Dispatch

Afghanistan Falls Apart

A string of disasters has left the Kabul elite wondering whether it's possible to pick up the pieces of their shattered alliance with the United States.

KABUL – Near a busy intersection where burqa-clad women beg for spare change at car windows, Mahmoud Saikal, Afghanistan's former deputy foreign minister, sat under a photo of this capital city's crowded hillside neighborhoods in the stately living room of his compound.

"If you are from Kabul," he says, "you can find your place of birth in this photo."

It's the only landscape not changing in Afghanistan.

A series of American blunders in the past few months has raised questions about whether the decade-long U.S. mission in Afghanistan is doomed to failure. In February, reports that copies of the Quran had been burnt at a NATO base sparked protests across the country that left dozens dead. And last month, Staff Sgt. Robert Bales murdered 17 Afghan civilians in cold blood -- returning to his base in Kandahar province mid-massacre before going out to kill again. Meanwhile, the Afghan security forces are increasingly turning on their trainers: Three NATO soldiers were killed by Afghan police and military members on March 26 -- the latest of more than 80 coalition troops who have lost their lives in this way since 2007.

The escalating string of disasters has led to an increasingly contentious debate within President Hamid Karzai's inner circle between officials who say Afghanistan is better off without the United States and those who see the American presence as necessary for security. But even among America's erstwhile allies, there is a profound disappointment at the gap between the grandiose U.S. pledges and the dismal reality on the ground in Afghanistan.

"The U.S. could have been a more responsible superpower, a caring superpower," Saikal says. "It's important for them to stand for [their] values around the world. But I think the last three incidents were definitely deliberate acts that tarnish the values the U.S. stands for."

U.S. efforts to forge a lasting relationship with the Afghan government has been complicated by the eclectic makeup of Karzai's inner circle and the often haphazard nature of its decision making process.

"We make foreign policy decisions on the run on the steps of a ministry," laments Saikal, a former ambassador to Indonesia and Australia. The disarray, he says, makes it easier for those in power "to twist the law in their own personal taste."

That taste is only growing more anti-American. With popular anger at the U.S. military hitting an all-time high, Karzai has increasingly been forced to stand up to the United States to prove that he is not in the pocket of the foreign occupiers. He has renewed his demand that U.S. Special Forces end nighttime raids, and looks set to win a concession that would subject the raids to review by Afghan judges. But even with that victory, Karzai's advisors are increasingly debating whether cooperation with the Americans has brought more trouble than it's worth.

"Karzai's inner circle is split between a group that's very Afghan nationalist and suspicious of the West the other that has the technocrats and more Westernized elements that are pro-West," says a former senior U.S. military officer who commanded in Afghanistan.

Recent American missteps have rocked Afghan officials' faith in the coalition's ability to help govern the country's tenuous political situation. "The Afghans have to be wondering how incompetent we are," adds a former civilian advisor to ISAF in Afghanistan. "[Afghan parliamentarians] have to be very, very frustrated because we've undercut their ability to work with us. How do you now go about selling working with the Americans to people on the street?"

There is a pervasive fear on the streets of Kabul that, once coalition forces leave, the traditional hard-line nationalists -- known, during the Taliban's era in power, for gruesome torture and punishment -- will reemerge in full force.

"We see no sign to prove that the mentality of using violence for political [gain] has changed," Saikal says. "Whatever we've done [to counter it], the mentality is still strong. If that doesn't change, I'm afraid the future looks bleak."

The Afghan government's disarray means personal interests and opinions can become official policy without a thorough debate.

"No doubt, there are some left [close to Karzai] who do have some wisdom and do see the relationship between Afghanistan and the U.S. as in the interest of both countries," Saikal says. "But those would be their personal views because the government simply doesn't have policies."

Omar Samad, an advisor to Afghanistan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and formerly the country's  ambassador to France and Canada, has seen his country's political dysfunction up close.

"Contradictions [between the politicians' competing views] have existed for a while," Samad says. "And it's reflected in the upper echelons of the Afghan government and the inner circle around the president. It seems that each incident … restricts the space that exists for those who believe that a long term strategic relationship with the U.S. is important."

