Don't Panic! April 09 2003

Your war questions answered

What's been happening in Afghanistan since the outbreak of war in Iraq?

What's happening? Dude! What isn't happening? There's so much going on in Afghanistan that you might think they were having their own war.

Oh, wait, they are having a war. Despite collapsing like a house of playing cards (which they would have banned as un-Islamic), the Taliban just won't go away. So, Operation Enduring Freedom continues. We knew the Taliban were as charming as roaches; it turns out they're as persistent as well.

U.S. and Afghan forces recently launched a big offensive in the mountains near the town of Spinboldak, which is close to Afghanistan's border with Pakistan. The target was a small group of Taliban soldiers. The offensive is a response to what's described by American and Afghan forces as a substantial increase in Taliban military activity. It's also a response to the March 29 ambush killing of two U.S. Special Forces soldiers.

Why is the Taliban so hard to stamp out? Any longtime apartment dweller will tell you it's impossible to get rid of insects if your neighbors also are infested. Unfortunately for Afghanistan, neighboring Pakistan is rife with the pests. Taliban leaders and soldiers have safe houses across the border, even though the Pakistani government is officially one of our staunchest allies in the War Against Terror ™. Pakistan's Islamic militant movement is the Taliban's most important power base. According to top Afghan officials, the Taliban still are being helped by some people in high positions in the Pakistani government, which, among other things, recently freed a bunch of Islamic militant leaders from prison.

U.S. and Afghan military forces aren't the only ones finding Afghanistan's freedom a bit unendurable. The U.N. peacekeeping force's headquarters in Kabul was hit March 30 by a rocket. I wonder if the attack had anything to do with the U.N.'s recent report citing Afghanistan as the world's top drug-producing country in 2002. Do you think they give out trophies for that?

Believe it or not, drugs and the Taliban aren't Afghanistan's biggest problem. The biggest problem is the lack of an effective central government. President Hamid Karzai has been nicknamed the "Mayor of Kabul" by some Afghans because he has no power outside the capital. An estimated 200,000 Afghan soldiers are loyal to their local warlords. Without a massive infusion of foreign money and manpower to help the central government, Afghanistan could slip back into civil war.

Afghanistan isn't all bad news though. It's actually more peaceful now than it's been in 25 years. School recently started in most of the country and enrollment is up from 3.3 million last year to 4.5 million. Though prohibitions persist in some areas, girls no longer are Tali-banned from all schools. In a symbolic grab at modernity, the country just acquired the .af Internet domain, which until recently belonged to some guy with a Kabul address named Abdul Razeeq.

It's tempting to draw parallels between Operation Enduring Problems in Afghanistan and the current war in Iraq. We really haven't followed up with enough aid for Karzai; does that mean Americans won't have the willpower to spend tons of money on nation building in Iraq? Afghans' lives have improved despite the ongoing mayhem; does that bode well for Iraq? After all, you can't do much worse than the Taliban, but you can't do much worse than Saddam either.

On the other hand, the situations also are very different. Iraq has loads and loads of oil. Afghanistan's only natural resource seems to be those opium poppies; funny how a country that excels at misery also excels at dulling it.

One of the country's most exciting developments is the recent completion of the first Taliban-themed film musical. Escape From the Taliban is an Indian movie about a woman fleeing a Taliban death sentence for refusing to convert to Islam. An Indian critic was quoted as saying it's "not very subtle." Then again, neither were the Taliban. What I'm worried about is how you're supposed to figure out who's talking when they're all wearing burkas.


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