Years later, whenever anyone asked when the good war became not such a good war, my answer was easy. On May 29, 2006, when a U.S. military truck suffered mechanical failure and plowed into rush-hour traffic in Kabul, killing three Afghans. Peaceful demonstrations quickly turned into antiforeigner riots. Soldiers fired into the crowd. Afghans ransacked buildings with English-language signs, from relief groups to a pizza restaurant. They even set fire to a building they thought was the Escalades brothel, although the brothel was next door. They shouted, “Death to Karzai,” and that regional catchphrase, “Death to America,” and ran from street to street, asking guards if foreigners lived inside. They almost threw a light-skinned girl into a fire, until she shouted in Dari and they realized she was Afghan. Karzai’s political rivals from the Northern Alliance were blamed for stoking the violence, the worst since the Taliban’s fall. At least seventeen Afghans were killed in the rioting; despite considerable efforts, no foreigners died. Karzai demonstrated his usual leadership skills, waiting until the riots had almost run their course to broadcast a televised message, urging calm. But even after calm was restored, Afghans stayed angry.
It wasn’t necessarily the booze and brothels. It was the growing gap in the country between the haves and have-nots, the corruption, the warlords now in parliament, the drug lords doubling as government officials, the general attitude of the foreigners from aid workers to the international troops, and the fact that no one ever seemed to be held accountable for anything. Even if the level of foreign aid had been low compared to other “post-conflict” countries, billions of dollars had still poured in. Dozens of new gleaming wedding halls and shopping centers dotted the Kabul landscape. Warlords, drug lords, and influential officials had been handed government land for a cut rate in the neighborhood of Shir Pur, where they built gaudy mansions that looked like grade-school decoupage projects gone horribly wrong, gooey confections of pillars, mirrors, colored tiles, and green windows. But construction started only after bulldozers pushed out the poor people who had lived there before, along with their mud huts. Shir Pur, which meant “child of lions,” was now referred to as Shir Choor, which meant “looted by lions.” The style of architecture was called “narcotecture”; the hulking monstrosities were described as “poppy palaces.”
Yet for an average Afghan, life still consisted of a mud hut, an outhouse, and a couple of hours of electricity a day. Renting a decent concrete house in Kabul now cost at least $1,500 a month. Afghan teachers and police officers made between $60 and $125 a month. The only changes most Afghans had seen in Kabul had been negative ones—higher rents and food costs, higher bribes, greater hassles. Traffic jams were regularly caused by convoys of Land Cruisers with dark windows and no license plates, by U.S. soldiers screaming out orders and pointing their guns, by concrete barriers set up by foreign aid groups and companies worried about suicide bombs.
Later, I would see these riots as a major breaking point in Afghanistan, the time when we first saw just how angry some Afghans were, just how ripe the country was for a Taliban comeback, just how leaderless Afghanistan really was. Later, I would see May 2006 as the beginning of the downward spiral.
But now, I just saw the riots as worrying.
I flew to Kabul. My life had turned into this—a bomb, a riot, an earthquake, and then I hopped on a plane. Although I was theoretically the bureau chief in Delhi, my responsibilities included at least six countries, depending on which powder keg was exploding. So my three-bedroom apartment was essentially a layover. I didn’t mind. I really didn’t like Delhi that much, sprawling broken mega-city that it was, where my hot water didn’t work and monkeys used the tarps protecting my plants outside like a trampoline. But really, the reason I disliked Delhi was probably more basic—not enough went boom, not enough to create a tight-knit foreign community, not enough to spin a vortex of work and fun, not enough to burn a candle not just at both ends but to light it up with a blowtorch. Delhi was just too normal.
Also, after two years, I felt I was starting to get the hang of this job, to figure it out. In Afghanistan, I knew when to wear a headscarf, when to shake a man’s hand, when to take off my glasses, when to shut my mouth. More accurately, I knew when to ask Farouq what to do, and to listen to what he said. I was also getting used to the pace, to juggling all the countries and all the work. I knew that a train crash or a religious stampede that killed seventy-five in India wasn’t a story—they happened all the time. I knew that roadside bombs in southern Afghanistan no longer merited a middle-of-the-night house call by Farouq—they were starting to happen all the time. I knew that I couldn’t pursue certain stories found in local newspapers, with headlines such as BABIES MARRY PUPPIES, because I had written too many stories about animals and risked getting a reputation. I was also now exercising regularly, regardless of the country, even just doing Pilates in a hotel room. My hair was cut every couple months; my roots matched my ends. In short, I was shaping up.
