Think Again a Forgotten War

Center for American Progress , December 12, 2003

Two years after the U.S. dropped its first bombs over Afghanistan in President Bush’s global war against terrorism, the Taliban are reportedly regrouping in the lawless tribal region straddling the Afghan-Pakistan border. Last year, President Bush had described the post-Taliban period as “the new era of hope in Afghanistan.” Congress recently increased aid and military spending for Afghanistan as part of the $87 billion Iraq-Afghanistan supplemental appropriations bill. But the news from Afghanistan, which has slowed down to a trickle due to the media’s unwillingness to put reporters on the ground, is not particularly good. (See Joe Strupp’s ‘Few Newspapers Covering Afghanistan’ in Editor & Publisher Online) Americans are hearing plenty about America’s war of choice in Iraq, but almost nothing about the war that, had it been better funded, planned and executed might actually have done something to arrest the threat of terrorism. The news is not good. Here’s some of what we’re not seeing or hearing.

In addition to the resurgence of the Taliban, Afghanistan has resumed harvesting massive amounts of opium and now accounts for 77 percent of global opium production according to the latest annual report of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. Twenty-eight out of 32 provinces in Afghanistan now produce the drug crop, up from 18 provinces in 1999. Cultivation has spread outside the traditional eastern and southern producing areas. The 3,600 tons of opium produced in Afghanistan last year was processed into 360 tons of heroin. The total revenues of poppy farmers and traffickers amounted to more than half of Afghanistan’s gross domestic product of $4.4 billion. Drug money now finances local warlords and terrorists, possibly including the resurgent Taliban.

In military terms, the Taliban pose no significant threat to the 10,000 American troops based in and around Kabul. Their guerilla attacks have served only to scare away civilian aid workers and to limit foreigners to the environs of Kabul and other large cities. There is no chance that the Taliban will re-establish themselves as the rulers of any significant part of Afghanistan any time soon. But the absence of effective government and the persistence of security problems mean that an Islamist underground in Afghanistan will not be easily eliminated. The Taliban could continue to make Afghanistan ungovernable and could be serious wreckers of the planned process to build an Afghan democracy when elections are held as scheduled in 2004. Drug money would be another destabilizing factor in those elections. Afghanistan may never have been a candidate to become a new Vietnam, but it is clearly on its way to becoming a central Asian Colombia.

The U.S. moved on to Iraq without first rooting out Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. In their hurry to win the first of many wars against terrorists and their supporters, administration officials over-simplified their strategy for Afghanistan. The poorly-equipped Taliban were bombed from the skies by the U.S. Air Force and pressured on the ground by troops of the Northern Alliance. When they abandoned the capital, Kabul, victory was declared and Hamid Karzai’s government was installed through an internationally brokered settlement. But the Taliban were allowed to melt into the countryside, and go across to Pakistan, which had been their ally and mentor before 9/11.

An international force was sent in to secure Kabul but security in the provinces was entrusted to local warlords. Although the Karzai government is struggling to expand its writ throughout the country, it is poorly funded and insufficiently equipped. In the first two years, the United States spent $11 billion a year on its military forces in Afghanistan and only $900 million on reconstruction aid. A Rand Corporation study of recent nation-building efforts showed how the Bush administration tried to rebuild Afghanistan – the country where the 9/11 attacks were planned by Al-Qaeda under Taliban rule – on the cheap. Compared with 18.6 international peacekeepers per 1,000 people in Bosnia and 20 in Kosovo, the 4,800 person international peacekeeping force in Kabul amounts to fewer than .2 people per 1,000 Afghans. Even if we include the 11,500 (mostly U.S.) combat troops, we are still left with fewer than one per thousand. Per capita foreign aid for the first two years of conflict in Bosnia was $1,390 and in Kosovo $814. In Afghanistan, it is $52.

Afghanistan’s problems are linked, in part, to the continuing tribulations of its eastern neighbor, Pakistan. The United States has looked to Pakistan as a major ally in its ongoing war against Al-Qaeda, beginning with General Pervez Musharraf’s decision in September 2001 to abandon the Taliban, whom Pakistan had previously supported. Although Pakistan has cooperated with the U.S. military and law enforcement in capturing Al-Qaeda leaders and operatives, it remains ambivalent regarding Islamist violence in the Himalayan territory of Jammu and Kashmir, over which it has an ongoing dispute with nuclear-armed rival India. Jihadi elements within Pakistan maintain covert links with global terrorists, making them potential threats to U.S. interests as well as a destabilizing factor in India-Pakistan relations. The Bush administration, however, refuses to acknowledge Pakistan’s military regime as part of the problem.

Washington’s virtually unconditional support and several hundred million dollars in aid have bolstered General Musharraf’s authority. He now appears to have a free pass on most issues from human rights violations to covert support for Islamic militants (See Ahmad Rashid’s article at the Yale Global and mine at the Wall Street Journal).

The Bush administration’s message seems to be that professed Pakistani support for the war against terrorism and the periodic handing over by Pakistan of arrested Al-Qaeda figures is sufficient to qualify Pakistan as America’s ally. The Pakistanis were responsible for arresting almost every significant Al-Qaeda leader now in US custody and the U.S. certainly owes General Musharraf for that cooperation. But Pakistan’s military leadership has a long history of obliging the U.S. in one area to be able to get away with a lot more in other spheres. Support for the Reagan administration’s anti-Soviet Jihad in Afghanistan enabled Pakistan to ensure that Washington turned a blind eye to its nuclear weapons program in the 1980s. Now, once again, a narrowly-focused American policy is strengthening a Pakistani military dictatorship which has a domestic and regional agenda that is not always consistent with U.S. interests.

Pakistan’s regional interests and those of the U.S. are simply not the same. Pakistan’s military leadership views the world from the prism of its rivalry with India. It wants Afghanistan to be a loyal backyard, free of Indian influence. That was the main reason for Pakistan’s pre-9/11 support for the Taliban. Despite professing support for the U.S., General Musharraf and his military colleagues are not willing to shut down the Taliban’s support network in Pakistan. The Taliban are mainly ethnic Pashtuns and share their ethnicity with Pakistanis living in provinces bordering Afghanistan. Musharraf and the Pakistan military want to retain the Taliban as instruments of influence in Afghanistan if and when the U.S. interest there wanes or the Karzai government fails.

For decades, the Pakistani military’s worldview has been shaped by its hostility to India and its desire to retain a dominant role in Pakistan’s politics. For both purposes, the Pakistani military needs the Islamists as, at least, covert allies. The Islamists keep Pakistan’s secular democratic politicians at bay and help create an anti-India frenzy, something the Pakistani military finds useful. That is the main reason that Musharraf, after a strictly-controlled parliamentary election last year, allowed an alliance of Islamist parties to secure power in the provinces bordering Afghanistan. He has reserved his repression for secular democratic parties, accused of incompetence and corruption, while clamping down only cosmetically against Islamist militants.

The Bush administration’s willingness to look the other way over a range of issues, from non-proliferation to support for regional Islamic militants to lack of progress toward democracy, in return for limited support from Pakistan’s military regime will aggravate its problems in Afghanistan. The rise of Al-Qaeda and the Taliban was blowback from U.S. support of the anti-Soviet Jihad in the 1980s, waged in Afghanistan with Pakistan as its staging ground. Just wait for the blowback from the current U.S. engagement in that region.