Fiddling While Afghanistan Slides Away

Public attention is focused on Iraq, but a bitter war rages in Afghanistan as well. In mid-June, reported the Associated Press: “U.S. soldiers descended on a mountain ridge Sunday, quickly setting up fortified posts and mortar positions overlooking a key Taliban transport route as the coalition pressed a major offensive that has killed dozens of suspected militants. It was the first time in several years that soldiers from the U.S.-led military force have ventured into Baghran Valley in the northern part of Helmand province.”

Whether or not the American troops won this particular firefight, the fact they felt the need to venture into Baghran Valley was a defeat. The war in Afghanistan – which, unlike in Iraq, was justified, given the Taliban’s role in hosting al-Qaeda terrorist training camps – is not going well.

Even after the U.S. ousted the Taliban, it never fully pacified the country. Afghanistan is not an easy nation to conquer, of course, and the Bush administration was too anxious to get on with invading Iraq to give Afghanistan its full attention. Washington relied on surrogates on the ground, picked as president an attractive figure with no local political support, and passed off many issues to the Europeans and UN.

Nevertheless, for a while things looked good. The Taliban were vanquished and its soldiers were dispersed. Hamid Karzai, a man with impeccable fashion sense and, more important, a loyal following in the West, became president.

Elections were held and warlords were disarmed. Western development agencies proliferated and money was dispensed. A nation seemingly was being built.

Unfortunately, the good guys now seem to be losing ground at almost every turn. Most worrisome, the Taliban are on the move. Emmanuel Reinert, executive director of the Senlis Council in Great Britain, warns: “What we are witnessing for the past few months is a rise in the level of the attacks of the insurgents and the Taliban and a sophistication in the terror techniques used.” Indeed, urban areas have become dangerous, a new turn for Afghanistan even after years of war. The use of improvised explosive devices has spread from Iraq to Afghanistan.

But combat is heaviest in rural areas. In two weeks in June, 149 rebels were killed, the Karzai government announced, the largest number since the Taliban were ousted in late 2001. Over the last six weeks, the total Afghan dead on both sides ran about 600 – a level comparable to that of a decade or so ago, when the Taliban overcame assorted warlords to take power.

Reports London’s Daily Telegraph:

"Ordinary Afghans have no doubt that the Taliban virus is spreading. Members of the militia, which ruled almost the whole country for five years from 1996, have been reported just 25 miles from the capital, distributing letters by night that threaten death to those who help the government.

"Taliban attacks have taken place in the north near the border with Central Asia and in the west near Iran – hundreds of miles from the main battleground in the guerrillas’ southern heartland. A suicide car bomber in the western city of Herat killed an American security official in May and car bombs in Farah have claimed several lives."

The result is not just increased fighting, with the obvious consequences. The Taliban now effectively rule some areas, particularly in the south.

Reports The New York Times:

“The Taliban are running checkpoints on secondary roads and seizing control of remote district centers for a night or two before melting away again. In the most blatant symbol of their dominance of rural areas, the Taliban have even conducted trials under Islamic law, or Shariah, outside official Afghan courts, and recently carried out at least one public execution.”

Another symptoms of the Taliban advance is the destruction of schools that educate girls. This problem, too, is growing worse. Reports Newsweek:

“Most of the closures have been in the far south, where the Taliban are strongest, but schools are also getting hit in areas that used to be relatively safe, like the fertile river valleys of Laghman province.”

Opium production has boomed, turning Afghanistan into the world’s Drugs-R-Us. The Taliban once prohibited drug cultivation, but they now profit from the trade. However, cracking down on opium production has placed the Karzai government and coalition forces at odds with local warlords who are the most important barrier to a resurgence of the Taliban.

Both coalition and Afghan officials acknowledge that Islamist insurgents have made common cause with drug producers. The Senlis Council warns, “The local population has now come to identify international troops with eradication activities rather than with reconstruction efforts.” Indeed, there may be no better way to augment the Taliban’s military strength than by embarking on coercive eradication campaigns.

Moreover, the efforts have little effect. The administration recently highlighted a 21 percent reduction in opium cultivation in 2005. However, the impact on production was minimal and Afghans are now manufacturing heroin as well. The Washington Times observed that “Although the 2006 numbers have not been released, the report indicated an increase in opium-poppy planting, especially in southern regions.” British officials figure that the province of Helmand may yield twice its crop last year.

Although allied control of Kabul would seem near-complete, life is getting ugly even there. Bombings by Taliban infiltrators are disturbing enough. Worse, a traffic accident last month involving the U.S. military set off deadly rioting.

