We tell ourselves the stories we need to hear. This is excerpt details American involvement in Afghanistan, but from a non-embedded reporters point of view and analysis.
“The central thesis of the American failure in Afghanistan — the one you’ll hear from politicians and pundits and even scholars — was succinctly propounded by Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage: “The war in Iraq drained resources from Afghanistan before things were under control.” In this view, the American invasion of Iraq became a crucial distraction from stabilization efforts in Afghanistan, and in the resulting security vacuum the Taliban reasserted themselves.
At its core, the argument rests upon a key premise: that jihadi terrorism could be defeated through the military occupation of a country. That formulation seemed natural enough to many of us in the wake of 9/11. But travel through the southern Afghan countryside, and you will hear quite a different interpretation of what happened. It comes in snippets and flashes, in the stories people tell and their memories of the time, and it points to a contradiction buried deep in the war’s basic premise.
You can find this contradiction embodied in a sprawling jumble of dust-blown hangars, barracks, and Burger Kings, a facility of barbed wire, gunmen, and internment cages: Kandahar Airfield, or KAF, as it came to be called, the nerve center for American operations in southern Afghanistan, home to elite units like the Navy SEALs and the Green Berets. A military base in a country like Afghanistan is also a web of relationships, a hub for the local economy, and a key player in the political ecosystem. Unravel how this base came to be, and you’ll begin to understand how war returned to the fields of Maiwand.
In December 2001, an American Special Operations Forces unit pulled into an old Soviet airbase on the outskirts of Kandahar city. They were accompanied by a team of Afghan militiamen and their commander, a gregarious, grizzly bear of a man named Gul Agha Sherzai. An anti-Taliban warlord, Sherzai had shot to notoriety in the 1990s following the death of his illustrious father, Hajji Latif, a onetime bandit turned mujahed known as “the Lion of Kandahar.” (Upon assuming his father’s mantle, Gul Agha had rechristened himself Sherzai, Son of the Lion. His first name, incidentally, roughly translates as “Respected Mr. Flower.”) With American backing, Sherzai seized the airfield, then in ruins, and subsequently installed himself in the local governor’s mansion — a move that incensed many, Hamid Karzai among them. Nonetheless, Sherzai brought a certain flair to the office, quickly catching notice for his fist-pounding speeches, tearful soliloquies, and outbursts of uncontrollable laughter, sometimes all in a single conversation.
Sherzai may not have had much experience in government, except a brief tenure as Kandahar’s “governor” during the anarchic mid-1990s, but he knew a good business opportunity when he saw one. The airbase where the Americans were encamped was derelict and weedy, strewn with smashed furniture and seeded with land mines from the Soviet era. Early on, one of Sherzai’s lieutenants met Master Sergeant Perry Toomer, a U.S. officer in charge of logistics and contracting. “I started talking to him,” Toomer said, “and found out that they had a knowledge of how to get this place started.” After touring the facilities, the Americans placed their first order: $325 in cash for a pair of Honda water pumps.
It would mark the beginning of a long and fruitful partnership. With Sherzai’s services, the cracked and cratered airstrip blossomed into a massive, sprawling military base, home to one of the world’s busiest airports. Kandahar Airfield would grow into a key hub in Washington’s global war on terror, housing top-secret black-ops command rooms and large wire-mesh cages for terror suspects en route to the American prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
For Sherzai, KAF would be only the beginning. In a few swift strokes, he made the desert bloom with American installations — and turned an extravagant profit in the process. He swiped land and rented it to U.S. forces to the tune of millions of dollars. Amid the ensuing construction boom, he seized gravel quarries, charging as much as $100 a load for what would normally have been an $8-a-load job. He furnished American troops with fuel for their trucks and workers for their projects, raking in commissions while functioning as an informal temp agency for his tribesmen.
With this windfall, he diversified into gasoline and water distribution, real estate, taxi services, mining, and, most lucrative of all, opium. No longer a mere governor, he was now one of the most powerful men in Afghanistan. Every morning, lines of supplicants would curl out of the governor’s mansion.
As his web of patronage grew, he began providing the Americans with hired guns, usually from his own Barakzai tribe — making him, in essence, a private security contractor, an Afghan Blackwater. And like the employees of that notorious American firm, Sherzai’s gunmen lived largely outside the jurisdiction of any government. Even as Washington pumped in funds to create a national Afghan army and police, the U.S. military subsidized Sherzai’s mercenaries, who owed their loyalty to the governor and the special forces alone. Some of his units could even be seen garbed in U.S. uniforms, driving heavily armed flatbed trucks through the streets of Kandahar.
How to Fight the War on Terror Without an Adversary
Of course, even in the new Afghanistan there was no such thing as a free lunch. In return for privileged access to American dollars, Sherzai delivered the one thing U.S. forces felt they needed most: intelligence. His men became the Americans’ eyes and ears in their drive to eradicate the Taliban and al-Qaeda from Kandahar.
Yet here lay the contradiction. Following the Taliban’s collapse, al-Qaeda had fled the country, resettling in the tribal regions of Pakistan and in Iran. By April 2002, the group could no longer be found in Kandahar — or anywhere else in Afghanistan. The Taliban, meanwhile, had ceased to exist, its members having retired to their homes and surrendered their weapons. Save for a few lone wolf attacks, U.S. forces in Kandahar in 2002 faced no resistance at all. The terrorists had all decamped or abandoned the cause, yet U.S. special forces were on Afghan soil with a clear political mandate: defeat terrorism.
How do you fight a war without an adversary? Enter Gul Agha Sherzai — and men like him around the country. Eager to survive and prosper, he and his commanders followed the logic of the American presence to its obvious conclusion. They would create enemies where there were none, exploiting the perverse incentive mechanism that the Americans — without even realizing it — had put in place.
Sherzai’s enemies became America’s enemies, his battles its battles. His personal feuds and jealousies were repackaged as “counterterrorism,” his business interests as Washington’s. And where rivalries did not do the trick, the prospect of further profits did. (One American leaflet dropped by plane in the area read: “Get Wealth and Power Beyond Your Dreams. Help Anti-Taliban Forces Rid Afghanistan of Murderers and Terrorists.”)
-Excerpted from No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War Through Afghan Eyes by Anand Gopal, published by Metropolitan Books, an imprint of Henry Holt and Company, LLC.
Copyright 2015 Anand Gopal