Round-up on Afghanistan

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The Afghan resistance is spreading and winning. The resistance has largely cut off the Khyber Pass, the main road from Pakistan, and has effective control of half the country.

The occupiers control very little, and are now being attacked in Kabul itself. Behind all this, Afghans of all ethnic groups have now turned away from the Americans.

This is not because Afghans are naturally warlike. Afghanistan now is not Iraq. In Iraq there was resistance from day one of the invasion. In Afghanistan there was almost none for the first two years, and little for the next year.

By the time the Americans invaded in 2001, Afghanistan had experienced 23 years of war. The Taliban government was deeply unpopular. People hoped the US would bring peace, money and development.

To understand why Afghanistan is now a fire of revolt, you have to understand the experience of occupation. Four recent books help do this.

Peter Marsden worked with British NGOs in Afghanistan from 1989 to 2005. In his new book, Afghanistan: Aid, Armies and Empires, he knows whereof he speaks. The historical parts of the book are thin, although I agree with his general stand against invasions. But three chapters on aid under the US are very useful.

Marsden describes an odd situation. The foreign NGOs were established in Kabul after the Russians left in 1989. At first they worked with mujahideen warlords, and then with the Taliban. The NGOs did almost all the actual business of government - running schools, hospitals and public services, and delivering food aid to the poor. The Taliban cooperated well and provided security so the NGOs could do all the real work of government. They did this very cheaply under the leadership of the United Nations. The government had a tiny budget and almost no civil servants - the government treasury was in a metal box under the rope bed of Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader.

With the US invasion all this quickly collapsed. The occupying governments gave almost no money to Hamid Karzai's central government. Within a year the government was four to six months behind on all government salaries. Traditionally the Afghan governments had relied on aid and customs duties. Now custom duties were gone too - no provincial governor would send them to Kabul.

So there was no effective army, few police and no judges outside Kabul. Customary tribal law ruled at best, and often just the gun.

Instead of money for a government budget, each US ally provided money for its own NGOs. There was an explosion of well paid charity workers from all over the world, buying supplies from their own countries, typically making 150 to 300 times the average Afghan income of $200 per person per year.

The US military, roaming the south and east hunting "bad guys", alienated people in those areas by busting down doors, searching women, and bombing houses and lives. Their task was nebulous. But they were very clear it did not include policing or security. This meant that the NGOs, and everyone else, were completely unprotected. NGOs pulled out of many areas. Where they stayed, they subcontracted the work to local notables and never inspected it, because they dared not leave Kabul. So aid to Afghanistan shot up in money terms, but far less aid was delivered than under the Taliban.

Marsden analyses all this. But he gives almost no detail or examples, and writes in the careful language of an NGO report. What he says is angry and damning. But to get the feel of what is happening, you need to turn to three other books, all well written page turners with a fascinating and sympathetic central character.

Johnny Rico's Blood Makes the Grass Grow Green, is a fiercely anti-war, and very funny, account of a tour of duty with the US infantry in the southern province of Oruzgan. Rico tells us why not just Afghans, but anyone else, would turn against that occupation.

Deborah Rodriguez, in The Kabul Beauty School, tells you what the NGOs are like, why the Afghans hate them, and how war, poverty and prostitution have degraded city life. Rodriguez is working class and originally went to Kabul with a Christian charity, but couldn't stand it. She is a hairdresser who decided to found a hairdressing school. It's not a deeply analytical book but her interaction with the Afghans makes it remarkable.

Said Hyder Akbar's Come Back to Afghanistan is equally attractive and politically wise. Hyder Akbar's family are Afghan Americans. He grew up in the San Francisco Bay area. He writes very much in the voice of a US teenager. But his family had fought the Soviets and were closely allied to Karzai. Hyder Akbar describes two long summer vacations with his father, who was Karzai's press spokesman and then governor of Kunar province. He then watches the cowardice, cruelty and stupidity of the officers and interrogators in Kunar province. When you finish the book, you know why the US (and its allies) are losing.

Jonathan Neale


  • Afghanistan: Aid, Armies and Empires by Peter Marsden, IB Tauris, £14.99
  • Blood Makes the Grass Grow Green by Johnny Rico, Presidio Press, £7.99
  • The Kabul Beauty School by Deborah Rodriguez, Hodder, £7.99
  • Come Back to Afghanistan, by Said Hyder Akbar, Bloomsbury, £8.99