Origin of North Korea’s Nuclear Program

From The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un, by Anna Fifield (PublicAffairs, 2019), Kindle pp. 232-234:

In 1962, the Soviet Union and the United States were locked in a thirteen-day standoff over the installation of nuclear-armed Soviet missiles in Cuba, less than one hundred miles from the US coastline. For those two weeks, the world teetered on the edge of nuclear war. But the conflict was resolved diplomatically when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev agreed to remove the missiles as long as President John Kennedy agreed not to invade Cuba. A deal was done.

Kim Il Sung viewed this deal as a capitulation by the Soviet Union to the United States, a sign that Moscow was willing to sell out an ally for the sake of its own security. The Great Leader apparently learned from this that North Korea should never entrust its national security to any other government. This injected new momentum into his drive for nuclear independence. Within a few months, Kim Il Sung’s regime had started to explore the possibility of developing a nuclear deterrent of its own. The leader who had espoused a need for a stronger agricultural policy was soon standing before the cadres in Pyongyang to hammer home the importance of putting equal emphasis on economic growth and national defense. This was the first “simultaneous push” policy. The proportion of the national budget devoted to defense rose from only 4.3 percent in 1956 to almost 30 percent within a decade.

The nuclear scientists who returned home from the Soviet Union set about building, about sixty miles northeast of Pyongyang, a similar complex to the one they’d worked at in Dubna. This would eventually become the Yongbyon Nuclear Research Complex.

More impetus came in the early 1970s, when it emerged that North Korea’s other main ally, China, had secretly started to forge relations with the United States, an effort that led to President Richard Nixon’s historic visit to Beijing in 1972.

Meanwhile, in South Korea, the strongman Park Chung-hee, a general who’d seized the presidency through a military coup, was secretly pursuing nuclear weapons of his own. When this news emerged, it was an unbearable blow to Kim Il Sung’s personal vanity and sense of national pride.

Another key factor that must have been weighing on Kim Il Sung’s mind was his own mortality. He was in his sixties by this time and was starting to prepare his son to take over. He thought that having nuclear weapons would make it easier for his son to keep a grip on the state. In lieu of charisma, Kim Jong Il should at least have nukes.

In the late 1970s onward, the North Koreans had built more than one hundred nuclear facilities at Yongbyon alone. American intelligence agencies were alarmed. In the space of about six years, a country with no previous experience had built a functioning nuclear reactor. Three years later came unambiguous proof that the reactor’s purpose was military, not civilian; the country had built a major reprocessing facility that would enable it to turn the fuel from the reactor into fissile material.

But its efforts were not going unnoticed among allies either. The Soviet Union pressured Kim Il Sung into signing the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty at the end of 1985. It took seven years for North Korea to allow in the inspectors required under that treaty, and when they got in, they found numerous signs that the regime was secretly working on the very kind of nuclear program it had pledged against. In 1993, Kim Il Sung threatened to withdraw from the treaty, triggering an alarming standoff. North Korea and the United States came the closest to war in forty years.

Talks to resolve the impasse were ongoing when Kim Il Sung suddenly died in the summer of 1994, propelling both sides into unknown territory. They did, however, manage to sign a landmark nuclear disarmament deal called the Agreed Framework, under which North Korea agreed to freeze and eventually dismantle its nuclear weapons program and a US-led coalition agreed to build two civilian nuclear reactors that could be used to generate electricity for the energy-starved country.

Pyongyang had no intention of abiding by this agreement either. Signing the deal was all about buying the Kim regime time to work on its program while maintaining the appearance of cooperating.

North Korea had developed a close relationship with Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan. In the 1990s, while North Koreans were dying of starvation and while Kim Jong Un was watching Jackie Chan movies in Switzerland, the regime was building a uranium-enrichment program. Uranium enrichment wasn’t technically covered under the Agreed Framework. And North Korea loves technicalities.

