Live from Iraq


By Stewart Nusbaumer

Surviving in Mosul Stuggling to survive after a horrific explosion.

Street Without Joy
Will Bush’s surge secure Baghdad’s bloodiest block?

Good Morning, al-Adhamiya
In one of Baghdad's most dangerous neighborhoods.

Squiring Out Of Baghdad
Is the surge ending or dispersing the insurgency?

With PTT in Heet
A Marine unit training and equipping the Iraq Police.

Embed in Trouble
What is a journalist to do with attacked by a U.S. Army biggie? Go to the bigger?

Four Days in Dulab
In a small, dangerous town in the most violent province in Iraq.


 

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  Dispatch: Unfinished Business

 
 
Defeat in Iraq would be a humiliation, defeat in Afghanistan could be a real threat.
By Stewart Nusbaumer

Kabul, Afghanistan -- When I arrived in Afghanistan a month ago, people were relaxed. Optimism was in the air. Now there is a nightly curfew and military aircraft are in the air.

The nervous buzz says nonessential U.S. Embassy personnel will be sent home after one more riot or bombing. Meanwhile aid workers are moving from the countryside—too dangerous in rural areas. But there’s no safety in the cities either: last week in Kabul I was surrounded by cracking gunfire and protesters screaming, “Kill Americans!” That destroyed the idea that Afghanistan is a cakewalk.

I’ve been in many wars—Vietnam, Beirut, El Salvador, Cambodia, Nicaragua, Northern Ireland, Honduras, Peru, Philippines, Kosovo—yet never did protestors scream kill American civilians. In none of these wars did I avoid public taxis for fear of being kidnapped, and in none as a reporter did I carry a weapon. And never did it plunge from public optimism to military curfew in just one month.

Sure I heard that there might be a Taliban offensive this spring, but that’s said every year. I head the complaints about the reconstruction of the country, but reconstruction is always a cause for complaint. (Cambodia is a UN political/security success, but it’s a reconstruction/economic failure.) There were concerns that Afghanistan was having a bumper poppy harvest—that did catch my attention. But I never hear that a traffic accident could turn Kabul into a shooting gallery.

Last week, after a U.S. military vehicle slammed into a line of cars and caused one Afghan fatality, an anti-American rampage ripped through Kabul. There was gunfire, lots of gunfire, and there were dead Afghans. Automobiles were set afire, shops were looted, international aid offices were sacked, and foreigners’ guesthouses were torched. For several hours I was surrounded by nasty gunfire and outraged protestors. I thought I would soon be set on fire.

The Times of London correspondent wrote, “I’ve been in Kabul for nine months and there has never been anything like this before. There is a real feeling in the air that today Kabul changed.”

“This place is starting to unravel,” says Dan, whose employment is a little mysterious. Sitting in his comfortable living room, he makes us another drink. “Did you know they just increased the price of Jack Daniel’s by 25 percent?” When the price of a staple skyrockets the country is in trouble.

I came here to write that Afghanistan is not Iraq, that Afghanistan is looking promising, while Iraq is utterly hopeless. In one month Afghanistan flipped from looking promising to starting to unravel. So I don’t know what to write.

Dan, his friend Mohammad, and I trudge along a wicked dirt road with peaks resembling the Swiss Alps and depths similar to the Mojave Desert—this in the center of Kabul. At the corner, we’re mugged by a gang of desperate nomads: half-dozen hyper kids and two whimpering burkha-covered women clinching infants with deadpan faces. To give money is considered dangerous, inviting a deadly stampede the next time you venture on to the street; not giving money is considered dangerous, inviting a deadening of your humanity. A mammoth United Nations SUV roars past nearly deadening all of us.

Turning the corner, we run into another Afghanistan danger: a high-grade rush of raw sewage. “After almost five years, uhmm, why still not better?” Mohammad asks as we sip tea at a roadside restaurant, too close to an open sewer for my tastes. “You know what we call Kabul? The Toilet! That’s what we call our capital.”
This capital toilet has a load of dirty stats: 80 percent of Afghan adults are illiterate; only one in 20 houses has electricity; 40 percent of Afghans do not have enough to eat; Afghanistan has the second worst child-mortality rate in the world; 50 percent of the workforce has no jobs; average life expectancy is 43 years—Afghans don’t plan on much of a middle age.

The sidewalks here are an interesting congregation of ragged cement chunks at slippery angles interspaced with ankle-breaking canyons. Dan scans a group of men ahead—tall and lean with fiery dark eyes and angry dark beards, in black turbans. He inches his right hand closer to his hip, where his handgun is hidden under a loose-fitting shirt. I slowly move my hand around to the small of my back near my pistol. Mohammad instinctively drops back, fingering the weapon in his pocket.