I had also started mastering certain tricks, like breathing and biting my lip to hold on to my temper, regardless of what went wrong. I had stopped throwing fits over bad laundry and bad Internet. Well, most of the time. An exception was made for the guys who incinerated my pajama bottoms in an Indonesian hotel room, just because I left them on the bathroom floor. I channeled Sabit as I went off on them.
Back in Kabul after the riots, I opted against staying in the Gandamack or another hotel, potential targets for more violence. Instead, I decided to stay at a friend’s house, figuring that there, I would be safer. Just after my plane landed, Farouq and I met my British journalist friend Sean for lunch at L’Atmosphère, which would sometimes let its strict no-Afghan policy slide. Farouq was slightly uncomfortable, but in the daytime, no one seemed to care. Sean wanted to talk about the Taliban and related insurgent groups. But Sean, who liked conspiracies and intrigue just as much as the Afghans, figured his phone could be tapped or the trees in L’Atmosphère bugged. So he never referred to the insurgents by name. He called them “Tango” instead.
“Sami thinks he’s got a way to meet Tango,” Sean told us. Sami was Sean’s fixer.
“Tango? Seriously? You need a better code word,” I replied.
His documentary the year before about the driving school for Afghan women was the best I had seen about living in the new Afghanistan—and there had been several, primarily shot by Europeans. But this time, Sean wanted to do a documentary on the Taliban. He wanted war. Sean wanted the typical heart of darkness craved by a subspecies of male foreign correspondent, mostly British, all adrenaline junkies, who figured they were wasting time if they weren’t dodging bullets. Clearly, the divorce had gone through. His cause to win back his wife was probably not helped by a magazine spread the previous fall, which featured a picture of him in a Kabul brothel, allegedly soliciting a prostitute for sex. Sean had actually been in the brothel helping a photographer friend get pictures of clients, but since she could not convince any real clients to agree to a picture, she used a photograph she slyly snapped of Sean. Sean’s face had been blurred, but his profile was unmistakable. When one of his sons saw the magazine spread, he said simply: “Daddy.”
Now, shaded by an umbrella in the garden, Sean asked for advice. With few Taliban contacts, I could offer little help. But Farouq had just been with a journalist in Zabul, Uruzgan, and Kandahar, and he knew a lot more, and he was the one Sean had really wanted to see. Farouq verified what Sean and I had been hearing: Like a bad 1980s hair band, complete with long wild locks and black eyeliner, the Taliban had mounted a comeback this spring.
After we finished eating, Sean asked if I would be the point of contact when he went to meet the Taliban in Helmand, in case he disappeared.
“Sure,” I said.
“It’s unlikely anyone would ever call you,” he said.
The confluence of events suddenly seemed ominous. Afghans were growing angrier at the foreigners and the government. The Taliban was spreading its influence in the south. And the Americans were turning over command of the south to NATO, which was made up of some countries far less committed to war than the United States. I knew I had to get serious.
“I want to meet the Taliban,” I told Farouq as we left Sean. “Can we?”
“Maybe,” he replied. “There are safe ways to do it.”
Farouq was growing increasingly concerned about safety. His wife was about to give birth to their second child. He still liked to travel, but he also didn’t want to risk anything. I wondered if he would be willing to make the trip we had made three years earlier to visit Pacha Khan. I wondered if he had lost his edge. Three main fixers were known for meeting the Taliban, and Farouq wasn’t one of them. Those were Sami, a man named Tahir, and Ajmal Naqshbandi, my fixer when Farouq had gotten married, who was evolving from shy poet to danger boy.
The United States certainly didn’t help convince Farouq that any risk was worth it. One night, Farouq drove down the road with a full SUV—his wife, daughter, two sisters-in-law, and mother-in-law. Near the Ministry of Interior, he saw a line of headlights moving toward him. When he drew closer, he heard a bang near his windshield. He yanked the steering wheel over, braking hard on the side of the road. Then he heard another bang, and another bang. Only then, he realized the line of headlights was a U.S. military convoy. The U.S. soldiers shined heavy lights toward Farouq and started yelling at him. So Farouq turned off his lights and held his breath, silently scared, unwilling to let his family know just how frightened he was. Farouq told me the soldiers laughed at him.