But the debate among Afghan officials is not only based on ideology -- many high-rollers have profited immensely from the influx of American riches, overriding any personal antagonism that might have been stirred in the wake of Bales's rampage. Wartime corruption has been rampant in Afghanistan: According to a 2010 report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Karzai and his attorney general "refused to allow any action to be taken against corrupt leaders," and likely blocked cases against dozens of top officials from going forward.

"This situation is highly unlikely to change in the middle of a war where Karzai needs all of the internal support he can get, and the rest of the Afghan political and legal system either is too weak to pose a challenge or would like a share of the money," the report reads.

It's not only the upper echelons that are reaching into the government's coffers -- the massive influx of funds that the United States and its partners have poured into the country has created a whole class that is dependent on foreign money.

"A lot of people have been benefitting enormously from the U.S. presence in terms of patronage, grabbing a slice of aid money, being in positions of authority where they could take money from the Afghan state," says Stuart Gordon, an Afghanistan researcher at the London think tank Chatham House.

Not all of that money has stayed in Afghanistan, much less gone to improve the life of its citizens. In March, a senior Afghan official told Reuters that his wealthy countrymen were smuggling $8 billion in cash out of Afghanistan each year. According to a 2009 State Department cable published by Wikileaks, former Vice President Zia Masoud was caught bringing $52 million in cash through the Dubai airport and was released without question.

Indeed, while popular anger against the United States is undoubtedly rising across Afghanistan, it may not be a decisive factor for the Afghan elite. Those Afghan officials have an incentive to keep their eye on the bottom line: the flow of U.S. dollars into the country.

"I'm not sure that the power brokers in the Afghan government have a particular hatred for the Americans," says Samad. "The hatred of the Americans tends to be more amongst the conservative rural Afghans, who have a more shortsighted view, but have also suffered at the hands of the police and government brutality. The upper echelons of the Afghan government are probably more calculating. They think the gravy train is leaving."

On a gusty day in Kabul, one of Karzai's former ministers wedges a chair into a doorknob of her drafty home to keep the door from slamming over and over.

She expresses concern that the country is backsliding into its conservative, Taliban-era ways. Some female officials, she claims, had been told to wear traditional scarves only over half of their heads, to appease Western officials. After the Americans leave, she says, they will be told to cover the entire head.

The minister echoes the views of many of the president's past and present allies, who say the latest incidents are the straw that broke the camel's back -- cherries on a sundae of broken promises to a female population that remains largely marginalized, and a dysfunctional government that is a democracy in little more than name only.

"The U.S.'s beliefs failed here, and that was their enemies' intention from the beginning," she says.  "Afghanistan is a world of extremism. The world should be helping that Afghan people get rid of terrorism and give us a civil government with men and women participating equally."

In the past five months, cracks in the foundation of the U.S.-Afghan relationship have been exposed. The question is whether Karzai's men want to put the alliance back together again -- or whether America's indiscretions in their country are too much to overcome.

"I have talked to [members of] the Taliban," Saikal says, the thick security walls around his house a reminder of the precarious situation on the streets. "The Taliban called me a fool. They said, ‘You're working with a political process that is a waste of time."

Majid Saeedi/Getty Images

Dispatch

Baghdad's Potemkin Village

A guided tour of the Iraqi capital's elaborate artifice, in all its absurd finery, as the Arab League summit rolled into town.

BAGHDAD – Whenever I hear a boom in Baghdad, it's hard to tell: bombs or construction? On the afternoon of March 29, I was eating lunch in the office, watching the Arab League summit live on Iraqi state TV, when the air concussed with a muffled THOOMP, as though a backhoe had dropped a boulder a couple blocks away -- or an explosive had detonated somewhere across town.

