Sheer desperation is driving many Afghans back into the arms of the fanatical Taliban movement. Once again, the holy warriors have taken control of entire regions and are seeking to ensnare the Western allies in a bloody guerilla war.
The two Western intelligence agents in Kabul can finally breathe a sigh of relief. This day, this bloody, violent day, is finally drawing to a close. It seems like the beginning of the end.
Bombs went off at hourly intervals in the Afghan capital. The first struck a military bus ferrying young Afghan soldiers downtown. Screaming, the blood-soaked officers scrambled through the shattered windows, flames licking at their uniforms. In all, 39 people were hurt. The next exploded beside a bus filled with employees from the Trade Ministry. Six civilians were seriously injured; one didn't make it to the hospital. A third blast in the eastern part of the city ripped apart another army transporter.
The two agents are sitting on the terrace fronting their office in the southwestern district of Karta-i-Se, sipping whisky. It's 8 p.m. The air is sultry as twilight slips its dark veil across the sky, creating the beguiling illusion of peace in the valley of Kabul 6,000 feet below. "I've got the solution," the younger of the two men says. He walks over to the map, takes a blue marker and colors in his deployment zone. It's an area he knows well, having reported on it every day for more than two years. "Kabul River," he scrawls across the shaded area. "Flood the place!" he says, taking another swig.
The other man nods. There are days when you feel like throwing in the towel.
The U.S. ambassador in Kabul, Ronald Neumann, knew that trouble was brewing. "It will be a bloody summer," he told SPIEGEL in May. And that's exactly how it turned out. There were four suicide attacks in 2004 and 17 in 2005. The Taliban's target for 2006: 500.
Neumann is a veteran among the diplomats in Kabul, the latest posting in his career. He has spent long periods in the Orient. Today he's sitting in his office in the newly-built U.S. Embassy on Great Massoud Road - in Kabul's government district. The compound resembles a fortress. A security detail in black shades and body armor, clutching semiautomatic weapons, keeps the ambassador from harm's way. U.S. diplomats only venture out as a last resort. Inside, surrounded by bullet-proof glass, is the United States: brown leather armchairs, the Stars and Stripes, photos of U.S. presidents on the wall.
Despite their sweeping conclusions and earth-shattering decisions, few Western politicians know much about Afghanistan. But Neumann knows it very well: as a young man, he traveled around the country. His father too was once ambassador here. Back then, at the end of the 1960s, this was a peaceful place, a backpacker's paradise. But it was also extremely poor and undeveloped. Outside the big cities, there were neither roads nor electricity. There are limits, Neumann knows, to how much progress this medieval society can make in such a short space of time. In those days, the Afghans had very few poppy fields. Today their country is a major drug producer.
Neumann had a brush with death in January. A suicide bomber blew himself up near a U.S. military base in the southern Pashtun province of Oruzgan - during one of Neumann's visits. There were 10 dead and 50 injured, but Neumann escaped unharmed. "These are difficult times," he says, chewing pensively on his pipe. But the diplomat still believes that this is "the path of progress."
Back at the end of 2001, toppling the Taliban was a cinch. The fundamentalists had no answer to the West's high-tech weaponry. Just a month after the Americans and British invaded, the religious fanatics slunk off to their hideouts in the mountains.
Now they are back.
Security experts refer to them as the neo-Taliban: a resurgent, motley crew consisting of Mullah Omar's former holy warriors, the mighty drug mafia, the troops of Islamist terror lord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Arabian and central Asian jihadists, and al Qaeda. All of them have gathered in the tribal areas bordering Pakistan and Afghanistan. And they have brought in new blood too: over the past few years, thousands of young fighters have been drafted from the refugee camps and impoverished villages, and drilled in boot camps in the Pashtun border region. The first major units are now ready for deployment.
The militias still receive infusions of cash from sponsors in Saudi Arabia and Egypt; both rich private donors and religious foundations generously fund their cause. But the poppy fields remain the Taliban's biggest money spinners. The spokesman for the one-eyed Mullah Omar announced the summer offensive to a British reporter via satellite telephone: "When the foreigners arrive, we will turn the country into a river of blood."
