Afghanistan Under Lease
№3 2004 July/September
Arkady Dubnov

Arkady Dubnov is a political analyst at Moskovskiye Novosti newspaper.

One night, an
Afghan friend of mine and I were thumbing for a taxi on the
outskirts of Kabul. He had lived in Moscow for many years and we
knew each other quite well. The drivers would slow down one after
another, flash their lights at us and then dash off. Finally, one
of the drivers put his head out of his window, shouted a few
phrases, and sped away.

“What did he say?” I asked.

“He said, you’re one of those who slaughter the dogs that the
Americans throw to us,” my friend replied.

“We’re dressed as Europeans, and he thought we’re from among the
Afghans who are servicing the American contingent,” he went on.
“The cab drivers hate the Americans and have contempt for their
fellow-countrymen who work for the Yankees.”

Any correspondent knows perfectly well that talking to cab drivers
is the best method of getting acquainted with the local atmosphere
once you enter an alien city. Specific details will come up later –
mostly to confirm the first impressions that you get from chatting
with the first driver you meet.
People in Kabul really dislike the Americans. The keepers of
dukans, or small street cafes, would say: “Now we can see the
difference between the Russians and the Americans. You Russians are
simple and unpretentious, and you treated us as equals. As for the
Americans, we don’t even know how to approach them, they don’t
treat us as people.”

“But the Afghans warred against the Russians.”

“That’s true, but the Russians helped us. They taught us, built
schools, roads and hospitals. We don’t hate them.”



That real and formal power in Afghanistan is not identical becomes
clear once you set foot on Afghan soil. Kabul airport is not
adorned with portraits of Hamid Karzai, the head of the interim
administration, but rather with numerous leaflets featuring
Mohammad Mirwais Sadiq, who died in March 2004. He held the post of
Commercial Aviation and Tourism Minister under a quota that the
interim administration had issued to his father Ismail Khan, a
widely known field commander and governor of Herat. Mirwais Sadiq
was killed in a clash between supporters of his father and the
troops reporting to Kabul. The details of the incident are not
exactly known. However, few people in Afghanistan have doubts that
the man fell victim to an unsuccessful attempt by the central
administration and its American patrons to dislodge the
recalcitrant “Herat lion,” a nickname that Ismail Khan received
during the years of Soviet intervention. The developments in March
peaked in the restoration of his authority, and one of his
protйgйs, formerly the head of education in Herat, moved to the
minister’s office in Kabul.

So, what kind of a political power settled in Afghanistan after the
victorious U.S.-led war against the Taliban in the fall of 2001?
Debates around the issue are especially intensive now that the U.S.
presidential election is drawing near. In this connection, it is
important to consider an article entitled Afghanistan Unbound by
the acclaimed U.S. journalist Kathy Gannon (Foreign Affairs,
May/June 2004). In it, she dwells on the opportunities that the
U.S. lost and the Afghan lessons it ignored. “How exactly did
things get so bad so quickly? How did the fall of the Taliban – a
great victory for Washington, and one that seemed to herald a new
dawn for a battered country – lead to the return of the old status

Kathy Gannon investigates how the infamous field commanders and
Northern Alliance leaders – Marshal Mohammad Fahim, who became
defense minister, General Abdul Rashid Dostum, whom Hamid Karzai
appointed as special envoy to Afghanistan’s Northern provinces, and
all the others who share responsibility for the atrocious murders
of the mid-1990s – returned to power. Gannon also asks why Karzai
is unable to do anything about it.
She must certainly know, however, that Karzai making allies with
Fahim was an important achievement for the former as a political
leader. Today, Fahim acts as a guarantor of support to the interim
administration on the part of the law enforcement agencies. Fahim
had to pay a dear price for his loyalty, though – he lost most of
his supporters in Punjsher. Fahim has refrained from traveling to
that region because the locals may think he sold out to the

Gannon criticizes Washington for picking allies from the
personalities who terrorized Afghanistan even before the arrival of
the Taliban, and who espoused an ideology as radical as theirs. She
wonders how one could admit a situation, where the militarily weak
Pushtoon majority stands in opposition to the strong Tajik, Uzbek
and Hazara factions. While saying this, she justly indicates that
this weakness partly stems from the fact that the Pushtoons are led
by the former exiles, who returned to Afghanistan after decades of
living abroad, mostly in the U.S.

