Unfinished War

All eyes are on Iraq, but the situation in Afghanistan is declining, too.


Backers of a regional warlord overran a northern province in Afghanistan last week, giving vivid proof of Richard Clarke’s recent assertion that “The President of Afghanistan is just the mayor of Kabul.” The former terrorism adviser to the National Security Council, who has been blasting the Bush administration for bungling the fight against terrorism, warned that there would be consequences for stationing fewer soldiers to secure the rugged — and lawless — landscape of Afghanistan than there are police patrolling New York streets.

Clarke is charging that the U.S., distracted by Bush’s plan to wage war in Iraq, stormed in and out of Afghanistan leaving the war on terror there unfinished.

If one thing is clear about the tangled state of affairs in Afghanistan, it’s that one brutal set of problems has been traded for another. The Taliban’s draconian writ no longer runs, but lawlessness is the norm as drug traffickers, tribal groups, and terrorist clusters all vie to control a nation fragmented by decades of war.

Take, for example, the coup that ousted the governor of Faryab in the north of the country last Thursday. Afghan President Hamid Karzai, widely regarded as an honest but a weak leader, deployed 150 of his nation’s 700-man army to patrol the streets of Faryab, where the warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum took control last Thursday. Karzai called the actions of Dostum’s supporters “unconstitutional” but his authority has no more weight than his laws have teeth in a place where gangsters trafficking in drugs, emeralds, and women write their own rules. So far, the estimated $40 billion in aid and the presence of 13,500 U.S. soldiers — in addition to 5,000 NATO personnel — aren’t doing the trick either.

From the start of the post-9/11 campaign against terrorism Bush forecast a drawn-out, potentially unending battle. That hasn’t stopped him from taking credit for its success.

President Bush’s official biography on the White House Web site boasts, “Already, the United States military and a great coalition of nations have liberated the people of Afghanistan from the brutal Taliban regime and denied al Qaeda its safe haven of operations. Thousands of terrorists have been captured or killed and operations have been disrupted in many countries around the world.”

Now that chaos has broken out in post-war Iraq, Bush would like us to rest assured that at least Afghanistan is making peaceful progress toward a constitutional democracy.

Linda Bilmes, a former Clinton official, writes in South Africa’s Business Day:

The Bush administration simply cannot afford to have both Iraq and Afghanistan portrayed as quagmires – particularly given that it must go back to congress this year to request at least another $50bn to pay for them.

Given finite budgetary resources, the best political returns might now be had from betting a little more heavily on Afghanistan. The pay-off could be big. By capturing Osama bin Laden and ploughing enough money into the country to enable President Hamid Karzai to hold elections and assert some sort of democratic authority, it might just be possible to turn the war into a foreign policy success.

Yet so far, the Taliban remains strong in parts of Afghanistan, and drug-trading gangsters and jihadist thugs have the upper hand. A chorus of military, intelligence and aid experts have long been deriding the inadequate support given by the U.S. both for war-making and peacekeeping operations in Afghanistan. An exhaustive piece by Seymour Hersh in the New Yorker details the failure to secure peace in Afghanistan.

Part of the problem, say experts interviewed by Hersh, is that the U.S. plan has always been heavy on firepower but too light on brainpower and muscle. The war began there in October of 2001, but it took seven weeks later to back up air strikes with ground troops.

What was needed most were special operations forces engaging in counterinsurgency tactics, according to a 2002 report by retired Army Colonel Hy Rothstein. Instead:

“[T]he American military campaign left a power vacuum. The conditions under which the post-Taliban government came to power gave “warlordism, banditry and opium production a new lease on life.” He concluded, “Defeating an enemy on the battlefield and winning a war are rarely synonymous. Winning a war calls for more than defeating one’s enemy in battle.”

Even when Hamid Karzai was named president, “There was no agreement on establishing an international police force, no procedures for collecting taxes, no strategy for disarming either the many militias or individual Afghans, and no resolution with the Taliban.”

The PakTribune explains:

Important warlords, especially in northern Afghanistan, received U.S. funding and support during the war in 2001. The United States has continued to work with some of them in the fight against Al Qaeda in rural Afghanistan. At the same time, several warlords use narcotics trade to help maintain their control and fund their private militias. A number of them have grim records of human rights abuse and violence.

