Remember Afghanistan?

Afghanistan has not been in the news much in recent months. A good thing for the Bush administration if not for the Afghan people: for the news coming out of Afghanistan has not been good.

Afghanistan? That's where Al Qaida, in the years leading up to the terrorist attack of 9/11, were protected and trained. That's where, with international backing, we fought our first "war against terrorism" and promised the Afghans security and help in constructing a safe and independent, democratic nation.

Instead, the Bush administration abandoned Afghanistan for its great adventure in Iraq. There are 140,000 American troops in Iraq; only 20,000 in Afghanistan. NATO has an additional 6500 peacekeepers in Afghanistan, and more are promised. But at the insistence of the Bush administration, our allies are not allowed to patrol the countryside lest they interfere with our military operations.

The result? The Taliban are back. Osama bin Ladin and Al Qaida are still safe within their mountain strongholds along the Pakistan border. Coordinated efforts by the U.S. and Pakistan to disrupt these havens have created huge numbers of Afghan refugees -- potential recruits for a new generation of anti-American terrorists -- without capturing bin Ladin or destroying, much less uncovering, the terrorist infrastructure.

Just this week, eleven Afghans, including a district police chief, were killed in that part of Afghanistan where the Taliban are active. More than 800 people have been killed in Afghanistan this past year, most of them by Taliban guerrillas. Yet, President Hamid Karzai, in an interview with the New York Times, insists that it's not the Taliban that threaten Afghanistan; it's our allies, the warlords of the Northern Alliance that are the greater danger. Because of the violent activities of their private armies, security is almost non-existent outside of Kabul. Nation building is stalled, as are major projects for internal reconstruction.

This past week, the Karzai government postponed presidential and parliamentary elections. Elections, when they occur, "won't be pretty," U.S. Ambassador William Taylor acknowledges. His concern is that the warlords, enriched by the booming opium trade, will not surrender their power. Attempts to disarm the militias have not been successful.

The fall of the Taliban was supposed to mean a new era of freedom for women. But, according to Amnesty International, "Two years after the ending of the Taliban regime, the international community and the Afghan transitional administration...have proved unable to protect women. The risk of rape and sexual violence by members of armed factions and former combatants is still high...." The U.S.-based Feminist Majority, which advocates for Afghan women, further states that over 30 girls' schools have suffered arson or other violent attacks, and some of the warlords continue to harass women who work, go out without a burqa, or advocate for women's rights.

Some historical context: American foreign policy, beginning with the Cold War, has been based on the crude formula, "the enemy of my enemy is my friend." As such, we consistently supported brutal dictators against governments and movements that we considered "soft on communism." In Afghanistan, under President Reagan, we supported and armed Islamic extremists, including Osama bin Laden, against the Soviet Union. We also supported and armed Saddam Hussein in his war against Iran because we considered Iran an enemy. In both cases "blowback" was the result. The enemy of our enemy accepted our aid but spurned our friendship, making us their enemy instead.

After the Soviets left Afghanistan (and we did nothing to help the Afghans rebuild their war torn country), our warlord allies started fighting each other, creating such misery that the fanatical Taliban was able to seize power under the guise of establishing order. This they did with a vengeance, especially against non-Muslims and women.

There was international support, from NATO and the UN, for our war in Afghanistan. Many Americans who opposed the war against Iraq supported the war in Afghanistan. I, like many, supported the legitimacy of the war but quickly turned against the way we were fighting it.

In Afghanistan (and again in Iraq), Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld wanted to use high-tech weaponry rather than troops on the ground, and so in both countries we emphasized strategic bombing. Our bombs may have been "smart" but our targeting was based on lousy intelligence, understandable since we didn't (and still don't) speak the language or understand the culture, religion, history, and aspirations of the people we were (and are) fighting. In Afghanistan, we bombed schools, hospitals, villages, wedding parties, UN storage depots and our Canadian allies, but didn't find bin Ladin. According to Professor Marc W. Herold, an expert on Third World development, our bombs killed between 2562 and 2947 Afghan civilians during the first three months of the war. How many neighbors and kinfolk of the dead came to hate us as a result?

We also spent millions of dollars bribing the warlords of the Northern Alliance to fight the Taliban. Now (surprise of surprises!) they refuse to disarm and give up power. The Taliban stupidly massed their forces and were initially defeated. But they, and the Iraqis as well, learned a lesson from the debacle: guerrilla tactics neutralize smart weaponry.

President Bush says we are safer under his leadership, but his Department of Homeland Security keeps issuing new terrorist warnings. Fighting terrorism requires international cooperation in police work and intelligence-gathering. It may require Special Forces or commando raids to root out armed terrorist cells when and where they are discovered. Homeland security requires an intelligence service that understands foreign cultures. It also requires huge investments not in weaponry and war, but in projects like port and container ship security. The number of terrorists is small but no doubt growing. Their potential for recruits is dependent upon how we treat the populations in which they "swim."

In Afghanistan we had the opportunity to cooperate with the international community in striking a blow against terrorism by helping an Islamic people build a nation.

We blew it.

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