Saturday, September 14, 2002

EXCLUSIVE: The last battle
Part 1: Exit Osama, enter Hekmatyar
By Pepe Escobar
Oh, boy! More stuff by Pepe...
ASADABAD, eastern Afghanistan - It's 7am in dirt-poor, semi-devastated Martyr's Square in this town in the heart of Kunar province. The sun is already shining high and the big, brash American anti-terrorist show is in town.
Pepe doesn't like the big, brash American anti-terrorist show...
And what a show it is. Nine vehicles, ranging from Humvees to Toyota HiLux vehicles customized with machine guns, carrying as many as six soldiers each, all engineered to raise serious hell, take possession of the square. The whole town is watching. A commando group climbs up the rickety stairs to the balcony of the Istiqlal - the only hotel in town and whose unbelievably filthy washrooms are crammed with graffiti of the new jihad against America - and engages in a search-and-destroy operation against two "culprits", as the local Pashtuns put it: this Asia Times Online correspondent and his companion, Pashto-speaking, Peshawar-based journalist Majeed Baber.
Oh, no! They're coming to get Pepe! Quick! Hide him!
The Special Forces are relatively polite - but firm. Identity documents are checked and then digital still photos and video footage is erased - under severe vigilance. Next time, the cameras will be confiscated. Although the whole process is totally illegal, all is justified in the name of the "tense" security situation. Scott, one of the soldiers, is a little more affable than the others, who share a uniform blank, psychopath-style gaze. Scott confirms on the record - and he will be the only one to do so - that the real mission is "to get Hekmatyar", the former Afghan premier and famed mujahideen warlord, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, leader of the Hezb-i-Islami Afghanistan (Islamic Party).
Damn, Scott! It was supposed to be a surprise! But you've got to forgive the poor guy. He hasn't got the patented psychopath-style gaze down yet...
Scott argues the footage and photos might fall into the wrong hands. "They might see how many we are, what we are doing." As if "they" didn't know already. Some intelligence information is exchanged and the show departs with a bang to look for the bad guys. Later, the whole town will keep coming back to ask in utter perplexity, "What were the Americans telling you? Have you done anything wrong?"
"They" might very well not know already. Toldja, it's supposed to be a surprise...
Make no mistake. This is it. One year after September 11, this is the ultimate frontline, the last, crucial battle in the new Afghan war - as the best Pakistan-Afghanistan insiders have been predicting for months. Or maybe the battle is just beginning. The fact is that now between 300 and 400 American Special Forces - according to different estimations of local Pashtun commanders - are now based in Kunar in hot pursuit of the newly-promoted number one "dead or dead" enemy in the war against terrorism in Afghanistan: Hekmatyar, the Pashtun leader and the only premier in history with the dubious distinction of shelling his own capital, Kabul, in mid-1992, causing the death of as many as 25,000 people, until his bases were destroyed by the Taliban in early 1995.
The Talibs destroyed his bases, which implies he's not invincible. We destroyed the Talibs, which implies we can destroy Hek, too...
Even though the war against terrorism costs roughly US$1 billion a day, Osama bin Laden has not been found. Ayman "The Surgeon" al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda's number two, has not been found. Taliban supremo Mullah Omar - who escaped from B-52 bombing last November on the back of a Honda 50cc motorcycle - has not been found. So the new bogeyman is Hekmatyar, who is gathering forces for his new jihad to drive foreign troops out of Afghanistan.
Chances are Binny is titzup. Chances are nearly as good Ayman is titzup. And the Ex-Potentate, Protector of the Faithful is riding around on a motorbike somewhere in eastern Afghanistan hollering at people to straighten their turbans...
Scores of international journalists are gathering at the Tora Bora to "commemorate" September 11 - perhaps hoping to shoot a bin Laden video in one of the myriad caves in which he was reputed to have hidden before escaping well before the advancing US troops arrived. Asia Times Online, instead, is trying to confirm privileged information according to which Hekmatyar is hiding somewhere in Kunar; former mujahideen leader "Professor" Abdul Rassoul Sayyaf - renamed by his Arab patrons Abd al-Rabb al-Rasul Sayyaf - has been to Kunar; and bin Laden and al-Zawahiri may or may not have recently been in Kunar.
We know Sayyaf is the Soddies' inside man in the Northern Alliance. We know Kunar is chock full of indignant Pashtuns. Maybe Pepe should have gone to the Tora Bora commemoration instead...
The American Special Forces - housed in a huge compound that used to be the local jail on the outskirts of Asadabad - have been camped since the end of June; in the beginning they were less than a dozen, now they're hundreds, but still they haven't found what they are looking for. The search - for Hekmatyar, for al-Qaeda, for supporters, for clues in the middle of ever-shifting alliances, for escape routes - is a complex puzzle. There's only one way to go - and it is to criss-cross information volunteered by all the major players. What we find is a dizzying web of political, military, tribal and religious friction.
Ay! 'Tis stuff beyond the ken of mere westerners. Those orientals, they're just too inscrutable for us to ever understand...
