By - Oct 1st, 2004 02:52 pm
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By Paul McLeary

“Our Nation is standing with the people of Afghanistan and Iraq, because when America gives its word, America must keep its word. As importantly, we are serving a vital and historic cause that will make our country safer.”

“Since 2001, Americans have been given hills to climb, and found the strength to climb them. Now, because we have made the hard journey, we can see the valley below. Now, because we have faced challenges with resolve, we have historic goals within our reach, and greatness in our future.”

“Our allies also know the historic importance of our work. About 40 nations stand beside us in Afghanistan, and some 30 in Iraq.”Above from Bush from RNC

“Afghanistan is free and moving forward.”Donald RumsfeldDoD New Briefing, Jan 06, 2004

“The job in Afghanistan is only half done and will be no easier in the year ahead.”Kofi AnnanUnited Nations Secretary-GeneralUN Press Conference, Dec 18, 2003

While we are all familiar with the debacle that has become the occupation of Iraq the original salvo in the war on terrorism, Afghanistan, has faded well into the background over the past year and a half. The quick, relatively bloodless victory in Afghanistan was supposed to be a shining example of everything that is right with the American military machine. In targeted, lightning strikes, less than 10,000 American troops defeated the Taliban and scattered al Qaeda’s leadership across the mountainous border region with Pakistan, and for a time, we seemed poised to capture Osama bin Laden and his Taliban host, Mullah Omar. The United States had been sucker punched on 9/11 but had quickly identified its enemy and through tough, decisive action, was poised to bring him to justice. By the end of 2001, we had scored a major victory in the war on terrorism while the world stood with us in our grief, sending military and civilian aid to help in the reconstruction of the country we had recently vanquished, and indeed, liberated.

The Administration fiddles while Afghanistan burns.But by the end of 2002, the world had become a very different place. More than 200,000 members of the U.S. armed forces were beginning to muster near Iraq as massive anti-war protests were flaming up across Europe. The Bush administration, through a startling mix of macho rhetoric, policy failures and simple ham-fisted diplomacy, managed to alienate and insult many of our former allies, squandering the emotional capital we amassed after the 9/11 attacks.

In the confusion over where best to fight the terrorist threat and the administration’s willful obfuscation of who our real enemies are, the issue of truly securing and rebuilding Afghanistan became lost in the heated debate over Iraq’s non-existent chemical weapons stockpiles and phantom nuclear capabilities. While the world argued over weapons inspections in Iraq, the Bush administration, as well as the American public, quickly forgot about the tenuous situation in Afghanistan, and as the president fiddled with faulty intelligence, Afghanistan continued to burn.

As James Fallows says in his scathing critique of the Bush administration’s failure to properly secure Afghanistan in the latest Atlantic Monthly, “The first front in the war on terror, Afghanistan, was left to fester, as attention and money were drained toward Iraq. This in turn left more havens in Afghanistan in which terrorist groups could reconstitute themselves; a resurgent opium-poppy economy to finance them; and more of the disorder and brutality the United States had hoped to eliminate. Whether or not the strong international alliance that began the assault on the Taliban might have brought real order to Afghanistan is impossible to say. It never had the chance, because America’s premature withdrawal soon fractured the alliance and curtailed postwar reconstruction. Indeed, the campaign in Afghanistan was warped and limited from the start, by a pre-existing desire to save troops for Iraq.”

A deteriorating situation.Although it has been almost three years since the Taliban was defeated by U.S. and Northern Alliance forces, any sober assessment of the situation on the ground finds that the group still maintains a foothold throughout the Afghani countryside, and the country continues to provide safe haven for members of al Qaeda. More than 20,000 American troops and some 6,500 international forces continue to be deployed in the country, mostly near the capital of Kabul and the mountainous Pakistani border region, hunting for bin Laden and Omar. Despite the military presence, Karzai is reduced to being little more than the mayor of Kabul, as heavily armed militias and small groups of Taliban fighters effectively control the area outside of the capital.

And in spite of the rosy picture painted by the administration of upcoming free elections and a beardless, burka-free population going about their business unchained from the repressive yoke of the Taliban and al Qaeda, the facts on the ground are quite different. A report issued by the United Nations Development Program in April of this year found that the country faces the danger of once again becoming a “terrorist breeding ground” if the amount of development aid being pored into the country isn’t significantly increased.

But just how bad is the situation? The UK Independent has recently reported that a group of MPs from the UK’s Foreign Affairs Committee returned from a visit to Afghanistan “shocked and alarmed” by what they saw on the ground. “They warn that urgent action must be taken to save Afghanistan from plunging further into chaos because of Western neglect.” As if to underscore this point, the deputy governor of the province of Zabul recently admitted that most of his province has fallen into Taliban hands, while other officials report that the same situation in neighboring Oruzgan, while about half the territory in Kandahar has been divided between the Taliban and competing warlords, effectively removing it from government control.

