So what’s going on in Afghanistan?

So much of our Memorial Day coverage is focusing on WWII and Iraq, and a bit on Vietnam. It’s eerie, how little we hear about Afghanistan, our jewel in the crown, proof of the success of our little “war on terror.”

For months Afghanistan was all we heard about, and suddenly, as if by magic, it all morphed into Iraq. We can scarcely remember the pudgy little Mullah Omar and his cronies. We hear snippets: the Taliban are re-emerging, the opium trade is back. But how many of us actually has a clear picture of what’s going on in Afghanistan now?

Bob Novak is one of America’s journalists I admire the least, but like so many other conservative/reactionary pundits who’ve been sucking at Bush’s teat since 2001, he’s come full circle and is consumed with pessimism about our holy war. As I read his update on Afghanistan, I could feel his indignation, his contempt.

The handful of valiant American warriors fighting the ”other” war in Afghanistan is not a happy band of brothers. They are undermanned and feel neglected, lack confidence in their generals and are disgusted by Afghan political leadership. Most important, they are appalled by the immense but fruitless effort to find Osama bin Laden for purposes of U.S. politics.

This bleak picture goes unreported because journalists are rarely seen there. It was painted to me by hard U.S. fighters who are committed to the war against terrorism but have a heavy heart. They talked to me not to undermine policy but to reveal problems that should and can be corrected.

Afghanistan constitutes George W. Bush’s clearest victory since the terrorist attacks of 9/11. The Taliban regime has been overthrown, eliminating al-Qaida’s most important base. But the overlooked war continues with no end in sight. Narcotics trafficking is at an all-time high. If U.S. forces were to leave, the Taliban — or something like it — would regain power. The United States is lost in Afghanistan, bound to this wild country and unable to leave.

The situation in Afghanistan, as laid out to me, looks nothing like a country alleged to be progressing toward representative democracy under American tutelage. Hamid Karzai, the U.S.-sponsored Afghan president, is regarded by the U.S. troops as hopelessly corrupt and kept in power by U.S. force of arms.

Lost…hopeless…bleak…failure…disgusted…fruitless. What a description. It closes not with any optimism, but with a wail:

I am told that one discouraged and now discharged Special Forces officer, who always has voted Republican and admires Bush, thought about contacting a former military colleague now advising John Kerry. He decided that would accomplish nothing and would inject him in politics. Being lost in Afghanistan transcends politics and is a long-term American burden.

You have to see this in perspective. Novak has been known for decades as a ruthless right-wing hatchet man. You would think that with an election approaching, Novak would be holding his nose and using every chance he could to sing Bush’s praises. But he’s not, and neither are other members of the right-wing media chorus.

Bush’s chief leg up on Kerry is his at times brilliant use of propaganda. (No praise to Bush intended — it’s all thanks to Karl Rove and Karen Hughes.) I still worry he will use some spectacular PR event to win back the undecided. In fact, he tried to do it last week, with Ashcroft’s outrageous press conference, which was met with all the contempt it deserved. (And read the article — it’s a classic.) Finally, the fish didn’t take the bait.

PR tactics only work when you have transmitters like Novak to spread the word. Yes, there’s still Matt Drudge and Fox News and lots of others in the wings, but this sudden collapse, or at least crippling, of the Bush propangda machine is going to make it much more difficult for Bush’s soundbytes to be heard amid all the criticism. (Matthew Yglesias is doing a masterful job keeping track of former Bush supporters who are now thoroughly disillusioned. This recent addition was among the most devastating.)

Of all the calamities that could befall Bush, I believe this will be the most devastating. Now that the media are finally calling him to account and not sucking up, we all get to see the real Bush and what he has achieved. And there’s nothing there. Nothing. To the contrary.

Remember, our “success” in Afghanistan is the very foundation of the appeal to re-elect Shrub. It is representative of all those qualities Bush doesn’t possess but that he wants you to believe he does: Strength of purpose, indomitable will, a brilliant strategy for winning the “war on terror,” and the courage and skill of a “wartime president.”

