I still remember the mood on the streets of the southern Afghan city of Kandahar shortly after the Taliban surrendered their stronghold in December of 2001.
The people, for the most part, were jubilant. And vendors in their stalls in the dusty market in the centre of town would crank up the volume on their transistor radios every time we turned our camera on them – music was banned under the Taliban.
Taliban fighters, with their black turbans, were still there, sometimes glowering at us foreigners, but they had accepted their defeat.
There was hope then, and a belief that Americans could make a difference in a land devastated by decades of war.
Eleven years later, as we ducked bullets from a resurging Taliban force, one is left with a clear impression that the US “War on Terror” has not gone so well.
“This sometimes happens. They take shots at us, testing us,” says Colonel Abdul Hai Neshat, as bullets whiz by just inches from his head.
The Colonel’s Afghan army unit, in fact, has taken fire several times a day, ever since it took command of Combat Outpost Nolay from the US Marines in late October.
As part of the 2014 pullout plan, US forces are starting to hand over bases in the volatile regions of southern Afghanistan.
Nolay is located in Helmand province, and like Kandahar, which lies to the east, the Taliban have strong roots here.
‘Most dangerous place’
While peering cautiously out of an observation post, scanning for snipers, Neshat says with a strained smile, “This area is the most dangerous place in the whole of the country.”
Since insurgents regrouped in 2006, more than 900 NATO and US soldiers have died in and around the lush stretch of trees and fields along the Helmand river valley.
While the surge of an additional 30,000 American troops over the last three years has created space for the Afghan national government to come in, it remains a hotbed of violence.
The 2nd Brigade of the 215th Corps, which Colonel Neshat helps lead, has a soldier wounded every day, and a soldier killed every two to three days.
When asked whether he believes his men are able to hold the gains made by American and NATO forces, he pauses, and answers slowly, “Yes, we can do this. We hope we can win this war, but it will take a long time.”
It’s a far less confident appraisal than the US President’s.
Barack Obama, in defending the 2014 pullout date before his re-election, stated that “Afghans are perfectly capable of defending their own country”.
A recent report by a US government watchdog further challenges Obama’s assessment. The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction raises serious doubts as to whether the Afghan army can maintain the many bases it is taking over.
The report found that hundreds of millions of dollars worth of repair parts for many of the Afghan National Army’s (ANA) vehicles have gone missing. It also notes a serious lack of trained personnel to deal with more technical trades.
Neshat himself admits that many of the armoured Humvees and Ford Rangers his troops send back to headquarters for repairs never come back.
He’s also requested a budget of some $200,000 to build proper barracks for his men at Outpost Nolay.
Will to defend country
In the meantime, the 2nd brigade has accepted hand-me-down wood, donated from the tear-down of another US Marine base, to build shelters.
Neshat and officers have also taken to holding meetings outside, as they don’t have engineers to properly fix the electric generators to power the camp.
Still, the unit is seen, by many American military officials, including Colonel Tom Pryzbelski, the US Marine leading the advisor team working with the 2nd brigade, as one of the most able in the Afghan army, as it still manages to clothe, feed and arm its troops, independent of NATO.
Compared to the Iraqi army unit in Fallujah that he advised in 2006, the thoughtful and soft-spoken Pryzbelski describes the Afghan contingent as “quite impressive”, as they are “self-sufficient on many fronts”.
While lacking in many areas, key advisors to NATO say rather than focus on the technical shortcomings of the ANA, the true test of its abilities will be whether there is a “will among troops to defend the country”.
“It is about leadership,” says Abdul Wasea Milad, the Afghan General who oversees the 2nd brigade. And as we sit with him and his men, upon his return from holiday during Eid, one is left with an impression that this former Mujahideen fighter, who fought the Soviets, is a charismatic man that prefers to lead by listening to his officers.
“You must trust your men, then they trust you, and morale will be up,” says Milad as he turns to address us.
“In my units, I tell them not to focus on tribes – the north and the south – or to think about politics. We are one nation – Afghanistan – and we need and we will defend it.”
Milad then furrows his brow, and adds, “But to succeed, we need better leadership in Kabul. I do not know what has gone wrong there.”
In 2011, Transparency International listed Afghanistan as the fourth most corrupt nation in the world (next only to Myanmar, North Korea and Somalia). Government ministers, and even Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s close relatives, are often accused of helping themselves to the billions in aid and development money that has poured into the country.
A Kandahari, Milad faithfully served under Mullah Naqib, another mujahideen fighter. He is respected by many, including elements of the Taliban, for his military genius, but also for how he despised corruption.
(Mullah Naqib brokered the deal in 2001 that saw Taliban leader Mullah Omar surrender Kandahar and 3,000 militants to Hamid Karzai.)
“Without respect for the national government,” says Milad, “it will be very hard to win people here over.”
Indeed, Helmand and many parts of Kandahar have seen very little of international donor money.
Two major dam projects – the Kajaki in Helmand and the Dahla in Kandahar – that were supposed to provide steady electricity to the two provinces and improve irrigation for farmers have both stalled, despite millions spent by NATO forces.
That has given the Taliban more fodder in these parts to argue that foreign forces have done little good.
“The people support us,” says a Taliban spokesperson in Helmand. “After 2014, we will take over southern Afghanistan. Just give us a month.”
While the US prefers to describe the drawdown as a natural “transition to Afghan responsibility”, many in these remote parts of the country see it at best as an orderly retreat.
Asked about his view of the American pullout, General Milad borrows a phrase often used by NATO forces over the years: “We have long fought shona ba shona (shoulder by shoulder) with US forces, we are now being asked to shoulder the weight of security alone. We wish they will not go.”
In December, Obama will be briefed by his military commanders on how best to drawdown the forces. And how many troops to leave behind.
At the moment, it’s believed that some 15 to 20,000 American troops may stay on as advisors.
Analysts – along with government consultants from Britain to India – are predicting that will not be enough to stop Afghanistan from sliding into civil war, with the Taliban taking over large parts of the South.
Milad says he’s intent on not letting that happen.
But as we walk with him around this remote base, I’m reminded of the fate of his mentor Naqib.
In 2007, Taliban assassins bombed the vehicle he was in, seriously injuring the elderly leader. Four days after we last interviewed him, he succumbed to those injuries his death was described as a heart attack.
That there have been incredible gains in many parts of Afghanistan, especially in major cities like Kabul, is undeniable.
The fear expressed by many Afghans, especially in the regions where the Taliban remain strong, is that by pulling out so soon, those gains may ultimately be squandered.
In the years following 2001, some of the Afghan intelligentsia that fled the country during the years of civil war returned. We met them in places like Kandahar city as they set up aid agencies, attempted to build businesses and lives there.
But in the recent months many have started to leave again, believing that with the Americans on their way out, hopes of a better Afghanistan are all but gone.