I remember the first time an Afghan told me that the United States and the Taliban were working together. It was February 2010, and I was in Zormat, an old trading town in the lap of snow-covered mountains, between Kabul and the Pakistani border.
Zormat is dominated by a prosperous bazaar, where shelves stocked with Indian wedding bangles, Pakistani fruit juice, British potato chips, and Nair depilatory cream hint at the survival of ancient smuggling routes and Afghans’ increasingly cosmopolitan tastes.
At a shura, I met Hajji Eid Mohammad Youdo, a respected tribal elder with a thick graying beard. Youdo had been a mujahedin leader and an enemy of the Taliban. After the U.S. invasion, one of his friends was arrested and sent to Guantanamo Bay, and Youdo discovered that he, too, was on the U.S. capture list. He hid in the mountains and ultimately made his way to Kabul, where, he told me, he got then-American Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad to write out a guarantee of his innocence. Youdo was, to say the least, frustrated that he had somehow managed to end up being hunted by both sides. “There are times when I think the U.S. and the Taliban are working together,” he said.
The more time you spend in Afghanistan, the more you begin to understand why this notion makes a twisted kind of sense. The U.S. military pays Afghan security companies to guard its supply convoys, and some of that money is used to bribe the Taliban for safe passage; in this way, the United States and NATO have been indirectly bankrolling the insurgency for years. Moreover, the U.S. military surge has occasioned a proliferation of American double talk: Official pronouncements about the need to protect civilians have coincided with a spike in attacks and raids that sometimes kill the very people the United States says it is trying to save. In March, for instance, helicopter gunships obliterated nine boys gathering firewood on a hillside in the northeastern province of Kunar after mistaking them for insurgents.
There is no way of knowing, of course, how many people share Youdo’s suspicion. However, the notion that the United States and the Taliban are collaborating has grown more frequent among Afghans since the military surge began, says Noah Coburn, a political anthropologist at Skidmore College who has been doing research in Afghanistan since 2005. “It is amazing how many Afghans believe this,” he says. During the time I have spent in Afghanistan over the last two years, this belief has, for me, come to symbolize just how confused Afghans have become about the war the United States is fighting in their country.
RELIABLE INFORMATION is scarce in Afghanistan, but, if there is one thing Afghans accept as an absolute truth, it is U.S. military dominance. They have seen the Hollywood movies; they watch “24”; in the countryside, they’ve heard reports of American prowess on hand-held radios. For many, it therefore defies belief that the world’s sole superpower can’t defeat a bunch of sandaled fighters with AK-47s. Afghans assume that the Taliban must have powerful supporters, and it’s true that Pakistan and the Taliban are old friends. At the same time, for most of the war on terrorism, the United States and Pakistan have been allies. Doesn’t it follow, then, that the United States and the Taliban are really on the same side?
Last fall, I visited a university in Kapisa Province north of Kabul. An American social scientist traveling with an Army patrol asked a crowd of male students in blazers and jeans their views on reconciliation with the Taliban. “It’s a game in our country,” one student said in English. He believed that the United States could get rid of the insurgents in a few days if it chose. Instead, the Americans were using Afghanistan “just as a barracks against Iran, against Pakistan, against China, against Russians.” “They cooperate with Taliban,” the student said. “Entirely, they support Taliban!”
This view can even be found among Afghan journalists, who have been among the most supportive of the international campaign against the insurgency, and for good reason: The explosion of media here has been one of the rare triumphs of the war. Recently, some Afghan journalists were discussing this spring’s Kandahar prison break. One had seen the underground tunnel through which more than 400 prisoners, many of them insurgents, are said to have escaped. Not even a small dog could fit through that tunnel, the reporter said. The journalists speculated that the Taliban were growing too weak to keep fighting the Americans, so the Americans contrived the prison break to keep the war going.
One journalist I know, Mohammad Numan Dost, was an editor at Pajhwok Afghan News, Afghanistan’s largest independent news agency, for about seven years before leaving to take a job training other Afghan journalists. But lately, even Dost was beginning to question U.S. motives. He reminded me that, when the United States began bombing Afghanistan in October 2001, one of its first targets was the Taliban-run radio station’s antenna on a Kabul hilltop. Planes flying overhead could see the slender antenna well enough to strike it in the middle of the night. So why, he asked, can’t the Americans see Afghans dancing at a wedding?
I explained that sometimes even Americans make mistakes, but Dost wasn’t having it. If NATO is really fighting the Taliban, why don’t they target big groups of insurgents everyone can see riding around in cars and on motorbikes? There are now more than 130,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan, far outnumbering Taliban insurgents, who are estimated at 25,000 to 35,000 at most. “Why are they not able to beat the Taliban?” Dost asked. “Ordinary people are thinking that America started a game here, a drama” with the Taliban in a leading role. “If they kill the star of this drama, the drama will be finished,” Dost told me. The Americans had to be drawing out the game for their own strategic purposes, he said. There was no other way to explain such stunning failure.
While I was trying to figure out how to respond, Dost pulled up a photograph on his computer. It showed a young man in a coffin, his face waxen, his head surrounded by rose petals. This was Dost’s cousin, Jan-i-Alam. He was in his early twenties and the son of a farmer, but shortly before he died he had started working at the U.S. military base in Bagram, north of Kabul. Jan-i-Alam was grateful for the job, which paid enough to support his wife and 15-month-old son; they were expecting a second child.
One morning a few years ago, Jan-i-Alam and his friends were driving to work at the base when they encountered a truck full of troops from NATO’s International Security Assistance Force. Perhaps there was some misunderstanding—it was early morning and the road was dark. The soldiers opened fire on the car, killing Jan-i-Alam and wounding several of his friends. When Dost saw his cousin’s body at the hospital, he was filled with fury. “Why they killed him?” he asked me, his voice rising in desperation. “It makes me a Talib, makes me opposite of the government.”
Dost didn’t have any intention of joining the Taliban, of course. It wasn’t even clear to me what he really believed about who was good, who was bad, and who was working with whom in the war. He was simply trying to tell me what it feels like to be a progressive Afghan, caught between gratitude for the openness the war has brought and confusion at its senseless brutality.