Scholar Barnett Rubin describes in Current History (subscription) how America’s attempts to combat terrorism resulted in “an Afghan government created at Bonn that rested on a power base of warlords.”

The Bush administration was quick to move from the war on terrorism in Afghanistan to deposing Saddam Hussein in Iraq, perhaps even before it launched military campaigns in either nation.

When Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz made a whirlwind trip to Afghanistan in January 2003 he proclaimed, “We’re clearly moving into a different phase, where our priority in Afghanistan is increasingly going to be stability and reconstruction. There’s no way to go too fast. Faster is better.”

More than a year later, the rush has produced dubious results. Osama Bin Laden is still likely at large, if not dead. The Taliban is thought to be as strong as it was before Coalition forces arrived. Not a shred of evidence has proved a Bin Laden-Hussein link. And Afghanistan still produces three-quarters of the world’s opium supply, and more than $2 billion in heroin trade.

Hersh details:

Most alarmingly, according to a U.N. survey, nearly seventy per cent of farmers intend to increase their poppy crops in 2004, most of them by more than half. Only a small percentage of farmers were planning any reduction, despite years of international pressure. Many of the areas that the U.N. report identified as likely to see increased production are in regions where the United States has a major military presence.

Despite such statistics, the American military has, for the most part, looked the other way, essentially because of the belief that the warlords can deliver the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

The standard of living remains abysmal for most Afghans–especially for women who may have more legal protections but are less safe on the streets. The goal in Afghanistan, after all, was to cut off at the roots the threat of further terror attacks against the United States–not necessarily to make the Central Asian nation any more liveable for its people. And if the United States didn’t try hard enough to ease daily life for people there, certainly the rogue groups within Afghanistan care even less.

Meanwhile, groups associated with warlords and terrorists have been making vicious attacks on U.N.-backed humanitarian relief organizations. At least 11 aid workers were murdered just last month, and attacks on them early this year nearly doubled the rate from 2003, according to CARE International. The group has been calling for more assistance from U.N. authorities, citing that there is only one peacekeeper per 5,555 Afghans compared with one for every 65 Bosnians or one per 68 Kosovars after military operations ceased in the Balkans. The U.S. reportedly spends nearly seven times more to prop up Bosnia and Kosovo than it does for Afghanistan.

What can ease the situation now?

The German paper Die Welt was hopeful that a donor conference held this month would help Afghanistan:

It is about the future of a whole people who have known nothing but war, displacement and inhumanity for one-and-a-half generations…Afghanistan can also serve as an example to the Arab and Islamic world.

To that end, the Berlin meeting of donors from 50 countries raised $4.4 billion to ease the transition to democracy and set up a “security belt” around the country. Yet Afghan elections scheduled for June were pushed to September in part because only 15 percent of potential voters are registered, and the constitution–the sixth since 1923–remains as fragile as Karzai’s authority.

An editorial in the Afghan newspaper Payam-e Mojahed even argued in March that the president illegally edited the constitution after its approval by the Loya Jirga tribal council:

The new constitution of the country has set criteria for the future presidential candidates of Afghanistan according to which Mr Karzai cannot be a candidate. One of the criteria for presidential candidates requires that they have never committed treachery. By modifying the text of the constitution, Mr Karzai committed a national treachery and cannot announce his candidacy according to the law.

Hersh explains that the Bush team will try to draw attention away from Iraq back to Afghanistan in time for the presidential race:

Afghanistan is regaining the Bush Administration’s attention, in part because the worsening situation in Iraq has increased the need for a foreign-policy success. State Department and intelligence officials who have worked in Kabul said that it is widely understood that Afghanistan’s Presidential and parliamentary elections, which had already been rescheduled, must be held before the American Presidential elections, on November 2nd. The upside to the political timetable has been a new commitment of American reconstruction funds-more than two billion dollars, a fourfold increase over the previous year-for schools, clinics, and road construction in Afghanistan.

In insisting on holding elections by the fall, the Administration is overriding the advice of many of its allies and continuing to bank heavily on Hamid Karzai.

Nonetheless, in interviews for this article, Hamid Karzai was consistently depicted by others as unsure of himself and totally dependent on the United States for security and finances.

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