“I think some of the soldiers knew that I was scared, but still they threw more tube lights on me and pushed me more to the side of the street,” he said. “American soldiers are scared from leaves, from trees, rocks, and everything in Afghanistan.”
I figured I knew what the bangs could be—when a car failed to stop, soldiers sometimes fired warning shots.
But regardless of his feelings, Farouq started planning a trip down south, as I dove into another serious issue. Hamid Karzai was once the sartorially blessed favorite of the West, but no longer. He had proved to be whiny and conflicted, a combination of Woody Allen, Chicken Little, and Jimmy Carter. Ever since Zal had left the year before, Karzai had lost direction, like the victim of a breakup. The new U.S. ambassador seemed adamant about returning normalcy to the relationship—despite the fact that Afghanistan was anything but normal. Karzai had turned into a weather-vane leader, tilting toward whoever saw him last, increasingly paranoid and suspicious, squeezed between the foreigners and the Afghans.
Even calling Karzai the “mayor of Kabul,” as many did, was too generous. When he gave the foreigners an ultimatum to remove concrete security barriers in the city, the foreigners ignored him. When Karzai complained about civilian casualties, nothing changed.
Karzai also was blamed for losing control of his brothers. One brother was a parliament member who rarely showed up. Another was publicly linked to the drug trade in southern Afghanistan, even though he denied it. Another was becoming one of the most influential businessmen in Afghanistan, allowed to privatize government companies such as Afghanistan’s only cement factory with impunity, allegedly because of his connections to the president and a slush fund of money provided by deposits in the Kabul Bank. If the president couldn’t control his brothers, Afghans argued, how could he control the country?
I begged my sources in the presidential palace to arrange an interview with Karzai, even showing up at a key official’s office one afternoon. The official was busy watching The Three Stooges.
Eventually Karzai let me shadow him for two days, but he wouldn’t sit down for an interview. I watched him in meeting after meeting. He was always folksy and cheery and slightly forced. He was in an impossible position. The elders complained of civilian casualties, the police complained of not having enough weapons. Karzai could not promise anything because he could deliver little. Instead, he whined about the foreigners. In one meeting, he sat at the head of a long table with sixty tribal elders from eastern Nangarhar Province, all angry that Karzai had removed the provincial border police commander. Karzai said he would try to help, but that he had to balance the needs of Afghans and the desires of foreigners.
“Do you agree with me?” Karzai asked. The room of turbaned men sat silently, arms folded, some obviously pouting. “Why are you quiet? Do you agree with me? Do you support me?”
“No!” several men shouted, not unless Karzai reversed his decision.
“You are the president,” one elder said. “You can do it. You should do it for us. Otherwise we will not support you.”
After another lunch, with elders from Uruzgan Province, Karzai showed what he really believed in—Afghan unity. He wanted people to consider themselves Afghans first, not Pashtuns, Tajiks, or the other major ethnic groups of Hazaras and Uzbeks. He called me to the front of the room as a stage prop.
“Ma’am,” he said. “Please come up here.”
Karzai always called me “ma’am.” I don’t know that he knew my name. He pointed to four elders from one Uruzgan district and asked me to identify their ethnicity. I was being set up, but I played along. “Pashtun?” I said. This made him happy because he could deliver his punch line. They were Pashtuns and Hazaras, he said, but they were all Afghans, men who lived side by side in peace, sharing the Pashto language.
“That’s how good this country was,” Karzai said. “That’s how we want to make it again.”
Performance over, I returned to my seat. But this idea of unity was not enough to save Afghanistan—not when Afghans still referred to themselves largely by ethnic group, not when the Pashtun-dominated Taliban insurgency was making inroads down south, and not when the Tajik-led Northern Alliance was accused of organizing the Kabul riots. No ethnic group held a clear majority in Afghanistan, even though the Pashtuns had run the show for almost three hundred years, a fact that had fueled resentment and rivalries. About 42 percent of Afghans were Pashtuns, mainly in the south, southwest, and east; about 27 percent of Afghans were Tajiks, mainly in the north; about 9 percent were Hazaras, mainly in central Afghanistan; about 9 percent were Uzbeks, mainly in the north; and the rest of the population was spread among smaller ethnic groups like the Aimak, Turkmen, and Baloch. (Those numbers, of course, were hotly disputed, each Afghan ethnic group always claiming a bigger pie piece. There had never been a census.)
