The Taliban'S 'Bloody Spring'

Turmoil in Iraq gets most of the headlines these days. But in Afghanistan, where the Bush administration began its war on terror in October 2001, the trend lines are not good, either. The number of suicide attacks and roadside bombs is soaring, and the once-dormant Taliban is resurgent. Afghanistan's ambassador to the United States, Said T. Jawad, worries that Iraq has diverted key resources away from his country. But in an interview with NEWSWEEK's Washington bureau chief, Jeffrey Bartholet, Jawad also said he expects Washington to announce a huge aid increase soon. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: The top American commander in Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry, has been pressing for a dramatic increase in funding for your country, a request you clearly support. Do you have a sense of how the administration is going to respond?

Jawad: It is very positive. The numbers are not yet finalized, but they show a significant increase in funds for building the security institutions as well as reconstruction funds.

Do you have ballpark figures?

It is almost triple the amount that has usually been allocated … [increasing to around] $6 billion to $7 billion.

How has the Iraq conflict affected the situation in Afghanistan?

There are limited resources—financial, intellectual and otherwise. Some of these resources are, of course, going to Iraq. Also, the conflict in Iraq has been so prominent in the media that sometimes people feel that Afghanistan is like Iraq, or a smaller Iraq, which is not the case. There are clear distinctions between Afghanistan and Iraq. We have our own challenges, but those are very different.

NEWSWEEK has reported on the exchange of experts and expertise between jihadists operating in Iraq and those in Afghanistan. What kind of cooperation are you seeing today between the two battlefields?

The Taliban and terrorists in Afghanistan are drawing motivation from what they call success in Iraq. Also, they are getting expertise on suicide bombing, roadside bombing. Also, Al Qaeda and other foreign fighters operating in Pakistan are providing the necessary link between the Taliban and Al Qaeda. But the objectives of Al Qaeda and the Taliban are slightly different. The Taliban don't have any clear vision of what they would like for Afghanistan. They don't have a charismatic leader.

What about Mullah Omar?

He's there, but he's not a Che Guevara or a Yasir Arafat or anybody. He's just an illiterate mullah who can hardly read, and nobody can see his face. He's certainly not a force to draw inspiration or a force to mobilize people around.

Yet the number of suicide attacks in Afghanistan last year more than quadrupled from the year before, and the use of roadside bombs has also soared. So what's going on?

First, they acquired expertise from other wars, particularly Iraq. Second, they have not been able to confront either the Afghan military forces or the international forces [directly] in a successful way. So they are either going after soft targets—such as schools, clinics, mosques—or doing suicide bombing and roadside bombing, both of which are a completely foreign phenomenon to Afghans.

But that is changing now.

It's changing because of foreign influence. Most of the suicide bombers that initially came to Afghanistan were foreigners.

And do you tie that to the Iraq war?

To the Iraq influence and also the global phenomenon of terrorism.

President [Hamid] Karzai has been criticized for surrounding himself with two types of advisers: exiles who came to Afghanistan from abroad after 9/11, who are said to be out of touch with ordinary Afghans, and warlords who are accused of being behind atrocities.

The [local] Afghans who did have experience and leadership [qualities] were recruited. All of them were not warlords. And then to build the proper institutions of the state, you need people with proper management skills. That kind of experience and education were not available in Afghanistan. So those Afghans who returned from abroad were an important link between Afghan society and the international community. Had we not had these Afghans who returned from abroad, we would have had to use a lot more foreign consultants who were completely out of touch with the reality of Afghanistan—and who were a lot more expensive. On the issue of so-called warlords: when the Americans came to Afghanistan—800 Special Forces to fight the Taliban—they initially enlisted a lot of the people who are called today warlords. A lot of these people acquired money, power and prestige because of their affiliation with the international forces. Second, there were not enough forces to fight the Taliban. How could we declare at that time an all-front war, not only against the Taliban, but against all the militias? So the fact that the local strongmen were brought into the system was a necessity. We had no other choice. Also, in any postconflict setting, you have two sometimes-competing interests: one is stability, the other is justice. And our priority has been stability. We did not want to and could not start another cycle of revenge. If you don't have strong institutions and you emphasize justice, what you will be delivering is revenge, not justice. So our priority was stability.

Is that something you think the Americans are learning in Iraq these days?

