The charred remains of a truck still lie at the side of a road leading to Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan. They were there in early 2012 as well, 10 days after news broke that American troops had set fire to copies of the Quran and protests erupted across the country.
Clouds filled the sky that morning and in the center of Kapisa province, a short drive away, the poplar trees were shorn of leaves. Taliban controlled two local districts and all the signs were the situation would get worse, not better.
Haji Mohammed Ibrahim, an old man who declined to have his photograph taken, summed up the mood: “If someone has disrespected your religion, your holy book and your women, they are not your friends anymore.”
Disillusionment with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has grown in the intervening years. People throughout Afghanistan are tired and worried about the future, often caught between wanting the foreign troops to withdraw and scared about the wreckage they may leave behind.
The logic of failure
It didn’t used to be like this. When the U.S. invaded in October 2001, there wasn’t much resistance here. The country had been in turmoil for generations, triggered by a Marxist coup in April 1978.
Next came the Soviet occupation, which lasted almost a decade. When the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) left, a bitter civil war ensued between the victorious mujahedeen factions, ultimately leading to the emergence of the Taliban movement.
After everything they had experienced, many Afghans were just pleased the world was paying attention again. The optimism lasted into the 2004 election that confirmed Hamid Karzai as president and was even evident in the opening of parliament a year later.
But there were also clear hints of trouble by then, warnings of what would come to pass unless the U.S. and its allies followed through on promises of peace and development.
In the south and east, an insurgency had gradually taken hold as people reacted against ethnic discrimination, government corruption and house raids by American troops. Increasing numbers of militants based in Pakistan also joined the fight. Violence bled slowly across the countryside until, inevitably, it began to seep into Kabul’s streets.
During 2007, a series of suicide bombings hit the capital. The sheer size of the explosions and the difficulty of predicting where they might happen made them particularly frightening.
One attack that June destroyed a bus full of police recruits, killing scores of people. By the time the scene had been cordoned off, a small white sheet for collecting missing body parts lay on the ground, indistinguishable lumps of flesh placed on the fabric.
A few months later William B. Wood, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, made a brief visit to the southern province of Uruzgan. While there, he spoke with a logic that was dangerous and confused — a relic from Vietnam.
“What you have is a situation in which, although the Taliban has had an unsuccessful fighting season, because of their use of terroristic tactics, it doesn’t feel like the government and its allies have had a successful fighting season either. But that’s only a feeling. The Taliban is weaker than it was at the start of this fighting season,” he said.
It was put to him again that a lot of people believed the insurgents were getting stronger.
“I think I said they’re weaker. I’m going to stick to my sentence. They are weaker. But in their weakness, they are also more brutal and that is, I think, the reason why people have a sense that they might be stronger,” he said.
Soon afterward, in a valley of Uruzgan, British troops wandered past bunkers and trenches left behind by rebels who had vanished into thin air.
Long before his election victory in 2008, Barack Obama made no secret of his intention to escalate the conflict here if he became president. He described Afghanistan as part of a wider “war that has to be won,” and by the time he entered the White House, it was clearly being lost.
His answer was to throw more soldiers at the problem, eventually increasing the number of U.S. troops to about 100,000 from more than 32,000. They would go on to drive the rebels from many of their strongholds, but it hardly mattered. A new generation of Taliban emerged to replace those who had been detained or killed. Insecurity shifted to different areas and the small acts of heartbreak continued.
In January 2010, the imam of a mosque on the outskirts of Kabul was shot dead by a passing military convoy. There was no obvious explanation for the tragedy, except that he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. These things happen in war.
“The mawlawi is not the only man the Americans have killed,” said Nasrullah Noori, a tribal leader. “They have killed too many Afghans. We are not in the government and cannot fully understand the situation, but God will punish them. We believe that if they do not receive justice in this world, they will in the next. We are very comfortable with that.”
All sides suffered. Before Obama took office, the highest annual body count for U.S. forces here had been 155, according to a website that monitors coalition casualties. In 2009, it rose to 317 and in 2010, it peaked at 499. No one knows for sure how many insurgents — each a son, brother, father — died over the same period. The United Nations reported that 3,021 civilians were killed in 2011 — an 8% increase over the previous year.
When American troops began to leave, Afghanistan again faded from the news. Local forces gradually took over security duties, often with worrying results.
Pro-government militias established at the behest of Washington reminded people of the chaos that similar armed groups had caused in the past. In some provinces, they were accused of rape, robbery, kidnapping and murder, yet the full extent of their impact will only be felt in the years ahead when Kabul may have to fend for itself.
The police and army also struggled to cope as they took on more responsibilities. In the northern province of Badakhshan in March 2013, insurgents ambushed Afghan soldiers in the district of Warduj. Several were taken hostage and 16 were reportedly executed. The attack occurred in a part of the country not traditionally seen as a Taliban haven.
“Poverty, injustice, oppression and corruption have caused people to rise up,” said Qazi Sadullah Abu Aman, a local official responsible for peace talks in the area.
The fight goes on
Now, in the spring of 2014, Afghanistan is at a crucial point in its history and no one knows what will happen next. Negotiations with the Taliban have come to nothing. By the end of the year, most, if not all, of the U.S. and NATO troops will withdraw. Added to this is a political transition fraught with tension.
A presidential election was scheduled for April and Karzai was due to step down. Weeks earlier, one of his deputies — a notorious former leader of the Northern Alliance — Mohammed Qasim Fahim, died of natural causes, adding to the uncertainty.
At the time of writing, there is no clear favorite to win the vote. Many of the candidates and their running mates have controversial backgrounds inextricably linked to America’s role in the nation’s recent history. They include Abdul Rashid Dostum, a potential vice president who is accused of massacring hundreds of Taliban prisoners during the 2001 invasion.
The reality is that this has never been a just or moral conflict. Even the optimistic early years were built on crumbling foundations. Achievements have been made in the fields of health, education and women’s rights, but they have come at an immense cost for this country and region that will be felt for decades to come.
On the eve of the Persian New Year, gunmen entered a luxury hotel in Kabul and killed nine civilians. Among the dead was an Afghan journalist, his wife and two young children. Earlier that day, insurgents launched a coordinated assault on a police station in the eastern city of Jalalabad. The Taliban claimed responsibility for both attacks.
Some Afghans have understandably given up hope and, fearing another civil war, sought out smugglers who can help them find refuge in Europe or Australia. Others continue to try to make a difference, however small.
“It’s one thing to have committed a crime. But if you see a crime and keep silent, you share in that crime,” said Weeda Ahmad, a civil society activist.
“From the day I started my work up until now, I have not been disappointed. Maybe I or my colleagues working with me will not be able to bring justice to this generation, but it will come to the next generations. We are Afghans and our conscience will not let us keep silent.”