To show who was boss, Karzai, a Pashtun, needed to do something more than an Afghan version of Free to Be … You and Me. He needed to take charge, to stop making excuses, to stop blaming the foreigners for everything. In short, he needed to man up.
Farouq and I decided to get out of Kabul and go to Kandahar, which doubled as the spiritual birthplace of the Taliban and Karzai’s home stomping grounds. As I listened to his plans, I realized that Farouq had not lost his edge. His wife, after all, had just given birth to a son, and he was still game for a road trip. He was just being careful—he had seen how quickly Afghanistan had taken a U-turn in the past, as quickly as a donkey outfitted with a suicide vest. Another journalist, my new housemate Tom, decided to come on our trip south. Tom was British, tall, handsome, skinny, with a mop of brown hair, and he dressed in a dandy-like style of thrift store meets Fleet Street. In the winter, he wore hats and scarves. He seemed like he should smoke a pipe and wear corduroy jackets with elbow patches, but he didn’t. He seemed like he should be called dashing, but he wasn’t. Tom had been around in Afghanistan almost as long as I had, but we had only become friends in the spring, largely through our mutual friend Sean. Whenever they were both in town, Tom and Sean hung out most nights at L’Atmosphère, two wild-and-crazy guys always trying to outdo each other with self-deprecating dating stories in almost always successful attempts to meet women.
This was my first time traveling with Tom. A friend of Farouq, a Pashtun with a giant black beard, agreed to drive us in a beat-up Toyota Corolla taxi. The car made us look like everyone else. Now we needed disguises. Tom and Farouq grew out their beards, to the extent that they could. I packed a black abaya, which made me look like a graduating high-school senior with a matching headscarf, but Farouq said that wasn’t enough. I needed a burqa.
“It’s weird to have to ask you,” Farouq said. “But you and I know the situation here has gotten worse and worse. I feel more comfortable with you wearing a burqa than not.”
I shrugged. His call. “You’ll buy it for me, right? You can bring one?”
Farouq agreed to pick out a suitable burqa. On a Sunday morning, I put in brown contact lenses to cover my blue eyes and drew on heavy black eyeliner, to look more like an Afghan woman if I decided to pull my burqa back over my head in the car. Tom, meanwhile, dressed in Afghan clothes and put on an embroidered Kandahari-style cap.
“You look strange,” Tom told me, wrinkling his nose at my brown eyes.
“You look like a Kandahari dancing boy,” I said.
It was an old joke. Although Afghans virulently opposed homosexuality, the segregation of the sexes had led to certain practices, especially in the Pashtun areas. Kandahar was known for older men sexually using teenage boys, usually to show off prestige and power. At weddings, at festive occasions, at male-only parties, dancing boys would often perform, wearing eyeliner and swinging their hips suggestively, before pairing off for the night. The practice was known as bacha bazi, or “boy play.” A Pashto proverb maintained that women were for breeding, boys for pleasure, but melons for sheer delight. A popular Afghan joke involved the birds of Kandahar, who flew with one wing in circles and used the other to cover their rears.
Farouq soon showed up with a burqa. I could not avoid it—I would soon look like a giant blue badminton shuttlecock. Tom and I climbed in the backseat of the Corolla, and I put the burqa on the seat between us, knowing I didn’t need to wear it in Kabul. Near the edge of town, the car broke down. Car mechanics in Afghanistan never inspired trust, as they often worked out of shipping containers and owned only a screwdriver. But somehow, they usually fixed a car quickly. Afghans were geniuses with figuring out how things worked. Once, when our car battery died on a picnic, Farouq jumped the car by connecting a metal ladder and a cord to another car battery, killing no one.
So I assumed the mechanic would only take half an hour. We sat in the Corolla. As usual, everyone outside the car stared in at me. I had an idea: I slipped on the burqa. The top part grabbed tight around my head. A square of mesh covered my eyes. I was able to breathe through the fabric, so I didn’t hyperventilate on bad air. Oppressive, I thought. But oddly liberating. I stared at the old men in their turbans and the young boys shoving each other in the market, and they didn’t stare back. I was totally invisible.