My Iraqi colleagues always know which sound is which, but I haven't yet developed the ear. Unfortunately, none of them were at work, because the city had been choked to a halt by the 100,000 soldiers providing security for the summit. Nor could I call anyone to find out what had happened, because the cell towers had been switched off -- presumably to thwart phone-activated IEDs. I jogged up to the roof and surveyed the horizon, but couldn't see any smoke. The Internet was still working, though, and I soon found my answer on Twitter: Mortars had hit near the Iranian embassy, close to the Green Zone where the summit was being held. No casualties reported.

The attack was the only stain on what was otherwise a banner day for Iraq. All diplomacy is infused with an element of performance, and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki succeeded at enlisting his colleagues in the Arab League to participate in an elaborate spectacle. The government spent more than half a billion dollars on security and luxury accommodations, Maliki later confirmed, and the result was an alternate version of Baghdad -- a zone of safety and comfort that a foreign dignitary would be willing to inhabit, and could credibly praise. The triumph was a feat of stagecraft.

"It was an impossible dream to meet you here in Baghdad," Maliki told the assembled leaders. "Until three years ago, Baghdad was a city of ghosts, its neighborhoods isolated, its universities closed, its streets empty, and its hospitals filled with martyrs and the wounded."

"The Impossible Dream" would have been an apt motto for the summit. Just by putting on the event, Iraq has demonstrated some organizational and diplomatic chops that were unimaginable a few years ago. In all, 10 heads of state arrived, out of 20 countries represented at the summit -- their presence signaled Iraq's reemergence as a sovereign nation with regional clout. Finally, Iraqi leaders could proclaim an end to the days when their country was little more than a chaotic theater for proxy battles among its neighbors.

My own journey into the summit's unreality began on Monday evening, as I began my quest to pick up press credentials. I had submitted accreditation paperwork weeks before, but, like most of my fellow journalists, my badge was nowhere to be found. This was a source of some distress: Ask any journalist in Iraq, and they'll tell you there's nothing like a good badge. At the city's ubiquitous checkpoints, you flash the right badge and Iraqi soldiers wave you through; without one, maybe you get hassled or turned around. Badges mean access.

A friendly contact in the government assigned two men to help me get my summit badge. One was a mid-level Foreign Ministry official; the other was "from Maliki's office," which I understood to mean he was an intelligence officer. They led me to a black Hyundai sedan, and the Foreign Ministry guy got behind the wheel.

"Do you like speed?" he said.

"Why, do you drive fast?" I said.

"This is why they call me the Pilot!" he said, and with that he stomped the accelerator to the floor. We hit 50 miles per hour in half a block, then he immediately slammed on the brakes to stop for a checkpoint. Our evening drive across the capital's nearly empty streets turned into a series of drag races against nobody. Ten minutes into the trip, the car reeked of burning brake pads.

To guard Baghdad during the summit, the government temporarily redeployed thousands of soldiers from other parts of the country. The capital's streets are usually punctuated every few blocks by checkpoints manned by a handful of soldiers. This week, though, these same checkpoints were staffed by a dozen men apiece -- the usual soldiers, plus plainclothes officers wearing designer jeans and plaid shirts and intelligence agents with gold Interior Ministry badges hooked over the lapel pockets of their suits. Instead of waving cars by with a glance at the driver's badge, they stopped and searched every vehicle -- even police cars.

My government escorts were friendly and curious. They asked me about my life in New York and reporting on Iraq's oil sector, and they told me about their children. But I felt uneasy with them. They wore their authority with a reckless bravado. As I was thrown into my seatbelt at yet another checkpoint -- this one at the entrance to a bridge over the Tigris River -- the Pilot swerved onto the opposite side of the road to bypass a queue of 15 cars waiting to be searched. The Maliki agent hopped out of the car and jogged up to the chief of the checkpoint and explained that we needed to cut the line. Moments later, we were speeding over the river toward the Mansour Hotel.

This was the third hotel I had visited on my badge quest, which was now turning into an impromptu tour of Iraq's opulent summit preparations. Over the past two years, the government has built luxury villas inside the Green Zone; renovated Saddam's old Republican Palace, which the United States made its headquarters after the 2003 invasion; and enlisted the Turkish company Rixos to bring a few hotels up to VIP standards, all in preparation for the summit.