In Hekmatyar America has a formidable foe, as the Soviets found out to their cost in their Afghanistan adventure in the 1980s. He issued an anti-American fatwa in June, and last week he reconfirmed a jihad against "American invaders" and the "persecution of Pashtuns". His Hezb-i-Islami Afghanistan now runs the show and Hekmatyar can count on hundreds of loyal and very experienced commanders - such as Maulana Jalaluddin Haqqani, the former number one military commander of the Taliban. Al-Qaeda is collaborating with Hezb-i-Islami, but only in a supporting role.
That's all stuff we knew or guessed before. As pointed out above, the Talibs crushed Hek, we crushed the Talibs - why on earth would Pepe think Hek would crush us?
The Hezb-i-Islami - 75 percent of it made up of Pashtuns - is the most revolutionary and disciplined of all the Afghan Islamist parties. It's nothing remotely similar to a bunch of turbans roaming around in pick-up trucks, as often the Taliban were.
So why'd the Talibs beat the crap out of them?
The Hezb is a modern organization. Recruitment and promotion is based on skill and merit - and not on social roles or how well one can recite the Koran. Hezb leaders have all been educated in Afghanistan - not in Pakistani madrassas (religious schools). Hekmatyar is a radical Islamist. During the anti-Soviet jihad his party was the absolute favorite of the Afghan refugees in Pakistan, where Islamabad helped the Hezb control 250 schools - from which 43,500 students graduated. These students are the core of the party's new generation, and they make up most of the soldiers of Hekmatyar's conventional military force, the Lashkar-i-Isar (Army of Sacrifice).
And stuff the Talibs beat them up and threw them out. Tusk. Tusk.
During the anti-Soviet jihad, Hekmatyar received tens of millions of dollars from Libya and Iraq. And prior to Saddam Hussein invading Kuwait in 1990, the Saudi and Kuwaiti governments and private donors had provided as much as a billion dollars to Hekmatyar. The Hezb was also the darling of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and the Islamic conservative wahhabis from Saudi Arabia. It was also the favorite of moderate Pakistani generals and - the icing on the cake - the operations wing of the US's Central Intelligence Agency.
It also wasn't the one that was beating up the Russers. That was Masood and his half-starved Tadjiks and Uzbeks...
This went on until late 1989, when Bush senior's administration realized that the USSR was collapsing - and Afghanistan lost its strategic importance. When the priority was to "kill Russians" - according to the crude lingo of the times - the US gave free reign to the ISI to distribute cash and weapons in Afghanistan, with no American supervision. The lion's share always went straight to Hekmatyar and Sayyaf.
While Masood did the fighting, leave us not forget. But Pepe's argument here is that Hek is a creature of the Merkins and we're about to reap what we've sown...
It is fair to say that practically every Pashtun tribe or clan had or has a branch or faction with a link to Hekmatyar. So it is no wonder that the man is now skillfully playing the ethnic card. In his most recent audiotaped address to people all over the Pashtun belt to the east of the country he asks rhetorically why only Pashtuns are being bombed, arrested or killed by the Americans. Hekmatyar touches the right chord in any tribal Pashtun heart when he says that Pashtuns have been humiliated by Americans searching their houses without any warning, confiscating their weapons and - an unpardonable sin in Pashtunwali, the tribal code of honor - physically searching their women.
Tough. The Pashtun areas are the ones that are crawling with al-Qaeda and Talibs - and Hekmatyar supporters...
Pashtuns in Kunar and Nangarhar are convinced the Tajik-dominated Northern Alliance was behind the killing of Haji Abdul Qadir - the only Pashtun vice-president in President Hamid Karzai's government in Kabul. Portraits of Qadir are ubiquitous in Nangarhar while not a single Karzai portrait is to be seen. Karzai, although a Pashtun, is widely despised as an American puppet and a hostage of the powerful Northern Alliance ministers, such as commander Mohammed Fahim, the Afghan Defense Minister. Karzai's own security service is totally infiltrated by experienced Hezb-i-Islami operatives, possibly why he now relies on US bodyguards for his personal protection.
Strangely enough, the Merkins started out not really knowing much about the ethnic differences in Pakland. To most of the current crop of intel analysts and decision makers there wasn't much difference between a Pashtun and anybody else. 'Twas the Pashtuns themselves, through their love for the Talibs and their consistent bad faith, who accentuated the differences...
Haji Matheullah Khan Safi is the core commander of Kunar. In theory, he is working with the Americans. He says that he used to speak English - but adds, emphatically, that "with this war I forgot everything". According to him, the Americans have been in Kunar for at least two months. "When they got here, we had problems with local commanders in different checkposts. Now this is finished. The province is under a single administration."
And the significance is...?
Haji Matheullah is the first to tell what will be a recurrent story of how a group of high-ranking Arabs escaped from Jalalabad after the city fell to the Northern Alliance on November 12. "There was a huge compound full of Arabs. The most important escaped to Kunar." The Arabs were helped by Hezb-i-Islami people, by Haji Roohullah (a Kunar wahhabi rising star, recently arrested and now in American custody at Bagram air base on the outskirts of Kabul) and Kashmir Khan (a high commander close to Hekmatyar whom some define as a gangster). "There were only nine Arabs at the time. But one of them was severely injured, died, and was buried near Asadabad. The eight that remained arrived in Daish and then the valleys of Shigal. There were at least four important people among them - maybe Abu Zubaida." Zubaida, an al-Qaeda strategist, was later arrested in Faisalabad, Pakistan, in late March.
