed by the Taliban in 2000, opium-poppy cultivation has spread from eight provinces in 1994 to 28 today. U.N. experts expect this year's crop to yield 3,600 tons of opium--75% of the world's heroin. According to the U.N., the combined income of poppy farmers and opium smugglers last year was $2.32 billion--equal to half of Afghanistan's official GDP. A Western anti-narcotics expert in Kabul estimates that 60% of the country's regional warlords are profiting from the drug traffic, using the cash to fund their armies and, in doing so, weakening the reach of Karzai's government in the provinces. A Cabinet minister who tried to stop traffickers two years ago was assassinated in Kabul, reportedly by a drug cartel. "Our national interests are at stake," says Mirwais Yasini, head of the Counter-Narcotics Directorate in Kabul. "We're facing anarchy."


The country's disorder, U.S. and Afghan officials say, has been a boon for the Taliban. The regime's leadership survived U.S. bombs in 2001, retreating to border towns in Pakistan. From there, the mullahs reconstituted their military chain of command and tasked followers to form bombmaking and sabotage cells, according to a NATO source. A senior American official says the U.S. has encountered the most resistance from resurgent Taliban and al-Qaeda forces in the Zabul province near Kandahar. Their fighters move in groups of 15 to 20 and avoid attention. Their aim: to kill anyone cooperating with U.S. forces. "They are smart," says the official.

And now they are raising the stakes. Two months ago, the Taliban claimed responsibility for two suicide bombings that killed a Canadian and a British soldier. Last week, just the day before Karzai declared the Taliban "defeated," five members of an Afghan nonprofit group were shot dead by suspected militants. In Spin Boldak, a dusty smugglers' crossroads in southeastern Afghanistan, the Taliban have launched four major ambushes from Pakistani hideouts against Afghan government outposts over the past nine months, killing dozens. Abdul Raziq, the pro-U.S. garrison commander in Spin Boldak, says he has received intelligence from tribal allies in border towns like Chaman that the Taliban are gearing up for a major guerrilla campaign. "They are coming," he says. "It's only a matter of time."

Their goal, Afghan military officials say, is to capture small districts in Afghanistan's lawless hinterlands from which they can harass the U.S. and its allies. "They haven't yet secured bases in the cities to begin operations," says General Khan Mohammed, a corps commander in Kandahar. "But in the rural areas they are back."

Afghan security officials complain that their Pakistani counterparts continue to tolerate--and even encourage--militancy by the Taliban, which Pakistan's intelligence service, the ISI, helped create in the mid-1990s in a bid to make Afghanistan a client state. At the highest levels, Pakistan's Establishment remains "nostalgic" for the Taliban, says a Western diplomat. Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has cooperated in the hunt for al-Qaeda's top officials but has shown less enthusiasm for rooting out the Taliban. Until Pakistan's security services stop sheltering Taliban leaders, U.S. officials say, Afghanistan will never be free from the threat of their return. U.S. intelligence officials in Washington told TIME that the U.S. possesses satellite photos that purportedly show Pakistani army trucks picking up Taliban troops fleeing back across the border after a failed attack. After the U.S. confronted Pakistani officials with the photographs, signs of visible Pakistani aid to the rebels ceased. U.S. and Afghan officials say the U.S. has also provided Islamabad with specific locations of two dozen suspected Taliban hideouts in the tribal badlands. But so far no fugitives have been arrested.


No one is more cognizant of the threats to the future of Afghanistan than the 11,000 U.S. soldiers who call its deserts and redoubts home. Deployed at the front line of Washington's war on terrorism, the U.S. commanders believe they have the enemy on the run even if bin Laden remains at large. "I don't think we're facing 'good' al-Qaeda," says Lieut. Colonel Mike Howard, who commands the 10th Mountain Division's two bases at Orgun-e and Shkin, referring to the battle-tested brigades that faced off against the U.S. forces when they first arrived. "I wouldn't have said that two years ago." Members of the 10th Mountain Division who have returned to Afghanistan for their second tour of duty say the change is noticeable. "It's a different environment today from what it was then," says Lieut. Colonel Bentley. "We might be treading water, but we're not sipping air through a straw like before."

While they sound upbeat, the commanders are worried that one catastrophic event--like an attack on Karzai, who will be campaigning outside Kabul this spring--could shatter the current fragile peace. The U.S. military presence in Afghanistan remains the only guarantor that the country will not fall apart. "If we left," says a U.S. official, "Karzai would be dead within days." So the troops are staying--and attempting, at least, to kick-start the reconstruction of a country the U.S. has now effectively inherited.

Is it enough to get Afghanistan back on its feet? Marine General James Jones, the military chief of NATO, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in January that while the insurgents pose little military threat to allied forces, the U.S. and its allies do not have enough troops in Afghanistan to carry out reconstruction tasks, train a new Afghan army and hunt terrorists. The light footprint means fewer American troops have been put at risk, but it has left the U.S.'s Afghan allies even more exposed to danger. After U.S. patrols retreat to their firebases, Afghans say, the Taliban creep back into villages to murder collaborators, usually local policemen. "We are helpless," says Mansour Mehboob, a police chief in an outpost along the Kunar River in Afghanistan. "We have only the bullets in our [guns], nothing more. And the enemy is all around us."

That should be enough to keep U.S. forces in Afghanistan for years--if only because the enemy is the same one that attacked on Sept. 11. But the war in Iraq has strained the military's resources and soured portions of the U.S. public on the virtues of open-ended military interventions. In Afghanistan, many believe that the Taliban and their sympathizers are betting they need only wait until the U.S.'s patience runs out. The military leaders, if not the political ones, remain conscious of that possibility. "We don't have to win," says Howard, the commander of the Orgun-e firebase. "We just have to not lose." And the game is a long way from being over.

--With reporting by Michael Duffy and Mark Thompson/Washington