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Afghanistan Violence Escalates After Call for More Troops

September 8, 2006 at 1:56 PM EST
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RAY SUAREZ: Today’s attack in Kabul was the bloodiest in the Afghan capital since the Taliban’s ouster in 2001 and the latest in a new surge of violence.

At least 16 people, including two American soldiers, died in the suicide blast, detonated about 50 yards from the U.S. Embassy. Twenty-six NATO and coalition forces have been killed this month alone, making 2006 the deadliest year yet in nearly five years of conflict. One hundred and forty-nine NATO and coalition troops have been killed so far this year. Immediately after the fall of the Taliban, the totals were about a third that number.

NATO now controls military forces in 19 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, since the handover from U.S. and other coalition forces began in late 2004. That’s nearly 90 percent of the country. The heaviest resistance has been in the south, the center of the country’s lucrative poppy trade.

Afghanistan produces more than 90 percent of the world’s opium. The U.N. reported this year’s harvest is up 60 percent from last year, a new record. The tougher-than-expected resistance has admittedly caught NATO troops off guard and prompted commanders to call for reinforcements yesterday for the 20,000-strong NATO force.

JAMES APPATHURAI, NATO Spokesman: The Taliban has, this year, substantially, it seems, upgraded its capability to resist, in terms of its tactics and in terms of the numbers that it’s — that it is massing. They are resisting more capably than we had expected. And that is why we, as an alliance, have to make adjustments to carry out the mission.

RAY SUAREZ: Taliban fighters, after taking refuge in Pakistan, are returning to Afghanistan and contributing to the rise in violence, a problem which leaders from both countries recognized earlier this week in Kabul.

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf:

PERVEZ MUSHARRAF, Pakistani President: I completely agree that there are al -Qaida and Taliban in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Certainly, they are crossing from Pakistan’s side and causing bomb blasts and terrorist activity in your country. We have to fight terrorism with military force, all the force available. And we will carry on doing this, whether it is al-Qaida or Taliban or anyone.

Spikes in violence

Sarah Chayes
Author, "The Punishment of Virtue"
There has been a growing disillusionment with the Afghan government on the part of regular people in southern Afghanistan, which is where I live. And, so, it's been five years now, and people are really running out of patience.

RAY SUAREZ: On Tuesday, Pakistan's government and pro-Taliban rebels signed a deal to stop crossing the border into Afghanistan. In return, the province will be granted more autonomy.

What is life like in Afghanistan five years since the Taliban were thrown out of power?

For that, we turn to Sarah Chayes, a former National Public Radio reporter who covered the U.S. military operation in 2001. She moved to Afghanistan in 2002 and has lived there ever since. She now runs a cooperative that makes soaps and skin creams from local agricultural products. She's also the author of "The Punishment of Virtue: Inside Afghanistan After the Fall of the Taliban."

What's causing the sudden spike in violence and the lethality projected against NATO troops?

SARAH CHAYES, Author, "The Punishment of Virtue: Inside Afghanistan After the Fall of the Taliban": You know, what's interesting is, I don't see this as a sudden development. It's been a progression, really since late 2002. And it's been a kind of sawtooth progression.

So, you would have a spike in violence and then it would come down for a few months, sometimes six months, as much as six months. Then, it would spike up. And each spike has been higher than the last. So, the first answer to your question is that this is basically -- the last spike was -- you know, was almost this high. And this spike is even higher.

There's another issue. I don't see this as -- as an indigenous uprising, in the way that the insurgency in Iraq could be considered an indigenous uprising. It's really coming across the border from Pakistan.

But there has been a growing disillusionment with the Afghan government on the part of regular people in southern Afghanistan, which is where I live. And, so, it's been five years now, and people are really running out of patience.

And that means that, if that 20 guys with guns knock on your door at night and say, look, "We need dinner; can you feed us?" people are more likely to do that, because they just don't feel the allegiance to the government that they did in 2002.

RAY SUAREZ: So, there's an atmosphere, you're saying where there's a tolerance of these outside forces that are willing to attack the new Afghan army, willing to attack NATO forces in their areas?

SARAH CHAYES: That's right.

And -- and the problem is that the new Afghan army, for example, is experienced by regular people as being just as hostile to their interests as the Taliban are. I have someone in my cooperative says to me one morning, almost with tears in her eyes: We don't know what to do, because the Taliban prey on us at night, but the government soldiers prey on us in the daytime.

And that means that people get shaken down. They get, you know, their telephones stolen. You -- you know, when the army is deployed in an area where there's Taliban fighting, to have checkpoints and things like that, they routinely just take everybody's money. You know, everyone that they're searching to see if it's a -- if -- if it's a Taliban, they will take their money, or their telephone, or any other valuables they might have.

Nostalgia for the Taliban

Sarah Chayes
Author, "The Punishment of Virtue"
People remember that, under the Taliban, they had some law and order. The -- the rules were excessively strict, and people didn't like that. But at least they knew what they were.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, you were there at the time of the fall of the old government and the beginning of this new order. Was there optimism then?

SARAH CHAYES: Totally.

RAY SUAREZ: Was there support for the new system?