Gosh. That's inspiring. I just can't figure why the Merkins are hounding these poor people looking for al-Qaeda sympathizers...
Haji Matheullah cannot or is not willing to confirm a now famous meeting in the beginning of August between Hekmatyar, Sayyaf and other key people that took place in Kunar. "It is not easy for Sayyaf to get into this area. But everyone knows their thinking is the same." He comments with a Pashtun proverb. "If you don't eat the onion, you don't smell." And then he adds, "Some activities in this area might confirm that Hekmatyar could be in the remote mountains northeast of Asadabad." A few minutes later, though, comes a new twist: "If all the people are thinking that Hekmatyar is in Kunar, he may well be in Kunar. And if Hekmatyar is in Kunar, Osama and al-Zawahiri may be as well, because they are all in contact."
Or at least Hek bruits it about that they are. The thought that Binny and Ayman are backing him lends a certain cachet of invincibility to his move. If they're both dead and decomposing, who's to say him nay, unless the bodies are found?
We talk about how Hekmatyar - by satellite telephone, on the BBC Pashto service - announced that he supported a new jihad against the Americans, launched in Gardez and Khost, in Paktia province. "Are you sure it was a sat-phone, or tape?" He then switches to attack mode. "We did the jihad 20 years ago against the Russians, for the stability of the country and for the sake of Islam, and then we gave Kabul to these people - Hekmatyar, [Rashid] Dostum, [Burhanuddin] Rabbani, Sayyaf. What did they do to Kabul and the country? They destroyed Kabul, they destroyed the country and now they want it again."
Sounds like the more reason to support the Karzai regime. We know the old crew didn't work. But that's reason, and we're talking about Pashtuns, and Pepe's doing the reporting...
The situation in Kunar is increasingly tense. Two weeks ago, two missiles hit the American compound in Asadabad. Haji Matheullah finally fires on all cylinders and admits fighters, numbering about 500, are probably hiding in the mountains. "It takes 48 hours to get there, by walking. We heard they bought a lot of new weapons, RPGs, rocket launchers." The route they most likely took is from Nawaqui, a village on the Pakistani border. On the Pakistan side lies the region dominated by the fierce black-turbaned Sufi Muhammad, who sent thousands of madrassa students in a jihad against the Americans last October. Most were killed or captured and Sufi Muhammad is now languishing in a Pakistani jail.
That's certainly an indication we should be scared to death of him and his 500 schoolboys fighters...
Haji Matheullah notes that the Americans in Kunar don't have helicopters. Anyway, that would not help: "These people could stay in the mountains during the whole winter. They collected food. They have a lot of money. They have support from Pakistan, across the border. The only way for the Americans is to go there on foot, through the mountains and jungle."
Yes, where no westerner dare go. Afghanistan is death to westerners. Only Pashtuns can live there, y'know...
Kunar still holds a lot of sympathy to Wahhabism. "Twenty years ago, the Arabs got here and started their aid to widows, orphans, kids. There was a lot of money. When people saw what we call 'load, coat and boot', they converted to Wahhabism. The sheikhs, they wanted to spread Wahhabism all over Afghanistan, starting from Kunar. For this reason, the region still has a lot of relations with the Arabs."
Does that mean they'd all convert to Christianity if the Merkins came in and did the same? How about Judaism? How about agnosticism? They seem to be for sale to the highest bidder...
What Haji Matheullah is actually saying is that in the community there's still a lot of support for al-Qaeda. That's why people in Kunar are so incensed by the arrest of Haji Roohullah. But at the same time he is also saying that "the common people support Americans, they think they are helpful". The characteristically Pashtun twists and turns of the conversation are spiced up: "Afghans never liked foreign invaders." And then comes the punchline. "Afghanistan has problems with Pakistan and China. The Americans want to finish the influence of neighbors on Afghanistan. They [Americans] created a nightmare for us. When they create light, they can go."
Nope. Doesn't make any sense to me, either...
Haji Amanullah is the man responsible for Asadabad's security. But, significantly, he is still a military Hezb-i-Islami commander. This flagrant contradiction requires extreme diplomacy. His basic judgment of the American presence is "if they want to stay long, for security reasons, and if they do not disturb the people, they are welcome. But if they continue to search houses, scare people - the people's temperament won't stand them for any more than three months."
But if they disturb people for security reasons... There's no point to that statement, either. Maybe the Merkins should just hang around and shoot any Chinese or Paks or Samoans who walk by...
The security commander confirms that at the beginning of July Hekmatyar visited Kunar, and then went north into Nuristan. He was in touch with local commanders, "But people in Kunar told him they could not guarantee his safety. He might be in Xinjiang [western China]." But this is extremely unlikely as Beijing - ultra-sensitive towards the Muslim Uighur region in western China - would know it right away. In once again a characteristically indirect Pashtun manner, Haji Amanullah finally implies that Hekmatyar is alive - and in the region.