The Mansour's lobby was gleaming with polished marble and brass. Men huddled in conversation around clusters of velvet-upholstered armchairs, and tables of refreshments were continuously replenished by some of the 2,500 Turkish staff that Rixos had flown in for the occasion. I had made it to an inner circle of the VIP bubble. Having spent the better part of two days questing after my summit credentials, I was shocked when -- within 5 minutes of my arrival -- a man appeared and presented me with my badge. I swelled with a guilty thrill of access and privilege. The Pilot gave me a high five.

My last trip into such a zone of safety and entitlement in Iraq was last December, when I visited the prime minister's compound in a section of the Green Zone called Little Venice. Walking through the gates and past the protection of 18-foot-tall concrete blast walls, I entered an urban oasis -- a square mile of tree-lined streets, grassy lawns, meandering walkways, and goldfish ponds -- where Maliki and his closest confidantes live in villas that would not look out of place in a vineyard in the Italian countryside. The air in the rest of Baghdad is choked with the exhaust of 5,000 diesel generators -- here, however, it was fragrant with the scent of gardens.

But the extent of Iraq's reconstruction quickly wanes the further one travels from the locus of power. The poorer neighborhoods of Baghdad enjoy electricity for only four hours per day. The unemployment rate is difficult to calculate with precision, but informed estimates put it at well over 20 percent. Roads are pocked with potholes, and traffic patterns are so haphazard that highway off-ramps are often used as on-ramps - gridlock can be so dismal that drivers prefer to risk steering into oncoming traffic.

The people we had passed at the checkpoint by the Tigris -- the taxi driver, the twenty-somethings listening to thumping house music, the family of six crammed into a five-seat car -- were residents of this Iraqi reality, and there is no badge that will allow them to escape. They experienced the summit most directly as an extreme inconvenience. Shops closed, produce stands went unstocked, cabbies searched in vain for fares. At midday on Tuesday, I sat down for lunch at a restaurant facing an empty Kahramanna Square, which is usually chaotic with traffic, and listened to a few Baghdadis opine about the summit. They understood that this was an event of some abstract importance and perhaps a reason for national pride. But when you have been conditioned to recognize the difference between the sound of an IED and a mortar from a mile away, regional prestige is less of a concern than basic safety. They pointed out that the government allocated a level of attention and resources to protecting foreign dignitaries that it has not given to its citizens.

The summit appeared to be not only designed to signal Baghdad's revival for visiting foreign dignitaries, but to provide Iraqis with a glimpse of their new ruler's authority. At the first event of the summit, 100 intelligence agents in matching black suits and purple ties lined either side of the driveway of the Sheraton Hotel, where various Arab League economic ministers were meeting. Maliki was coming. There was no discernible threat within the fortified compound -- the phalanx of agents were presumably there for the photo op. Iraqi television stations fawned over the scene of these powerful men, standing in rigid fealty as a half dozen black armored pickup trucks with machine gun turrets rumbled in, followed by Maliki's sedan. The prime minister swept into the hotel's conference room for perhaps a half hour, and then left.

The meaning of the summit was largely contained in these carefully staged moments. Nobody expected the meetings themselves to produce much new policy. Indeed, the biggest substance of the summit was the Arab League's agreement that the United Nations should take the lead in dealing with the crisis in Syria. "We have tried to find the Arab solution through collaborative efforts but we failed," said Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari. "The situation has gone out of the Arab framework."

Still, the public spectacles are fraught with significance. On the morning of the summit, news cameras showed Maliki greeting the emir of Kuwait at the airport, kissing his cheek to mark his first visit to Iraq since Saddam's 1990 invasion. It was an image repeated again and again, a none too subtle message from Maliki to his Arab neighbors and Iraqi citizens that his leadership had brought Iraq this proud moment of regional reintegration. By this measure, the summit was indeed a success. But it was tangible only within a realm that remains inaccessible to anyone without the proper badge.

ALI HAIDAR/AFP/Getty Images