Published on Saturday, November 15, 2003 by the New York Times
A Scary Afghan Road
by Nicholas D. Kristof
Here's a foreign affairs quiz:
1. In the two years since the war in Afghanistan, opium production has:
(A) virtually been eliminated by Hamid Karzai's government and American forces.
(B) declined 30 percent, but eradication is not expected until 2008.
(C) soared 19-fold and become the major source of the world's heroin.
2. In Paktika and Zabul, two religiously conservative parts of Afghanistan, the number of children going to school:
(A) has quintupled, with most girls at least finishing third grade.
(B) has risen 40 percent, although few girls go to school.
(C) has plummeted as poor security has closed nearly all schools there.
The correct answer to both questions, alas, is (C).
With the White House finally acknowledging that the challenge in Iraq runs deeper than gloomy journalism, the talk of what to do next is sounding rather like Afghanistan. And that's alarming, because we have flubbed the peace in Afghanistan even more egregiously than in Iraq.
"There is a palpable risk that Afghanistan will again turn into a failed state, this time in the hands of drug cartels and narco-terrorists," Antonio Maria Costa, executive director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, writes in a grim new report on Afghanistan.
I strongly supported President Bush's war in Afghanistan, and I was there in Kabul and saw firsthand the excitement and relief of ordinary Afghans, who were immensely grateful to the U.S. for freeing them (a crucial distinction between Iraq and Afghanistan, to anyone who covered both wars, is that you never saw the same adulation among Iraqis). Mr. Bush oversaw a smart war in Afghanistan, and two years ago the crisp mountain air there pullulated with hope — along with pleas for more security.
One day back then when I was thinking of driving to the southeast, six Afghans arrived from there — minus their noses. Taliban guerrillas had stopped their vehicle at gunpoint and chopped off their noses because they had trimmed their beards.
I stroked my chin, admired my own proboscis, and decided not to drive on that road.
Every foreign and local official said then that Afghanistan desperately needed security on roads like that one. But the Pentagon made the same misjudgment about Afghanistan that it did about Iraq: it fatally underestimated the importance of ensuring security. The big winner was the Taliban, which is now mounting a resurgence.
"Things are definitely deteriorating on the security front," notes Paul Barker, the Afghan country director for CARE International. Twelve aid workers have been killed in the last year and dozens injured. A year ago, there was, on average, one attack on aid workers per month; now such attacks average one per day.
In at least three districts in the southeast, there is no central government representation, and the Taliban has de facto control. In Paktika and Zabul, not only have most schools closed, but the conservative madrasas are regaining strength.
"We've operated in Afghanistan for about 15 years," said Nancy Lindborg of Mercy Corps, the American aid group, "and we've never had the insecurity that we have now." She noted that the Taliban used to accept aid agencies (grudgingly), but that the Taliban had turned decisively against all foreigners.
"Separate yourself from Jews and the Christian community," a recent open letter from the Taliban warned. It ordered Afghans to avoid music, funerals for aid workers and "un-Islamic education" — or face a "bad result."
The opium boom is one indication of the downward spiral. The Taliban banned opium production in 2000, so the 2001 crop was only 185 metric tons. The U.N. estimates that this year's crop was 3,600 tons, the second-largest in Afghan history. The crop is worth twice the Afghan government's annual budget, and much of the profit will support warlords and the Taliban.
An analyst in the U.S. intelligence community, who seeks to direct more attention to the way narco-trafficking is destabilizing the region, says that Afghanistan now accounts for 75 percent of the poppies grown for narcotics worldwide.
"The issue is not a high priority for the Bush administration," he said.
If Afghanistan is a White House model for Iraq, heaven help us.
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company