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North Korea’s Masters of Money

From The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un, by Anna Fifield (PublicAffairs, 2019), Kindle pp. 147-148:

Private property ownership is still technically illegal in North Korea, but that hasn’t stopped the emergence of a vibrant housing market. Sometimes people lease out the right to live in the apartments assigned to them by the state; at other times, masters of money sell the apartments they’ve been allocated in these new developments for substantial profits.

As a result, real estate prices have soared, with prices in Pyongyang increasing as much as tenfold. A decent two- or three-bedroom apartment in the capital costs up to $80,000, but a luxury three-bedroom apartment in a sought-after complex in central Pyongyang can fetch $180,000. It is an unimaginable sum in a country where the official government salary remains at about $4 a month.

Another reason for the real estate boom is the almost complete lack of a banking system. The masters of money can’t stash their cash in an interest-bearing account or investment fund, so they channel it into bricks and mortar.

Ri Jong Ho’s entrepreneurial good fortune began in the mid-’80s, when he began working for Office 39. By earning money for Kim Jong Il’s slush fund, he was enabling the Dear Leader to buy all that cognac and sushi. That made Ri an important person to the regime, and he lived a good life as a result.

His last job was in the Chinese port city of Dalian, not far from the border with North Korea, where he was the head of a branch of Taehung, a North Korean trading company involved in shipping, coal and seafood exports, and oil imports. He had previously been president of a ship-trading company and chairman of Korea Kumgang Group, a company that formed a venture with Sam Pa, a [notorious] Chinese businessman, to start a taxi company in Pyongyang. Ri showed me a photo of him and Pa onboard a private jet to Pyongyang.

As head of the Dalian branch of the Taehung export business, Ri would send millions of dollars in profits—denominated in American dollars or Chinese yuan—to Pyongyang. In the first nine months of 2014, until his defection in October that year, Ri said he sent the equivalent of about $10 million to the regime. Despite all the sanctions, the US dollar is still the preferred currency for North Korean businessmen since it is easiest to convert and spend.

It didn’t matter that there were supposedly stringent international sanctions in place. Ri’s underlings simply handed a bag of cash to the captain of a ship leaving from Dalian to the North Korean port of Nampho or gave it to someone to take on the train across the border.

But Uncle Jang’s downfall at the end of 2013 spooked many masters of money, including Ri. He and his family escaped from Dalian to South Korea and then eventually to the United States.

He clearly made a tidy sum of money for himself on the sidelines of his official job. The family lived a comfortable life in the Virginia suburbs. But even in the United States, Ri was cagey about meeting me and careful about what he said. “There are so many other stories, but I can’t tell you all them. Do you understand?”

He gives occasional public speeches about the North Korean regime—and much more private advice to the American government—while his children work on their English and study to go to an American university. They want Ivy League or, failing that, Georgetown.

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North Korea’s Caste System

From The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un, by Anna Fifield (PublicAffairs, 2019), Kindle pp. 120-123:

Why, then, if so many North Koreans know about the outside world, and know that the regime is lying to them, has the system survived? The answer lies in the unparalleled brutality of the regime, which has no compunction in meting out severe punishments for the smallest hint of disaffection.

To enforce the lie that he’s the best man for the job, Kim Jong Un has perpetuated North Korea’s political caste system with zeal, rewarding those deemed most loyal to him and ruthlessly punishing those who dare question him.

This caste system is another legacy of his grandfather. When he was creating his ideal state, Kim Il Sung borrowed some of the feudal practices of the Chosun Dynasty, which had ruled Korea for five centuries until almost 1900. He adopted the Chosun-era system of guilt by association. It is this system that, even now, can lead to three generations of an entire family being imprisoned, sometimes for life, for one person’s wrongdoing.

He also stole the discriminatory class system called songbun from the Chosun era, dividing North Korea into fifty-one different categories that fall into three broad classes: loyal, wavering, and hostile.