Meaning Haji Amanullah has no idea where the hell he is...
In his view the Kunar Wahhabis "got a lot of aid from the Arabs and Osama. They still have a lot of money. But they are not more than 10,000 followers." Haji Roohullah, according to him, was and still is receiving money from Pakistan's ISI.
Meaning they're a little minority, and if they're only in it for the money they'd probably make good Ba'hais, too...
The story of the Arab escape from Jalalabad receives a new, savoury twist in Haji Amanullah's version. "I saw nine Arabs at the time. Commander Saburlal arrested them - and then he helped them to escape. They left all their own vehicles and money." Saburlal was also arrested a few days ago, and is now under American custody at Bagram air base.
Guess Pepe's not the only one Haji Amanullah told the story to, huh?
Raiz Khan Mushwani is only 18. With his boyish good looks and disarming smile he could be a heartthrob in a boy band or a Hollywood television series. But he is the son of Malik Zarin - the number-one core commander of Kunar (so one assumes that Haji Matheullah is in fact number two). Malik Zarin spends most of his time in crucial meetings in Kabul. His son stays in Asadabad . Raiz says that "more than 20 people" are working closely with the Americans. And he, at only 18, is their commander.
Oh, for Chrissake. Talk about seasoned combat leadership...!
Raiz is happy as "the Americans are bringing peace". Americans, he says, "choose their own informers", "have one American Pashto-speaker, an air force soldier named Kay" and are not paying directly for information, "only for expenses". The American morale, according to Raiz, is "fresh, there is no tension". Their commander is one "Captain Ryan, who came from Bagram". Raiz thinks that the Americans will stay for long. They have "no helicopters or tanks, but there is a helipad in the compound". In fact, every night the activity is feverish, for as long as three hours - with surveillance by drones. Raiz confirms that the mission is to get Hekmatyar. Not surprisingly, he does not know where bin Laden could be. "Sometimes, as a joke, the Americans ask me if I know something." Everybody in Asadabad talks about how in a patrolling mission in ultra-sensitive Pech Dara a month and a half ago, four men were shot and killed by the Americans just because they were carrying a Kalashnikov. Another lethal case of cultural misunderstanding. Raiz insists that "the Americans recognized the mistake".
"Gosh, I'm sorry I killed you..."
Gradually, in the Kunar puzzle, emerges the crucial figure of another commander, Khan Jan. Khan Jan is a distinguished Hezb-i-Islami commander, as well as being the mayor of Asadabad. The Americans tried to arrest him and they raided and, according to some, even fired on his house. They think that he meets regularly with Hekmatyar, Raiz admits. "Khan Jan has popular support in the area." As we talk to Raiz, we finally learn that none other than Khan Jan himself is in the same compound. He came to meet Malik Zarin - or Raiz - to complain about heavy-handed American tactics. But Raiz does not want to meet him. He belongs to the Mushwani tribe, while Khan Jan is from the Salarzai tribe. Tribal enmity is deadly - especially now that one of the tribes has been selected to work closely with the Americans. Raiz admits, "It is clear there is a movement among people to fight the Americans." But the "jihad is over", says the son of the most powerful military commander in Kunar - at least for the moment.
My guess is that it will in fact go by tribe. Among these beturbanned Hatfields and McCoys, if the Salarzais support Hek, then the Mushwanis will by Gawd support the Merkins...
The plot thickens. Ahmadullah is a cousin of the crucial character, the Wahhabi superstar Haji Roohullah. He recognizes that Haji Matheullah and Malik Zarin are "well-relationed with the Americans". But he quickly adds, "Zarin is creating problems because he targeted Haji Roohullah and his tribe." He stresses that "people from all over Kunar demand the release of Haji Roohullah because he fought against the Taliban and took over the area. Americans have to tell us what charges they have against him."
Probably the same antics his neighbors are talking about, helping the al-Qaeda killers escape...
Last November, Ahmadullah was fighting against the Taliban alongside Hazrat Ali - the American's favorite commander in Nangarhar province. After he came to the area, Haji Roohullah called him: he needed people to take over Asadabad. Ahmadullah confirms that commanders Sabarlal and Najinuddin Khan, among others, took over Asadabad "under the supervision of Haji Roohullah" and had been ruling the area ever since. But now both Haji Roohullah and Sabarlal are under arrest by the Americans.
Sounds reasonable. What're we missing?
Ahmadullah was an eyewitness to the massive Taliban escape last November. "The Taliban crossed to Pakistan in Marawara" - the direction of Bajaur agency in the Pakistani tribal areas. Hazrat Rahman was another commander at the time in Marawara who supported the Taliban. Ahmadullah saw 48 trucks coming, carrying at least 12 men each, a mix of Arabs and Taliban: "Hazrat Rahman took all their weapons and helped them escape." Then came another convoy of Pakistani Taliban, who also profited from the services of Rahman.
