The last place we liberated

The White House calls Afghanistan a success story. But the failure to commit needed resources has left it a chaotic, increasingly dangerous country where violent warlords run amok. Are we going to repeat our mistake in Iraq?

Published April 10, 2003 10:39PM (EDT)

President George W. Bush signed the Afghanistan Freedom Support Act into law last Dec. 4, authorizing $3.3 billion in economic, political, humanitarian and security assistance for Afghanistan over the next four years. The next month, Bush submitted the 2003 budget authorization to Congress but requested slightly less than that.

As in: $0.00.

"The administration anticipated that Congress would put it in," explains a sympathetic congressional source. "So they low-balled it."

That's for sure. Congressional staffers quickly penciled in $295 million, but that still wasn't enough. "The request in the administration's appropriations bill does not come near fully funding the bill that we passed in [the Senate Foreign Relations] Committee and the president signed into law," the bill's chief author, Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., tells Salon. "It does not come near it."

As we consider reconstruction plans in Iraq, and the administration promises to democratize the country, it's worth taking a look at our "liberation" of Afghanistan. A year later, many of the atrocities we thought we'd stopped still continue, and even Bush's allies in the Senate and Afghanistan think we have undercommitted to efforts that could truly change that country for the better.

Afghanistan's experience "doesn't bode very well for the upcoming one," says Steven Bourke of the Center for International Conflict Resolution, at Columbia University, who just returned from 16 days in Afghanistan in early March. "It's a country that needs attention and commitment, but there's been an inclination to withdraw."

This follows the lofty rhetoric from the White House, before our attack on that country, of the Afghanistan to come. The White House spoke of "an Afghanistan that is prosperous, democratic, self-governing, market friendly and respectful of human rights." Similar promises are being made right now to Iraq. "Iraq's greatest long-term need is a representative government that protects the rights of all Iraqis," Bush said just over a week ago at Camp David. "The people of Iraq deserve to stand on their feet as free men and women -- the citizens of a free country," Bush said to the men and women in uniform at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fla., late last month.

But even Hamid Karzai, the normally deferential president of the Transitional Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, recently revealed his fears about the depth of the U.S. commitment. "Don't forget us if Iraq happens," he pleaded at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Feb. 26.

His brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, who represents the government in southern Kandahar, was much blunter to an AP reporter on Monday. "It's like I am seeing the same movie twice and no one is trying to fix the problem," he said "What was promised to Afghans with the collapse of the Taliban was a new life of hope and change. But what was delivered? Nothing ...There have been no significant changes for people." Ahmed Karzai says he doesn't "know what to say to people anymore."

If the U.S. government's new charge is finding nations oppressed by horrific regimes that pose a security risk to the U.S., bombing that country, and creating a new democracy, then Afghanistan -- our first experiment -- stands as an example. Regrettably, as of now, it is an example of how not to do it.

First off, no one seems to have a clear idea of how many troops will be needed in postwar Iraq. On NBC's "Meet the Press" Sunday, host Tim Russert posed that question to his two guests, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and Gen. Peter Pace, vice chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff -- after the Army chief of staff, Gen. Eric K. Shinseki, had estimated 200,000 troops. Wolfowitz called that figure "wildly off the mark," and Pace used Afghanistan as a comparison, noting that "the U.S. coalition forces there is around 10,000," even though it has a larger population than Iraq. When Russert said that "the only secure place is actually Kabul," Pace disagreed. "The only part that's really insecure is the part in the southeast border area," he said.

Pace ought to consult more with the U.S. State Department, which on April 2 issued a travel advisory, declaring the whole country to be dangerous -- including Kabul. "The security threat to all American citizens in Afghanistan remains high. Remnants of the former Taliban regime and the terrorist Al-Qaida network, and other groups hostile to the government, as well as criminal elements, remain active," it read. Visitors risk being victimized by "land mines, banditry, armed rivalry among political and tribal groups, and the possibility of terrorist attacks, including attacks using vehicular or other bombs."