It's more revenge. It's not justice. It's a very vicious cycle. I don't see how you can have justice by killing another Sunni or another Shia. It's just revenge, and it has to stop. And I think the transitional justice that we have introduced in Afghanistan is a good model. We'd like people to come out and say what they did, and ask for apology if needed. But we do not emphasize punishment.

On that point of reaching out to former enemies, does President Karzai believe a peace deal can be struck with the Taliban—or elements of the Taliban and other dissidents—the way President [Pervez] Musharraf [of Pakistan] has suggested?

Yes, we have opened the door of discussions, to incorporate all elements of Afghan society into the political system, including those members of the Taliban who have not committed serious crimes. Now they have joined the government … some are serving as governors.

Why hasn't that program been more successful?

It's been successful. The problem is that there are other forces—the terrorists and their foreign backers—that are killing these people, punishing them for doing so.

What do you make of Musharraf's peace deal with tribal and militant leaders on his side of the border?

This is very different. When the deal was struck in North Waziristan, I went out and found a copy of that accord that was signed between the Taliban, the military and certain tribal leaders. It basically provides a secure environment for them to operate. The army has withdrawn from the areas where these groups are operating … given them back their weapons, their cars, their communications gear. It's a de facto surrender to the extremists.

There was a recent convoy intercepted coming across from Pakistan that was destroyed, with a number of Taliban members killed. Does that suggest that Musharraf is starting to provide real-time intelligence?

We hope so. But at the same time … the problem is that these people are being trained, and acquiring financial and ideological support in Pakistan. Those sanctuaries must be eliminated. The leadership were living in Quetta. We arrested the Taliban spokesperson and he said that Mullah Omar is in Quetta.

Are you expecting a large spring offensive this year?

Yes, the intelligence indications are that the Taliban are preparing for a bloody spring. They are training a lot of people right now. In order to avoid this, we are doing two things: We are working with Pakistan to prevent the offensive, and, if that's not possible, at least reduce its intensity. And then on the military front, the current levels of military capabilities are not adequate in Afghanistan to confront the Taliban offensive. A slight increase in the troops is necessary, and improving the quality of the troops. NATO and Afghan National Army troops are missing some crucial equipment.

Our reporters in Afghanistan, particularly those who have been in the east and south of the country, say people complain of corruption, intimidation, and extortion by government officials in those areas. Is anything new being planned to stop the mistreatment of villagers who seem to be pushed into the arms of the Taliban?

Governance is a problem and a challenge. Corruption is also a problem. Just as an example, in the areas you have described, people are complaining about police corruption. We are paying $50 a month for a police officer. If you are paying $50 in a wrecked province to someone to go out and fight Al Qaeda or the Taliban, you cannot have recruitment criteria. You basically enlist whoever shows up, and some of the people who enlist will abuse their uniform. It is a matter of resources.

Along with the resurgence of the Taliban has been a resurgence in drug production. What can be done?

Once poppy has been cultivated, no matter what we do it is either too late or too costly. Eradication has not only financial but also social and political costs. In an area where the terrorists are actively recruiting people, you are pushing the farmers into their hands. The best way of preventing cultivation is to give incentives to farmers to do something other than poppy-growing. It could be paving, building roads, dams, things like that. You can [try to] convince a farmer to grow grapes, for instance, instead of poppies, but if there's no road for him to take these grapes from his village in Kandahar to India or someplace, there is no incentive for him.

Iran: What is the status of your relationship there? Obviously, frictions are growing between the Americans and Iranians over Iraq and other issues. It must be a delicate balance for you.

One of the important accomplishments of Afghan foreign policy has been to engage Iran constructively. Despite our strategic partnership with the United States, we have close relations with Iran. Iran has been constructive in the political-stability process in Afghanistan. And we'd like to keep it this way.

How do the Americans feel about you having good relations?

We have convinced both the Americans and the Iranians that it is in their best interests to leave their differences out of Afghanistan. The United States doesn't need to confront Iran in Afghanistan. We hope that gradually that Iran will play a constructive role in Iraq instead of being destructive.

What can you tell us about the hunt for Osama bin Laden?

We believe he's spending most of his time in Pakistan. It's too difficult in Afghanistan; many countries have their intelligence agencies there. He may be in Bajaur Agency. But we can't rule out that he's in one of the Pakistani cities. He needs medical attention he can't get in remote areas of Afghanistan—dialysis for his kidneys. He's in a protected environment, not an isolated cave.