Good old Rahman. This was at the same time the Paks were saying their border was sealed, of course. On the other hand, it was the same time the Talibs were puffing and blowing and saying they were never gonna surrender...
Ahmadullah fiercely criticizes "those people who are collaborating with the Americans" - meaning Haji Matheullah and, most of all, Malik Zarin: he is implying that the arrest of Roohullah is a power game between commanders of different tribes. Ahmadullah also stresses that "we are ideological enemies of the Arabs because they killed our leader in '92, Maulvi Jamil Rahman Salafi." The portrait of Salafi is displayed at most of Asadabad's businesses. One Abdullah, an Egyptian, went to Bajaur agency and shot Salafi in a mosque in 1992 because he was against Arab proselytizing in the region.
I'm confused. It's the Merkins who're against that sort of thing. Oh. They're flatland furriners. That explains it.
Personally, Ahmadullah claims "not to know if Hekmatyar is here". But he assumes that Hekmatyar and Kashmir Khan are working together. Kashmir Khan "disappeared" a month ago and remains one of Hekmatyar's top commanders.
Good to know... This being Afghanistan, he'll probably not put a noose around his neck for it, but tactically it can be valuable piecing together who's who...
Presiding over the Kunar puzzle is the governor of the province, Sayed Muhamad Yusuf. But he is not from Kunar: he is from neighboring Laghman province. He was appointed by Hamid Karzai's central government and spends most of his time asking villagers to support Kabul - an unenviable task, as Pashtun houses are being permanently raided by bullish American soldiers. He insists that "all the nation is behind the Karzai government". The recent assassinations in Kabul and the attempt against Karzai in Kandahar are dismissed as "the usual". "President [John F.] Kennedy was assassinated, General Zia [ul-Haq of Pakistan] was killed."
And in Afghanistan they'll kill everybody in sight if you turn your back...
A long white beard disguises the steely character of Yusuf, a former jihad commander in the 1980s. The governor is playing a tremendously skillful diplomatic game, trying to accommodate the anger of local populations against American methods, the demands of the Americans themselves, and the conflicting interests of powerful and sidelined commanders. He insists that "all the people here are fed up with war. There is no chance of a battle in Kunar."
People like Pepe are looking for that to happen, but the "battles" sound more like the usual intertribal snipings that're common in Pakland. This is an area where blood feud is a national sport...
The governor thinks that the Americans came "under the flag of the UN to create peace in the land of the Afghans. Kunar is too sensitive, a border province, the geographic situation is too important". He does not think that Hekmatyar, bin Laden or al-Qaeda are in Kunar. He says "there's only a 5 percent chance" of Hekmatyar and some Arabs being in the province. He hasn't heard of any eyewitnesses: "The ideal place for them would be Nuristan." This is a huge mountainous enclave between Laghman and Kunar, northwest of Asadabad.
Is Pepe going to go to Nuristan to look? Stay tuned for tomorrow's installment...
The governor recognizes the mesmerizing cultural shock between America gung-ho culture and Pashtun culture. "I asked, why are you doing like this. They said because we receive information in a hurry, we don't want to waste time. But they are not checking anything. I was in a jirga [meeting] and I told the people the Americans are coming to your villages because of your informers. And they are giving bad information." So how do the Americans gather intelligence? "They ask us sometimes. But most of the time they do it on their own. Some teenagers, they told them they had seen Hekmatyar in Dangan. The Americans went there, stayed the whole night. They got into a house, they only saw women and kids." He denies that the Americans armed eastern Afghanistan commanders, although "they did arm commanders in Kandahar".
The eastern Afghanistan commander brought their own arms. They produce Kalashnikov knockoffs locally...
And then, in a slip, the crucial word "invasion" comes up. "The Taliban, they were Afghans, but they always made mistakes. Due to the Taliban we are now facing invasion of these forces." If even the ultra-diplomatic governor commits a Freudian slip of this nature, in the dusty streets and tea houses of Asadabad there is widespread talk about "invasion".
They were happy enough to receive it ten months ago. But this is Pashtunistan, and there is no word for "gratitude" in Pashto...
Ghulam Ullah, the head of education in the province, warns in a soft voice, "We all think Americans came here with the support of the UN. We don't look at them as invaders. But we do not accept Americans as rulers of this country."
Neither do the Merkins...
This sums up half of the popular perception in Kunar. The other half is already involved - surreptitiously for now - in an anti-American jihad.
Tell us how, Pepe. You've been rambling...
"Hekmatyar is not here," the smiling young men answer in chorus when questioned about the whereabouts of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the famed mujahideen warlord busy gathering forces to kick foreign troops out of Afghanistan, a man desperately wanted by the US.
Meaning they don't know if he is or not...
