Afghanistan Unliberated

by Matthew Rothschild

The Progressive magazine, October 2006


George Bush likes to view himself as the Great Liberator, and he has said many times that he's freed fifty million people: the combined populations of Iraq and Afghanistan. But Iraq is going to hell, with 100 civilian deaths a day due to the civil war-oh, I'm sorry, I mean the sectarian violence. Afghanistan is headed down the same road.

"The government and its international partners remained incapable of providing security to the people of Afghanistan," says Amnesty International in its annual report. "Absence of rule of law, and a barely functional criminal justice system, left many victims of human rights violations, especially women, without redress. Over 1,000 civilians were killed in attacks by U.S. and Coalition forces and by armed groups. U.S. forces continued to carry out arbitrary arrests and indefinite detentions."

Much of the country is in disarray. Corruption runs wild. Warlords, including some of the same individuals who brutalized the populace before the Taliban took over, now exercise power in many provinces. There are even warlords in the cabinet of Hamid Karzai.

And, five years after its defeat, the Taliban has regrouped in the south, carrying out ever more brazen attacks on U.S. and NATO forces.

Suicide bombings are dramatically on the rise. "There have been forty suicide bombings during the past nine months, compared to five in the preceding five years," Ahmed Rashid, author of Taliban and Jihad, noted in the June 22 issue of The New York Review of Books.

On September 8, the Taliban conducted a suicide car bombing outside the U.S. embassy in Kabul. That attack killed at least sixteen people, including two U.S. soldiers. Two days later, a suicide bomber killed a provincial governor who was a Karzai friend.

For the people of Afghanistan, life remains grim. The United Nations Development Program ranks Afghan-istan near the very bottom: 173 out of 178 countries in terms of health, life expectancy, and other indicators.

Especially for girls and women, conditions are deteriorating. "Violence against women and girls remains rampant," Human Rights Watch reports. "Women and girls continue to confront tight restrictions on their mobility, and many are not free to travel without a male relative and a burqa."

Their education is also under assault.

"Brutal attacks by armed opposition groups on Afghan teachers, students, and their schools have occurred throughout much of Afghanistan in recent months," Human Rights Watch reports, with at least seventeen assassinations of teachers or other education officials in the last two years. One school a day is now under attack, the group says.

As a result, only 35 percent of girls attend elementary or middle school, and only 10 percent go on from there, according to Human Rights Watch. In five provinces, 90 percent of girls don't attend any school.

At one community mosque, a letter was posted warning girls "to be careful about their safety. If we put acid on their faces or they are murdered, then the blame will be on the parents," the letter said, a mother in Kandahar told Human Rights Watch. Because of the threats, she withdrew her girls from school.

Meanwhile, opium production has reached record levels, up 50 percent in the last year. Now Afghanistan supplies an amazing 92 percent of the world's opium supply.

For this, the Bush Administration has no one to blame but itself. The blunders Donald Rumsfeld has made in Afghanistan-leaving aside Iraq-should have been enough to cashier him long ago. First, he let Osama bin Laden escape from the caves of Tora Bora. Then, he refused to deploy a sufficient number of troops to restore order throughout Afghanistan. (Sound familiar?) And finally, he was oblivious to the rise of the opium trade.

"Senior Bush Administration officials had displayed a complete lack of interest in the Afghan opium problem ever since 9/11," writes James Risen in State of War. "In fact, the White House and Pentagon went out of their way to avoid taking on the Afghan drug lords from the very outset of U.S. military operations in Afghanistan."

They refused to bomb drug labs. When they stumbled on opium crops and heroin production, they were ordered to ignore them, Risen reports. And they chose not to take on the warlords involved in the drug trade because they didn't want to alienate anyone who might help them hunt down bin Laden. Rumsfeld himself even met with Afghan military commanders who were known as "the godfathers of drug trafficking," Risen writes, quoting Barnett Rubin, a U.S. scholar on Afghanistan. Rubin continued: "The message has been clear: Help fight the Taliban, and no one will interfere with your trafficking."

Now the Taliban itself is deeply involved in the opium trade, and the warlords have proven ineffective in taking on the Taliban. Some of them are even working together.

The blasé attitude of the Pentagon comes through most clearly in a comment by Douglas Feith, then under secretary of defense for policy, shortly after the Taliban fell from power. "He said we won the war, other people need to be responsible for Afghanistan now," a former National Security Council official told Risen.

But the U.S.-installed government could not get the job done alone. "Afghanistan should be able to rely on its own security within a year," Interim Interior Minister Younis Qanooni said-back in February 2002!

Behind the failure in Afghanistan lies the Iraq obsession. "How is it, then, that Afghanistan is near collapse once again?" asks Ahmed Rashid. "To put it briefly, what has gone wrong has been the invasion of Iraq."

The Bush Administration was in such a hurry to get to Iraq that it shortchanged the effort to control Afghanistan, diverted special agents and other resources to Iraq, and loosened the noose on Al Qaeda.

"At the moment when Al Qaeda was most vulnerable, the United States relented," Risen writes.

When senior members of Bush's war cabinet "voiced concerns about the ability of Al Qaeda-style terrorists to recruit and gain support on a widespread basis in the Islamic world," Bush shut them up with a facile response, Risen reports. One official told him: "The President dismissed them, saying victory in Iraq would take care of that."

Sam Zarifi is the Asia research director for Human Rights Watch. "We have squandered a huge amount of political goodwill and military advantage and financial kindness," he says. "We didn't implement enough security at a time when it was obvious that it was needed, and that allowed all the bad guys to come in and do what they always do."

The decision-makers in the Bush Administration "were never really committed to Afghanistan," Zarifi says. "Iraq distracted the United States from the central battlefield in the war on terror, which is here in Afghanistan."

On March 1, Bush made a surprise visit to Kabul to heap praise on Karzai. "We're impressed by the progress that your country is making, Mr. President," Bush told him. "A lot of it has to do with your leadership."

A few months later, Karzai gave his approval to the reinstitution of the Taliban's old Department for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. That agency was notorious for beating women whose socks were too colorful and men whose beards were too short. Now, if parliament approves, it will be coming back.

Liberation is not what it used to be.

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