Kiriakou: Afghanistan ’A Mess’

John Kiriakou, a former CIA anti-terrorism official based in Pakistan, says the situation in Afghanistan has worsened in the past couple of years and life in Kabul has become much more perilous.

October 9, 2007 10:02 am (EST)

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

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John Kiriakou, a former CIA anti-terrorism official based in Pakistan from 1998-2004, says the security situation in Afghanistan has worsened in the past couple of years, especially in the capital, Kabul. “I think we are seeing a real breakdown in society in Kabul itself,” he says. “There is rampant crime that the country has really never seen before: kidnappings, shootings, armed robbery, burglaries, and even just street violence.”

You and Richard Klein did a piece for the L.A. Times that said the country is “plain and simple a mess.” Most people know there’s trouble in Afghanistan because of the Taliban and the resurgence but is it really that bad?

Yes. And not necessarily just because of an increase in terrorism. The reasons are several-fold really. Obviously everybody is aware that the Taliban and al-Qaeda have been resurgent in Helmand province [where many Taliban leaders came from] and in Kandahar province. But we are seeing two other things that are disturbing. Just a few weeks ago several Italian coalition forces were captured and nearly killed in western Afghanistan, which had previously been friendly to Western forces. In addition, and I believe this is more troubling, I think we are seeing a real breakdown in society in Kabul itself.

Kabul, a typical traditional Muslim capital, relied very heavily on family and tribes to negotiate and settle the differences that people may have with another. Now there is rampant crime that the country has really never seen before: kidnappings, shootings, armed robbery, burglaries, and even just street violence.

Who is causing that?

There are sectarian flare-ups, usually between the Pashtuns [Sunni] and the Hazaras [Shiite], but it’s more of an “every man for himself” attitude. I’ll give you a little anecdote. I happened to be sitting next to a gentleman on a plane, an Afghan man about thirty-five years old. We were flying into Kabul, and he asked me what I was planning to do. I told him I was a consultant and I was there for business and I asked him “how about you?” He showed me this horrible gunshot wound in his chest and he was holding his x-rays and it showed that the bullet had been lodged in his spine. He said he had been shot, and I responded “By whom?” I naively suggested: “Was this the Taliban that did this to you?” He said “No, it was just a child. A child just walked up to me, shot me in the chest, and took my money.” That’s kind of become typical in Kabul, where people [used to be able to] walk around at night and go about their daily business and go buy groceries and do whatever they needed to do. Now, if you can afford it, you have to have private security or you have to go out in groups or you risk being robbed or kidnapped in the street.

Now in Kabul, of course, there are many foreigners, international aid workers, embassy workers, journalists. Are they all in the same bind?

Yes. They are completely locked down in their compounds. Believe me when I say that you can go out driving around the street in your armored car and never see a foreigner, not one—unless you’re going to the American embassy and you see a NATO peacekeeper driving up and down the street. By and large, foreigners, particularly diplomats, are not permitted to leave their compounds even for things like food. Most of them live on their compounds and they have Afghan nationals go out to buy their food and to buy water and things like that. It’s been deemed so dangerous by Western governments that people are simply not allowed to go out on the street.

You had an anecdote in your piece that if the U.S. Embassy employees wanted to go to the USAID mission across the street, they had to go in a tunnel. Is that actually true?

Unfortunately, it is true. Right near the entrance to what is known as “Post One,” which is the initial security checkpoint when you enter the embassy, there is a large four [foot] by four foot sign saying in capital letters “ATTENTION: ALL PERSONNEL MUST USE THE TUNNEL TO ACCESS USAID. NO ONE IS PERMITTED TO CROSS THE STREET.” What struck me really is not the fact that the embassy was concerned about security and wanted people to use the tunnel, but the fact that the street they would otherwise cross is a closed street. Only U.S. security personnel and NATO troops are permitted on that street. It’s not like there is Afghan traffic and any cab driver can drive that street. That’s not the case at all. In fact, being a non-official American, I had to wait for my ride out there and I just stood on the street waiting for my car to come and pick me up and I only saw armored personnel carriers being driven by NATO troops coming up and down the street.

It still baffles me that we have thirty[-thousand] to forty-thousand NATO troops in Afghanistan, and the security has not been improved among the Afghan forces. Is the situation completely hopeless?

