KABUL – Editors' Note: Associated Press reporter Jason Straziuso spent more than three years in Afghanistan as AP's chief correspondent. This is his final report.
My closest Afghan friend held out his Taliban-era photo. A decade younger, he had a thick black beard that the oppressive regime forced men to grow.
My friend won't grow one again. He is already thinking about when to flee.
As generals, politicians and pundits in Washington debate the next best step for America's eight-year war in Afghanistan, the Taliban takes new territory by the day, despite the record 64,000 U.S. troops here.
I arrived in Afghanistan in spring 2006, just as violence began to explode. I leave after three years as the chief correspondent for The Associated Press, and never have things seemed so ominous. As one of America's top military analysts, Anthony Cordesman, says: The U.S. "is now decisively losing."
No one thinks Kabul will fall while American forces are here. But even top U.S. commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal's latest assessment says that without reversing insurgent momentum in the next 12 months, defeating the insurgency will no longer be possible.
The quiet truth whispered by soldiers in the field and aid workers in Kabul is that the Afghan government is noh, rising U.S. deaths — that it could be too late.
McChrystal knows the issue of civilian deaths caused by U.S. forces has turned many Afghans against the West. I witnessed my first such deaths in the summer of 2006, when I shadowed Lt. Will Felder and his platoon on a night-time helicopter invasion of Helmand province's Baghran valley.
Felder, a West Point graduate who left the Army in June after fulfilling his five-year commitment, battled in Helmand, Kandahar and Paktika provinces. He is frank about his time here.
"The things that we were able to accomplish tactically obviously were useless. You can pretty much point to every area we gained, to any sort of tactical success, and in the intervening years those areas have been lost and gained tactically many times," Felder told me from Atlanta, where he is a first-year law student.
"The only thing I can take away from it being successful is none of my soldiers got killed," he said.
It waas on Felder's mission in Baghran that I saw a B-1 bomber destroy a mud house that militants had overrun, killing an apparently innocent elderly couple inside.
"We moved into an area, secured it, at the loss of American lives and certainly Afghan lives, spending a great deal of money and making promises to civilians in the area," he said. "And then we left."
The U.S. was also slow to identify the Taliban comeback for what it was. A top U.S. military official in Kabul told me that for too many years the rising violence here was mistakenly seen as a rise in crime, the drug trade, and corruption. Instead, he said, it was the beginning of an insurgency against the government.
The Taliban's leaders, and their Al Qaeda partners in Pakistan, decided to make a stand, "to fight the West," the official said.
Now, the harsh social rules that Taliban imposed under their reign in the 1990s ha's ambassador to Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, recently told AP that McChrystal is trying his best to succeed, but that "at this stage it will be very difficult for him to change the direction" of the war.
"The more troops you bring the more troubles you will have here," said Kabulov, who knows from the experience of the Soviets, who were defeated bitterly in Afghanistan more than two decades ago.
My memories of Afghanistan will last forever: The kids chasing kites. Cringing every time a U.S. convoy passed, because of the threat of a bomb attack. Hearing bullets whiz over my head while in the field with troops. Seeing a rare woman driver. And seeing a little Afghan girl burned within an inch of her life by white phosphorus rescued by U.S. military doctors.
A best-case scenario for the country is that the U.S. and NATO train enough Afghan soldiers to protect the provincial capitals, and the U.S. maintains a small counter-terrorism force to watch over Al Qaeda and Pakistan. The wild hinterlands will be left for the Taliban.
But Zaeef believes the Taliban will rule again one day, though they may not be able to take Kabul by force. How long will America stay? As the Taliban likes to say: "The Americans have the watches, but the Taliban has the time."
That is why my Afghan friend has already decided he will sell his home and leave Afghanistan if the Taliban infiltrate Kabul. My friend survived one Taliban regime. He is now laying plans so he won't have to do it again.