KABUL, Afghanistan-The 10th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan dawned sunny and quiet in Kabul, the capital. Although several hundred Afghans turned out on Thursday to demonstrate against the continued U.S. presence here, Friday-a day of prayer for Muslims when most stores and businesses aren't open-was largely unremarkable (except for a fender bender my driver managed to get out of with minimal damage, also an unremarkable event in Kabul). Even at the U.S. installation inside the city at Camp Eggers and at NATO headquarters nearby, there were no planned ceremonies to mark the anniversary. "We consider 9/11 the key date around here," one officer at NATO headquarters told me.
But Shaida M. Abdali remembers 10 years ago well. He was one of three men who flew from Qandahar to Kabul with Hamid Karzai when he was installed as chairman of the interim government soon after the United States successfully ousted the Taliban. Today he is an assistant to the president and Karzai's deputy national security advisor.
"How high the hopes everybody had," he said today of that time 10 years ago, "but I would not be a pessimist here and say that we have lost hope. But we have not achieved what we have hoped for, and we did not think that it would take this long."
Abdali spoke to me this morning from a very quiet presidential palace, where the president has increasingly become isolated by insecurity outside the fortified walls of the complex and by a seeming weariness within the government with the war against terrorism and the struggle to rebuild Afghanistan.
"The difference of Kabul then and now is earth and sky," said Abdali, who remembers "no life at all" visible on the streets of Kabul after nearly six years of the Taliban's oppressive rule. "But hopes were very, very high, and we were thinking that this would be a quick recovery, that our country was out of all our miseries that we have suffered with the arrival of the U.S. in Afghanistan."
Today, said Abdali, it's clear "nobody can predict" what would happen, and "I would not have advised then even correctly what were the issues in Afghanistan," he admitted.
Speaking of both U.S. administrations and the Karzai government, he said, "I think we began to give medicine to a patient we did not diagnose. Diagnosis should have been our first priority." And the first problem-even though al-Qaeda had used Afghanistan as a safe haven for five years at the time it launched the attacks of 9/11-was and still is today a terrorist insurgency coming from outside. And the top advisor went further: "Pakistan is using terrorism as a form of foreign policy."
That kind of bluntness about Afghanistan's neighbor-and what has been a key U.S. ally in counterterrorism efforts-coincides with statements coming from Washington since the discovery and killing of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in early May. Last month the outgoing chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, accused Pakistan's spy agency, the ISI, of supporting the Haqqani network in carrying out recent attacks inside Kabul, the most serious allegation yet of Pakistani duplicity in the 10-year war.
Abdali insists that the Karzai government has been saying that all along. At the same time he was forthright in criticizing his government's internal fight against terrorism, saying he "should not give a rosy picture" of the challenges in Afghanistan. Training of the Afghan National Army and National Police, he said, was on track in terms of quantity-force strength by the end of this month is expected to reach 130,000-but quality is lacking. He also was the first to bring up the problems of widespread corruption within the government and of the government's inability to connect with the people, in many cases not as well as insurgents have been able to. "Do we have people behind us as we had 10 years ago? No. Then the enemy could not find a place to penetrate."
But in the intervening years the Afghan government has paid attention to the enemy, to fighting terrorists, he said, without paying attention to the people. That has left gaping challenges in updating the country's infrastructure, its roads and power grid, and in providing public services and law enforcement to remote communities. The National Police force, he said, should be "among the people, doing law enforcement, protecting them," not only shooting enemies: "Tactical things have cost us strategic goals."
The Karzai government, according to Abdali, feels an urgency to see more responsibility turned over to Afghans while U.S. troops remain in the country. "This dependency on you is really killing us," he told me. "You must take some risks with us."
That mirrors a deadline looming for U.S. commanders. "Our sense of urgency is driven by time and a recognition that we will never have more forces on the ground than we do right now," Maj. Gen. Daniel B. Allyn, the U.S. commander in eastern Afghanistan, told The Washington Post. U.S. troop levels are currently at a peak of about 98,000 and are expected to shrink by about 30,000 by summer 2012. From there, under the plan of President Barack Obama, troops would gradually draw down to an end to all U.S. combat operations by 2014.
Listen to Mindy Belz discuss her recent visit to Afghanistan from the Oct. 15 edition of the radio program The World and Everything in It.