You don't have to drive very far from Kabul these days to find the Taliban. In Ghazni province's Andar district, just over a two-hour trip from the capital on the main southern highway, a thin young man, dressed in brown and wearing a white prayer cap, stands by the roadside waiting for two NEWSWEEK correspondents. It is midday on the central Afghan plains, far from the jihadist-infested mountains to the east and west. Without speaking, the sentinel guides his visitors along a sandy horse trail toward a mud-brick village within sight of the highway. As they get closer a young Taliban fighter carrying a walkie-talkie and an AK-47 rifle pops out from behind a tree. He is manning an improvised explosive device, he explains, in case Afghan or U.S. troops try to enter the village.
In a parched clearing a few hundred yards on, more than 100 Taliban fighters ranging in age from teenagers to a grandfatherly 55-year-old have assembled to meet their provincial commander, Muhammad Sabir. An imposing man with a long, bushy beard, wearing a brown and green turban and a beige shawl over his shoulders, Sabir inspects his troops, all of them armed with AKs and rocket-propelled grenade launchers. He claims to have some 900 fighters, and says the military and psychological tide is turning in their favor. "One year ago we couldn't have had such a meeting at midnight," says Sabir, who is in his mid-40s and looks forward to living out his life as an anti-American jihadist. "Now we gather in broad daylight. The people know we are returning to power."
Not long after NEWSWEEK's visit, U.S. and Afghan National Army forces launched a major attack to dislodge the Taliban from Ghazni and four neighboring provinces. But when NEWSWEEK returned in mid-September, Sabir's fighters were back, performing their afternoon prayers. It is an all too familiar story. Ridge by ridge and valley by valley, the religious zealots who harbored Osama bin Laden before 9/11--and who suffered devastating losses in the U.S. invasion that began five years ago next week--are surging back into the country's center. In the countryside over the past year Taliban guerrillas have filled a power vacuum that had been created by the relatively light NATO and U.S. military footprint of some 40,000 soldiers, and by the weakness of Afghan President Hamid Karzai's administration.
In Ghazni and in six provinces to the south, and in other hot spots to the east, Karzai's government barely exists outside district towns. Hard-core Taliban forces have filled the void by infiltrating from the relatively lawless tribal areas of Pakistan where they had fled at the end of 2001. Once back inside Afghanistan these committed jihadist commanders and fighters, aided by key sympathizers who had remained behind, have raised hundreds, if not thousands, of new, local recruits, many for pay. They feed on the people's disillusion with the lack of economic progress, equity and stability that Karzai's government, NATO, Washington and the international community had promised.
NATO officials say the Taliban seems to be flush with cash, thanks to the guerrillas' alliance with prosperous opium traffickers. The fighters are paid more than $5 a day--good money in Afghanistan, and at least twice what the new Afghan National Army's 30,000 soldiers receive. It's a bad sign, too, that a shortage of local police has led Karzai to approve a plan allowing local warlords--often traffickers themselves--to rebuild their private armies. U.N. officials have spent the past three years trying to disband Afghanistan's irregular militias, which are accused of widespread human-rights abuses. Now the warlords can rearm with the government's blessing. Afghanistan is "unfortunately well on its way" to becoming a "narco-state," NATO's supreme commander, Marine Gen. Jim Jones, said before Congress last week.
Jabar Shilghari, one of Ghazni's members of Parliament, is appalled by his province's rapid reversal of fortune. Only a year ago he was freely stumping for votes throughout the province. Today it's not safe for him to return to his own village. In a recent meeting he asked Karzai for more police and soldiers; he was rebuffed by the deputy director of intelligence, who told him the Taliban threat in Ghazni is minimal. "We have patiently waited five years for change, for an end to official corruption and abuse of power and for economic development," says Shilghari, who now lives in the increasingly sequestered capital of Kabul. "But we've received nothing."