Observes Stewart Nusbaumer, a former U.S. Marine who edits InterventionMag.com, in The American Conservative: In no prior war “did protesters scream to kill American civilians. In none of these wars did I avoid public taxis for fear of being kidnapped.” Particularly disturbing is how the city’s atmosphere has changed, from “public optimism to military curfew in just one month,” Nusbaumer writes.

This should come as no surprise. Even though the Bush administration imagines that the rest of the world is anxiously waiting for Washington to send forth benevolent overseers, most people in most countries bridle at foreign rule. Enthusiasm for the allies has waned notably.

Jean MacKenzie, a journalist reporting from Afghanistan, writes that Afghans are frustrated by the slow rate of progress. Moreover, “after nearly five years, many throughout the country are becoming increasingly restive about what they consider a foreign ‘occupation,’ which is threatening their national culture and way of life.”

In fact, the Afghan government has never fully embodied Western values. Despite progress in comparison to governance by the Taliban, the equal status of women and other personal liberties which we take for granted in the West are only recognized in the breach. Extreme pressure from the allies was necessary to prevent Kabul from executing Abdul Rahman, the imprisoned Christian convert, earlier this year.

The problem was not errant officials in Kabul, but endemic Islamic hostility to non-Muslims. President Karzai’s decision to release Rahman generated outrage throughout the nation; crowds chanted “death to Christians.” The majority of Afghans may like democracy, but tolerance is not on their agenda.

In this climate, it is hardly surprising that outside investors are few. The economy subsists on foreign aid, which never does much to generate self-sustaining growth.

Even democracy is taking a hit. The Karzai government recently has been accused of acting arbitrarily and undemocratically. Moreover, reports The Daily Telegraph, “This month he has ordered two corrupt former governors in the south to rearm their illegal militias in order to fight the Taliban, rather than deploying the new conventional, foreign-trained military.”

The combination of corruption (said by President Karzai to be one of his nation’s biggest problems) and thuggishness with obvious impotence – the central government’s writ grows ever weaker as the distance from Kabul increases – has created popular cynicism. It is one thing to tolerate someone widely seen as a Western puppet (whether of the U.S., the UN, or the gaggle of aid agencies) if he produces security and prosperity.

But as the great promise of liberation gives way to pervasive disappointment and frustration, the regime steadily loses even its limited legitimacy. “All the promises of the Karzai government and the foreigners are rubbish,” complained a pharmacist in the south, where rebels are gaining ground, to the Economist. The growth of insecurity and crime are creating the same sort of conditions that originally enabled the Taliban to win popular support.

The result is some combination of acquiescence and support for the Taliban. Even Lt. Gen. W. Eikenberry, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, acknowledges: “It is all right in the city, but if you go outside the city, they are everywhere, and the people have to support them. They have no choice.”

Reinert has a more ominous interpretation. The local people, he explains, “now see the Taliban as acceptable. So actually the Taliban are about to win the battle for the hearts and minds of the local population.”

Reinert may be too pessimistic, but relations between the allies and Karzai are breaking down. Karzai has complained that the coalition has placed too few troops on the ground. He also has criticized allied military operations which emphasize killing rather than preempting opponents: “It is not acceptable for us that in all this fighting, Afghans are dying. In the last three to four weeks, 500 to 600 Afghans were killed. [Even] if they are Taliban, they are sons of this land.”

This sounds like an odd criticism in war. But Karzai’s most fundamental concern is the number of Afghan civilians who are dying at American hands. Aerial attacks are up – running about 750 in May. So are civilian casualties.

The commander of the 9th Air Force, Lt. Gen. Gary L. North, has called such deaths “regrettable,” but that offers little solace to the families of the victims. In May, President Karzai called in Lt. Gen. Eikenberry to request that “every effort” be made to safeguard civilians.

It is difficult to win the hearts and minds of the dead. Even worse, the survivors grow more surly. Reports Jim Krane of the Associated Press: “The U.S. bombing has sparked opposition from Afghans angered at the rising death toll of civilians. Afghan lawmakers blame the rising civilian toll for a surge in support for the Taliban.”

Karzai recognizes the obvious political consequences: he is losing whatever political support he once possessed. Being seen as a foreign puppet is potentially career-ending; being seen as one when one’s masters are careless with people’s lives is potentially life-ending.

But the allies have their own complaints. The Rahman episode was an acute embarrassment for the Bush administration, which has rested so heavily on the political support of evangelical Christian voters. The democratic apostasies and relapse towards warlordism have angered the Europeans and Japanese, who have donated money towards Afghanistan’s reconstruction.