It's 7am in the tiny village of Aman Koot, in Shigal district, and the convoy of the governor of Kunar, Sayed Muhamad Yusuf - packed with dozens of uniformed Kunaris armed with Kalashnikovs - is parked by the side of the dusty, rocky road. The governor is inside a mud-walled compound, addressing a shura (meeting), trying to calm down the locals, all furious with the heavy-handed tactics used by American soldiers in searching houses for "terrorist suspects". The American Special Forces are also on the spot - this time in four customized Toyota Hi-Lux vehicles equipped with machine guns - patrolling the road and combing the surrounding fields, although they are not with the governor. "We're not with anybody. We're Americans," says one of the soldiers. They don't confirm or deny that they are protecting the governor this morning - but they certainly prevent us from getting into the compound to follow the shura, although we have been invited by the governor's people. All in the name of the "tense" security situation. There's an eerie feeling that a missile could zoom in from behind the mountains at any moment. We are less than three hours trekking from the porous Pakistani border.
That "eery feeling" is probably pretty widespread. But Afghan memories are short...
The young men crowded around us are eager to talk because with the Americans there's no dialogue. "It's not possible for us to support Hekmatyar in front of the Americans, now that jihad is finished." The smiling crowd is "very hopeful" for the future: they list as their only problem the absence of a cricket pitch - with all those maize fields and mountains. And they insist that they don't have "any concern" about the Americans: "We welcome them."
Sounds like they welcome them. Where's the grouse, Pepe?
They are not exactly welcomed back by the Americans, though, even if it is their own country. Kids swarm the dusty road. Some soldiers pick up a stick and start shooing them off. No chance for anybody to get even close to one of the Mad Max Toyotas. Two soldiers combing the fields with their precision rifles held high are surrounded by a mini-mob. Kids ask for pens. A few minutes later a local comes with a tin plate full of mutton slices - a characteristic sign of Pashtun hospitality. The soldiers recoil in utter disgust. Some start shouting "Back up!" to no avail. "Zai" - the Pashtun equivalent, would produce a better effect.
Doesn't sound like the Special Forces guys I've known. A recall eating grasshoppers in Vietnam because the locals did, and beetle soup in Laos. Never could learn to like the Vietnamese fermented duck eggs, though. Couldn't get past the smell. How old was the mutton?
We depart following the governor's convoy and soon stop at another dismal village where the four American vehicles are parked in a semi-circle, practically in combat-ready mode. They see us, they radio messages to each other - "Your Asia Times connection is here again." It's all part of a cat-and-mouse game developed over a few days. They know that we are here - and they don't like it. We know where they are and where they're going - and they don't like it.
Pepe's kidding himself here...
Every night, when they patrol Asadabad, Kunar's capital, they point their night vision goggles to the roof of the Istiqlal hotel where we are staying to check whether we're filming them. On a visit to the American compound, in a former prison on the outskirts of Asadabad, we are met at the gate by two soldiers, one of them carrying a pistol in one hand and X-ray goggles in another. The armed soldier is very polite, but absolutely "no quotes", not even a "How's the weather?", unless we are cleared by Bagram air base on the outskirts of the capital Kabul.
That means they're disciplined troops, not blabbermouth local boys...
After a quick stop in the village of Asmar, the crucial part of the governor's day is spent at a jirga (council) meeting in the village of Dangan - reached by an absolutely hair-raising, back-breaking rocky mountain trail. It's the first time ever that a Kunar governor has visited this village - which is not even on the map: that is a measure of the reigning tense situation. The convoy is greeted by a long circuitous line of very young madrassa (religious school) students immaculately dressed in blue. An armed sentry in a watchtower, next to the black-green-red Afghan flag, commands a spectacular view of the lush valley and the surrounding mountains - a landscape that evokes the most pristine mountain valleys in the Panjshir or in Kashmir. Before the jirga, some of the students engage in a heart-warming rendition of an Afghan national poem, whose lyrics say, "We know how to grow flowers in this land, we don't need guns, we need pens." Some elders weep. Then, in a fairytale courtyard naturally protected by trees from the scorching sun, the governor resumes his complex diplomatic ballet, forcefully telling the locals not to spread false information on Hekmatyar's whereabouts. The Hezb-i-Islami supremo is extremely popular in the region.
Pepe keeps saying that. He keep quoting people who like the Merkins. Are we getting Pepe's opinion or the locals'?
On a more environmental mode, the governor insists, "You have to protect your forests from Pakistani loggers." At the capital, Asadabad, the only business is the timber business - all of it controlled by six or seven powerful commanders, all of them with privileged connections with Pakistani companies. In Dangan itself, people diversify, and practically everybody is now back into cultivating poppy. The governor pleads with them not to.
If only because it will tick the Merkins off...
After the governor's speech, the village elder, the green-turbaned Sayed Mehbwob, takes the stage and delivers a blistering performance. Fiery eyes, booming voice and an expressive face straight out of tribal theater, he details to the governor how the Americans are disturbing the peace of his tribe. Later, he spells out to us some of the grievances. According to Mehbwob, two months ago, when the Americans got to Dangan, someone fired an RPG at them. The Americans didn't say who they were looking for. Three days later they came back and "struck the house of Zhulam Khan with mortars for four hours. There were people inside, but mercifully no one was injured."
Hmmm... Cause: RPG rounds. Effect: Four hour shelling by mortars. He doesn't make that connection, does he?
