Friday, March 03, 2006

Stumbling in Afghanistan

Los Angeles Times
March 3, 2006

IT WAS HARDLY A SURPRISE that President Bush made a brief stop in Afghanistan on Wednesday, and not just because word of the "unexpected" trip leaked to the media beforehand. With Iraq ever more messy and his administration on the defensive on multiple fronts, Bush undoubtedly wanted to evoke that sweet moment of victory in November 2001 when U.S. forces ended the Taliban's rule.

Yet Afghanistan is not such a simple story. Democratic elections brought a reasonable government into office, but it remains weak and ineffective outside of Kabul. Over the last year, the Taliban has made a strong revival, drug trafficking is up and the number of suicide bombings has steadily climbed. Bush's advisors said his visit was so brief because it was hard to guarantee security.

Back in Washington, the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Michael Maples, testified before Congress on Tuesday that attacks by Taliban and other insurgents increased by 20% last year, and they are expected to intensify this spring. Aid workers report that villagers across the south of Afghanistan tell them not to visit anymore because Taliban forces punish anyone who accepts Western help.

Lest anyone forget, the Taliban was target No. 2 in the U.S. war against terrorists provoked by the 9/11 attacks. Target No. 1 was Osama bin Laden — Bush wanted him "dead or alive" — and he is still at large. Bush promised in Afghanistan that the leader of Al Qaeda would eventually be brought to justice. At this point, we are not holding our collective breath. Bin Laden is believed to be hiding in the mountainous region straddling Afghanistan's border with Pakistan, spooning out taped messages to the West, but there has been little sign of progress in the hunt for him.

Like too many administration projects, the situation in Afghanistan appears to be the victim of a lack of follow-through. After the invasion of 2001, Bush promised to rebuild Afghanistan, ravaged by years of civil war and horrific destruction at the hands of the Taliban. There are 18,000 soldiers in the country, and in 2004 the United States and other donors pledged or spent $3.6 billion on humanitarian aid and reconstruction.

Yet once the war in Iraq was launched, Washington's attention went there, as did most of its troops. The political will to bring security and basic services to Afghanistan clearly fizzled. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld likes to argue that the United States is capable of fighting two wars at once, but the evidence from Afghanistan and Iraq suggests that it may not be capable of fighting two wars well.

The United States is not the first world power to stumble in Afghanistan. The British and the Russians each failed to subdue the warlords who roamed the nation's treacherous terrain. Yet the U.S. efforts that began there with great promise in 2001 remain, as yet, unfulfilled.


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