Gannon is generally very critical of the George W. Bush
Administration’s Afghan policy, and her most critical remark goes
like this: “The United States is betting that the same men who
caused Afghanistan so much misery in the past will somehow lead it
to democracy and stability in the future. The evidence, however,
suggests that the opposite is happening. Opportunities have been
lost, goodwill squandered, and lessons of history

Her criticism is
absolutely valid if she renders Washington’s ideas correctly. Yet
it is doubtful that the U.S. decision-makers really have faith in
the Afghan

field commanders’
commitment to democracy. I would risk suggesting that Ms Gannon’s
attacks on the White House and the Department of State are
unjustified. The Americans had no illusions about the Afghan
mojaheds from the very start, and extremely simplistic people only
could hope in earnest that General Dostum, Marshal Fahim, Commander
Sayyaf, or their accomplices, could become the heralds of Afghan
democracy. U.S. policies in Afghanistan reveal a totally different
pragmatic approach, which stipulates that anything that brings
results is good for that country. As an Afghan once said to me:
“One cannot buy us out, one can only lease us for a



Strictly speaking, the claims that the Northern Alliance leaders
teamed up with the U.S. in fighting al Qaeda and its patrons from
among the Taliban in September 2001 are not quite correct. In
actuality, it was the U.S. that joined the Northern Alliance, which
had borne the main burden of the war before the 9/11

It is worthwhile noting that many Afghan Tajiks are asking
themselves what could have happened had the legendary leader of the
Northern Alliance, Ahmad Shah Masud, remained alive. (Let us recall
that his assassination on September 9, 2001 was a bloodletting
prelude to the attack on the WTC in New York.) The answer they give
is this: the power in Kabul would have been different, since the
U.S. would have had difficulties coming to agreement with Masud –
he had no interest in strengthening the people who had supported
the Taliban. Soon after the charismatic mojahed’s killing the
Talibs were blamed for his murder. However, they disappeared
shortly later, and success shone to the part of his disciples who
had befriended the U.S. An investigation of Masud’s murder began
some two years ago, but it has died down quietly somehow. Another
interesting thing: Masud used to tell people – including in
conversations with the author – that he was not warring against the
Talibs, whom he could always come to terms with, but with the
Pakistani Army. This was true, since the armed units of the
Pakistani Armed Forces made up the military core of the Taliban
movement. As for Islamabad, it had Washington’s backing, and
although Masud did not mention the fact, he always bore it in mind.
Does this mean that the U.S. had no interest in defeating the
Taliban at the time?

A definitive answer is scarcely possible, but there were numerous
attempts when U.S. diplomats tried to tame the Talibs. Contacts
between the U.S. emissaries and “Islamic students” were reported
soon after the latter had come to power in Kabul in 1996. A little
later, Washington’s interest toward the Taliban certainly grew when
Taliban-ruled Kabul and Teheran began to develop bitter
contradictions. Their relations went into a tailspin after the
Sunni Talibs killed Sheik Abdul Ali Mazari, a leader of the Afghan
Shiite community. An enemy’s enemy does not have to necessarily be
your friend, yet Washington could not ignore the emergence of
another potential to deter the Iranian ayatollahs.

The Afghan situation has one more aspect influencing U.S. policy.
From the very beginning, domestic resistance to the Taliban came
from the Northern Alliance, which is a coalition of Afghanistan’s
ethnic minorities – the Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras, whose leaders,
primarily Ahmad Shah Masud, made use of an undeclared support from
Moscow. The latter offered tangible military and technological aid
to the Alliance, often through its CIS allies, Tajikistan and
Uzbekistan. For this reason, the U.S. was uninterested in the
Alliance’s domination in Afghanistan.