Then, a few days ago, says Mehbwob, the Americans broke into another house at night: "They broke a lot of boxes [Pashtuns keep a lot of their possessions in tin containers]. They checked the clothes of the women. There were only women and children inside the house. Now everybody in the area is afraid. This is against Pashtun tradition."
Maybe they shouldn't fire RPGs at people who come visiting?
Mehbwob confirms that the Shinkai home of the very popular Hezb-i-Islami commander and mayor of Asadabad, Khan Jan, was also raided by the Americans "because they thought he had information that would lead to Hekmatyar". Mehbwob is stinging: "We don't know who they are looking for. Sometimes they say it's Osama [bin Laden], sometimes al-Qaeda, sometimes Hekmatyar, and now they say they are looking for terrorists." Another village elder cuts to the chase. "I think the Americans are foolish. There is tension everywhere in Afghanistan. What are they doing in this area."
He just said what they were doing. Who does he have to ask the question he's just answered? Doesn't seem like it's the Merkins who're foolish...
The head of education in Kunar, the affable Ghulam Ullah, offers a more nuanced perspective. "Kunar is part of a body that has 32 parts. We support the central government. Kabul is recognized by all the world." He sees the war on terrorism being waged "by civilized nations. America is part of a coalition. We see the peacekeepers in Kabul and the American presence in this area in the same way. We do not see them as invaders. The Russians were invaders. We kicked them out. And we are here to help Afghans."
Okay. Thanks for your support... What's Pepe make of all this?
But the Americans may be making serious mistakes, such as arresting the popular Wahhabi leader Haji Roohullah. "Roohullah is a national religious leader." The motto at the office of Haji Roohullah is "Unity is the best policy". The educator, on the arrest of Roohullah, says that "all the tribes have long enmities. One of them is creating problems [he means the Mushwani tribe]. Roohullah was the first to start loya jirga negotiations in Kunar." Ghulam Ullah is absolutely right when he recalls that the Afghan jihad against the Russians in the 1980s "started in Kunar, through the family of Roohullah".
But at the same time, Roohullah picked the wrong side when the Talibs fell. Tough, living with those consequences, isn't it?
Ghulam Ullah is among the few in the region who reject Hekmatyar's ruthless methods: "We have a lot of differences with Hezb-i-Islami. In 1990, we had a parliament in Kunar, a democratic election for the chief of this area ... Roohullah won. The Hezb-i-Islami started fighting because they lost. They killed 12 of Roohullah's supporters. So we have no relationship with Hekmatyar, Hezb-i-Islami or al-Qaeda. Hekmatyar got Osama to north Kabul and then they sent an Egyptian to kill our religious leader, Maulvi Jamil Rahman Salafi. Hekmatyar and Osama were our first enemies. So how can we give them help."
Sounds pretty much like Hek's tactics...
The real sensitive relationship, for Ghulam Ullah, is between Americans and local collaborators: "I'm not blaming Americans, because they don't know our traditions. I'm blaming those working with them. They are kids [a reference to Raiz, the son of pro-American Asadabad commander Malik Zarin, and his army of teenagers]. They want to fill their pockets. And they want to obliterate Pashtun tradition." Last week, Ghulam Ullah met with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Defense Minister Mohammed Fahim in Kabul. He is hopeful. "I'm sure Haji Roohullah will come back soon. But these people who created problems for him must get behind bars." It's unlikely that the Americans will incarcerate their few local partners in Kunar.
In Afghanistan, no one's every guilty...
Back to Asmar, at what the locals call the Capitol building, the governor is reclined in his cushion, surrounded by what amounts to an informal cabinet meeting, with everyone seated on carpets sipping green tea. Someone asks the governor point blank, "Are you going to search these disinformers and put them in jail?" There's no clear answer. At 3pm the charismatic Khan Jan shows up - received with all-around reverence. The governor and Khan Jan launch into an elaborate conversation revolving around the relationship between the commander and Hekmatyar. The governor says, "We have two types of mujahideen in Afghanistan. One of them was boiling tea for the mujahideen who were in the front against the Russians. The other was in fact in the frontline. The Taliban were boiling tea, and then they started creating problems. [Former president Burhanuddin] Rabbani is now creating all kinds of problems for the government. He had support in 1996, not anymore." Khan Jan tells the governor that two days ago he went to talk to the Americans, and they told him that they had intelligence in the area proving that he (Khan Jan) was the problem.
The problem with intel is that the bad guys can feed you false information. The problem for the bad guys is that intel's collated - a piece from one place is matched against a piece from another place, and then both are matched with the transcript of a phone conversation.
The background for the terse exchange, inevitably, is once again tribal enmity. The Americans are working with the Mushwani tribe - to which Malik Zarin, the core commander of Asadabad and his son Raiz, belong. Khan Jan is a member of the Alizai - a sub-clan of the Salarzai tribe. Mushwanis and Salarzais are "brothers" only in name: the atmosphere is more like fraternal hatred. The Salarzai are accusing the Mushwanis of spreading false information to the Americans. Malik Zarin fought against the Taliban. But the Taliban at one time were supported by Malik Zarin's cousin. It soon became a battle of cousin against cousin. Now Salarzais believe that Malik Zarin is exacting his revenge.