To this day, in Kim Jong Un’s North Korea, the loyal are given every advantage. They are the 10 to 15 percent of the population who are considered the most politically committed to the system and have the most interest in it continuing. They get to live in Pyongyang and receive better schooling, including the possibility of attending Kim II Sung University. They are set up for plum jobs and have a head start on Workers’ Party membership. The loyal caste live in better apartments, wear better clothes, eat better and more food, and are more likely to be able to visit a doctor who actually has medicine.

At the bottom are the hostiles: the Japanese collaborators, the Christians, the skeptics. They comprise about 40 percent of the population and are generally banished to the inhospitable mountains of the north, where winters are unbearable and food is scarce even by North Korean standards.

These “undesirables” have no social mobility and no hope of advancement. Their lives revolve around a collective farm or factory—an assignment that, for the last few decades, has meant fending for themselves.

In between the loyal and the hostile is the wavering class, the ordinary people who make up about half the North Korean population. They exist in a kind of limbo. They have no chance of going to college or having a professional job, but if they’re lucky, they might secure a good assignment during their military service that will help them work their way to a slightly better standard of living.

Someone born with bad songbun has no hope of moving up the social hierarchy. The upper levels, however, can plummet all the way to the bottom if they put a foot wrong. Through this system, and the constant threat of being demoted down the classes, Kim Jong Un has been able to maintain power.

If you’re a member of the loyal class—living in Pyongyang and able to earn some money on the side of your ministry job to send your children to university—you would think twice before openly questioning whether the leader could really drive a car at age five or criticizing the decision to spend millions on nuclear weapons instead of on hospitals and schools. There is always someone to keep an eye on you and report if you’re not sufficiently devoted to the regime. At the grassroots level, it starts with the inminban, literally “people’s group,” a kind of neighborhood watch system. Each neighborhood is broken down into groups of thirty or forty households, with a leader who is always an interfering middle-aged woman. It is her job to keep an eye on what people in her assigned households are up to. North Koreans like to say that the leader of their neighborhood group is supposed to know how many chopsticks and how many spoons each house has.

She is responsible for registering overnight visitors—in North Korea, a person can’t stay at a friend or relative’s house without notifying the authorities—and often, together with the local police, conducts dead-of-night raids to ensure there are no forbidden guests or that residents like Man-bok or Jung-a are not watching South Korean movies. She inspects everyone’s state-issued radio to make sure they haven’t tuned it to anything other than the state station. She checks cell phones to make sure they don’t contain unauthorized music or photos from the outside world.

She also encourages neighbors to report on one another. If a family is thought to be eating white rice and meat suspiciously often, people might wonder how they’re making their money.

North Koreans live in a system where every aspect of their lives is monitored, where every infraction is recorded, where the smallest deviation from the system will result in punishment. It is ubiquitous, and it keeps many people from even raising an eyebrow at the regime. The neighborhood leader needs to report transgressions in order to stay in good stead with the higher authorities, especially the two main security agencies.

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North Korea’s Market Economy

From The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un, by Anna Fifield (PublicAffairs, 2019), Kindle pp. 100-101:

Chinese-style reform and opening—allowing information to flow in at the same time as loosening up on the economic controls—was not an option for Kim. Allowing the population to have access to the truth would mean they would also see that the Great Successor was, in fact, not so great. But small economic “improvements”—North Korea doesn’t call them “reforms” because that implies there’s something wrong with the system—pose relatively little risk.

Instead, he allowed the markets, called “jangmadang,” to blossom.

From the smallest of towns to the biggest of cities, there’s at least one bustling marketplace. Across the country, these markets have become the center of daily life. They are overwhelmingly run by women, who, once married, are no longer required to work in state jobs. So while their husbands go off to coal mines without electricity or hospitals without medicine, the women make proper money.