It was much later that the antiterrorist cooperation between Moscow
and Washington acquired definite contours. This happened after the
Taliban leaders, who had lost hope for international recognition,
allowed Osama bin Laden to deploy bases on the Afghan territory,
and the al Qaeda network became the main headache for the

Operation Enduring Freedom began on October 7, 2001, and ended in a
quick collapse of the Taliban. I have no intention of downplaying
the role of Washington’s victory, but the truth is that the Taliban
units were not defeated: they simply pulled out of Kabul. They did
it the same way as the units of Masud’s mojaheds had left Kabul
five years earlier under the Taliban’s onslaught. In the fall of
1996, the Tajiks loyal to Masud returned to their mainstay – the
Punjsher Valley, while the Pushtoon Talibs returned to the southern
and southeast provinces of Afghanistan adjoining the Pakistani
border in the fall of 2001. As a result, both the Tajiks and Talibs
saved their potential; victories turned defeats are typical of
Afghan feuds. The Pushtoon tribes’ resistance was overpowered by
millions of U.S. dollars that the Pushtoon leaders had received as
bonuses. But let us recall that one cannot buy the Afghans, one can
only lease them. Is the term of lease now



Kathy Gannon’s assertion that Pushtoon intellectuals who have been
“faceted” in the West and may act as operators of democracy in
Afghanistan if assisted by the U.S., appears to be questionable. No
doubt, Hamid Karzai or Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani did not take
part in the civil war, nor instigate repressive acts against
civilians, but they bear a share of the responsibility for the
Taliban regime coming to power.

Karzai makes no secret of the fact that he was one of the people
behind the Taliban’s inception, but dissociated himself with the
Taliban after they had disillusioned him. That is what Hazrat
Vahriz, former editor-in-chief of Kabul’s most popular newspaper
Sedai Mardom, says. Vahriz, 35, from Hazara, embodies the new breed
of Afghan politicians. He was compelled to go into hiding during
the Taliban rule, but is also critical-minded as regards the
mojaheds. No one is virtuous in today’s Afghanistan, not even the
former exiles, says Vahriz. Ashraf Ghani was a highly positioned
official at the World Bank back in the U.S. He tried to convince
Washington of the importance of making agreements with the Taliban,
while the President of Afghanistan’s Central Bank, Anwarul
Haq-Ahadi, formerly a teacher in the U.S., sent a telegram of
congratulations to the Taliban on the seizure of northern Afghan
provinces, calling them “the country’s worthiest

Many in Afghanistan fear that the attempts by the Pushtoon elite to
demonize the leaders of the ethnic minorities – the Tajiks, Uzbeks,
and Hazaras – as villains of the tragic last decade are highly
dangerous and prone to divide the nation with new confrontations
between the Afghans. Fairly recent Soviet, and earlier British,
experience shows that there is no external force to cope with the
internal Afghan discords.

Ironically, Kathy Gannon finds that it is precisely this approach –
the removal of criminal field commanders like Dostum, Sayyaf,
Rabbani and others from politics – that can put Afghanistan on the
track of democracy. Even if her assessment is justified, many
Afghans, divided along the ethnic and regional principle, view the
mojahed leaders as the only remaining authorities (or simply
breadwinners or guarantors of physical survival) and defenders
against repression by the Pushtoons. The residents of northern
Afghanistan may still have fresh memories of the Arab mercenaries,
who fought together with the Pushtoons, slaying whole families of
ethnic Uzbeks. That happened before 9/11, however, and few outside
Afghanistan gave the events much attention. Many people prefer to
forget about what happened there after 9/11, as well. Take, for
instance, the Talibs’ rebellion in the fortress of Kalai-Janghi
near Mazar-i-Sharif, where they were placed in November 2001 after
laying down their arms in the Konduz Province. I happened to be a
witness of the bloodbath that occurred there, as Dostum’s soldiers
suppressed the Taliban revolt. The U.S. Air Force, which Dostum
called up for support, played a large role in the event, turning
the rebellious fortress into a semblance of Pablo Picasso’s
painting Guernica.   