In the last two weeks, a surge in fighting has produced approximately 400 fatalities, the heaviest number since 2001 when the Taliban government was overthrown. Some days there are more dead and wounded in Afghanistan than in blood-drenched Iraq. The Taliban owns four provinces in the south, and attacks are spreading throughout the country. Suicide bombings are becoming more common, a horror imported from Iraq. Instead of the “ignored other conflict,” Afghanistan may soon be the new Iraq War.

European nations are now sending thousands of additional troops to Afghanistan, while the U.S., which had planned to reduce its troop level, is reconsidering. But can there ever be enough troops?

We walk past several men shoveling globs of black sewage out of an open ditch and onto the back of a truck. Gruesome! An old man without a leg, using crude wooden crutches, approaches with an outstretched hand. A Lexus SUV races by nearly amputating the old man’s outstretched hand.

But there is another Kabul. I can see it rising just outside the walls of the Le Monde Guesthouse where I live. There is a four-story residential building, a two-story house, behind the compound a brand new French restaurant. In several sections of town there is a boom in retail construction, mostly small shops—electronics stores, neighborhood grocery outlets, boutiques, motorcycle dealerships. There are now an enclosed shopping mall and new condos on the outskirts of Kabul.

“Yes, yes,” Mohammad says impatiently, “there is much money now, much building. But not for us! Things go up, and we still have no money.”

Out of the corner of my eye I spot a contingent of street kids racing toward us. Suddenly a fighter jet swoops down blasting past.

“Everything going up in price” Mohammad is saying, “foreigners have much money and make prices higher. But we can’t afford anything.”

“The price for food and housing has skyrocketed,” Dan says as he pushes the gate buzzer at my guesthouse. “Salaries have remained pretty much the same, so Afghans are being squeezed—unless they work for an international organization.”
“Karzai is not our president,” Mohammad says. “He’s your puppet.”

Dan adds matter-of-factly, “Without foreign troops Karzai wouldn’t last a day—maybe an hour.”

A tiny boy pulls on my pant leg, “I have no mother, no father, no brother, you give me dollar?”

The anti-American riot that ripped through Kabul, pinning me behind my guesthouse walls, had roots, it seems to me, in nearly five years of promises unfulfilled—promises that Afghans would get security, reconstruction, and democracy. Instead Afghans have omnipresent poverty, nonexistent public services, rising power of insurgents, declining support for government, and privileged foreigners. This is a volatile mixture that exploded in gunfire on the streets of Kabul. When you have only desperation, promises are taken seriously.

Vanni Cappelli, president of the Afghanistan Foreign Press Association, says the deterioration could have been avoided if the Bush administration had committed enough troops, built up the Afghan security forces while disarming the warlords, and allocated sufficient funds for reconstruction. “The Bush administration was never serious about national reconstruction,” Vanni says his sharp dark eyes flashing. “It went to Afghanistan as a response to 9/11, and moved on to its real obsession, Iraq.”

I do know that in Afghanistan and in Iraq the Bush administration was totally clueless about the wars it faced, moving on before victory was established, declaring victory before the real wars began. The Neocons wrote a silly script that had the Afghan and Iraqi resistances pulverized by our super expensive hi-tech war machine and quickly capitulating, as if the Vietnam debacle had never happened, as if the world’s guerrilla fighters had never learned how to slowly bleed the world’s premier conventional military.

With the U.S. military unable to establish security in Iraq and Afghanistan, our “armies” of reconstruction were soon marooned. Listen to American NGO workers in Afghanistan: “When I came here I thought we would accomplish a lot, not now.” “We can’t go out in the field anymore, so we can’t accomplish much.” “If I can help just one farmer, then I will be satisfied.” “Nothing is going to change in this country.” That is the voices from our frontline for reconstruction.

America’s consistent failure at modern war-fighting and nation-building reflects a country oblivious to its limitations—even superpowers don’t have super powers. The Bush administration’s profound miscalculations and deep ignorance merely encouraged our failures. We have never defeated a guerrilla force or succeeded at true nation-building.

So now what? If we walk away from Iraq, we will shed a failed president’s obsession. If we walk away from Afghanistan, we might lose much more.

In one month I witnessed the plunge of Afghanistan; in two months I don’t want to witness the rise of a genuine threat to America. We need to figure out how to keep al-Qaeda from taking over the toilet that we never cleaned up. But no more unfulfilled promises to Afghans. I’ve had enough hunkering down behind Kabul walls.

This article first appeared in The American Conservative, July 3, 2006 Issue.

 

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The Kabul Rumble
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"Every Missile Was a Painkiller"
Afghanistan is an enigma wrapped in pain with a future that is anyone’s guess.

Kabul Erupts in Gunfire
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Where Did The Dough Go?
Billions have been donated for the reconstruction of Afghanistan, so where did the money go?

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