People with permission—or with enough money to buy permission—to travel to China cross the Tumen River and bring back rice cookers, high-heeled shoes, solar panels, deworming tablets, colorful shirts, cell phone cases, and screwdrivers. Sometimes they bring literal kitchen sinks. About 80 percent of the products in North Korea’s markets are made in China.

Those who can’t travel set up shop as hairdressers or bike repairers, open restaurants, or sell homemade sweets. Some entrepreneurial types make money by renting out their cell phones for calls to South Korea or their apartments to couples wanting some privacy.

These markets have become the biggest agent for change that North Korea has ever experienced. People across the country have seen their living standards improve—just as Kim Jong Un promised. Maybe things didn’t improve as much as many citizens, such as Mr. Hong, wanted, but they’re still heading in a positive direction. There is now a middle class in North Korea.

There are now more than four hundred government-approved markets in North Korea, double the number that existed when Kim Jong Un took over the country. The city of Chongjin alone has about twenty. The markets in Sinuiju and the “smugglers’ village” of Hyesan, both close to the border with China, as well as those in the port city of Haeju, have all grown rapidly and visibly in recent years. Satellite images show new markets popping up all over North Korea and old markets moving into bigger, newer buildings.

With an average of fifteen hundred stalls in a market, there is stiff competition to secure a prime spot. A good stall in a prominent place in Hyesan was going for about $700 in 2015—an astronomical sum in North Korea. But there is so much demand for stalls that even these expensive slots are being snapped up as soon as they become available.

At every turn, there is someone seeking to make money from the markets. The security services extract bribes from those seeking to cross the river into China. The supposedly communist authorities have embraced the decidedly capitalist concept of tax. People running stalls in the markets must now pay 10 percent of the value of their sales to the market management office. South Korean researchers estimate that the authorities rake in about $15 million a day in stall rental fees from merchants, while other estimates suggest the state can earn almost a quarter of a million dollars in a single day by levying taxes on stall owners.

Each market is run by a manager, someone who is almost always a man and who is well connected with local bureaucrats. This is a powerful role that comes with the opportunity to make a lot of money—and, of course, an obligation to pay kickbacks to higher-ups who put them in the job.

As the state economy has failed, with industry grinding to a halt thanks to a lack of electricity or raw goods, the markets have become the lifeblood of North Korea.

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The Great Successor’s Titles

From The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un, by Anna Fifield (PublicAffairs, 2019), Kindle pp. 87-88:

Kim Jong Il had declared a three-year mourning period after the death of his father, during which time he consolidated his grip on the regime and tried to hang on through the famine.

But the Great Successor didn’t have any downtime. The man now known as the “Beloved and Respected” Comrade Kim Jong Un got busy “turning sorrow into strength,” as newsreader Ri put it. From that moment on, he devoted all his time and energy to staying in power. For that, he needed to establish his own power base, one that owed its loyalty directly to him, not to his father.

It was easy to make fun of the new young leader, and he would soon become the butt of many a joke in the outside world. For starters, there was his cartoonish appearance, with his idiosyncratic fade haircut, his rapidly expanding girth, and his penchant for attire that is fashionable only in Communist holdover states.

Kim Jong Un gave himself a vast array of elongated titles—he had soon collected hundreds of appellations of varying degrees of obsequiousness. Some were standard Communist fare like First Secretary of the Workers’ Party. (He posthumously made his father General Secretary for eternity.) Others were standard but even more obviously undeserved, like chairman of the party’s central military commission and first chairman of the National Defense Commission.

But some were pure hyperbole, like Invincible and Triumphant General. He was the Guardian of Justice, the Best Incarnation of Love, the Decisive and Magnanimous Leader. And there were many with suns: the Guiding Ray of Sun, the Sun of the Revolution, the Sun of Socialism, the Bright Sun of the Twenty-First Century, and the Sun of Mankind. There was no honorific too superlative for the new leader.

