Afghanistan and Iraq, Five Years After 9/11

| Mon Sep. 11, 2006 3:01 PM EDT

Depressing news from two fronts in the "war on terror." Five years after 9/11, the situation in Afghanistan is deteriorating.

Since late 2001, the country of 25 million people has undergone an ambitious experiment, backed by international troops, expertise and aid, to bring modern democracy to an impoverished, deeply conservative Muslim society.

On some levels, there has been remarkable progress: presidential and parliamentary elections, a new constitution, a new national army and greater freedoms for women. In poor but stable communities such as Karabagh, halting social and economic gains have been made: a part-time nurse in a clinic, carpets in a school where students once crouched on concrete, a grape harvest that is approaching half the pre-Taliban crop.

But in the southern provinces that spawned the Taliban movement, open warfare has resumed after four years of relative quiet. Insurgents are battling NATO troops and employing suicide bombs. Thousands of villagers have fled their homes, to escape both insurgent violence and NATO airstrikes. Schools have shut down, and development projects have stopped.

At the same time, opium poppy cultivation, virtually wiped out by the Taliban, has soared to record levels, largely in the south. Nationwide it increased by 59 percent in the past year alone, according to new U.N. figures. Drug traffickers have formed protective alliances with the Islamic insurgents.

In Iraq, the US military has essentially given up on Anbar Province.

One Army officer summarized it as arguing that in Anbar province, "We haven't been defeated militarily but we have been defeated politically -- and that's where wars are won and lost." ...

Devlin reports that there are no functioning Iraqi government institutions in Anbar, leaving a vacuum that has been filled by the insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq, which has become the province's most significant political force, said the Army officer, who has read the report. Another person familiar with the report said it describes Anbar as beyond repair; a third said it concludes that the United States has lost in Anbar.

Devlin offers a series of reasons for the situation, including a lack of U.S. and Iraqi troops, a problem that has dogged commanders since the fall of Baghdad more than three years ago, said people who have read it. These people said he reported that not only are military operations facing a stalemate, unable to extend and sustain security beyond the perimeters of their bases, but also local governments in the province have collapsed and the weak central government has almost no presence.

And Moqtada al-Sadr is the indispensable man.

Once dismissed by Bush administration officials and U.S. generals as irrelevant to Iraq's future, Sadr is increasingly seen as a man who has the power to either implode Iraq or keep it together, even as his militia continues to defy the authority of the Iraqi government and its U.S. backers. As sectarian violence ravages Baghdad and other parts of the country, Sunni Muslims accuse Sadr's Mahdi Army of operating death squads under the mantle of Islam.

"There's not a military solution in my view to Moqtada al-Sadr," a senior coalition official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "We may be a bit uncomfortable with his position as a legitimate political figure, but he is a legitimate player." ...

Today, Sadr controls 30 seats in the Iraqi parliament and four ministries. All of Sadr's portfolios revolve around providing key services, such as health and transportation. They give him the ability to funnel resources to supportive constituents and boost his popular base.