The ugly reality of postwar Afghanistan will no doubt hurt the United States in future campaigns; it surely hurt us with plans for Iraq. After speaking with defense and foreign ministers from France and Germany, Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware -- the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee -- was quoted as saying that "the one thing that was most often raised with me was, 'All right, we think you should go, but when it goes, what are you going to do? Are you going to do what you did -- or you're doing -- in Afghanistan?'"

Nonetheless, plans for post-Saddam Iraq are underway. In Kuwait, retired Gen. Jay Garner, director of the newly formed Pentagon Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, is putting together his staff and making plans. The Pentagon is awarding rebuilding contracts. Debates are being held within the administration about what is next.

Some of the same individuals responsible for bringing liberty to postwar Afghanistan are preparing to supervise the same for Iraq, most notably Zalmay Khalilzad, the 52-year-old Afghan-American who was the White House envoy to Afghanistan. Last December, Khalilzad was appointed the president's special envoy and ambassador at large for free Iraqis. Hagel sings Khalilzad's praises but says, "They're stretching him too thin." He even seems to see Khalilzad as a metaphor -- everything's been stretched too thin: "our force structure, our diplomatic structure, we're stretching our people too far. To the breaking point."

Some experts wonder if the U.S. will be able to uphold commitments to both Iraq and Afghanistan. Since omitting funding for Afghanistan reconstruction in its 2003 budget, the Bush administration has requested more money for reconstructing Afghanistan in its 2004 budget -- about $850 million (even while it allots maybe a hundred times that for its Iraqi campaign). This includes $150 million in development assistance, $277 million in economic support funds, and $320 million in foreign military financing, among other projects.

But according to Rep. Jim Kolbe, R-Ariz., chairman of the House Appropriations Foreign Operations Subcommittee, the numbers for all those projects will not be able to be maintained. Bush requested $17 billion in 2004 foreign aid spending, and Kolbe told Congressional Quarterly that he was concerned that this would not be enough -- specifically to create nations out of postwar Afghanistan and postwar Iraq. "It can't stay the same," he said.

Biden says that he and others on his committee have pressed the White House for more funding for Afghanistan, only to have these concerns brushed aside. "We were told, 'We don't need any more in Afghanistan,'" Biden said in February.

But while other commitments push down the U.S. funding for Afghanistan in Washington, the numbers are moving the other way in Kabul. At a March 13 donor conference in Kabul, Karzai said that the $4.5 billion that international donors had pledged to Afghanistan over the next five years wasn't going to be nearly enough. "Our estimate now is probably from $15 billion to $20 billion," he said.

But even if the U.S. had a bottomless bank account and committed it all to Karzai's government, there exist other glaring problems with the way we're waging the peace. The greatest one: a country that has returned to being run by tribal leaders.

On Wednesday, April 2, Barnett Rubin, director of studies at the Center on International Cooperation at New York University, returned from an 11-day trip to Afghanistan -- his sixth trip in the last year or so. "There are many positive things taking place there, some of them with the assistance of the United States," Rubin says, "but the basic conditions to make it possible for these efforts to succeed are not there. None of these reform efforts -- writing the new constitution, building the schools -- none of them can succeed if there is not additional security, if power in the country remains in the hands of unaccountable gunmen."

Slightly more than 9,000 American soldiers remain in Afghanistan. Central Command in Florida will not specify how many of these men and women are trying to provide order and how many are still chasing down Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida.

Either way, all indications seem to be that the country is getting less safe, not more so. On March 27, a water engineer working for the International Committee of the Red Cross was driving in the Uruzgan Province when he was ambushed and shot to death; the Red Cross has since suspended field operations. Two days later in the southern Helmand Province, another ambush killed two U.S. Special Forces soldiers. Rockets were fired at U.S. military bases and the headquarters of the undermanned international peacekeeping force supposedly bringing security to the country.