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Revealing the Successor to Kim Jong Il

From The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un, by Anna Fifield (PublicAffairs, 2019), Kindle pp. 63-64:

BACK HOME, KIM JONG UN PREPARED TO JOIN HIS OLDER brother at Kim Il Sung Military University, North Korea’s equivalent of West Point. It was their mother’s idea to send them to the military academy, a way to bolster her sons’ claims to succession.

His mother’s ambitions were evident. One of the few photos of them together shows her leaning over the boy she called the Morning Star King as he colored. He is about six years old and dressed in a general’s uniform with four stars on his shoulders.

Kim Jong Un had entered the university named after his grandfather in 2002 and began studying juche-oriented military leadership, the idea that North Korea could act alone to defend itself. It was an important ideological lesson even if it had no basis in reality. North Korea was entirely dependent on China for its stability.

That year was pivotal both for the heir apparent and for the regime.

First, it marked a new chapter for relations between North Korea and the United States—for the worse. At the start of 2002, President George W. Bush labeled North Korea part of an “axis of evil.” Bush declared that, together with Iran and Iraq, North Korea was “arming to threaten the peace of the world.… All nations should know: America will do what is necessary to ensure our nation’s security.”

Just a couple of weeks after that speech, Kim Jong Il officially turned sixty. His birthday was always celebrated with great fanfare in North Korea, but this one was even more important than usual. In Korean culture, a man’s sixtieth is a major milestone. It marks the completion of one sixty-year cycle of the Chinese Zodiac observed in many Asian countries.

In the meantime, Kim Jong Il’s one-time consort, and the mother of Kim Jong Nam, died in Moscow that year. Between that and his milestone birthday, Kim Jong Il’s mortality was clearly on his mind. There were signs of nascent preparation for succession.

For starters, there was a new “mother of the nation,” a name previously reserved for Kim Jong Il’s mother, in the propaganda. The Korean People’s Army issued a sixteen-page pamphlet that year called “Our Respected Mother Who Is Loyal to Our Beloved Supreme Commander Is the Most Loyal among Loyalists.” Songs about “Our Respected Mother” soon began to echo across the North Korean airwaves.

These did not explicitly name Ko Yong Hui, but the cadres could read between the lines and see it was her. She elevated to become the next mother of the nation, an early indication that one of her sons was next in line for the leadership.

So efforts to crown one of her sons were well underway even before Kim Jong Nam’s ill-fated trip to Tokyo Disney, although Ko took advantage of his embarrassing gaffe to push her sons’ case.

Ko Yong Hui knew that she did not have long to lobby for her sons. She was losing her fight against breast cancer.

Kim Jong Un, meanwhile, was throwing himself into his studies at the academy, according to official North Korean accounts. The young man was such a natural at military strategy that he was instructing the instructors rather than learning from them, the state media reported.

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Kim Jong Un’s Tiger Mom

From The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un, by Anna Fifield (PublicAffairs, 2019), Kindle pp. 50-52:

The apartment on Kirchstrasse was more modest than what he was used to back home, but Kim Jong Un could live a relatively normal existence there. And he could devote himself to his favorite pastime: basketball. It was his mother who first sparked his interest in the sport. There’s an old tale that Korean mothers, North and South, like to tell their children: if you play basketball, you’ll grow taller.

Kim Jong Un was short as a child, and his father was not a tall man—he was only five foot three, and famously wore platform shoes to try to compensate—so Ko Yong Hui encouraged her son to play basketball in the hope the tale was true. He grew to be five foot seven, so maybe it worked a bit.

She was thrilled to see her son taking to basketball, a sport that she believed would help him clear his mind and loosen his childhood obsession with planes and engines. Instead, Kim Jong Un’s mother and aunt soon saw that basketball had become an addiction too—the boy was sleeping with his basketball in his bed—and one that came at the expense of his studies. His mother would visit Bern regularly to scold her son for playing too much and studying too little.

