The morning after the U.S. hit Iraq with Shock and Awe, I went out to the street in Kabul—the Street of Martyrs, as it happened—to face Sharif, my driver. He was in a deep, sorrowful rage. “Already you forget Afghanistan,” he said. “Just like before.”
“Before” was 1992, after the Soviet occupation. Soviet troops had already gone home when we dispatched the Afghan mujahidin—our proxy Cold Warriors—to bring down the central government they’d left behind. Then we abandoned the country to civil war. Every Afghan remembers that American betrayal.
Suddenly, the Bush administration recalls it too. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recently warned Canadians, alarmed by their soldiers’ rising death toll, against abandoning Afghanistan “again.” Rice said, “The consequences will come back to haunt us.”
The consequences the first time around were bad enough. For Afghans, the chaos of civil war led to the rule of the Sharia-law-and-order Taliban, sponsored—some say invented—by Pakistan and funded by Saudi Arabia, America’s odd “allies” in the region. For the U.S., a series of al-Qaeda attacks culminated in 9/11 and the belated realization that the Islamist extremists we’d sent against the Soviets in Afghanistan were not our good buddies after all.
But the question today is not simply—as it is framed in regard to Iraq—whether U.S. troops should stay or go. It’s more like: Where have we been?
Taking a line from Republicans, Senator Kerry charged that George W. Bush had “cut and run” from Afghanistan to Iraq. A more thoughtful assessment, prepared in 2004 for the Afghan Research and Evaluation Unit in Kabul, found that the U.S. and its international allies had never moved in to Afghanistan, never made “the necessary commitments and investments,” in the first place. In March 2004, the Berlin Conference on Afghanistan warned that such “minimal effort” continued “too long” would “adversely affect… the commitments” Afghans were asked to make to the new “democratic” Afghanistan. That’s what happened.
Meanwhile, the Taliban went on fighting, weather permitting, and slipped over the border to Pakistan in the off season for further study and training. They returned each spring a little stronger; and last spring they came back in force. Mullah Dadullah reportedly had 12,000 men at arms in the south, plus 400 suicide bombers, though U.S. and NATO forces—operating in “body-count” mode familiar from Vietnam—claim to have decimated them in recent weeks. Countless civilians, many of them women and children, have been killed as well by U.S. air “support.”
As combat heated up last spring, the U.S. announced plans to withdraw 6,000 troops and turn “reconstruction and development” over to NATO. British Lt. Gen. David Richards arrived in the south last summer with about 8,000 troops to find no reconstruction or development underway. He told reporters that he feared his British peacekeepers were at least two years too late. Entering villages to win hearts and minds, they first announced, “We are not Americans.”
But instead of building schools, his troops got ambushed and sucked into what the British press describes as the heaviest combat operations since World War II. Outnumbered, NATO called for reinforcements. It’s a measure of international faith in U.S. policies, five years after 9/11, that only Poland reluctantly agreed to send some soldiers “next year.” Canada, which had meant to help with reconstruction, agreed to send tanks. The U.S. dropped plans to extract troops and quietly sent more.
All along, Afghans have been yearning for disarmament, security, and peace. But the U.S. did things backward—pushing for a constitution, elections, a government (of the same old warlords)—all the trappings of democracy without ever negotiating anything like peace. “A breathtaking achievement,” Donald Rumsfeld called it, only months after the invasion. Yet U.N. Special Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi said recently that it was a “big mistake” not to talk to the Taliban, who are after all Afghans. What is democracy if not a mechanism to enable disparate factions to live together?
Without peace, there can be no security. And without security, no development. American “development” in any case is a peculiarly narcissistic affair: an aid program utterly privatized, with multi-million-dollar no-bid contracts going to American corporations distinguished mainly by their political connections. It’s another dandy scheme for transferring taxpayer dollars to the pockets of the already rich.
So it happens that now, having broken our promises—through greed, guile, inattention or simple incompetence—we offer Afghans more war.
Only weeks ago, President Karzai—our very own man in Kabul—pleaded with the U.S. to change course and stop killing Afghans. In response, Secretary of State Rice flew to Kabul to announce that the U.S. would fight to the death of the last Talib. That’s a no-win no-brainer since Taliban multiply daily in response to foreign occupation, but it seems now to be American policy.
Only Pakistan has made a kind of peace with Taliban who rule Waziristan (and may well harbor bin Laden) on the Afghan border. Waziri elders recently offered to convene a loya jirga to mediate a similar truce between the Karzai government and the Taliban of southern Afghanistan. It’s safe to bet that Condi will quash that—so keen is this administration on military, not diplomatic, “solutions,” especially when other armies do the fighting, and so eager to overlook the double-dealing of Pakistan, its peculiar pal in its endless misbegotten War on Terror.
Often it seems that Bush and Karzai are not on the same side. Addressing the general assembly of the U.N., President Karzai complains again about that neighbor (Pakistan) that fosters the Taliban; and he thanks another president for all he’s done to maintain peace and stability in the region—President Ahmadinejad of Iran. An Australian news agency asks: Do our troops fight for Afghanistan or for George W. Bush?
To muster such perplexed allies, Secretary Rice warns against abandoning Afghanistan again on the grounds that “we” can’t afford to leave a “failed state” in that strategic part of the world—especially not one that this administration, through its own failings, has manufactured itself.
Ann Jones is the author of Kabul In Winter, published by Metropolitan Books. An authority on women and violence, her work has appeared in numerous publications, including The New York Times and The Nation.