"Everyone even remotely familiar with Afghanistan knows that Karzai's government controls essentially Kabul and not much else," Hagel says. Hagel, Biden and Senate Foreign Relations Chair Dick Lugar, R-Ind., "have strongly, strongly recommended that the United States put more effort and more manpower in there, because it's going to be required," Hagel says. "There's no other way to do this."

Inside the U.S., the debate over providing more security to Afghanistan has focused on whether the United States should be part of the International Security Assistance Force "and whether we should commit troops," Hagel says. "Not only do we need to, but we're going to have to."

But the Bush administration has so far refused to commit to such efforts. "We had a hearing [Tuesday] with a NATO official and we discussed what the NATO role should be, and we talked about ISAF forces," Hagel says, noting that he asked the U.S. Ambassador to NATO, R. Nicholas Burns, "specifically, 'What is the position of this government on the United States on putting forces into an ISAF force if NATO takes a role?' And Ambassador Burns didn't answer directly. He was careful not to commit to anything that he couldn't fulfill."

"I myself don't feel safe nowadays," Ahmad Takal, bureau chief of the U.S.-funded Radio Liberty in Afghanistan, tells Salon. Takal returned from exile in Pakistan in January 2002. "And it's getting worse. People ask, 'Why did they start and not finish the mission?'" He says that his fellow Afghans want more troops. "The U.S. military presence in Afghanistan is accepted widely by people," he says. "As I talk to people of different places in Afghanistan, people will support even hundred thousands of foreign or U.S. soldiers in their areas. They are tired from the war and warlords who fight everyday everywhere."

"People have concerns especially after the war started on Iraq," reports Dr. Iqrargul Saleem, coordination officer for the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief (ACBAR) in Peshawar, Pakistan. "They said that the United States will do again what they did before" -- abandon the country, leave them to the warlords -- "and the people are afraid of that."

Especially since these troops are not just resurgent Taliban and al-Qaida, but former Northern Alliance guerrillas armed by the U.S. military when looking for allies in its war against the Taliban. In southeastern Afghanistan, for example, Padshah Khan Zadran leads a tribe that disputes Karzai's legitimacy and backs it up with munitions. Zadran's tribe was a close ally of the U.S. during Operation Enduring Freedom; in March, the tribe twice clashed with U.S. forces.

"We defeated the Taliban by arming the warlords," Rubin says. The warlords, roaming the countryside unabated, are "once again terrorizing people and robbing them." The Pentagon has not authorized our soldiers to do anything about the warlords -- not even to disarm them, which is where Karzai has begun focusing his efforts.

How many men are in the warlords' militias? In his Senate hearing, Karzai took issue with Biden's estimation of 700,000. "The number, in real terms, probably can come down to about 100,000 forces," Karzai said. Still, the only opposition to these warlords is the the fledgling Afghan National army, made up of less than 3,000 Afghan soldiers recently recruited and trained -- many of whom have since quit because they haven't been paid in more than half a year.

Every day, Takal says, Afghans wait "for an action against the warlords, but they know nothing will happen. Some of them compare the security situation with the security during Taliban. They say at that time they could carry a bag full of gold or dollars to wherever they wanted without any threat to their life, but now even in the big cities, such as the capital, they don't feel safe. And some of them blame the U.S. for this."

Biden, for one, has been outspokenly pessimistic. "I think they [members of the Bush administration] have already given up the ghost in Afghanistan," Biden told reporters on Feb. 25. "They've basically turned it over to the warlords."

Biden was speaking not only of rogue warlords like Padshah Khan Zadran but also some who are part of the new Afghan government itself. Thus, "even when they don't [rob and steal], they're blocking political development," and in many cases they're also advocating more fundamentalist political views, Rubin reports.

"The Northern Alliance holds the majority power in the government," says Marina Matin of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan "The non-fundamentalist elements are still a minority." The Northern Alliance, which ruled from 1992 until 1996 -- when the Taliban were welcomed with open arms by the terrorized Afghan people -- "are as cruel and anti-democratic as the Taliban."

