Monday, November 10, 2003


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By William Fisher

Iraq has turned the media’s (and perhaps the US Government’s) attention away from that other war. Yes, the one in Afghanistan. About the only time we hear about it these days is when a US soldier gets killed in efforts to ‘mop up’ the Taliban.

But these two conflicts have many things in common. First, we were told they were both part of the war on terror – and indeed some very evil people got kicked out of power. Second, in both cases, we won quick military victories. Third, we haven’t found the leaders of the bad guys yet. Finally, large parts of both countries are in chaos, demonstrating that the Administration apparently had no real plan to deal with winning the peace.

One major difference is that, in the case of Iraq, the Congress has now authorized a large amount of money for reconstruction, others like the Japanese and the Saudis are contributing (however meager their contributions), and contracts are being let (however suspect some of them may be) to get the reconstruction work started.

The war in Afghanistan was declared by President Bush to have ended in May 2003 – at the same time he hailed the end of major combat in Iraq. That was six months ago, though the Afghan military campaign was over much before that. We backed the presidency of Hamid Karzai, then left him without an army, without any power outside Kabul, and without the funds he needs to start rebuilding his country after decades of war and occupation. In the $20 billion President Bush requested for reconstruction, only $1 billion was allocated to Afghanistan. The ‘international community’ is not being even as generous as the Americans. And President Karzai has been saying since the get-go that he needs $20 billion. The television images of Afghanistan inside and outside Kabul are more a moonscape than a country!

The good news is that Afghan women have been freed from the burka, are able to work and go to school, and a few schools and hospitals have been refurbished, largely by the military. The bad news is that the ‘war lords’ are back in control of most of the country, the Taliban and their Al Queda pals are regrouping, infrastructure is nonexistent, poppies for heroine and cocaine production are once again the country’s leading export, and Afghanistan remains an economic, social and political basket case.

This will not come as news to the White House. Many in Congress have been voicing their concerns over US neglect of Afghanistan for months. For example:

Sen. Joseph R. Biden, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, says the Bush administration, in not devoting enough funds to the rebuilding of Afghanistan, has "basically turned it over to the warlords." Mr. Biden believes the Bush administration has "already given up the ghost on Afghanistan" -- in funding and military commitments. He proposes giving the Bush administration $100 million in additional funds to help rebuild postwar Afghanistan.

Sen. Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat, has also questioned the monetary commitment to complete the rebuilding of Afghanistan. He is urging the Administration to display “the kind of commitment to staying the course that is absolutely essential if we're not going to see a repeat of Afghanistan in Afghanistan and in other places."
Nor are these Congressional voices coming only from the Democratic side of the aisle. For example:
Senator Richard Lugar: ”We should see Afghanistan as not just a problem, but rather as an opportunity. Afghanistan was the opening front in the war on terrorism, and visible progress there will resonate for an international audience. Moreover, our experiences in Afghanistan can help us succeed in Iraq…Afghanistan still presents enormous challenges. As in Iraq, security is the chief obstacle to achieving our post conflict goals in Afghanistan…The security situation has been declining over the last few months, forcing the suspension of critical assistance and undermining reconstruction and transition efforts. Establishing security is essential to begin the process of building a viable economy in Afghanistan, encouraging investment and developing a private sector that can generate income and jobs that are not tied to foreign assistance or the illicit drug trade…Afghanistan’s population is far less educated than Iraq’s, and it lacks abundant oil resources that can serve as an engine for reconstruction. Many areas of Afghanistan lack even rudimentary infrastructure, and the infrastructure that does exist is in disrepair…We also must continue to support efforts to improve education and expand the role of women in Afghan society….”

Senator Chuck Hegel: “Afghanistan has not gone as we had hoped. While the Taliban no longer rules, the government of President Hamid Karzai has gained little ground. Warlords, and those who may sympathize with al-Qaeda and extremists, still control much of the country-side. Afghanistan could descend into civil war, or perhaps a failed state, which would have grave consequences for stability in South and Central Asia… America will remain committed to help re-build Afghanistan...Afghanistan is the first test in the war on terrorism, and we cannot fail.”
Does anyone believe that the Iraqis are unaware of this shameful neglect? And wonder if they will be the next Afghanistan? Does anyone doubt that the world’s perception is that the US is walking away from Afghanistan, and that this inaction can only contribute further to the plummeting credibility of the United States?

We can no more walk away from Afghanistan than we can walk away from Iraq. Deficit or not, we need to stay the course in both countries. For the US, that means moving Afghanistan back to the front burner, using all our power and our skills in public diplomacy to mobilize help from other countries, and – if necessary – asking Congress to write another check. Most importantly, President Bush has to get personally involved -- even if an election is just over the horizon, and even if getting the Congress to pony up more money is going to be the hardest sell he’s ever been asked to make.

About the author: William Fisher has spent more than 25 years as an international development professional, working throughout the Middle East as well as in Asia and Latin America for the US Department of State and the US Agency for International Development.