We soon drove out of Kabul, and on safe stretches of the road, I pulled my burqa back over my head, as local women did, and with my eyeliner and brown contact lenses and the speed of highway traffic, fooled anyone driving past. We drove south to Kandahar on a highway that the Americans had built in 2003—already, the road was falling apart, and entire chunks had crumbled away, due to poor design, poor execution, and really poor asphalt. The Taliban controlled certain parts of the road, but usually just at night. We were stopped once by the police, and slowed down once, near a U.S. military convoy. The U.S. soldiers didn’t know I was an American, and treated our team just like any other group of Afghans in a Toyota Corolla. Like a threat.
“You are in the blue prison,” said Farouq, a cigarette dangling from his mouth. He had taken a turn driving, flicking his eyes between the rearview mirror and the men on the side of the road.
Once I stepped out of the car in Kandahar, though, I realized that my prison was far from perfect. Farouq had bought the first burqa he found, but it hit me just below the knee, instead of near the ankle. In the front, the burqa only came to my waist. This two-tiered style was apparently fashionable in Kabul, but not in conservative Kandahar. And it was much too short. I quickly figured out I was wearing the Pashtun equivalent of a miniskirt. I also didn’t walk right. Afghan women took demure steps. I walked like a man. Checking myself out in my hotel-room mirror, I decided to wear the long black abaya inside Kandahar, and the burqa when we traveled in the car outside the city. At least the hotel room was nicer than my first time in Kandahar. The TV had about two hundred channels, most of them porn. I checked the room computer’s Internet history—more porn. That was a good sign, I supposed. Despite the Taliban comeback, Kandahar was still hung up on sex.
But we had to be careful. Just west of Kandahar, in the district of Panjwai, the Canadians had been fighting actual battles with the Taliban, who had ridden into the district center two months earlier, demanding food and shelter. They had shot down a moderate tribal elder as he shopped for groceries, they had gunned down three police officers on patrol. They were like vampires, disappearing during the day, coming out at night, intimidating everyone. Fearing retribution, no one in the south wanted to look like he supported the government. In neighboring Helmand Province, the Taliban had just ambushed and killed thirty-two people—all relatives and friends of a Helmand parliament member, who would be killed three years later by a roadside bomb. Only four men attended a funeral for a pro-government cleric near Kandahar—and two were gravediggers. The Taliban had taken over several remote districts, such as Chora in Uruzgan, where police had only assault rifles and six rockets when the Taliban showed up with mortars and machine guns.
This was still not Iraq, but the insurgency here had finally registered on the international jihadi network. Al-Qaeda’s deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, would soon call for all Afghans to rise up against foreign forces. The Taliban and their allies were mimicking tactics used in Iraq—more suicide attacks, more sophisticated bombs, more slick propaganda, more beheadings of reconstruction workers. The insurgents here were also smart, winning popularity points with reports of Islamic courts in rural districts that delivered swift justice. These judges contrasted vividly with government judges, who often demanded bribes or took forever to decide a case.
We drove to Panjwai, fully disguised, with an escort provided by tribal elders. We sat with a few elders on cushions on the floor of a community center. They were scared, and they carried pistols. But they liked my new look.
“We like your burqa very much, but only if you wear it in America too,” one said.
“It’s very short,” added another, looking unsure. “Is that what they wear in Kabul?”
We stayed for less than an hour, incredibly rude in Afghanistan. But Farouq feared that word would spread that foreigners were in town.
“We have to go, Kim,” Farouq said. Tom and I wanted to stay longer. “Now,” Farouq said. Farouq and Tom made a brief foray into the market, and we drove back to Kandahar without incident.
We then went to see Mohammed Akbar Khakrizwal, a tribal elder who lived in a town just outside Kandahar. The area was not safe; I again wore my burqa. He was the former provincial intelligence chief, and the brother of the former police chief in both Kandahar and Kabul, who had been killed in a bombing at a Kandahar mosque the year before. When Khakrizwal saw me, he laughed.