When you read a column by Robert Novak about Afghanistan that leaves you wondering whether he might vote for John Kerry, you know Bush is in serious trouble.

UPDATE: A commenter just pointed me to this article, which begins with a priceless reminiscence and a return to reality:

In December, 2002, a year after the Taliban had been driven from power in Afghanistan, Donald Rumsfeld gave an upbeat assessment of the country’s future to CNN’s Larry King. “They have elected a government. . . . The Taliban are gone. The Al Qaeda are gone. The country is not a perfectly stable place, and it needs a great deal of reconstruction funds,” Rumsfeld said. “There are people who are throwing hand grenades and shooting off rockets and trying to kill people, but there are people who are trying to kill people in New York or San Francisco. So it’s not going to be a perfectly tidy place.” Nonetheless, he said, “I’m hopeful, I’m encouraged.” And he added, “I wish them well.”

A year and a half later, the Taliban are still a force in many parts of Afghanistan, and the country continues to provide safe haven for members of Al Qaeda. American troops, more than ten thousand of whom remain, are heavily deployed in the mountainous areas near Pakistan, still hunting for Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader. Hamid Karzai, the U.S.-backed President, exercises little political control outside Kabul and is struggling to undercut the authority of local warlords, who effectively control the provinces. Heroin production is soaring, and, outside of Kabul and a few other cities, people are terrorized by violence and crime. A new report by the United Nations Development Program, made public on the eve of last week’s international conference, in Berlin, on aid to Afghanistan, stated that the nation is in danger of once again becoming a “terrorist breeding ground” unless there is a significant increase in development aid.

What was the great achievement of our wartime president? Where is our victory? Where and how have we been made more safe? How are our lives better today than they were four years ago, under America’s last legally elected president? How much stronger are our alliances with our partners? How much more respsect has America garnered throughout the world? How much prouder are we all to be Americans?

There is not a single reason to vote for George Bush. Not one. And don’t reply, “John Kerry.” He may not be perfect, but the man is a hero, an intellect, a leader and a liberal. Yes, a liberal is a good thing, and it’s high time we get one back into the White House.

Sorry for the rant, but Bush has got to go.

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Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.

The Discussion: 24 Comments

Not quite as damning as when Novak sticks it to Dubya, but you should read Seymour Hersh on “the other war”. This was Hersh’s column just prior to his series on Abu Ghraib and the amoral reasoning that got the US in to that moral quagmire.

May 31, 2004 @ 6:27 pm | Comment

Tom, that’s a great article. I just linked it in to my post. Thanks.

May 31, 2004 @ 6:45 pm | Comment

“If U.S. forces were to leave, the Taliban — or something like it — would regain power.”

A bit of perspective: we still have 40,000 troops in South Korea 50 years after the Korean war. So the fact of continuing problems in Afghanistan two years on shouldn’t surprise anyone. If it surprises Kovak, that says more about his unrealistic ideas than anything else.

Regarding your final point about needing a liberal in the White House, I can think of many good things that a liberal in the White House would do, but last time there was a liberal in the White House, we invaded Kosovo, which is arguably now in worse shape than either Afghanistan or Iraq, so the liberal war record probably isn’t a good reason to run against Bush.

May 31, 2004 @ 8:54 pm | Comment

Boo, I don’t get your point about Korea. We didn’t WIN the war there, as we did (or said we did) in Afghanistan! That’s why we need the troops in Korea, to protect those we went to defend from the enemy, who remains in power.

I don’t know about the “liberal war record.” Let’s see, there’s liberal Woodrow Wilson in WWI, liberals Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman in WWII –pretty good, wouldn’t you say? I don’t quite get your point. About Kosovo: Are we back to the ethnic cleansing, the genocide of Albanian Moslems, which was the reason we fought? Has that really recurred? I honestly haven’t heard a word about it. Where can I get more information?

