Afghanistan: Nothing to Brag About

Bush touts Afghanistan as a U.S. foreign policy success. Has he taken a look lately?

| Tue Aug. 17, 2004 3:00 AM EDT

Never mind that Al Qaeda and Taliban are still operating in Afghanistan. Never mind that this weekend, 21 people were killed in clashes there after the forces of a warlord, Aminullah Khan, temporarily seized an airport in the Herat region. Or that Herat's governor, Ismail Khan, has shown little inclination to obey central authority. Never mind that the country is the world's #1 supplier of opium. Never mind that attacks on humanitarian workers have become so frequent that Doctors Without Borders -- who toughed it out during Taliban rule -- recently quit the country. For the Bush administration, what's important is that Afghanistan's presidential elections are set to take place on October 9th and that the U.S.-backed interim president Hamid Karzai will almost certainly be the winner. This is important, of course, because it is an election year in the United States as well.

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President Bush has been billing Afghanistan as a success story in his "war on terrorism" and he is getting some help from the military. Last week, NATO Supreme Allied Commander General James Jones shared this rosy view:

"In terms of radical Islamic fundamentalism, Al-Qaeda and [the] Taliban reasserting themselves in this country—it's over. And we ought to understand that and not dwell on the fact that there's an explosion here or there, or an isolated attack—we all know that in international communities when you have fragile governments that people are going to try to make their points in connection with a major event, like an election. But this is not going to topple the Karzai government, this is not going to prevent the election."

Jones is correct in one respect: the Karzai government will not be toppled, but this will be mainly because the Eurocorps—EU and NATO forces—and U.S. troops will keep it intact for the time being. What it doesn't mean is that either Al Qaeda or Taliban have been defeated in Afghanistan. Most of the high-level targets—including Osama bin Laden—on whose heads the U.S. has placed multi-million dollars rewards remain either in Afghanistan or across the border in Pakistan. Over the weekend, six of Afghanistan government's forces were killed in clashes with Taliban fighters. And with nearly 1,000 Afghan casualties and 100 U.S. soldiers killed, 2004 has so far proven to be the worst year for casualties since the end of military operations. Contrary to what Jones suggests, there are more than a few explosions and attacks "here and there."

Senior CIA analyst Michael Scheuer (aka Anonymous) argues in his recent book, Imperial Hubris, that the United States' decision to wait until October 2001 to begin its military operations—allowing Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters time to escape—is the "most important reason why al Qaeda emerged damaged but not broken from the first round of battles in Afghanistan." In short, the invasion was not the spectacular success portrayed at the time, a misguided if persistent notion. And of course, the US sent insufficient troops to complete the mission and was—and continues to be—extremely reluctant to engage in direct combat with Taliban and Al Qaeda forces. As Scheuer writes:

"Aside from sporadic, short-term ground operations meant to capture, not kill, al Qaeda and Taleban leaders, and infrequent air strikes—which have hit several weddings or social occasions instead of terrorists—al Qaeda and the Taleban have been under almost no military pressure in Afghanistan since March 2002…Only in summer 2003 did a new round of fighting start in the U.S.-Afghan war as the Taleban and al Qaeda—in league with the forces of the "old" mujahideen—increased attacks on U.S. bases, as well the convoys and patrols of U.S. forces and their Afghan allies. As events of recent months show, al Qaeda and its allies not only survived the wretchedly ill-conceived U.S. military campaign a waged against them, but have retained a strong presence in Afghanistan and seized the initiative."

Another problem for the U.S. is that the loyalties of the United States' supposed allies in Afghanistan are pretty shaky. Among the suspect friends is Afghanistan's Tajik defense minister Muhammad Qasim Fahim who Karzai recently announced will not be one of his vice-presidential running mates. Fahim responded by endorsing a rival presidential candidate: Yunus Qanooni, Afghanistan's education minister, who is also a Tajik. Given that Fahim has yet—like the vast majority of Afghanistan's warlords—to demobilize his militia, the US has more to worry about than the electoral competition Fahim's endorsement may provide to Washington's presidential pick. As Seymour Hersh writes in the New Yorker:

"Last year, the Bush Administration was privately given a memorandum by an Afghan official and American ally, warning that Fahim was working to undermine Karzai and would use his control over money from illegal businesses and customs revenue to do so. Fahim was also said to have recruited at least eighty thousand men into new militias.
The United States' continuing toleration of warlords such as Fahim and General Abdul Rashid Dostum—an alleged war criminal and gunrunner who, after being offered millions of dollars by Washington, helped defeat the Taliban in the fall of 2001—mystifies many who have long experience in Afghanistan. 'Fahim and Dostum are part of the problem, and not the solution,' said Milt Bearden, who ran the C.I.A.'s Afghan operations during the war with the Soviet Union. ‘These people have the clever gene and they can get us to do their fighting for them. They just lead us down the path,' Bearden said. 'How wonderful for them to have us knock off their opposition with American airplanes and Special Forces.' "

On his recent visit to Afghanistan, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld stated that there is a "master plan" in the works to root out the country's estimated $2.3 billion a year narcotics trade. As Rumsfeld argued, the U.S. needs to prevent this drug money from getting into the "hands of people who want to also simultaneously destroy democracy, or reinstitute a Taliban government or provide funds to al-Qaeda or whatever." Right as Rumsfeld is, it should be noted that the United States has undercut the success of that mission by turning a blind eye to the drug lords' booming trade in exchange for their half-hearted acceptance of Karzai. It is not difficult to see the drug lords switching loyalties once their livelihood is attacked.

True, the Karzai government—with all its faults—represents an advance over the Taliban; but its power extends hardly beyond Kabul. That almost 10 million people have been registered to vote in the presidential elections is laudable, but even Karzai has admitted that up to 100,000 of those were the result of individuals registering more than once.

With its drug lords and warlords, and the continued presence of Al Qaeda and Taliban, Afghanistan hardly qualifies as a success story in the "war on terrorism." Afghanistan, which was the Bush administration's first target in that war, has fewer troops and aid per capita than peace-keeping mission in Kosovo. Of course, the United States is not exclusively to blame for the troop shortage and the paltry aid distribution in Afghanistan—Europe can and should do more, but the Bush administration bears most of the responsibility for what went wrong in Afghanistan. It would be too much to expect this administration to admit to its mistakes in Afghanistan (or anywhere else), but the least it could do is to try and fix them, without resorting to premature—and purely political—triumphalism.

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