A few months later, details surfaced of a mass carnage of Talibs
that Dostum’s forces had imprisoned at Shibargan. Dostum never got
punished for those crimes, nor was there any investigation into the
accuracy of horrendous carpet bombardments. No doubt, anything is
possible in war, all the more so in an Afghan war, but is it
admissible to expose some crimes and hush up

Or, is it worthwhile blaming the West for what Ms Gannon calls
vesting power in the figures who had caused so much suffering to
the people? Does she really think that the chieftains, having
virtuous morals and capable of exercising real power, can be found
in Afghanistan? Suppose Hamid Karzai is that very person; staking
him as the person who can rally the Pushtoons around him is also an
illusionary act. A short while ago, in April, Karzai appealed to
the former Talibs to forget their old feuds and join the ranks of
builders of a new Afghanistan. He said all the members of the
Taliban movement, except 150 persons accused of crimes, were
entitled to full amnesty. The Talibs responded without delay. Their
representatives, based in areas bordering on Pakistan, said
cooperation was impossible until all of the foreign invaders had
left the land of Afghanistan. The Talibs also made reference to the
democratic movement, threatening death to all women daring to take
part in elections. Responsibility for conniving at such immorality
as elections would be shared by their husbands, the Pushtoon
leaders said.



Quite possibly, Kathy Gannon would have had less grief over the
chances that America ostensibly lost had she watched the sessions
of Loya Jirga, convened in Kabul in spring 2004 to endorse a new
Constitution of Afghanistan. She would have seen then how costly
and effort-consuming the endorsement of the Basic Law’s democratic
norms by this Council of Elders turned out for the Americans. How
hurtful it was for many deputies of Loya Jirga when they discovered
that the U.S. had paid bigger royalty fees to some of their
fellow-deputies for correct voting than to them. Yet the U.S. paid
less money this time than in 2001 for the Afghans’ renunciation of

How much spending and how many peacekeeping contingents will the
effort to keep peace require, even though it is superficial? On the
one hand, the world is developing an understanding that the money
and troops will be needed in abundance, although the expenditure
for Afghanistan is way beyond the resources earmarked for the
regions of the world bearing far fewer threats to international
stability. On the other hand, even that money does not reach the
Afghans in full – it is the Western companies that assimilate
Western aid packages. Western managers get Western-size salaries
and ensure Western living standards for themselves, letting a small
number of Afghans pick up what is left from their

A remarkable thing about Kathy Gannon’s article is that she never
mentions Russia. As she writes about international aid to
Afghanistan, she means Western aid only. This is rather odd, to say
the least, considering Russia’s assistance in the overthrow of the
Taliban, the amount of construction projects that the shuravi
[Russians] completed in Afghanistan since the 1960s, and the
numbers of Afghans to whom they provided an education. Naturally,
to build democracy is an expensive enterprise, especially in
Afghanistan, while Russia does not always have enough money for its
own democracy. What is more, Moscow has no right to become an
official sponsor of the Afghans, since Russian law prohibits
financial aid to any country that has not paid off their debts –
and Kabul owes $10 billion to Russia by the most moderate

Nonetheless, Russian officials believe that inviting Russian
specialists to assist with restoration projects in Afghanistan as
part of international aid could ensure real and rapid relief for
its people. The bulk of the country’s ruined infrastructure was
based on Soviet technologies, and Soviet geologists carried out
minute research of its mineral resources. The Afghans themselves
have great interest in Russia’s participation – they know perfectly
well that cooperation with Moscow offers much greater benefits to
them. But so far, not a single contract has been offered to the
Russians in Afghanistan.
Many of Kathy Gannon’s conclusions, based on a liberal and
idealistic outlook of the Afghan reality, are open to disagreement,
yet one cannot but agree with her favorable assessment of the
Taliban’s experience with suppressing the drug industry. She is
quite correct when she recommends that the U.S. make use of that
experience. She does not explain why the Talibs’ anti-drug
practices proved efficacious; however, the Talibs understood
specific aspects about the Afghan national character. Also, they
knew how to influence it. It looks like the people trying to teach
democracy to the Afghans should study it somewhat better as