May 31, 2004 @ 9:09 pm | Comment

Richard,
OK, I’ll grant you Korea, but there are still troops in Japan and Germany, where we won. The point is if the US wants to change societies, it’s not going to be done in a few years. Whether it’s a good idea to go this approach is, of course, open to debate.

I don’t really want to go too far back in comparing liberal administrations because of the shift in the definition of “liberal”, but in terms of war, there is little difference in the behavior of the Bush and Clinton administrations, both of which bypassed the UN in starting wars for their own interests.
And yes, there is ongoing ethnic violence in Kosovo with no end in site.

May 31, 2004 @ 9:49 pm | Comment

The reason the US has troops in Korea, Okinawa and Germany is a remnant of the policy of “Containment”. If you check the Korean blogs, you’ll see that the US is reconsidering the rationale behind this policy. I’d expect to see the US close a lot of bases in Germany soon and if Bush gets re-elected, I’d expect the US to pull out of Korea completely.

Advanced bases will remain in Okinawa, Diego Garcia, Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and/or Iraq.

May 31, 2004 @ 10:06 pm | Comment

Boo, with all due respect, you don’t know what you’re talking about. If you want to compare a pre-emptive strike with the goal of regime change based on no serious or immediate threat with a strictly humanitarian mission to stop the genocide of the Moslem minority at the hands of the Serbs, that’s your privilege. I have never heard anyone, not even Clinton’s bitterest enemies, make such a nutty charge, but if you want to believe it, what can I do? Meanwhile, where’s your link about ongoing genocide against the Moslems by the Serbs. I’d be most interested. (And don’t give me some generality about “ethnic strife.” There has been ethnic strife in the Balkans for centuries and centuries, and nothing Clinton or any other American president could do would stop it permanently — that’s up to the citizens there to achieve. But he did stop the mass murder. There was no guarantee that was the end of all troubles there forever. But his “mission accomplished” really was a mission accomplished. There was no hellish, bloody occupation, no foolish promises made to the Americans that were then broken.

May 31, 2004 @ 10:07 pm | Comment

Richard:

What in the world are you talking about? Are you seriously describing the US mission in Afghanistan — because Afghanistan not Iraq is the issue being discussed — as “a pre-emptive strike with the goal of regime change based on no serious or immediate threat“?

The removal of the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan was not pre-emptive, it was retaliatory. The threat posed by the existing regime was not only “serious and immediate” it was historic (remember New York, September 11, airplanes, towers?).

Furthermore, no serious person ever envisioned anything remotely like Jeffersonian democracy in Afghanistan. What Thomas Friedman wrote on Sunday about Iraq is even truer for Afghanistan:


“[a] tribalized Arab state, where democracy is everyone’s third choice. Their first choice is always: “My tribe wins and my rivals lose.” Second choice is: “My tribe loses, so yours must lose too.” Third choice is: “My tribe wins and so do my rivals.”

To describe Afghanistan as a failure is an example of the “why isn’t everything perfect already” school of punditry. The proper comaprison is with the last attempt to remove one government, substitue another and defeat resistance fighters in that country. Remember the Soviets? The other superpower at the time? Recall how their adventure mountains turned out.

Afghanistan is a mess. It has always been a mess. It will likely always be a mess. As long as that mess isn’t being exported, I don’t give a damn. It isn’t. Mission accomplished.

May 31, 2004 @ 10:55 pm | Comment

Sorry Conrad — I wasn’t clear. I was responding to a specific line from Boo’s comment: “in terms of war, there is little difference in the behavior of the Bush and Clinton administrations, both of which bypassed the UN in starting wars for their own interests.” When he said “bypassed the UN, I presumed he was referring to Iraq, and that’s what I was going on about.

May 31, 2004 @ 11:01 pm | Comment

So…what should be the right course of action? I’m waiting for your thoughts in terms of what should or should not have been done. More troops in Afganistan? Pull out? Stay put and do nothing after 911? Focus on Afganistan and forget about Iraq? Rant is good…but what’s your solution? I don’t see Karry would have done something very different given the situation.