Not long ago, the Bush administration was fond of pointing to Afghanistan as a model of transformation. That mountainous landlocked country, we were told, was being converted from a "failed state"--Al Qaeda's base for the worst ever attacks on U.S. continental soil--into a functioning, responsible member of the international community. In speech after speech, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other senior U.S. officials ticked off the happy stats: the Taliban and Al Qaeda had been routed, democratic presidential and parliamentary elections had been held, more than 3 million refugees had returned and 1.75 million girls were attending school.
But the harsh truth is that five years after the U.S. invasion on Oct. 7, 2001, most of the good news is confined to Kabul, with its choking rush-hour traffic jams, a construction boom and a handful of air-conditioned shopping malls. Much of the rest of Afghanistan appears to be failing again. Most worrisome, a new failed-state sanctuary is emerging across thousands of square miles along the Afghan-Pakistan border: "Jihadistan," it could be called. It's an autonomous quasi state of religious radicals, mostly belonging to Pashtun tribes who don't recognize the Afghan-Pakistan frontier--an arbitrary line drawn by the British colonialists in 1893. The enclave's fluid borders span a widening belt of territory from mountainous hideouts in the southernmost provinces of Afghanistan--Nimruz, Helmand and Farah--up through the agricultural middle of the country in Ghazni, Uruzgan and Zabul, and then north to Paktia and parts of Konar (graphic). It extends well across the Pakistan border where, despite close cooperation between the U.S. and Pakistani militaries, jihadist militants in Waziristan province have begun calling themselves "Pakistani Taliban." No longer worried about interference from Islamabad, they openly recruit young men to fight in Afghanistan, and they hold Islamic kangaroo courts that sometimes stage public executions.
There are not nearly enough U.S., Western or Afghan troops or resources in the field to counter them. At a time when the American president has resurrected Osama bin Laden as public enemy No. 1--comparing him recently to Lenin and Hitler--Bush's own top commander in the field, Army Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry, says not enough money is being invested in creating a new Afghanistan. Improving Afghan lives is the only way to drive a stake through the Taliban or put the elusive Qaeda leader out of action, he says. "We need more in terms of investment in Afghan infrastructure. We need more resources, for road building, counternarcotics, good governance, a justice system," Eikenberry told NEWSWEEK last week. As the general is fond of saying: "Where the roads end, the Taliban begin."
Indeed, the aid numbers for the past five years are grim. In the first years of reconstruction, aid amounted to just $67 a year per Afghan, says Beth DeGrasse of the government-funded U.S. Institute of Peace. She compares that figure with other recent nation-building exercises such as Bosnia ($249) and East Timor ($256), citing figures from the International Monetary Fund. "You get what you pay for in these endeavors, and we tried to do Afghanistan on the cheap," she says. "And we are going to pay for it." International conferences since 2002 have pledged some $15 billion, but countries have ponied up less than half of that so far. And the Afghan government estimates it will need $27.5 billion through 2010 to rebuild the country and its institutions.
Some critics point to a jarring mismatch between Bush's rhetoric and the scant attention paid to Afghanistan. Jim Dobbins, Bush's former special envoy to Kabul--he also led the Clinton administration's re-building efforts in Bosnia, Kosovo, Haiti and Somalia--calls Afghanistan the "most under-resourced nation-building effort in history." Former Bush reconstruction coordinator Carlos Pascual, who retired in December 2005, does not dispute this assessment. He says the State Department has "maybe 20 to 30 percent" of the people it needs. Even Republican Sen. Richard Lugar, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, fretted last week that for five years the administration and Congress have failed to create a powerful nation-building czar, despite their enthusiasm for regime change. "We have a long way to go," he said.
The dangers of allowing Afghanistan to become a jihadist haven again are too many to count. It's not merely that bin Laden and Zawahiri may now die peacefully in their beds, safe among Pashtun tribesmen, as a senior U.S. military official conceded to NEWSWEEK last week, speaking anonymously because he was discussing classified operations. (A French intelligence report leaked over the weekend suggested bin Laden had done just that in August, dying quietly of typhus, but like many such rumors in the past it could not be confirmed.) Nor is the problem simply that the increasingly confident Taliban is launching ever more brazen attacks--in recent weeks, bombing a convoy scarcely a block from the U.S. Embassy in Kabul and assassinating a major provincial governor.
