If you havent been paying attention to Afghanistan, youre not alone. It hasnt been in the news. For good reason, as things arent 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 its 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 didnt apprehend Osama bin Laden and the other leaders, and we didnt 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.
As was the case in Iraq, we didnt cultivate good relationships with Afghanistans neighbors. As a result, the borders are porous and insurgents are coming across in droves.
Another similarity is that we dont recognize that there is an Afghani insurgency and therefore we dont 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 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 havent installed a democratic government and havent protected the rights of women. Indeed, its hard to find good news about Afghanistan. Maybe thats why the Bush administration has decided to cut and run.