June 1, 2004 @ 1:32 am | Comment

Richard:

I see. So if Bush had declared that the reason for invading Iraq was the humanitarian liberation of the oppressed Iraqi Shiite minority from Saddam’s oppression, that would make things okay? Because, make no mistake, Saddam killed a hell of a lot more Muslims/Iraqis (take you pick) than Molosovic ever did.

June 1, 2004 @ 2:34 am | Comment

BTW Richard, you may not think there’s a comparison to be made between Kosovo and Iraq, however, Marek Edelman, the last surviving leader of the Jewish Uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto does.

You can find his thoughts here.

June 1, 2004 @ 3:13 am | Comment

Thanks for the article Conrad. I don’t like the interviewer, who says Abu Ghraib was just the act of “a few perverts,” but his point about creating democracy in Kosovo is valid. But that was a realistic possibility. Creating democracy in Iraq was far more difficult, yet it was presented to us as a relatively simple matter that would pay for itself with dollars from oil. You have to admit that what’s going on in Iraq a year after Mission Accomplished is not at all what we were led to believe. It could have happened if it had been done the right way (maybe), but once the looting started and it was perceived we didn’t have the manpower on the ground to enforce the law, we lost control, and the liberation, as we all know, turned into a bloody occupation. Even the most die-hard conservatives now, like Tony Blankley and John McLaughlin, have predicted recently that soon after we hand over sovereignty the government will disintegrate amid civil war. I’m not much more optimistic.

June 1, 2004 @ 7:33 am | Comment

So if Bush had declared that the reason for invading Iraq was the humanitarian liberation of the oppressed Iraqi Shiite minority from Saddam’s oppression, that would make things okay?

I think so. The main reason I wanted to see us topple Saddam was humanitarian. I thought it was justified. But to go in and fire the army and focus on oil above drinking water and electricity (and many other mistakes) was exactly the wrong thing to do. That told citizens it was not a true humanitarian mission. As usual with Bush, we had a golden opportunity, squandered through a lack of planning and flexibility, and a whole lot of arrogance

June 1, 2004 @ 7:38 am | Comment

MC: More troops in Afganistan? Pull out? Stay put and do nothing after 911? Focus on Afganistan and forget about Iraq? Rant is good…but what’s your solution? I don’t see Karry would have done something very different given the situation.

I don’t know if I have an ideal solution, as I don’t know enough about the history and culture of Afghanistan to make such decisions. But my initial thoughts: Pulling troops from Afghanistan was a serious mistake. Going to war in Iraq had to put pressures on our military in Afghanistan. It had to drain resources from our “war on terror.” So I would have waited at least several months, maybe a year or more to invade Iraq. Finish the job first. I never saw the job of going into Afghanistan to be one of nation building, but of ousting the Taliban and ridding the country of al-Qaeda and its sympathisers. For so many months we heard wonderful news about this effort, and it seemed to be working. And now, all we hear is bad news. What happened? I have to conclude that if we had many more troops there instead of Iraq we could deal far better with the raids and attacks. Now we have two big black holes. Handling one was a momentous enough challenge. Dealing with two is obviously impossible: we maybe, maybemaybe

June 1, 2004 @ 7:51 am | Comment

I was just re-reading Alistair Cooke’s last Letter from America, in which he pointed out that Clinton was as concerned as anyone about “an overnight Saddam attack and either the outbreak of a whole Middle Eastern war or the death of…Israel.”
Paraphrasing further, Clinton had plans to invade Iraq, on his own, but his domestic scandals dragged him down.

Note there were no humanitarian concerns on Clinton’s part regarding Iraq, just an inability to act in destroying the Saddam regime, which was his real goal. Humanitarian issues are secondary to national security, which is as it should be.