In the north of the country, Germany has assumed command of NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). It is responsible for nine provinces stretching along five borders between Turkmenistan and Pakistan. With its 2,800 soldiers, the unit has been targeted by repeated attacks. On June 27, a German officer noted in his field diary: "Today's attack points to a perpetrator as soulless as a butcher's dog."
That afternoon, a man had blown himself up in the middle of a busy street, not far from the hospital in eastern Kunduz province. He was trying to kill the Germans, but only managed to damage their vehicle. Two locals died; eight were seriously injured, the majority of them children.
The longer the Germans are here, the better they bond with the Afghans, the more the drug mafia and other powersthat-be see their interests threatened. "This conflict has taken on a new quality!" the officer concludes in his diary entry for that day. "We haven't lost heart yet, but our sparkling new vehicle has acquired some dents."
The British, who have command of the south, moved their troops into the Helmand province in May. They now talk openly of "war." A 63-page study by the Senlis Council - a British security and policy group - confirms the reports of people on the ground since the beginning of the year: heavily armed militiamen sporting long beards are now standing guard over the poppy fields. They are equipped with state-of-the-art satellite phones, new semiautomatic weapons and the gleaming Toyota pickups familiar from the days when the Taliban ran the show. The fundamentalists once again control large parts of Afghanistan's southern and eastern provinces. Their law now applies in Disho, Sangin and Baghran, all districts of Helmand. Music and Western clothing are forbidden, men are not permitted to shave, and praying five times a day is mandatory. Women are not allowed to work and may only leave home wearing veils and in the company of men.
A vicious circle has driven the population back into the arms of the Islamists: the Taliban's withdrawal created a power vacuum in the country's main opium hub. The central government, international troops and aid organizations showed little interest in the residents - who live in miserable conditions, cut off from civilization and dependent for survival on feudal overlords. The only outsiders passing through the region were U.S. soldiers on missions and American warplanes that bombed villages suspected of harboring terrorists. This past spring, international teams arrived to destroy the poppy harvest, threatening the locals' livelihoods without offering viable alternatives.
Whenever foreigners came, they were hostile. The Taliban offered protection.
The dusty mountains on the border to Pakistan are the setting for a lopsided conflict. On one side are the Afghan guerrillas with their hit-and-run tactics: fast, mobile, with light equipment and a capability for self-sacrifice that beggars belief in the West. On the other is the ultra-modern army from the West, NATO and the United States. This force enjoys technological superiority. But there's a chink in its armor: its low tolerance of casualties. Military experts refer to this as asymmetrical warfare.
"Are we on a slippery slope?" a German security adviser asks in Berlin. The man is paying a flying visit to the capital; his desk is located somewhere abroad - he declines to specify where. He has been more deeply involved in the Afghanistan operation than almost anyone else. He knows all the data, the facts and the key players. His counsel is in high demand among government officials. He restates his rhetorical question: "Are we already losing control?"
The security expert knows all the bad tidings from Afghanistan. But the mission has also been a success, he claims. The Afghanistan that was once a haven for international terrorism has disappeared from the map. The Taliban may hope to dominate the country and its drugs, he says, but they never had much time for Osama bin Laden's political ambitions. Although bin Laden remains at large, he is no longer running al Qaeda. He's a marked man, in hiding, the adviser says.
The German was sitting at the table at the Petersberg Conference outside Bonn nearly five years ago, as officials talked of nation building - bringing democracy and civil institutions to the badlands of Afghanistan. Out of thin air, they conjured up the transitional government headed by the universally respected Pashtun leader Hamid Karzai. After more than 23 years of war and chaos, the Loya Jirga - the country's traditional forum for tribal representatives - reconvened. King Zahir Shah returned from exile in Italy, a symbol of unity in a fragmented state that more than 20 ethnic factions call their home. Each faction dispatched representatives to greet the returning monarch at the airport. The first presidential elections in the country's history were largely free and fair. People traveled on foot for days to cast their votes in the nearest city.
