Two weeks into the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, I was the only Western journalist allowed into Kabul by the Taliban. I hunkered down in the basement while planes roared overheard, ever closer, shaking the whole house. Outside, tanks and trucks piled high with black-turbaned Taliban or Arab soldiers rumbled down the dark streets.
The U.S. had been reassured by its allies, known as the Northern Alliance, that their heavily armed ethnic militias would not storm Kabul when the Taliban left. So I called Abdul Rasool Sayyaf, a powerful Afghan warlord, to ask where his men would go instead.
He laughed at the naivete of the Americans. "We will all be there," he said. "No one can keep us out."
And indeed, within hours after the Taliban left, Kabul was swarming with militia. They took over houses, rampaged through the streets looking for Taliban and killed a few stragglers, throwing their bodies into a park.
In its eagerness to oust the Taliban and get out of Afghanistan fast, the U.S. turned for help to the ethnic militias who had long jockeyed for power in Afghanistan. Once unleashed, the warlords stoked ethnic fighting, corruption and lawlessness, while the U.S. turned away. By the time the U.S. and its NATO allies looked back, it was too late.
"There was never any long-term strategy for Afghanistan," said Seema Samar, chairman of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Association, who was stripped of an earlier job as women's affairs minister after criticizing the warlords' dominance in government in 2002. "Because of the quick collapse of the Taliban, the international community was so full of themselves, their success story. They went to Iraq and handed it (Afghanistan) over to a bunch of warlords."
The U.S. argues that it had few choices at the time, because only the Northern Alliance was fighting the Taliban.
"When state institutions are weak, you should not go out of your way to alienate forces that are willing to cooperate. You don't need more enemies," said Zalmay Khalilzad, President George W. Bush's representative in Kabul following the collapse of the Taliban. "The U.S. also backed a political process...to shift power from those who had guns to those who could attract votes."
The ethnic militias last ruled Afghanistan from 1992 to 1996. During that time, they killed 50,000 people, mostly civilians, and laid to waste vast swaths of the capital, Kabul. I remember one day counting 100 incoming and outgoing rockets — all within two minutes.
The streets of the capital were divvied up among various leaders. The whole country was carved into fiefdoms controlled by warlords. In a report called "Blood Stained Hand," Human Rights Watch called the warlords "the world's most serious human rights offenders."
About 25,000 people were killed just from January through June 1994, according to estimates from Afghan and international human rights groups.
I remember Sayyaf and his men all too well. One day in 1993, after a particularly brutal bout of shelling in the Afghan capital, I went to an area Sayyaf's men had just left.
An old man grabbed my sleeve and threw down a shawl full of bloodied hair on my feet. Then he dragged me into a foul-smelling room to show me the bodies of five women Sayyaf's men had raped and scalped because they were of a different ethnicity, the Hazaras.
It was their hair that lay on my feet.
In its 1995 report on terrorism, the U.S. listed Sayyaf, not Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, as a terrorist threat. It was Sayyaf and Hajji Qadir, a minister in President Hamid Karzai's first government, who welcomed Osama bin Laden to Afghanistan from Sudan in 1996. I heard accounts of the visit from Afghans who drove bin Laden from the airport and attended a lunch in his honor.
Yet after the terrorist attacks of 2001, the U.S. still joined forces with Sayyaf and other militants in the Northern Alliance. Within two months, they had routed the Taliban.
The Northern Alliance signed an international accord stating that the militias would leave Kabul before the international soldiers came. It meant nothing. Thousands of armed militiamen were still in Kabul when 5,000 soldiers from the newly formed International Security Assistance Force arrived in December.
Warlords flex political muscle
The warlords deny the allegations of corruption and wholesale violence. They insist that they deserve a place of honor as mujahedeen, or holy soldiers, because they freed Afghanistan from the decade-long Soviet occupation in 1989.
But from the outset, they weakened President Hamid Karzai and sent some of his fellow ethnic Pashtuns fleeing back to the Taliban. Karzai was the only leader without a militia, which left Pashtuns unprotected and vulnerable to the new minority ethnic rulers.
A deputy police chief from southern Zabul province told me that in 2002, he sent 2,000 young Pashtuns to Kabul to join the Afghan national army and police. But they were humiliated and harassed by militiamen, and all but four joined the Taliban instead.
The warlords also took over the U.S.-supervised loya jirgas, or grand councils, set up to craft a constitution. They used intimidation and violence to garner votes in the 2010 elections, according to monitors for Afghanistan's human rights commission.
And they grabbed the security business, where they made a fortune. Today, newly rich warlords-cum-ministers live in grotesquely ornate houses three or four stories high in the Sherpur neighborhood of Kabul, decorated with marble pillars and hand-carved marble balconies.
Warlords have now infiltrated every level of a government funded by the U.S. — as ministers, governors and police chiefs. The first vice president of Afghanistan is Mohammad Qasim Fahim, once commander of the Northern Alliance. The police chief and a key U.S. ally in southern Kandahar is Abdul Razik, a former warlord suspected of large-scale drug dealing.
The deputy defense minister at one point was the notoriously brutal Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum. An official at the Kandahar Air Field, home to tens of thousands of U.S. and NATO troops, is self-declared Maj. Gen. Abdul Razik Sherzai, another Afghan kingpin.
There are many more — including Sayyaf, after whom the Abu Sayyaf terrorist group in the Philippines is named. Sayyaf is now a member of parliament in Afghanistan, where he has pressed legislation to bar war crimes trials for militia leaders.
Warlords have also threatened female colleagues who have sought their expulsion from the government. I remember chasing one female member of Parliament who went into hiding after being threatened by Fahim. She fled in the middle of the night, just minutes before half a dozen of his bodyguards showed up at her front door.
The U.S. partnership with such warlords and a corrupt government led to deep resentment, especially among Pashtuns. And the Taliban were left alone to regroup and strengthen in Pakistan.
When President Barack Obama refocused the U.S. military away from Iraq and back on Afghanistan in 2009, there was little the U.S. could do. In some areas, the Taliban had set up shadow governments that dispensed quick justice. The Afghan police and government were seen by most Afghans as corrupt and lawless. And ordinary people saw little change in their lives from the billions of dollars of aid that had come to their country.
The training of the Afghan national army and police has stepped up, because they will have to take over security of the country. But even NATO trainers say privately they don't think it can be done. Most of the Afghan forces still have ethnic loyalties, and there isn't enough time or resources to build a sense of national purpose, they say.
The 2014 target for U.S. forces to leave has also speeded up peace talks between the U.S. and the Taliban. Afghans are no longer sure who is on whose side, or whether peace in their country is even possible.
At this stage it appears that the U.S. will leave behind a country with a bleak future, after a decade of squandered opportunities by Afghans and Americans alike. One fear is that at best, a corrupt government ridden with warlords will make a devil's deal with the Taliban, bringing further violence and repression to a country that has known little else for decades.
And at worst, the country will slip into another civil war.
Kathy Gannon is Special AP Regional Correspondent for Afghanistan and Pakistan. She can be reached on www.twitter.com/kathygannon