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.
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Mr. Bush, you’re no Woodrow Wilson!
By William Fisher

I listened to President Bush’s speech to the National Endowment for Democracy last week (Nov. 6). The speech was well delivered. The language was eloquent. The vision was sweeping -- almost Wilsonian. Yet when I put the man and the words together, I somehow felt hollow, disappointed, uninspired. Then the light went on: I found I couldn’t believe that the President actually believed a single word he said. What I heard told me more about White House strategists and speechwriters than it did about the messenger.

I can understand the sense of urgency among White House spinmeisters to try to restore the post 9/11 confidence of the American people in their leader. But the whole performance left me with the sinking feeling that this was merely the latest chapter in the vast White House conspiracy to get the President looking Presidential again. Maybe the President is sincere; I hope so. But the speech didn’t work for me. And the reason was the credibility thing. The American people – and the rest of the world -- have been misled too many times.

We invaded Afghanistan, threw the bad guys out, promised billions to catch Osama and rebuild the country – and then did neither. We repackaged a bunch of mostly old ideas and came up with a ‘roadmap’ for Israeli-Palestinian peace. The President promised to remain personally engaged, and then didn’t. We attacked Iraq – an ‘imminent threat’ to our national security – following one of the truly colossal diplomatic failures in our history. No matter, we were told, we had a ‘coalition of the willing’, including such mighty allies as Portugal and Guinea. We were going to find and destroy Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction, including his imported uranium. We didn’t. Or maybe our mission was to find and capture an unspeakable despot? We haven’t. We were told we were not at war with Islam; then every Muslim not nailed down was rounded up by Mr. Bush’s Department of Justice. We were told that Iraq’s oil would pay for it’s the country’s reconstruction; $20 billion later, we have reason to suspect that isn’t going to happen. We were told our service men and women would be welcomed as heroes, so the post-war plan we had must have been for some other war. Today, our heroes are in a shooting gallery. Or maybe our real reason for going to war was to bring democracy to Iraq, even though nation-building has always been a dirty word in this Administration.

Now, having consistently equated nation-building with something more awful than the plague, the President is proposing to bring democracy not only to Iraq, but to the entire Middle East – the neighborhood of theocratic and authoritarian governments we have cozied up to for half a century and supported with billions of dollars in US aid funds.

The President said: “Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe -- because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty. As long as the Middle East remains a place where freedom does not flourish, it will remain a place of stagnation, resentment, and violence ready for export...Therefore, the United States has adopted a new policy, a forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East. This strategy requires the same persistence and energy and idealism we have shown before. And it will yield the same results. As in Europe, as in Asia, as in every region of the world, the advance of freedom leads to peace... The advance of freedom is the calling of our time; it is the calling of our country. From the Fourteen Points to the Four Freedoms, to the Speech at Westminster, America has put our power at the service of principle…We believe that freedom -- the freedom we prize -- is not for us alone, it is the right and the capacity of all mankind….”
Right, no argument there. But just how is the President going to do all this? Cut off aid to the sinners? Increase aid to foster democracy and civil society? Work with the UN? Make preemptive strikes? Well, Mr. Bush’s speech was a tad short on details. Like none. This speech, White House spinners told reporters, was about the vision, not the details.
So, to try to calibrate the probabilities of this vision ever becoming reality, the only thing we have to go on is Mr. Bush’s past record of keeping his promises and telling us the truth. On that basis, we will be waiting a very long time for Saudi Arabia’s first presidential primary!
When the President finished his speech, I somehow found myself thinking back twenty-five years, to the televised debate between vice presidential candidates Lloyd Bentsen and Dan Quayle. Fast-forward to the present and you can almost hear Sen. Bentsen saying to our current President roughly the same words Sen. Bentsen used regarding John F. Kennedy: “Mr. Bush, I knew Woodrow Wilson, and you’re no Woodrow Wilson.”
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The author is an international economic development professional, having worked in many of the countries of the Middle East for the US Department of State and the US Agency for International Development. He served in the international affairs area in the Kennedy Administration.