“Oh, what have you done to yourself?” said Khakrizwal, who, like most tribal leaders I knew, sported a bushy dyed black beard the color of shoe polish, a turban, and a tan salwar kameez. “For one hundred years, no one will recognize you like this. No one will touch you.”
He invited us to lunch the next day, along with elders from his Pashtun tribe, the Alikozais, known for their dissatisfaction with both the Afghan government and the Taliban. The Alikozais helped illustrate the complexities of the Pashtun tribal system. Khakrizwal repeatedly explained the Pashtuns to us, helping us draw flowcharts with as many caveats as NATO troops. The Pashtuns in southern Afghanistan were divided into two main branches—the Durranis and the Ghilzais. For most of Afghanistan’s history as a sovereign nation, when the country was run by a monarchy, some member of the Durranis had ruled. The Taliban, however, had originally derived most support from the Ghilzais—despite being a larger group, they were always less powerful than the Durranis and not necessarily happy about it.
(A caveat: That is a huge oversimplification. It doesn’t account for the fact that the Ghilzais were concentrated in the rural areas, where they had little access to the urban power centers and were therefore susceptible to rebellion. It doesn’t account for the fluidity of Afghan tribes, for all the clans and tribes that just seemed to go their own way. Plus, decades of war had chewed up a lot of formerly solid tribal markers and pushed out the onetime leaders.)
The Durranis were then divided into two major branches—the dominant Ziraks and the marginal Panjpais, who had typically been seen as troublemakers and who were sometimes even carved out of the Durrani-Ghilzai split. Many Pashtuns in Kandahar were growing upset at the fact that all contracts and money seemed to be funneled through the two most influential clans of the Zirak branch, which together had controlled the monarchy that led Afghanistan for about two hundred and fifty years—the Popalzais, Karzai’s clan, and the Barakzais, their sometime allies. The have-nots resented the power of Karzai’s brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, who allegedly ran most business dealings in the south, including drugs. Even though the Alikozais also belonged to the Zirak branch and theoretically backed Karzai’s government, they had seen little benefit from the regime, marginalized and removed from key security positions.
Anger over tribal favoritism and corruption by government leaders and power brokers likely fueled the insurgency, causing some frustrated and jobless young men from the Alikozais, from another Zirak tribe called the Achakzais, and from the major Panjpai tribe of the Noorzais to sign up with the Taliban. Some of the Ghilzais, meanwhile, had turned back to the Taliban in Kandahar, but the Durranis also now played a major leadership role in the Taliban. (The Taliban seemed to recognize more than the government how important it was to treat all the prickly Pashtun divisions equally, or, more accurately, that it was important to simply ignore them. It was unclear how long the insurgent rainbow alliance could last—the Achakzais hated the Noorzais, and vice versa, even in the Taliban—but their collective hatred of the foreign troops and the Afghan government probably overrode their own Hatfield-and-McCoy disputes.)
Even then, it was not that simple. Making things more headache-inducing, about half the Popalzais and Barakzais were also supporting the Taliban, Khakrizwal said, part of the endless attempts to hedge bets and exact varieties of payback. (Some of the Barakzais were still upset about the removal of a previous governor, a Barakzai. And the pro-Taliban Popalzais? Who knows. Maybe drugs, maybe a bad kebab.) Being a member of the same tribe also didn’t guarantee loyalty. For instance, the Kandahar governor was a Ghilzai—but everyone in Kandahar saw him as an outsider from Ghazni Province, two provinces away, practically a foreign country. And the tribes could be flexible based on self-interest. Some Noorzais supported Karzai; some were major drug traffickers allied with the Taliban; some were Taliban; some were everything. (The Taliban had banned poppies while in power, but had now started charging drug traffickers to transport drugs, which helped fund jihad, sow instability, and win the support of Afghans who depended on the drug economy for their livelihood.)
So how much did all the Pashtun tribal alliances and divisions matter? A lot—unless something else mattered more.