I don’t think it’s hopeless. I will say that I think there are a couple of reasons for the more difficult situation that we are facing now. One is, obviously, we didn’t have time to finish the job before so many of our troops were pulled out to be sent to Iraq. Now, that’s a policy decision that is not going to really change in near term. But secondly, political changes in Pakistan have allowed the Taliban and al-Qaeda an area on the Pakistani side of the border with Afghanistan to regroup and to reconstitute. So instead of having to deal with U.S. troops on the Afghan side of the border, they are free to recruit, to live, to train, on the Pakistani side of the border, and then to cross back into Afghanistan to attack NATO troops.

The Pakistanis can’t stop them?

Unfortunately they cannot. The Afghan-Pakistan border has long been a no-man’s land. In fact, if a Pakistani wants to go to the border he has to get what’s called a “Tribal Visa.” He has to approach a member of one of the tribes that live in the area and that tribesman will go to his tribal leader to ask permission for this Pakistani to visit the area and then he will be issued a Tribal Visa. As crazy as that sounds, that kind of lawlessness rules the day on the border on the Pakistani side. So Pakistan’s political problems have allowed Afghans to regroup on Pakistani territory.  That’s the second thing. The third is that a good number of NATO troops are focused on the protection of NGOs, UN organizations, and USAID, all of which are working very hard to do things like build roads or dams or hospitals. They can’t do that in a vacuum and they are frequently attacked.

Are these attacks from Taliban?

They are from the Taliban coming in and attacking the projects. So a lot of those troops are bogged down providing security for these workers. They are not running into the mountains trying to hunt down Taliban and al-Qaeda people.

You don’t have the private security forces that you have in Iraq?

A lot of those private security companies pulled out of Afghanistan in order to go to Iraq. For example, you don’t see [the U.S. security company] Blackwater anywhere in Afghanistan anymore.

Does the Karzai government have any popularity?

It does. People trust President Karzai, but I didn’t talk to a single person who thought he was strong enough nationally to change anything. I even spoke with several parliamentarians including the speaker of parliament who said that the task is so daunting that what the government needs to do first is get a grip on Kabul and once Kabul is in line they can start looking out toward the provinces.

What’s happened to the illustrious warlords? Have they lost all power?

They haven’t. They are still active in the [parliament] and you see them around town in big cars going from meeting to meeting. They each have their own agenda. For example, there are no security problems in northern Afghanistan because the Northern Alliance is perfectly happy with the way things have turned out. The Pashtun leaders in the south are still willing to give the government the benefit of the doubt in hope that they are able to keep things together and that everyone will be able to live in peace and prosperity. But the eastern Pashtuns from Kandahar have no confidence in the government and have taken up arms already; they are beyond the point of no return.

They are taking up arms on the side of the Taliban?


You were in Afghanistan on a consulting trip on this movie Kite Runner. It’s basically a story of these two boys, one is a wealthy boy who is Pashtun and the younger boy is a servant, a Shiite Hazara. The older boy feels guilty because he didn’t protect the younger boy from a rape from a bully. The people making this movie were about to release it but held it up because they are afraid of the repercussions in Afghanistan. What did you find?

I found that there truly is a threat to the children. But much to my surprise, the Afghans I spoke with were of one mind that there was a broader threat coming from the movie. First, I should say that the movie is not going to be released in Afghanistan, but because of the large [number of] pirated DVDs in South Asia, it is probably just a matter of weeks between when the movie is released in the United States and it arrives in Afghanistan. Many of Afghanistan’s intelligentsia are aware of it. Several I spoke with had read the book, and they were all aware of the troublesome scenes that would translate into the movie.

One thing that surprised me and troubled me was that all the Afghans I talked to also believed that the movie would lead to sectarian violence. Most of them said: “For thirty-five years we have been fighting each other and killing each other, now we have this very fragile piece between the Pashtuns and the Hazaras, and this movie is coming to Afghanistan and it’s going to show how the Pashtuns held the Hazaras down, discriminated against the Hazaras, raped their boys, had sex with their wives—which is sort of a side story in the book, and in general just humiliated them.” This is going to make Hazaras very angry.

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