Coalition embarrassment worsened last week when it became evident that Kabul was browbeating what was supposed to be a free press. The controversy was sparked, reported the Washington Post, "when an unsigned but official-looking document was delivered to Afghan media outlets, listing 17 instructions."

"Some were vague: the press should not publish or broadcast material that ‘weakens public morale or damages the national interest.’ Others were nit-pickingly specific: the press should use ‘freedom fighter’ instead of ‘warlord’ to describe former anti-Soviet militia leaders."

Although the West has no obvious alternative to Karzai, concern is growing that his government is losing ground. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made a quick trip to Kabul earlier this week. Despite her optimistic blather, she visited only Kabul. And not much of Kabul. According to the Washington Post, “she passed her time almost entirely behind the heavily guarded high walls and concrete barriers of the presidential compound, which are about a half-mile apart.” Too bad the majority of Afghans can’t live in similar areas.

In short, Washington faces the specter of disaster in Afghanistan as well as Iraq. The U.S. can ill-afford two simultaneous foreign debacles. Unfortunately, neither Afghan nor American officials seem to have any idea on how to turn it around.

In fact, there are no good answers. Which is a particular tragedy, given the horror through which Afghans have lived over the last three decades. If any people deserve to live in peace and safety, it is the Afghans.

On the force side, Washington needs to encourage its NATO allies to increase their (already expanding) military commitments and effectively take over the mission. There are obvious difficulties in making a multinational force work, but America, given the mess in Iraq, as well as continuing wasteful deployments of U.S. forces in Asia and Europe, is ill-prepared to add to its present contingent of about 18,000 to combat the Taliban.

The Europeans have cause to do more, especially since they are deeply committed to Afghanistan’s future. But Washington cannot force allied states to take on more responsibility. Cooperative diplomacy must replace imperious dictation, as the Bush administration has found in Iraq. The Europeans understandably are not interested in providing cannon fodder for yet another operation mismanaged by Washington, over which they have no effective control.

The use of force must be more discriminate. One of the difficulties of guerrilla war is that the most effective military tactics often are politically counterproductive. One villager told a New York Times reporter that raids on homes and the arrest of young men like his brother had encouraged resistance: “Release my brother and the tribal elders will persuade the young men to come back home and stop fighting.” Air strikes protect the lives of American soldiers but cost the lives of Afghan civilians, generating more opposition. Using overwhelming force to win every firefight could end up costing the allies the war.

Pakistan is only reluctantly aiding the U.S. war effort. Islamabad long backed the Taliban, while the Karzai regime is far friendlier to Pakistan’s rival, India. Pakistan’s control of its border regions is tenuous at best, and so far the Musharraf government has been unwilling to exert itself. Diplomacy, rather than threats, is called for; Washington needs to move beyond spinning dreamy fantasies of liberal democracy to offering concrete assurances regarding Pakistan’s geopolitical interests.

Within Afghanistan, allied officials should give nation-building priority over democracy-building. Pushing for a centralized government based on Western liberal principles is likely to yield neither. Kabul has rarely effectively ruled Afghanistan, and this conservative tribal society is not going to be remade in America’s image, irrespective of Hamid Karzai’s best efforts.

Washington also must subordinate its senseless drug war to the far more serious war on terrorism. Given the ineffectiveness of eradication efforts, little would change: American drug addicts have never lacked for adequate supplies, irrespective of U.S. enforcement efforts. Moreover, preventing Afghanistan from falling back under Taliban control and again becoming a terrorist training ground is more important than temporarily causing drug traffickers a bit more expense and inconvenience.

More fundamentally, the allies must accept tribal leaders as key social building blocks who will cooperate only if they have a stake in the new political institutions. They must, write foreign policy analysts John Hulsman and Alexis Debat, “be stakeholders in any successful state-building process.”

That is likely to be the case even long after the Taliban is defeated, assuming such a victory. Training of the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police has gone slowly; overcoming ethnic and tribal divisions is exceedingly difficult. The jury is still out on whether it will be possible to create corruption-free security forces loyal to the Kabul government.

Reconstructing Afghanistan never was going to be easy, despite the relatively quick destruction of the Taliban regime in 2001. But the Bush administration made the task immeasurably more difficult by quickly losing interest in Afghanistan as it began planning to invade Iraq. The global empire-builders wanted it all and ended up doing nothing well.

Unfortunately, Afghan civilians as well as allied soldiers are paying the price of Washington’s irresponsibility. The best case is more, and more difficult, years of guerrilla war. The worst case is the reemergence of a new Dark Ages rule under the Taliban.

Read more by Doug Bandow