Another Pitstop in Kabul

Diverting attention away from Iraq, President Bush pays a surprise visit to Afghanistan.

| Thu Mar. 2, 2006 4:00 AM EST

Article created by the The Century Foundation.

President Bush’s first visit to Afghanistan came four years after September 11 and lasted less than five hours. The details are telling. That the president chose not to spend the night in Kabul or announce his visit—a prudent move considering reports that Taliban insurgents have portable surface-to-air missiles—tells as much about Afghanistan’s security situation as do Pentagon metrics of troops trained or insurgents killed.

That four years passed before the president visited Afghanistan suggests the extent to which the central front in the global war on terror after September 11 has been crowded to the margins. America has achieved much in Afghanistan, but much more could have been achieved if its attention had not shifted to Iraq. Starting with the transfer of special forces from operations against al Qaeda, Iraq has absorbed the lion’s share of resources. This trend is most recently manifest in the downsizing of Operation Enduring Freedom forces and the transfer of Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, the administration’s most able Afghan hand and a trusted confidant of President Karzai, to Iraq.

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Some skeptics have argued that the president’s visit was an attempt to shift attention from failures in Iraq to successes in Afghanistan. Afghanistan offers a respite from the al-Askariya violence at a time when the latest polls show half of Americans disapprove of the president’s performance on the war on terror, and when Iraq appears to be tearing at the seams.

It is no surprise, then, that the president focused on the positive. “We like stories of young girls going to school for the first time so they can realize their potential,” he told reporters during his visit. “We appreciate a free press. We are enthralled when we see an entrepreneurial class grow up where people are able to work and realize their dreams.”

Anecdotes can encourage, but they are no substitute for measured progress.

  • Girl’s education has shown mixed progress, with enrollment rates up in regions with good security but stagnant where security is a problem. Human Rights Watch is preparing a report on the subject next month and the early returns are not encouraging: parents, when forced to decide whether to send their girls several miles in uncertain condition to schools of questionable quality, often keep them home.

  • On press freedom, Freedom House notes that “ Afghanistan’s media continue to operate in a fragile setting.” The government maintains “broad restrictions on content” and retains a commission that can fine or imprison journalists, as several recent high-profile trials have shown. “Journalists continue to be threatened or harassed by government ministers, the intelligence service, militias, and others in positions of power,” the report notes, “and many practice self-censorship or avoid writing about sensitive issues such as Islam, national unity, or crimes committed by specific warlords.”

  • In terms of entrepreneurship, business is booming in Kabul as foreign aid and spending injects capital into the local economy. Yet development has not extended to most of the country. The most viable form of entrepreneurship is still in the narcotics sector, where, in one of the world’s most lucrative agricultural extension programs, traffickers extend high-interest microcredit to impoverished farmers. (Presumably this is not what the president had in mind.)

  • Discussing Afghanistan as if it were nothing but a success story is disingenuous. Mullah Omar, Osama bin Laden, and many leading Taliban and al Qaeda operatives remain at large. The Afghan government ranks among the world’s weakest and the Afghan people among its poorest. Militia commanders and narco-traffickers have entrenched their rule over large swaths of the country, with many gaining a toehold in government after September’s parliamentary elections. Even if donor support remains strong, the IMF forecasts that sustaining Afghanistan’s large professional army and its ambitious development program will require a doubling or tripling of the revenue to GDP ratio. While this sort of growth has been achieved before in some post-conflict countries, such as Rwanda and Uganda, it is a tall order in Afghanistan where revenue streams are controlled by militia commanders and tribal leaders.

    These issues cannot be solved without focused international engagement backed by sufficient resources. Yet the United States continues to spend 90 percent of its Afghanistan budget on military approaches while shortchanging programs in justice, governance, and development.

    At the recent donor conference, Condoleezza Rice pledged that “the United States is fully devoted to the long-term success of Afghanistan.” Let’s hope her words prove true. Afghanistan deserves more than a photo op.

    To find out more, see The Century Foundation's Afghanistan Watch project (www.afghanistanwatch.org).

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