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.
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.