She arrived on a passport that declared her to be Chong Il Son, assigned to the North Korean mission at the United Nations in Geneva since 1987, but the Swiss knew exactly who she was. After all, she arrived in the country in a Russian-made Ilyushin 62 jet bearing the insignia of Air Koryo, the North Korean state airline. The plane, which bore the tail number P882, was for VIPs only. It even had a full bedroom onboard.

All sorts of bags and merchandise would be loaded on and off the plane, watched carefully by Swiss intelligence. They monitored Ko Yong Hui closely, keeping records of everything from her shopping expeditions on Zurich’s Bahnhofstrasse, one of the world’s most exclusive shopping avenues, to her hospital bills at fancy private clinics on Lake Geneva.

They also knew who her children were. They called Kim Jong Chol “the tall, skinny one” and Kim Jong Un “the short, fat one.” But the new Swiss attorney general, Carla Del Ponte (who would later become chief prosecutor in the international criminal tribunals on Yugoslavia and Rwanda), had forbidden the Swiss authorities to monitor the children. In famously discreet Switzerland, they were allowed to just be children—even if they were the children of one of the world’s most notorious tyrants.

When Kim’s mother arrived in Bern, she would bring handwritten notebooks containing one thousand Chinese characters, which form the basis of most Korean words, that she had made and photocopied so the children could keep up with their language skills. She told her sons that they had to memorize five or six pages a day, the kind of homework that torments Korean children the world over.

She was what we today would call a tiger mother, pouring a lot of energy into her children’s education and going through their journals and homework no matter how late she returned to the apartment at night.

But Kim Jong Un had other priorities.

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Building the Transition to Kim Jong Il

From The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un, by Anna Fifield (PublicAffairs, 2019), Kindle pp. 24-25:

In 1983, Kim Jong Il made his first known foreign trip without his father, a visit to factories in emerging China. The visit, one of a handful the Dear Leader made over the years, was part of Beijing’s efforts to encourage North Korea to embark on a journey of economic transformation without democratizing, just as China had done.

“Through tireless revolutionary activities spanning over 30 years, he ushered in a new era of prosperity,” according to an official North Korean history of Kim Jong Il’s life that was published soon after he became leader.

But the reticent Kim Jong Il could hardly have been more different from his gregarious father. Kim Il Sung was lionized as a fearless guerilla fighter who led the charge against the imperialist Japanese. Kim Jong Il had next to no military experience. He was a film lover, a heavy-drinking playboy with a bouffant hairdo whose main contribution to the state was the movies he directed.

Still, in 1991, he was pronounced Supreme Commander of the Korean People’s Army. It was hardly an auspicious time to cement the succession. The Berlin Wall had come down. Just two days after his promotion, the Soviet Union collapsed. The Communist Bloc that had supported the North Korean regime, both economically and ideologically, was no more.

To bolster the case for hereditary succession in these challenging circumstances, the regime created a fantastical story about Kim Jong Il’s provenance that borrowed heavily from both Korean mythology and Christianity. He would be leader not simply because he had been appointed by his father but because he had some divine right.

His birthplace became not a guerrilla camp in Khabarovsk but Mount Paektu, the volcano on North Korea’s border with China that has legendary status in Korean culture. It is said to be the birthplace of Tangun, the mythical half-bear, half-deity father of the Korean people. The creature conferred a heavenly origin on the Korean people, and, thanks to this story, Kim Jong Il appeared to come from heaven too.

North Korea’s propagandists didn’t stop there. They said that Kim Jong Il was born in a wooden cabin and that a single bright star shone in the sky at his birth. They stopped short of making the building a manger or his mother a virgin. But, for good measure, they added a double rainbow spontaneously appearing over the mountain. The myth of the holy Paektu bloodline was created.

Kim Jong Il had been busy perpetuating that Paektu bloodline over the previous two decades. He had racked up quite a cast of wives and consorts—and children.

