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A thousand-headed dragon is here

Five years after the Taliban were toppled, Afghanistan is again being torn apart by violence. And it's the government and foreign forces that are getting the blame. By Chris Sands in Kabul

December 1, 2006
7 min read

What kind of hell?

Nowhere is safe now, not when rockets rain down at night and your front door can be kicked in as you lie fast asleep with your wife by your side.

Each day you wonder if that taxi driver is a suicide bomber, that cop a murderer, that soldier just a trigger-happy kid. Even men who joined the army to kill and be killed piss themselves as they go into battle.

Rather than wait for a miracle, Afghans are again preparing for a fight to the end.

‘There is a big fire under the earth. It’s like a volcano and soon it will explode,’ Said Mohammad Hashem Watanwall, MP for the province of Uruzgan.

‘It will explode if everything continues like now – the corruption, the bad security, the bombing of civilians by coalition forces. Soon it will explode and people will stand up in the name of jihad and [martyrdom] if there are no big changes.’

Watanwall isn’t a crazy extremist out to destroy freedom, liberty and everything else Britain is meant to stand for. But when he thinks about his country he can’t help wonder what kind of hell waits around the corner.

‘Now in parliament the MPs are saying “Forget about Pakistan and the Taliban – why are the foreigners here?” They are saying a thousand-headed dragon is here and it’s the foreign armies. Just imagine, if the MPs are saying that in an official place, what will a simple person in a village be saying?’

A country on the brink

Kabul is the capital of Afghanistan, a city where anyone with a flashy car is almost certainly a drug dealer, a warlord, a corrupt government official – or a rich westerner looking at poverty through tinted windows. It was relatively safe here until spring 2006. Then the gunfire, loud bangs and gut-wrenching screams arrived.

There was a suicide bombing near my home recently. First came the explosion, a huge blast that cut through the air and froze time for a split second. Then the smoke and dust rose up, leaving a dark thundercloud above the body parts.

Shopkeepers stopped getting their stores ready. Labourers laid down their tools and looked across the rooftops to see where the latest ground zero was. Then they all carried on with what they had been doing a moment earlier. Hayat Ullah Wali works on the other side of town, in a hospital for the mentally ill. It’s a place where heavily drugged patients shuffle like zombies through dark corridors, chains around their feet.

‘Let me talk to you clearly. The Americans are not here to help us. America created Osama bin Laden, America created the terrorists. Now America wants to fight the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, but they were created by the Americans,’ he says.

A war that was meant to end with the last stand of bin Laden and his faithful lieutenants in the Tora Bora mountains is only just beginning. Afghanistan is on the brink of a mass rebellion.

Dead bodies are stacking up like cordwood, with more than 3,700 people estimated to have been killed in the fighting by November 2006. Each new dawn ushers in some fresh carnage, another nail in the coffin of British and US foreign policy.

Perhaps today it will be a NATO air strike, similar to the one that murdered scores of civilians in Kandahar during the holy festival of Eid. Or maybe it will be a suicide attack by insurgents, a clumsy American house raid, a beheading caught on camera for the latest snuff movie. The bloodshed is getting impossible to keep track of.

Leave or join the Taliban

Rahullah Amiri comes from Ghazni province, south of Kabul. Earlier this summer the local police beat his 22-year-old brother with their guns and some kind of cable.

‘Two or three of his teeth were missing, his nose was broken and his back was as black as your coat,’ says Rahullah. The result is that Afghanistan’s poorly equipped security forces and Britain’s undersiege troops could soon have another insurgent charging towards them with explosives wrapped around his waist.

‘I can’t describe my feeling, it’s very hard,’ Rahullah explains. ‘But let’s say at that time I hated the Karzai government and I decided to join the Taliban. When the Taliban were here everything was okay. At least when they arrested people they had allegations against them. They were not arresting people without any reason. Now all the countries of the world are here – the Americans are here, the UK is here – how can this happen?’

‘Even now I don’t know why they beat him,’ he continues. ‘The only thing I can think of is that it was because of our low culture and the culture of war. For three decades we have been at war.

‘Please pass my voice, my words, onto your officials, your newspapers. Tell the world you are coming here, you are losing your young people in the fighting and it’s a waste because the current government is nothing. Karzai has failed, everything has been lost. Five years have passed, there is no security here; there are a lot of explosions, a lot of suicide attacks.’

‘So what can the people do?’ Rahullah asks despairingly. ‘My brother was beaten, so I want to give up my life here, I want to sell my factory and leave this country because there is no security. I am not a jihadi and that means I can’t get a high position in the government, so I want to leave the country. I want to tell the world Karzai has failed, it’s a waste of time.

‘There is only one way for us now: leave the country or join the Taliban. I really feel like joining the Taliban and fighting the government.’

Civil war awaits

History serves as a warning. The insurgency that overpowered Soviet troops and Kabul’s puppet communist regime began with small rebel movements in the countryside. It developed into a nationwide struggle during which mujahideen battled against their fellow Afghans and Russian soldiers. The occupation ended in 1989, but peace remained elusive and from 1992 to 1996 a brutal civil war raged. Increasingly, Afghans believe that something similar awaits on the horizon.

This trash strewn Kabul suburb is dotted with giant furnaces for baking bricks. Not so long ago, the smoke coming from the chimneys carried the stench of charred human flesh. People were cooked alive here simply because they belonged to the wrong ethnic group or fought for the wrong commander.

The men who murdered them are not the insurgents NATO and American troops have been struggling against. This is a Shiite neighbourhood and its residents are staunch opponents of the Taliban. But after five years of trying to eke out an honest living from Afghanistan’s shattered economy, they have had enough.

‘Yes, soon the jihad will start. I will fight against the Taliban and the infidels, the foreigners. If your stomach is empty, of course you will do something and what we will do is fight,’ says Yahya, a local resident.

‘I will kill civilians and not soldiers. There won’t be any soldiers on the ground – they will all have disappeared and you will just see them in the sky in their planes. But I will kill civilians because they have stolen all our money. All the money that’s been given to Afghanistan goes in their pockets.’

NATO commanders talk of victory, British politicians of hearts-and-minds. They should go and meet Yahya.

‘Of course I will kill you if you come back to see me when the jihad starts,’ he says. ‘That happens when there is fighting. I have seen men kill their own brothers.’

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