Take the fundamentalist Ismail Khan, governor of the northwest province of Herat. Saleem, of the ACBAR relief agency, says that the citizens of Herat constantly complain that Khan "is as bad as the Taliban was." According to Human Rights Watch, Khan -- who refers to himself as "the emir of Herat" -- has ordered political rallies shut down, dissidents arrested, and opponents beaten. He has created a climate of fear throughout the region and instilled a new religious police.

Radio Liberty is more than a little familiar with Khan. On March 19, reporter Ahmed Shah Behzad covered a ceremony for the opening of the regional office of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. Afterward, on the second floor of the human rights building, Behzad was only three questions into an interview with Ali Ahmad Jalali, the minister of the interior, when Khan interrupted them, called the reporter "shameless" and "brazen," and ejected him from the room. Herat's chief of national security beat Behzad in the courtyard of the human rights building.

How much does the Kabul government control anything? "Ali Ahmad Jalali is the minister of interior, but he was not able to stop Khan," Takal tells Salon.

According to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in April 2002, however, Khan is "an appealing person  thoughtful, measured and self-confident."

Biden says he's talked to the administration of the horrible state of affairs in Herat and its response is confounding. "When I speak to members of the administration," Biden said in February, he's told, 'Things are all right in western Afghanistan -- Ismail Khan is in charge.'" Biden added sarcastically: "I find that very reassuring."

Hagel argues that the U.S.'s alliance with some of these warlords is unavoidable realpolitik. "Foreign policy -- particularly wars -- generally are always about imperfect choices and imperfect relationships. Yes, we had to make arrangements and agreements with some pretty unsavory characters," he says. Moreover, each tribe has its own leader, "and we had to come up with a coalition government that would ... represent all the various factions. And as a result of that, there was an acceptance of a varied group of individuals that you wouldn't always think of when you think of Jeffersonian democracy." He argues against an attempt to try to achieve the perfect government -- "You were never going to get that," he says. Hagel underlines that this country poses complex problems -- ones not invented by President Bush.

Rubin doesn't necessarily think that more U.S. or ISAF troops are needed, but he does call for a countrywide disarmament. The problem, he says, is that the tribal rivalries ensure suspicion. Mohammad Qasim Fahim -- an ethnic Tajik -- is vice president and defense minister. But his troops have clashed with those of Abdul Rashid Dostam, the Uzbek vice minister of defense. "The leaders will not hand over their weapons to another faction," Rubin says. On his recent trip, a commander from eastern Afghanistan told him that his people would be willing to hand over their weapons to a national army supervised by international military monitors. "But no one is willing to provide those military monitors."

And just as these warlords have made Afghanistan less safe for everyone, so too is it all the more dangerous for women. After Operation Enduring Freedom began in October 2001, First Lady Laura Bush took a rare political role speaking out against what the White House records as "the brutality against women and children by the al-Qaida terrorist network and the regime it supports in Afghanistan, the Tablian [sic]" On Valentine's Day, the First Lady appeared on the CBS "Early Show," where she said that "one of the really happiest things about the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan was the sight of seeing girls getting to go back to school."

This accentuation of the positive may be good spin, but it is far from the whole picture. Khan is an improvement on the Taliban in some ways -- females can study, work and leave their homes without the compulsory accompaniment by a male relative, or mahram. But they are required to wear burqas or chadori, and they are prohibited from driving, participating in public forums and the government, and even visiting public parks at night. Women have been arrested and given "abusive gynecological exams," according to an Human Rights Watch report on women in western Afghanistan, "to look for evidence of recent sexual intercourse." And Khan is just one of the offenders.

"Despite positive developments regarding women's rights, intimidation and violence by regional and local commanders against women continue unabated," United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan reported in March. "In many rural areas, especially in the more conservative tribal belt, the situation of women has not changed to any great extent since the removal of the Taliban."

Two weeks ago in Kandahar, RAWA's Matin says, "two girls had their throats cut, and there was a note left warning women not to go out without their burqas again."

