My closest Afghan friend held out his Taliban-era photo. A decade younger, he had a thick black beard that the oppressive regime forced men to grow.
My friend won't grow one again. He is already thinking about when to flee.
As generals, politicians and pundits in Washington debate the next best step for America's eight-year war in Afghanistan, the Taliban takes new territory by the day, despite the record 64,000 U.S. troops here.
I arrived in Afghanistan in spring 2006, just as violence began to explode. I leave after three years as the chief correspondent for The Associated Press, and never have things seemed so ominous. As one of America's top military analysts, Anthony Cordesman, says: The U.S. "is now decisively losing."
No one thinks Kabul will fall while American forces are here. But even top U.S. commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal's latest assessment says that without reversing insurgent momentum in the next 12 months, defeating the insurgency will no longer be possible.
The quiet truth whispered by soldiers in the field and aid workers in Kabul is that the Afghan government is not likely to ever control southern Afghanistan's wildlands, the foreboding territory beyond the provincial capitals.
Villagers fear thieving police more than militants, and the August presidential election laid bare how pervasive corruption is here. The Taliban is playing to the general disgust with corruption by offering itself as an alternative.
Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, a large man with a woolly black beard, once served as the Taliban's ambassador to Pakistan. He always greets me with a smile and seems an unlikely representative for a hardline regime. He uses an iPhone _ though his grandson recently broke it.
Zaeef is a conduit between the Afghan government and Mullah Omar's Taliban. Zaeef told me the militant leadership refers to its forces not as Taliban now, but as "mujahedeen," a throwback to the Afghan "holy warriors" who ousted the Soviet Union at the end of the 1980s. The reason is that only one out of 10 militant fighters is a true "Taliban." The rest are ordinary Afghans, Zaeef said.
That bodes extremely ill for U.S. and NATO efforts.
"Every day you are killing people. Dozens of people. They have brothers, they have fathers, they have sons," Zaeef said. "The Taliban are my brothers, the Taliban are my sons. The Taliban are my cousins. They are not different from us. They did not come from the sky. They did not come from another Earth. They are all from Afghanistan."
McChrystal wants to shift the fight from killing militants to protecting the population. But the U.S. is now eight years into the fight, and there are signs _ the spreading of the insurgency to the north, rising U.S. deaths _ that it could be too late.
McChrystal knows the issue of civilian deaths caused by U.S. forces has turned many Afghans against the West. I witnessed my first such deaths in the summer of 2006, when I shadowed Lt. Will Felder and his platoon on a night-time helicopter invasion of Helmand province's Baghran valley.
Felder, a West Point graduate who left the Army in June after fulfilling his five-year commitment, battled in Helmand, Kandahar and Paktika provinces. He is frank about his time here.
"The things that we were able to accomplish tactically obviously were useless. You can pretty much point to every area we gained, to any sort of tactical success, and in the intervening years those areas have been lost and gained tactically many times," Felder told me from Atlanta, where he is a first-year law student.
"The only thing I can take away from it being successful is none of my soldiers got killed," he said.
It waas on Felder's mission in Baghran that I saw a B-1 bomber destroy a mud house that militants had overrun, killing an apparently innocent elderly couple inside.
"We moved into an area, secured it, at the loss of American live and certainly Afghan lives, spending a great deal of money and making promises to civilians in the area," he said. "And then we left."
The U.S. was also slow to identify the Taliban comeback for what it was. A top U.S. military official in Kabul told me that for too many years the rising violence here was mistakenly seen as a rise in crime, the drug trade, and corruption. Instead, he said, it was the beginning of an insurgency against the government.
The Taliban's leaders, and their al-Qaida partners in Pakistan, decided to make a stand, "to fight the West," the official said.
Now, the harsh social rules that Taliban imposed under their reign in the 1990s have already returned _ or never left _ in many of Afghanistan's hinterlands, like rural Helmand. Women can't leave the house unaccompanied. Music and movies are banned. Beards are mandated.
As Washington debates whether to send 10,000, 20,000 or 40,000 more forces, it's worth remembering that a former top commander here, U.S. Gen. Dan McNeill, said in an interview with NPR last summer that "well over 400,000" troops are needed to tame the country. He then called it "an absurd figure," because Afghanistan will never see that many troops. U.S. and NATO forces now number 100,000. The Afghan army has 90,000.
After eight years, fewer Americans than ever support the war. More troops would mean more forces driving over increasingly lethal roadside bombs.
There is little domestic support for the decades of work Afghanistan requires. That's why, Zaeef told me, Taliban leaders, militant commanders and ordinary Afghans are already laying the groundwork to prevent another civil war when the U.S. and NATO draw down.
"Afghans have to decide the future, to make a solution for the future. I think many people they are trying to do that," Zaeef said. "It's not guaranteed that civil war will not happen, but the people are trying to prevent it." He would not elaborate.
Peace talks between the Taliban and President Hamid Karzai's government in Saudi Arabia last year went nowhere, said Zaeef, who took part in the failed attempt. U.S. officials say talks are unlikely now that the Taliban has the upper hand.
The latest fiasco _ the Aug. 20 election _ was so widely rigged that it will take months of investigations to declare a winner. Worse yet, the fraud has shown the world precisely how crooked the Afghan government is, bringing the most salient question to the fore: Do American families want their sons and daughters to die to defend it?
Russia's ambassador to Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, recently told AP that McChrystal is trying his best to succeed, but that "at this stage it will be very difficult for him to change the direction" of the war.
"The more troops you bring the more troubles you will have here," said Kabulov, who knows from the experience of the Soviets, who were defeated bitterly in Afghanistan more than two decades ago.
My memories of Afghanistan will last forever: The kids chasing kites. Cringing every time a U.S. convoy passed, because of the threat of a bomb attack. Hearing bullets whiz over my head while in the field with troops. Seeing a rare woman driver. And seeing a little Afghan girl burned within an inch of her life by white phosphorus rescued by U.S. military doctors.
A best-case scenario for the country is that the U.S. and NATO train enough Afghan soldiers to protect the provincial capitals, and the U.S. maintains a small counter-terrorism force to watch over al-Qaida and Pakistan. The wild hinterlands will be left for the Taliban.
But Zaeef believes the Taliban will rule again one day, though they may not be able to take Kabul by force. How long will America stay? As the Taliban likes to say: "The Americans have the watches, but the Taliban has the time."
That is why my Afghan friend has already decided he will sell his home and leave Afghanistan if the Taliban iniltrate Kabul. My friend survived one Taliban regime. He is now laying plans so he won't have to do it again.
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