No: it's that Al Qaeda or other terrorist groups now have a place from which to hatch the next 9/11. "This standoff could go on for 40 or 50 years," says a retired U.S. general who served in Afghanistan, speaking only on condition of anonymity. "It's not going to be a takeover by the Taliban as long as NATO is there. Instead this is going to be like the triborder region of South America, or like Kashmir, a long, drawn-out stalemate where everyone carves out spheres of influence." Eikenberry disagrees, though he refused to put a time frame on Afghanistan's recovery. "It won't be dec-ades," he says.
The Taliban doesn't always share Al Qaeda's goals or tactics, although some units have taken up suicide bombing. But a guerrilla calling himself Commander Hemat, a former anti-Soviet mujahedin fighter who now works closely with the Taliban and Al Qaeda, says foreign Arabs are being welcomed again. "Now the money is flowing again because the insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan are producing results," he told NEWSWEEK. Zabibullah, a Taliban operative who has proved reliable in the past, says the Qaeda operatives "feel more secure and can concentrate on their own business other than just surviving."
Pakistan fostered the Taliban movement in the 1990s as a way of holding sway over Afghanistan and undercutting India's influence there. Those ties persist. Despite Bush's praise of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf--"We're on the hunt together," Bush said at a joint news conference on Friday--U.S. and British military officials say Musharraf has allowed the Taliban to set up headquarters near the southwestern city of Quetta. Musharraf has also cut a deal giving militants free rein in north Waziristan; since then cross-border attacks have increased. Senior U.S. officials say that Musharraf caved in to Qaeda sympathizers who fiercely resisted the Pakistani Army's incursion into the tribal region last year. Musharraf reassured Bush last week that the Waziristan tribal leaders had agreed not to permit Taliban or Qaeda cross-border activity, but the militants say no such commitment was made. "Instead of eliminating the militants, the Pakistani military operation only added to their strength," says Ayaz Amir, a respected political columnist for the daily Dawn newspaper. The Afghan Taliban's recent offensive has only raised the morale of their Pakistani brethren.
General Eikenberry says that Al Qaeda or its successors have nothing like the liberty that allowed them to plot 9/11 in the open. "They have no safe haven inside Afghanistan that if we find it, we will not strike against them," he said. But conclusive victory will depend on a "political solution" arising from a far more effective Afghan government, Eikenberry says. Asked whether terrorists will always have a place to root there, Eikenberry pauses for long seconds before answering. "You reach a tipping point" where military superiority no longer counts as much, he said. "There's always going to be another valley for terrorist forces or extremists to hide in."
No one knows this better than Eikenberry himself, a genial soldier-scholar with degrees from Harvard and Stanford. Two weeks after NEWSWEEK's visit to Ghazni province's Andar district, the American general passed through the same area and urged Afghan security forces to be more active in combating the increasingly aggressive, large and visible Taliban presence.
Days later, Eikenberry launched his major Afghan-U.S. operation in Ghazni, code-named Mountain Fury. Most of the Taliban had easily escaped to the east while a number of insurgents remained behind to engage the enemy, firing automatic weapons and RPGs. According to Afghan officials, about 38 Taliban were killed that day. Interviewed after the action, Momin Ahmad, the Taliban's deputy commander for a cluster of Andar villages, disputes that number. He says he lost only four men: a Pakistani, an Iraqi and two local insurgents who were killed by an Apache helicopter that shot up a local vineyard.
And while Ahmad's unit is now regrouping to the east, at least 35 Taliban have stashed their weapons and stayed in the village posing as farmers. They will lay ambushes and plant IEDs to harass Afghan and U.S. troops, Ahmad says, and the larger Taliban force will return when it's safe. He shrugs off the setback, saying it's only temporary. "We never expected the success we've had," says Ahmad. Nor, five years ago, did anyone else.