The Afghans believed wholeheartedly in a new dawn. A parliament was elected, the new constitution adopted. A police force, army and department of justice are currently being established. The books show that the plan dreamed up at the Petersberg Conference has been implemented. "But it's all a sham. There's no substance," says the security expert, slowly emptying a sachet of sugar into his coffee. He was in Somalia. He was in the Balkans. He has no illusions. It was a good plan. Countries gave generously. To date, $6 billion have been spent on the reconstruction effort, an additional $10.5 billion earmarked for the next five years.
Then the international relief workers descended on Kabul. Suddenly, hundreds of foreigners were racing around the city in new Toyota land cruisers and setting up home in Wazir Akbar Khan, the old villa district. Noisy generators run day and night in this skeleton of a city - producing electricity for its foreigners and water pumps. Monthly rents for houses have soared to an average of $5,000 - 20 times the annual income of most Afghans.
Now hordes of Westerners are chauffeured to the ministries of a morning, and picked up in air-conditioned vehicles of an afternoon. The foreigners have brought new customs to the capital as well; jeans are now on sale, although many women still walk the streets in burkas. Every Thursday, before the Afghan weekend starts, UNHAS - the UN air service that transports embassy and aid organization employees around the country - registers a miraculous spike in passengers to Kabul from the provinces: It's party time! And the revelry behind the faÃ§ades of the capital's aging mansions is as riotous as anything to be found in Berlin or New York.
At a French shipping company's toga bash, men donned fake laurel wreathes, bared their torsos, wrapped themselves in sheets and pranced around like Roman emperors. At the garden party arranged by an international consulting firm, hundreds of foreigners whooped it up until the wee hours, dancing amid a decorative backdrop of camels. Strictly outlawed in the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, alcohol flowed freely.
The Afghans have always been conservative but moderate Muslims. They are accepting toward different cultures and willing to share their last meal with guests: "He who does not share his bread will die alone," a proverb states. The outlanders are far less magnanimous: a Turkish road construction company with a contract from the Americans pays its Afghan employees $90 a month. The company's Turkish workers earn 10 times as much. "They don't appreciate us," an indignant Afghan engineer complains.
A major in the 203rd Afghan Corps in the eastern province of Paktia can find few charitable words for his U.S. comrades in arms. He bemoans their arrogance, the way they treat the locals. Afghans traveling in open trucks are used as human shields for convoys, while the GIs sit secure in their Humvees, he complains. And in the evening, the Americans tuck into turkey washed down with Coca-Cola, while the Afghans survive off dry nan bread and green tea: "The Soviet occupying forces treated my father better than our American friends treat us."
A leading consultant imported from the United States or Europe costs up to $500,000 a year. This includes security arrangements, living expenses, and his company's cut. Former deputy finance minister Seema Ghani Masomi fired no less than six consultants for "incompetence." In its report on Afghanistan, CorpWatch - a U.S.-based corporate watchdog - concluded that the companies were more interested in making money than helping the people. Thousands of foreign experts have been dispatched to Afghanistan.
The consulting firms in Kabul have been given multi-million-dollar budgets from their governments to establish a central bank and three ministries: Finance, Justice and Commerce. They have also been tasked with slowing poppy cultivation and finding alternative sources of income for the farmers. Their remit further extends to building schools, roads and hospitals.
Today Kabul boasts a few glitzy malls and a five-star hotel. International restaurants have sprung up. Store shelves are overflowing with products from Pakistan and Iran. And the construction business is booming. Children - including plenty of girls - have gone back to school. But the daily lot of most Afghans has scarcely improved. Water is only available by the hour in the capital. The cratered roads still look like moonscapes. And in many areas, electricity is an infrequent privilege. Outside the cities, the situation is even grimmer. Afghanistan remains one of the poorest countries on earth. It has the world's highest child mortality rate; life expectancy is very low.
Any Afghan wanting to register a car or apply for a phone line needs to bribe half a dozen officials. Even today, court proceedings are often unfair: people have to buy their jailed relatives' freedom. The experiences of Abdul Rahman Jawid, who was threatened with the death penalty for converting to Christianity, sparked outrage worldwide. The case was an eyeopener for Afghanistan's Western patrons, underscoring the difficulties of creating credible institutions, and highlighting how far the country is from affording basic human rights - equality, religious freedom, and personal liberties.