SARAH CHAYES: Absolutely. I mean there was Kandahar, right, you know, the heart of darkness, that was the fiefdom of the Taliban. People were overjoyed. People were so inspired by the radio interviews that President Karzai -- at that time, future President Karzai -- was delivering from his, you know, readout up in the mountains north of -- of Kandahar.

People were so excited that, at last, they could rejoin the community of nations, you know, that, at last, they could have a -- a government that took care of them, and, at last, they could have some individual liberties. But -- and -- and they really had a lot of patience. It took them a long time to get -- to get disillusioned with -- with what was delivered to them in the name of government. And they're very disillusioned now.

RAY SUAREZ: So, is there a nostalgia for the Taliban?

SARAH CHAYES: To some degree, there is.

But it's not at all ideological. It's not about Islam. It's not about crusade against the West. It's about: You know what? There was no corruption under the Taliban. Public officials didn't extract bribes from people. It was a taxi driver -- I took a taxi from the Pakistani border to Kandahar. This was even a couple of years ago. And he was ranting the whole time.

He said: You know what? Now, every time I pass a police check post, I get money taken from me. But, under the Taliban, I could drive, and I could drive at night, without being afraid.

And, so, people remember that, under the Taliban, they had some law and order. The -- the rules were excessively strict and people didn't like that. But at least they knew what they were, and they knew that, if they obeyed these rules, that they would be safe. And now there's chaos.

Effect of NATO troops

Sarah Chayes
Author, "The Punishment of Virtue"
I have had a soldier tell me: You know what? The Pakistani border is just an imaginary line keeping us from doing our job.

RAY SUAREZ: In Kandahar Province, does it look, looking out at the world from the town where you live, as if more NATO troops would make a difference?

SARAH CHAYES: I think the current level of NATO troops is not sufficient, because I know of firefights that have happened that NATO hasn't even been able to think about.

I mean, I know there was a district headquarters about a mile south of Kandahar proper. So, we're talking on the fringes of the city. There was a four-hour battle between the Taliban and local security forces, the police, that NATO couldn't even -- couldn't even back up the police, because they were too busy elsewhere.

So, it's certainly true that the degree of -- of fighting is more than NATO can handle right now. But I don't believe that this is a problem that can be solved only by military means. It's like, it's necessary, but it's not sufficient. We need more military pressure to be put on -- on these forces.

But, unless the Afghan government can come in there and provide the kind of regular services that ordinary people want from their government, all they -- all the military could really do is displace the problem for a little while.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, you live near the border with Pakistan. Is that border a porous one?

SARAH CHAYES: Oh...

RAY SUAREZ: And what difference does it make to life where you live that that is not a protected border?

SARAH CHAYES: It's not just that the border is porous. It's that Taliban cross the main crossing point. This is not happening in mountains and on little trails that nobody can -- can control.

This is happening at the main border crossing point that is patrolled by Pakistani frontier guards. And the difference that it makes is that we feel, in Kandahar proper, extremely exposed, because it feels like you don't -- you know, anybody could be anybody. There are -- there are teams of day laborers that come in from Pakistan all the time. You don't know who those people are.

And, so, it's a very frustrating situation. And I know, when I have had conversations with U.S. troops, for example, who have been engaged in these firefights, they're -- they're frustrated, too, because they say: You know what? You know, we will -- we will be in hot pursuit of we have had a firefight with, and they will just disappear across the border, and we can't follow them.

I have had a soldier tell me: You know what? The Pakistani border is just an imaginary line keeping us from doing our job.

Business in the region

RAY SUAREZ: You are trying to run a business in a place that's also one of the most heavy opium cultivation belts in the world.

SARAH CHAYES: Yes.

RAY SUAREZ: What does all that money coming in do to the legitimate side of the -- of the ledger, whether you're a civil servant or a farmer or someone trying to run a business?

SARAH CHAYES: Well, one thing it does is raise property values. We would love to buy a piece of land and build a facility, a production facility, but it's totally out of reach. I mean, it would cost a couple of hundred thousand dollars to buy a decent -- I mean, we're talking an acre, less than an acre, in Kandahar, you know?

SARAH CHAYES: I mean, this is not New York City. And, so, that's one problem. I...

RAY SUAREZ: Because there's so much money in opium?

SARAH CHAYES: That's right.

There's so much money in -- washing around the economy in Kandahar that it -- I mean, the supply of money is greater than the supply of goods. And that means that the prices of goods go up. It's -- land is also a way to, you know, kind of salt your money away.

But I find that, actually, Afghan farmers are very interested in diversifying what they're growing. There are all sorts of reasons why they grow opium. One is that there's, you know, not such an efficient market for some of their other very valuable products, like pomegranates, that, you know, we have all been reading about recently, or almonds, or apricots.

They grow really valuable crops. But the issue is, how do you get them out of Afghanistan to places that can spend more money on them?

Also, imagine a place where there's no banking system. So, no one can take out a loan from a -- from an institution. They take out a loan from a -- from a trafficker. And they have to pay it back in opium. So, that's some of the ways that it -- that it really disturbs, you know, regular economic transactions.

RAY SUAREZ: Sarah Chayes, thanks for joining us.

SARAH CHAYES: Thanks for having me.