What's the current condition of Afghanistan? (2)
Don't Panic ... Your War Questions Answered - The second in a two-part series
Editor's note: This column is the second in a two-part series. For part one, visit atlanta.creativeloafing.com/afghanistan.
Last week, I wrote about the White House's campaign to lull the American public into thinking that Afghanistan is mostly awesome today, with a 99 percent chance of more awesomeness ahead.
The White House's spin routine is best summarized in this snippet from the president's most recent speech about the War on TerrorTM:
"Today in Afghanistan, there is a fledgling democracy. Al-Qaeda no longer has run of the country; the Taliban is routed; there's an elected parliament and president dedicated to democratic institutions. (Applause)*."
In a strict, legalese, "I did not have sexual relations with that woman" sense, President Bush's words aren't untrue. In a "this is how normal people communicate in English" sense, however, the president's words are false because of what they leave out.
The Taliban no longer governs Afghanistan, and al-Qaeda no longer has the host government's active "help" (aka "run of the country"). But to suggest that the two groups are neither present nor active in Afghanistan is simply wrong.
Afghanistan's south and east are crawling with Taliban and al-Qaeda members whom U.S. forces are still trying to hunt down. Pentagon and White House spokespersons have repeatedly characterized the continued hunt for Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan as a mopping-up type mission, but that's simply not true. It's a war. As many U.S. soldiers died in Afghanistan in 2005 — 97 total — as did in the two prior years combined.
In addition, Taliban insurgents are still able to use Pakistan as a staging area for military operations in neighboring Afghanistan. Taliban forces have recently been using suicide bombers against U.S. and Afghan government forces. The investigations of the bombings indicate they were planned in Pakistan and in many cases carried out by Pakistanis with little interference (and probably the active assistance of) Pakistani authorities.
By all credible accounts, Pakistan's oft-touted military effort to secure its border with Afghanistan has been a bust. According to a January New York Times report, several Pakistani officials (speaking off the record, of course) say Taliban forces now have more control of the tribal areas that straddle the Pakistan-Afghanistan border than they've ever had. And Pakistani officials admit that the government's military offensive to combat them has largely ceased.
What's more, Taliban (and other extremist sympathizers) are sheltering al-Qaeda leaders in the region, including Osama bin Laden (if he's alive) and Ayman Al-Zawahiri (whom the United States recently tried to kill in Pakistan with missiles from an unmanned aircraft).
One of the reasons Taliban forces have been able to continue fighting U.S. forces (more effectively now than ever before) is money. Since the Taliban was driven from power in 2001, Afghanistan's opium production has skyrocketed. Afghanistan produces somewhere in the neighborhood of 90 percent of the world's opium. Though they stamped out opium production when in power, the Taliban is now in the drug business — mooching off opium farmers who have little choice but to plant opium if they want money to feed their families.
Aid and rebuilding efforts haven't done much for southern and eastern Afghanistan's farmers, precisely because the Taliban and al-Qaeda are still so strong there. It's a deadly cycle.
One of the hardest parts of writing this column has been trying to boil down the book-length list of bad news I've collected about Afghanistan into something that's column-length. Fortunately, I found one succinct explanation already written for me:
"The ability of Afghan authorities to maintain order and ensure the security of citizens and visitors is limited. Remnants of the former Taliban regime and the terrorist al-Qaida network, and other groups hostile to the government, remain active. U.S.-led military operations continue. Travel in all areas of Afghanistan, including the capital, Kabul, is unsafe due to military operations, land mines, banditry, armed rivalry among political and tribal groups, and the possibility of terrorist attacks, including attacks using vehicular or other Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), and kidnapping. The security environment remains volatile and unpredictable."
That's from the U.S. State Department's travel warnings Web page. One of the trials of having such a large and unwieldy federal bureaucracy is that the Afghanistan talking points memo obviously hasn't had time to make it from the White House to the State Department.
- "(Applause)" is actually included in the White House transcript of the speech.