"After being involved with Afghanistan for 20 years, I've learned to avoid mood swings," Rubin says when asked if he's angry at the inadequate international follow-through. "But I do get upset at the hypocrisy -- at the international community which lectures Afghanistan on what to do while providing no resources, and the United States in particular for arming these people and not taking responsibility for the consequences."

In fact, it does quite the contrary; the administration chooses not to discuss these issues, as if by not talking about them they do not exist. "The glass may be half full or half empty, depending on your point of view," Secretary of State Colin Powell said about Afghanistan's progress, on Feb. 13.

This insistence on a glossy sheen hasn't only spilled over into the Pentagon and the First Lady's office -- it has also, some say, affected Karzai, who many senators thought was giving an overly optimistic view of things in his February Senate testimony. Karzai disputed that the warlords and their armies were a threat to him. "The gentlemen that are appointed to the provinces as governors are appointed by my signature," he said. "And they can be removed with my signature."

But few were buying it. "I hope and I assume you are speaking plainly and directly in private and will do so to the president of the United States," Hagel pleaded with Karzai. "Because you know, there aren't many more chances here. And if you leave an impression that everything is going well and the problems ... are minimal, ... the next time you come back, then your credibility will be in question." Karzai's denial that he wanted an increase in ISAF troops led Hagel to tell reporters after the hearing that the administration had "coached [him] on that a little bit."

"My guess is he has been told by U.S. government officials he needs to put a very positive face on what's going on," Hagel said.

The White House's response to this was for Bush to telephone Karzai and apologize for the senators' rude treatment. "There is a longstanding tradition of foreign leaders, when they testify before the Senate, of being received with a level of decorum, and the president thought that an apology was warranted in this matter," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said on March 11.

Administration pressure on Karzai has also hurt him in other ways. The Bush administration urged him to voice support for the war against Iraq -- bitterly opposed by many in the Muslim world, including Afghans. "It made the government look like a puppet of the U.S.," Rubin says. Utilized effectively by the Taliban and others for propaganda purposes, Karzai's announcement has resulted in some commanders outside Kabul taping photographs of Saddam to the dashboards of their jeeps.

No one should pretend that there haven't been improvements in Afghanistan. Millions of dollars' worth of food and medicine have been distributed by humanitarian organizations. Millions of Afghan school kids are taking their first classes, there are clearly greater freedoms in many parts of the country, and steps are being made toward democracy. The U.S. is sending money and has just over 9,000 troops there. The problem isn't that the U.S. bombed the country and left.

"While I think Afghanistan is in a better place than it was under the Taliban, it's a far cry from being anything like a functioning unitary state where individuals can pursue their potentialities and prosper," says Arthur C. Helton, director of Peace and Conflict Studies for the Council on Foreign Relations. "We don't have system preparing very well for these kinds of things. The approach we've taken has been to toss everything up and see how it lands."

Is that what will happen in Iraq? Helton doesn't think so. "I hate to put it this way, but maybe we can get away with that in Afghanistan; we won't be able to in Iraq."

But just what will the United States be "getting away" with? Even Karzai presented the need for America to fulfill its commitment as a matter of not just altruism but also American national security. "If you reduce attention because of Iraq to Afghanistan, and if you leave the whole thing to us to fight again, it will be repeating the mistakes of the United States made during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan," he warned. "Once the Soviets left, the Americans left." After that, of course, the warlords took over, paving the way for the oppressive Taliban. To forget about Afghanistan would be "very unwise," Karzai said.

Hagel agrees. "One, because Afghanistan was the first true test of how the U.S. and our allies generally would deal with terrorist threats," he says. "And two, Afghanistan is a very important country because it represents an effort of our will and our word to other nations in a very dangerous part of the world.

"We can't fail in that area," Hagel continues "We can't fail in Afghanistan. We have to stay focused on it. You know, things don't automatically get better in life. Vacuums will be filled. And usually not with good things."

By Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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