The Taliban didn’t just gain strength because they understood this, or because they exploited tribal jealousies, disillusionment with the local government, and the rising drug trade. Pakistan’s top spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI), had also recruited for the Taliban, Khakrizwal insisted, in the endless ISI attempt to control Afghanistan. Ever since ISI leaders joined the anti-Soviet jihad in the 1980s, they had been reluctant to let go of Afghanistan. The spy agency had continued to meddle, largely to try to create some semblance of a stable, pro-Pakistan government as a hedge against rival India. That’s why Pakistan supported the formation of the Taliban in the 1990s, and why many Afghans believed Pakistan was now playing a double game, pretending to support the West in the war against terrorism by rounding up Al-Qaeda leaders, but allowing and helping the Afghan Taliban to regroup, even permitting training camps along the border. Every Afghan official had mentioned this repeatedly and publicly, even Karzai, who most recently had leveled the accusation the month before. Khakrizwal believed that his brother was killed because he didn’t listen to ISI warnings that he was too friendly with India. He even had the name of the ISI man who allegedly sanctioned his brother’s killing. (Other Afghans believed that Akbar Khakrizwal was killed because he opposed Karzai’s brother or because he opposed the drug trade. Or both.)
After Khakrizwal explained this to us as if we were small children, repeatedly and carefully, he complained that he had tried to explain this to the American soldiers and diplomats, repeatedly and carefully, while he was the provincial intelligence chief. He talked about how key ISI men had mastered the Pashtun rivalries and complexities long ago—and how even though some had retired or quit the ISI since the 1980s, they were still involved in manipulating what was happening in Afghanistan. Khakrizwal knew the key Pakistani spies and named them. He had known them for years.
“The main mistake made by the Americans is this—an American general comes here for six months. Then he’s replaced,” Khakrizwal said. “For four years, I was the head of intelligence in Kandahar. For six months, I’d work on an American—explaining who are friends, who are enemies—then that person was replaced by another American. Finally, my patience was over. I was tired of giving them advice.”
For lunch, we met various Alikozai tribal elders, sat on cushions on Khakrizwal’s floor, and ate a salad of cucumbers and radishes, a dish of rice mixed with raisins, carrots, and mystery meat, various meat dishes, and okra in oil. Each elder had lost family members in recent months, each feared the Taliban was winning. One elder described vividly how his two sons had been killed eighteen days earlier in a Taliban ambush. Tom and I looked at each other.
“That’s an incredibly sad story,” Tom said.
“I can’t even imagine,” I replied.
Khakrizwal soon gave us a challenge.
“Write down this date,” he said. “In one year, the situation will be worse than it is today. I’m telling Americans, if they do not bring changes in their policies, they will say, ‘My God, Iraq is a heaven compared to here.’ ”
It was June 13, 2006.
After we finished several rounds of tea, the elders walked us out into the courtyard to say goodbye. I stood in my short burqa, with it pulled back over my head so my face showed. The elder who just lost two sons looked at me strangely and said something in Pashto. The elders cracked up, as did Farouq.
“What did he say?” I asked.
“Tell you later,” said Farouq, still laughing.
We climbed into the Toyota Corolla and waved goodbye.
“Come on Farouq, tell me, what did he say?”
“Don’t take this the wrong way—it’s Kandahar,” Farouq said. “He said, ‘If you put a turban on that one, she would be a handsome boy.’ ”
In Kandahar, I could only take that one way.
Two and a half years later, almost everyone we met on this trip would be dead. Khakrizwal would be shot outside the home where he served us lunch. Many other Alikozai leaders would be killed or die, including the tribal chief, who suffered a heart attack shortly after being hit by a roadside bomb. A female supercop, one of the only women in Kandahar who defied the Taliban, would be gunned down as she left for work with her son. The lone survivor: Karzai’s brother, the alleged drug trafficker and power broker, who had denied any wrongdoing, saying that the allegations were simply an attempt to discredit his brother. “I am sick and tired of the drug accusation,” Ahmed Wali Karzai told me. “It’s the same old story. It’s to get to the president.” But over the years, the allegations would only gain credibility, with various Western officials talking about them like fact. For whatever reason, almost any Afghan who dared to speak publicly about them would mysteriously end up dead.
We soon drove back to Kabul, accomplishing all but one goal. We failed to meet with the Taliban commander from Helmand. Farouq refused to take me out of Kandahar to meet any Taliban officials in the field because he didn’t trust them. The Helmand commander said he could not drive to Kandahar to meet us because the Americans had launched a new operation, aimed at flushing out the insurgents. Operation Mountain Thrust featured more than ten thousand international and Afghan troops, the largest operation since the fall of the Taliban. With a name like that, I knew I had to get some.