June 1, 2004 @ 8:44 am | Comment

Note there were no humanitarian concerns on Clinton’s part regarding Iraq

How on earth do you know that? How can you say with authority that Clinton had no humanitarian concerns for the people of Iraq?

Yes, national security comes first. Which is precisely why we needed to focus on the true war on terror being fought in Afghanistan, as opposed to a regime of an old man in the twilight years of his dictatorship, which had zero WMDs and no significant (if any) ties to the truly threatening al Qaeda.

June 1, 2004 @ 8:51 am | Comment

OK, I’ll rephrase: Clinton’s public statements indicated that humanitarian concerns in Iraq were not important to him. Of course I can’t read into the heart of Clinton, I can only judge by what he said.

Your last point probably gets to the heart of the problem: you think the war is centered in Afghanistan and on Al Qaeda, but the Bush administration seems to think that the war involves rebuilding the entire middle east. Much much more ambitious in scope.

And just so you don’t get the wrong idea, I didn’t vote for Bush, and don’t plan to this time either. I just don’t think a liberal President would be significantly different in exercising war plans. If anything, a liberal President would have far more leeway to be much more ruthless than Bush has been.

June 1, 2004 @ 9:33 am | Comment

I originally thought Bush’s plan might work — if he had the support of our allies. That is absolutely key to a mission of such monumental scope. His father made brilliant use of the UN in his own war against Iraq. As reviled as the UN is, it does serve a purpose, which is why Bush had to flip-flop and turn to UN mediation to help set up the new governing body in Iraq. But in 2003, we made a conscious and deliberate decision to burn our bridges; we offended and insulted our potential allies all along the way. We had their support beyond all belief in Afghanistan. But as soon as they raised questions, instead of gentle persuasion, we lashed out at them. They were weasels. They were “against us.” GHW Bush wisely urged us to become “a kinder, gentler nation,” and his boy did the exact opposite, and it is certainly partially responsible for why we’re now fucked.

Anyway, thanks for clarifying your viewpoint. I appreciate it.

June 1, 2004 @ 10:14 am | Comment

I think you and I were pretty much on the same page regarding the justification for invading Iraq. I fully concede that it has turned out to be a lot more difficult than I envisioned. I assume that’s the same for the Administration. So, what went wrong?

The way I see it is that the mistake was over-estimating the Arabs, who turned out to be even more nihilistic and/or less capable of self rule than imagined.

As for the Iraqi Army. I still don’t know whether disbanding it was a good or bad thing. Yes, a couple hundred extra troops would be useful, but, the quality of those troops was awful and the leadership of the Army was entirely Sunni Baathist — meaning that, (1) it might have provoked more Shiite resistance and (2) it could never be really trusted.

Keeping the Army intact might have set the stage, after the US departed, for a Sunni Shiite civil war or a military coup.

We’ll never know whether one of those things would have occured. But, you know as well as I that, if it did, pundits would be screaming “why didn’t Bush disband the Army?”

June 1, 2004 @ 10:07 pm | Comment

You make a good point, Conrad: The media were hysterical that Rumsfeld didn’t say in bold and uncompromising language that Abu Grahib would be torn down. How dare he leave this symbol of Saddam’s sadism standing, and use it again as a jail, no less? Then Bush said last week that we would tear it down, and guess what happened? The media all came out in chorus about the huge cost it would encompass and the lack of thought that went into the decision.

But they do this to every incumbent, especially in an election year. And they’ve been doing it to Kerry all year (who the fuck cares if he drives an SUV?). At least the media are assholes toward everyone.

June 2, 2004 @ 3:27 pm | Comment

this is really gay and stupied and i wish they all die

October 4, 2004 @ 7:50 am | Comment

I think this whole thing is a joke. first of all, the turks invaded sweeden for a god damn reason!!!! So just because canada came in with federal militants doesn’t mean we should be somwhere!!!!

February 2, 2005 @ 10:18 pm | Comment

I believe that to have peace you have to have war.

September 18, 2005 @ 8:43 pm | Comment

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