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What Aid to Afghanistan Bought

From No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War through Afghan Eyes, by Anand Gopal (Henry Holt, 2014), Kindle pp. 271-274:

Not long after, I returned to Afghanistan. President Obama’s plan to withdraw US troops was well under way, with bases closing and equipment being destroyed. Could the war’s true winners be found in what we were leaving behind? I traveled through Uruzgan, and on the KandaharTirin Kot highway I could see Matiullah’s men everywhere, as they had been during my last visit. But the road north of Tirin Kot, heading into Ghilzai country, was now dotted here and there with new militia outposts not adorned with Matiullah’s photo or the Afghan flag. I stopped at one, a small wooden trellis with a canopy of leaves as cover, and met the fighters. They were under the control of a local strongman, who was being paid by a private company to protect a road construction project. Every mile or so I came upon another such militia, each run by a different strongman.

Later, I arrived at the home of Daud Khan, a leader of the local Barakzai tribe and one of the key militia commanders in the province, perhaps second only to Matiullah himself. He was heavily invested in protecting road construction crews against Taliban attacks, and the impending US withdrawal was hurting his business prospects. “We need money,” he told me. “We need money because life is hard out here. We’ve got a lot of expenses—I need weapons, RPGs, trucks, we want body armor. I keep asking the Americans for body armor but they won’t give it to me. They expect us to fight with nothing.”

I asked him if he had gotten into firefights with the Taliban recently. He clasped his hands together and laughed. “The Taliban? My mother can fight the Taliban. They just put bombs in the ground. They won’t be a problem after the Americans leave.”

Then why the need for all the weapons?

“Matiullah,” he said. “He’s worse than the Taliban. After the Americans leave, we’ll need to protect ourselves.” Tirin Kot was now caught in a cold war between Daud Khan’s and Matiullah’s forces. By my count there were more than thirty pro-American armed groups operating in central Uruzgan alone, some aligned with Matiullah, some against.

Later that afternoon I visited Daud’s uncle, a militia commander named Shah Muhammad. We sat in a field overlooking his poppy plantation, surrounded by nearly a dozen fighters. “There’s something I want to tell you,” he said, looking at me keenly. “There’s only one force that can save Afghanistan. The Americans. And I want you to know how much I despise the Taliban. Even if my father was a Talib, I’d kill him.” He shifted to sit next to me, nearly whispering in my ear. “I’m in trouble. You’re an American. I need your help. I want to fight the Taliban, I just need contracts. If the Americans give me some contracts, I can bring security. I can turn this war around. I just need money.” He begged me to pass on the message to politicians in Washington.

Such jockeying for patronage was nothing new. From its earliest days, the Karzai government was tethered to American aid, incapable of surviving on its own. It was reminiscent of the Communist regime of the 1980s, which lived and died by Moscow’s patronage—except that now there was a twist. Of the $557 billion that Washington spent in Afghanistan between 2001 and 2011, only 5.4 percent went to development or governance. The rest was mostly military expenditure, a significant chunk of which ended up in the coffers of regional strongmen like Jan Muhammad [Khan]. In other words, while the United States paid nominal amounts to build the Afghan state, it fostered a stronger and more influential network of power outside the state.

These were no conditions for nation building. Instead, as journalist Matthieu Aikins has pointed out, a weak Karzai administration found itself competing with strongmen of the countryside for funds. With warlords like JMK developing their own business and patronage relationships with the United States, the tottering government in Kabul had no choice but to enter the game itself. As a result, the state became criminalized, one of the most corrupt in the world, as thoroughly depraved as the warlords it sought to outflank. So corrupt, in fact, that nearly every metric that US or Afghan officials pressed into service to show progress unravels upon inspection. “Under Taliban rule, only 1.2 million students were enrolled in schools, with less than 50,000 of them girls,” a US forces press release stated in 2011. “Today, under the government of Afghanistan, there are 8.2 million students, of which nearly 40 percent—or 3.2 million—are girls.” But these were largely phantom figures. In the central province of Ghor, for instance, independent investigators discovered that of the 740 schools listed by the education ministry, 80 percent were “not operating at all.” Nonetheless, over four thousand teachers were on the government payroll. The vast majority of them, investigators found, simply collected paychecks and stayed at home, giving a cut to local officials, who in turn funneled a portion to warlords as a way to purchase influence. The story was similar around the country. Traveling through Wardak Province, I came upon one long-abandoned school after another that was still included on the much-touted government tally.