While the people of Afghanistan are undoubtedly better off now that the Taliban has been scattered, the effect on the population at large has been scattershot at best, and largely confined to Kabul.

It only gets worse.A major problem in the reconstruction efforts currently floundering in Afghanistan are the increasing number of attacks on aid groups by Taliban fighters and militias, causing many international aid organizations to either pull out or curtail their activities. Just as in Iraq, these attacks appear to be well-coordinated and conducted with a specific goal in mind: namely to drive American allies from the region. Specifically, the Taliban and the militia of its new warlord ally Gulbuddin Hikmatayar have started to target United Nations workers organizing the upcoming October elections, and over the last few months dozens have been murdered. Most famously perhaps was the June, 2004 attack on a group of aid workers from the international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders, in which five of its workers were killed in an ambush that the Taliban claimed credit. Soon after, the organization, which has operated in the country for 24 years – including during the Soviet occupation and the Taliban’s rule – announced the closure of all its medical programs in Afghanistan because it could no longer offer them a reasonable expectation of security. Since 2003, more than 50 other humanitarian workers have been killed in ambushes and assassinations across the country.

Even the streets of Kabul aren’t necessarily safe. In June, two aid workers, one of them Swiss, were stoned to death in the capital.  Just this past month, a group of 34 aid organizations held a press conference in Kabul to announce to an uninterested world that they were increasingly being targeted by militant attacks across the country. They also complained about the blurring lines between military and aid operations, pointing to a widely distributed U.S. leaflet which said that the villagers would have to provide information about the Taliban and al Qaeda if they wanted aid deliveries to continue. As an American Lieutenant told the New York Times in March, “The more they help us find the bad guys, the more good stuff they get.” So much for the president’s compassionate conservatism.

The election promise (vote early, vote often).Sadly, there is little doubt that the most extensive coverage the Afghanistan occupation has received since the invasion of Iraq occurred when former NFL player Pat Tillman was killed in action in April 2004. All told, over 130 Americans have been killed in combat in Afghanistan. But as in Iraq, a majority of the deaths occurred after Rumsfeld and the president declared an end to major fighting in May 2003.

While the American press corps lulls the nation to sleep with exhaustive commentary over typewriter fonts, the claims of discredited veterans groups and what may or may not count as a “dishonorable discharge,” a rather momentous event is shaping up in Afghanistan, largely out of the eye of the western media. The country is set to hold its first post-Taliban national election on October 9. The election has already been delayed twice due to the growing instability in the country and the repeated killings of election workers by Taliban insurgents, but word has come down that this time the election will come off despite any disruptions, putting a feather in the cap of a man running for office in our own country just a month later.

As president Bush announced in his convention speech in September, “In Afghanistan, terrorists have done everything they can to intimidate people – yet more than 10 million citizens have registered to vote in the October presidential election – a resounding endorsement of democracy.” Indeed, registering over 10 million people to vote in a country with an estimated population of 9.5 million is quite an accomplishment. But more importantly, it calls into question the wisdom of going through with the election when voter fraud is virtually guaranteed. At the end of August, the BBC reported that in the Panjshir Valley, the number of registration cards that have been issued is two and a half times the estimated number of eligible voters in the region, and the inflated registration figures have already led two presidential candidates, Latif Pedram, leader of the Congress Mili Afghanistan Party and independent candidate, Ahmad Shah Amadzai to call for an investigation

According to the Toronto Star, many independent election observers claim that the required security, reconstruction and political stability needed for a fair election are lacking, but that the election is being hurried along with an eye more toward the U.S. domestic situation rather than the good of the Afghani people. Assem Akram, an Afghan historian and author based in Washington told the paper that “The United States wants, before the November elections, to showcase a victory of the Bush administration by proving it is possible to bring democracy to an Islamic Third World country.”

The forgotten have long memories.While we have essentially forgotten Afghanistan, they most surely have not forgotten us. And their view on where the U.S. really stands on terror differs from the administration’s stated position.

Laura Rozen, covers national security and foreign policy issues. She recently wrote, “A senior Afghani official recently explained to me the Bush administration is doing nothing about the massive resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He told me the neocons are ‘soft’ on the Taliban, Pakistan, and by extension, al Qaeda itself, because Pakistan is a natural threat to Iran, and the neocons are hard on Iran.

Perhaps the ultimate tragedy is that while it would have been a long and difficult fight, at least some of these problems could have been avoided. Had the Bush administration not invaded Iraq, more attention could have been paid to the country that housed Al Qaeda.  The question now, is not what do in Afghanistan, but how to avoid allowing it to once again slide into chaos and fundamentalist rule, re-creating, the very environment we are told it is our historical mission to defeat.


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