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Bush Prepares to Cut and Run in Afghanistan

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We’ve heard a lot of rhetoric from the Bush Administration about “staying the course” in Iraq. About how it is America’s responsibility to stay as long as it takes to ensure that Iraq becomes a stable democracy. Those who’ve opposed this position—whether they have advocated an immediate withdrawal, a staged departure, or simply the preparation of a transition plan—have been branded as dolts, as advocates of a “cut and run” philosophy. What’s gotten little notice is that in Afghanistan the Administration is pursuing the very same cut and run policies that the accuse others of espousing in Iraq.

If you haven’t been paying attention to Afghanistan, you’re not alone. It hasn’t been in the news. For good reason, as things aren’t going well there. The Taliban has regained control of much of the territory they lost once the US forces arrived in 2001, particularly in the South and East. The Taliban has been conducting a guerilla campaign of “civil terror” and it’s succeeding.

On March 1st President Bush made a four-hour visit to Afghanistan. For Dubya everything was “coming up roses;” he spoke glowingly of the progress there, described it as “inspiring.” Nonetheless, the US is withdrawing 4000 troops (20 percent of the total), and drastically reducing support for infrastructure improvement. Bush tells the world that we will stay the course, but Afghans feel that we are bailing out.

What went wrong? The simple answer is everything that the President has tried. As has glaringly proven to be the case in Iraq, the Bush Administration never had a plan for Afghanistan and, therefore, never dealt with the systemic problems.

The most obvious problem has been that the US lost its focus on Al Qaeda. We didn’t apprehend Osama bin Laden and the other leaders, and we didn’t eradicate the remnants of Al Qaeda and their Taliban supporters. Now the Taliban, supported by Al Qaeda, is staging a dramatic comeback. In 2005 they killed around 1600 people, with a dramatic rise in the deaths of US troops, 91.

Lurking behind this decline is a more vexing problem. Our relationship with Pakistan is deteriorating, as is the position of their president, Pervez Musharraf. Radical elements are gaining strength in Pakistan and many observers feel that the Taliban is on the rise because it has gained new support from Pakistan.

As was the case in Iraq, we didn’t cultivate good relationships with Afghanistan’s neighbors. As a result, the borders are porous and insurgents are coming across in droves.

Another similarity is that we don’t recognize that there is an Afghani insurgency and therefore we don’t officially engage in ”counterinsurgency.” Several recent articles argued that where the United States actually engages in counterinsurgency within Iraq, it is successful. (The operating definition of counterinsurgency action is “20 percent military, and 80 percent political.”) While effective, this has not been a widespread U.S. initiative. Indeed, wherever counterinsurgency occurred, it was done “despite an absence of guidance” from the Bush Administration. This is exactly what has happened in Afghanistan. Bush and Rumsfeld have been unwilling to change the role of the military from that of exclusively conducting combat missions to one of conflict resolution, overseeing the pacification of large sections of the country.

The Administration made a grievous error in Iraq by assuming that the production of oil would pay for the occupation. They made an equally grievous error in Afghanistan by assuming that it would be easy to replace the cultivation of opium poppies, which is a 3 billion dollar a year business (and last year accounted for one-third of Afghanistan’s GDP). The country used to be noted for their agricultural goods (fruit and nuts), as well as cotton, rugs and textiles. Years of war dramatically affected these goods. Afghanis need a cash crop and the US hasn’t provided an alternative to opium.

The United States invested several billion dollars in rebuilding the Afghani infrastructure. Once again, the pattern was the same as that in Iraq. Most of the money went to multinationals headquartered in the US and a huge percentage of the cost was for security. Roughly one-third of the total was spent on the construction of one new highway from Kabul to Kandahar, at the expense of $1 million per mile. This left precious little money for reconstruction of the devastated Afghani infrastructure: clean water, electricity, telephone service, health clinics, and schools. Of the 7000 buildings that were used as schools before the reign of the Taliban, slightly more than half were usable in 2002. The largest school construction, $665 million, went to the American company, the Louis Berger Group; their contract called for only 98 new schools at an average of $174,000 per. Now the reconstruction money is drying up.

This grim summary ignores several other facts about Afghanistan. We haven’t installed a democratic government and haven’t protected the rights of women. Indeed, it’s hard to find good news about Afghanistan. Maybe that’s why the Bush administration has decided to cut and run.
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Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. In a previous life he was one of the executive founders of Cisco Systems.
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