Foreign Affairs

Foreign Affairs

May/June 2004


Afghanistan Unbound
By Kathy Gannon


Kathy Gannon is Edward R. Murrow Press Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. She is currently on leave from the Associated Press, where she is Bureau Chief for Afghanistan and Pakistan, countries she has reported on since 1986 and that she visited last December and January to report this article.


Return To Kabul

In 1994, bitter fighting between competing warlords raged throughout Kabul, Afghanistan's capital city. It was a time marked by endless attacks, many of them on civilians. I saw one young boy raise his hand to catch a ball, only to have it sliced off at the wrist by a rocket. A 13-year-old girl, running home to retrieve blankets and clothes left behind by her fleeing family, stepped on a land mine, which exploded and blew off the bottom of her leg. All told, 50,000 Afghans — most of them civilians — died in the four-year fight for Kabul, and even more were maimed.

In one particularly grisly attack, five women from the Hazara ethnic group were scalped. Their attackers were not Taliban; this was still two years before that radical Islamist militia took Kabul. The assailants were loyal instead to one of many warlords battling for control of the city: Abdul Rasul Sayyaf.

Sayyaf's men had been fighting for years, first against the Soviet Union, after it invaded Afghanistan in 1979, and then, once the Soviets fled, against other mujahideen groups. Even among Afghan fighters, Sayyaf's private army stood out. It included more militant Arabs than the other factions and boasted closer financial links to Saudi Arabia; it even had offices in the desert kingdom. There were also strong ideological ties: unlike most Afghans, Sayyaf was a member of the strict Saudi Wahhabi sect of Islam. He opposed the presence of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia and was a fierce opponent of women's rights, refusing to meet or even talk to women outside his family.

Two years after the attack on the Hazara women, Sayyaf, along with then Defense Minister Ahmed Shah Masoud and President Burhanuddin Rabbani, was swept out of town by the Taliban. Today, however, many of the warlords are back in Kabul — and more powerful than ever. In fact, just a few months ago, during the Loya Jirga (grand council) held to draft a new national constitution, Sayyaf met with Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan and President George W. Bush's special envoy. Neither side would reveal what was discussed, but it is widely believed that Khalilzad was courting Sayyaf's support for several constitutional provisions: a strong presidency, guarantees for women's and human rights, and protections for religious minorities. Sayyaf subsequently agreed to these provisions; just what he asked for in return is unknown. The mere fact that the negotiations took place, however, is unsettling, for it exposes the weakness of Washington's current Afghan strategy. 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 ignored.

A Deal With The Devil(s)

Besides Sayyaf, several other key warlords have returned to power in Afghanistan. They include Muhammad Fahim, the current defense minister; Abdul Rashid Dostum, the Afghan president's special envoy for . . .