And us Merkins don't really care...
The future of Kunar - the last battle of the new Afghan war, and the first frontline of the new anti-American jihad - will be decided by this cast of characters. Haji Matheullah - the number-two core commander - and Malik Zarin - the number-one core commander - plus his 18-year-old son Raiz and his army of teenagers, will keep working with the Americans. The governor will keep his skillful diplomatic balancing act. The local populations remain split between feelings of silent anger or joining Hekmatyar's appeal for a jihad against the American invaders. Khan Jan, mayor of Asadabad, may be working secretly with Hekmatyar. There are no prospects of Haji Roohullah being released from Bagram air base. Hekmatyar may be hidden and plotting in the mountains, 48 hours on foot to the northeast of Asadabad. And the Americans are bound to keep treating the local populations with a total lack of sensitivity.
Pepe doesn't make a very good case for this...
The crucial fact is that the post-Taliban Pashtun counterrevolution is already in full swing. And it's once again Pashtuns against Tajiks: the Pashtun belt against a central government in Kabul dominated by the Northern Alliance, where the Pashtun President Hamid Karzai is derided as a mere American puppet.
But nobody's derided him in Pepe's article...
Bacha Khan Zadran is a powerful warlord with a strong military presence in three key Pashtun belt provinces: Paktia, Paktika and Khost. He is openly confronting Kabul, which nominated what the Pashtuns call "a kid", Abdul Taniwal, as the governor of Khost. Kabul is after Zadran. But Zadran's tribe has forcefully asked Karzai to fulfill an earlier pledge and appoint him as head of the three provinces. A few days ago in Gardez, the simple presence of Zadran inside the American compound for four hours started a riot, because the locals thought that he had been arrested.
And then the locals kicked the sonofabitch out of town...
In Kunar, Haji Roohullah's arrest is not reaping any benefits for the Americans. On the contrary.
On the other hand, not arresting him wouldn't have reaped them any benefits, either. So to hell with it, I'm glad they jugged him.
In Nangarhar the Americans have relied since the Tora Bora campaign on the wily Hazrat Ali, a Pachai: the Pachais are derided by the Pashtuns. Americans are only working with commanders recommended by the Northern Alliance. They are being fed bad intelligence, no intelligence, and in the process are being drawn into the tangled web of warlord tribal rivalry. Under these circumstances, "peace" is impossible: US National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice's recent claims that the security situation in Afghanistan had improved in the past year is nothing short of ridiculous.
Any statement to the contrary is nothing short of ridiculous. The Taliban are out of power. That makes things better by definition...
Hamid Karzai's security services are totally infiltrated by ultra-disciplined Hezb-i-Islami operatives. The 4,800 international peacekeeping soldiers in Kabul are seemingly ineffective. Under their watch, two Afghan ministers have been assassinated in broad daylight and a car bomb exploded last week in Kabul, killing 30 people and wounding 167. An assassination attempt on Karzai was only narrowly averted in Kandahar.
On the other hand, the assassination attempt on Karzai was thwarted and there have been a number of other terror attempts nipped in the bud - to include one yesterday, involving a truck rigged with explosives. A similar intercept was made a month or two ago. Hek's Secret Army of Doom isn't as secret as he'd like to think it is, and some of his double agents are triples...
The US - as did the former USSR - has underestimated the indomitable Pashtuns, at its peril.
Pepe, on the other hand, seems intent on overestimating them. They're too undisciplined to make good soldiers...
Many empires have already paid the price for this carelessness. The American strategy in the Pashtun belt has been the catalyst for re-starting the civil war in Afghanistan. On the night of September 10, eyewitnesses claim to have spotted Gulbuddin Hekmatyar himself not in Kunar, but in the Teraha valley, in Khyber agency (in Pakistan) - on the other side of the Tora Bora. Hekmatyar was deep in a conference with a group of influential mullahs.
The Pak side of the border seems the more likely place to find him...
What the US is up against now is a formidable coalition involved in a jihad to kick out what it sees as foreign invaders. The coalition groups Hekmatyar and the Hezb-i-Islami's "Professor" Sayyaf, with his wealth of Arab connections and sponsorship; Ishmail Khan, the "Emir of southwest Afghanistan", who is very close to Iran; Mullah Omar (still hiding in safety somewhere in Kandahar province) and his formidable former Taliban military commander, Jalaluddin Haqqani; plus vast middle-level support from Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence.
That's about the lineup we expected, with the exception of Ismail Khan and the addition of Rabbani...
At the end of a gruelling day, on the dusty Asmar-Asadabad road, Azad (his name means "free"), a Pashtun villager, definitely not a fundamentalist, stops the car to show us his house perched on a hill. The landscape around is breathtaking, as usual. The American Special Forces are only minutes away - we cross their convoy on our way back. Azad gazes at the classic Afghan panorama and murmurs, almost to himself, "The Americans are here because the world community has made a promise to the Afghan nation. But if they have their own agenda, I'll have to take care of this. Because I am the owner of this land."
To me, unlike Pepe, it sounds like they're giving the Merkins the benefit of the doubt.