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Wardak No-Man’s-Land, 2009

From No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War through Afghan Eyes, by Anand Gopal (Henry Holt, 2014), Kindle pp. 235-236:

The summer of 2009 saw an increase in infighting among Wardak’s Taliban, and growing tensions with their co-insurgent allies in Hekmatyar’s faction. At the same time, because the Taliban leadership paid units a “bonus” for outstanding attacks, the number of fake assaults, staged for video, surged. Akbar Gul played the game as well as anyone, but as the days went on he slid into despair. He hated those men in Quetta, he hated the ISI, and, most of all, he hated Ghulam Ali and his success. But he kept it all to himself. It was a dangerous new world, and you couldn’t trust anyone, even your own allies.

Countrywide, his movement was losing steam. The Taliban were now responsible for more civilian deaths than were the Americans. In some communities, roadside bombs, assassinations, and summary executions had come to take their place alongside Guantanamo and the door-kicking night raids of US troops in the pantheon of fears that kept villagers awake at night. Meanwhile, the insurgency was spreading from marginalized, cut-off communities into those that had fared better in the post-2001 years, whether it was welcome there or not.

In Chak, many of the commanders Akbar Gul knew had been killed in night raids, leaving Ghulam Ali’s crew and a smattering of independents, most younger than he, with no memories of the old Taliban days. It became increasingly difficult to defend their actions—which included, in one case, beheading a schoolteacher—to the village elders. He turned inward, planning operations on his own, without other commanders, and keeping away from Pakistan. Then, one day, he received a surprising phone call. It was the government’s new chief of police for Chak, an old war buddy from his Hizb-i-Islami days. They had ended up on opposite sides through chance more than anything else. The man spoke of a government program that invited fighters to switch sides in return for money and a guaranteed job. Akbar Gul listened and wondered where such a program had been years earlier, when he would have given anything for a normal life. But things were different now, more complicated. He realized that it had been a long while since the Taliban meant anything to him. But he couldn’t imagine himself openly joining forces with the government either. In fact, he knew that friends who’d gone down that route were languishing in a dangerous political no-man’s-land: Karzai’s government had not fulfilled its promises, and for the Taliban they were now marked men.

“What are you fighting for? The Americans are going to leave anyway,” the police chief said. “We are building Afghanistan.” The Taliban, he added, were terrorists, enemies of the country, stooges of Pakistan.

Akbar Gul was unmoved. “There are no good men among the living, and no bad ones among the dead,” he replied, reiterating one of his favorite Pashtun proverbs. This war had left no group, Afghan or foreign, with clean hands. You had to be careful to survive. Today, the government said the Taliban were terrorists—but what about tomorrow? Would the Taliban be venerated, as the mujahedeen were now venerated? Would the Americans change their allegiances, as it seemed they had done after the 1980s, and brand the Karzai government as their enemy? It was too much for Akbar Gul to grapple with just then. He knew only that to trust the categories put forth by the Americans or the government was to go down the road to ruin.

He told the police chief that he wasn’t interested. He said he was satisfied with his life as it was, thanked him for his call, and hung up.

The next morning, with new presidential elections looming, with American patrols crawling here and there, with Taliban groups erecting their usual checkpoints to hunt for spies and possible kidnap targets, he hopped on his motorcycle, headed for the low hills behind the village, and began another day of [resistance] work.

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