American taxpayers would be stunned to hear where their tax dollars were actually going, the CorpWatch report says: beyond being wasted on failed projects, it helped pay for "contractors' prostitutes and imported cheeses." The CorpWatch investigators spent months monitoring the flow of international funds and concluded that business-savvy representatives of donor nations rather than Afghans were the real beneficiaries.
The U.S. government lavished $150 million on the private security firm DynCorp. Its mission: to close down Afghanistan's poppy fields. Ninety Americans and 550 Afghans set about the task. The result: thousands of extremely irate farmers who - despite having their crops destroyed - were denied realistic compensation.
The Rendon Group from Washington, D.C. was charged with winning public support for the United States and its military in Afghanistan. According to CorpWatch, the PR firm - which reportedly has close ties to the Bush administration - has received contracts worth more than $56 million since September 11, 2001. It has failed miserably in Afghanistan: never before have the Americans and their allies been as unpopular as they are today.
The euphoria that greeted Americans in Kabul on Nov. 13, 2001 has long been replaced by suspicion. Today many Afghans regard the erstwhile liberators as occupiers.
The disenchantment is mutual: Afghans are convinced that the world's only superpower views their country as a base for pursuing its geostrategic interests. The Americans, in turn, have lost patience with a corrupt, feudalistic society that is turning increasingly to crime and showing no intention of metamorphosing into a modern, Western-style democracy - least of all at the desired pace. Even Hamid Karzai's star appears to be fading rapidly. Once the country's beacon of hope, the Afghan president now seems weak and ineffectual. Karzai is trying to keep everyone happy - the Americans, the warlords and the drug czars - many of whom have been given powerful positions in the interests of political stability.
"Any man dealing with drugs cannot be honorable. He will be prosecuted, no matter what position he holds," Karzai pledged in a SPIEGEL interview two years ago. But no drug runner has been indicted or sentenced to this day, although the Afghan secret service knows their identities and reportedly has actionable evidence against 48 of the National Assembly's 351 members.
The newly restructured NATO has tied its fate to the success of the Afghan mission. That may not have been the wisest of moves. But what hope is there for NATO as a global police force if it cannot even bring peace to Afghanistan?
A total of 80,000 Pakistani troops patrol the 1,500 mile-long Afghan border, but the terrorists have no problems slipping through their lines. The mountainous terrain is regarded as a safe haven for the endless streams of jihadists and, more recently, for fighters from the Muslim part of Kashmir.
The Afghans claim that Pakistan's president, Pervez Musharraf, encourages terrorism so that he can weaken, and thus easily influence, his neighbor. As a result, the two heads of state are now at loggerheads. Musharraf, however, cannot control many parts of his own country, most notably the self-governing tribal areas in the North-West Frontier Province and Balochistan.
Almost all the adversaries of NATO and the Americans in Afghanistan today are old friends. In the 1980s, the United States supported and venerated Taliban leader Mullah Omar as a Mujahideen commander. In those days, the Pashtun terror overlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar received the lion's share of the foreign military aid. And the Taliban's new field commander, Jalaluddin Haqqani, also earned his spurs as a so-called freedom fighter against the Soviets. In December 1979, the communists launched their invasion of Afghanistan. The nightmarish conflict lasted a decade and cost some 14,000 Soviet soldiers their lives - dealing a severe body blow to the world's second superpower and heralding its final collapse.
So what should we do? German officials have frequently asked the security adviser this question. His answer is always the same: We should set more modest goals and, having attained them, bring the German soldiers home. Perhaps that would be enough to prevent Afghanistan from sliding back into civil war and serving as a hub of international terrorism: "Why should we impose our democratic ideals on Afghanistan, a country with rich traditions of its own?" he asks.
Exhausted, he rubs his eyes. He knows how politics work. The politicians, of course, will ignore his advice, and we will carry on regardless, he says. "Because we never ask ourselves the right questions."