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Losing “The Great Game": The Failure of US Policy in Afghanistan 

click to enlarge CAINE  ROSE
  • Caine Rose

The war has been a disaster; the occupation continues to be a great disaster.
It hasn’t generated anything but more violence and hate. What simply cannot
be is that after it became so clear how badly it was handled there
(would) be no consequences.

—Spanish Prime Minister-elect Jose Zapatero

These words, spoken right after the Spanish elections in March, refer to the war in Iraq and its blowback in the Madrid train bombings, but they also perfectly sum up the war in Afghanistan. More than two years after the much heralded us-Afghan triumph over the Taliban and its al-Qaeda allies in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the country has been allowed to slip back into anarchy. A vastly inadequate reconstruction effort and military operations that have alienated much of the local population have set the stage for a resurgence of the ostensibly defeated anti-coalition forces.

“The reconstruction effort has been very slow and unfocused,” Kathy Gannon, the longtime Associated Press correspondent in Central Asia, told the New Yorker in March. “Many ordinary Afghans haven’t seen the positive effects of removing the Taliban. You have a war still being waged while you are trying to rebuild. And the price America pays for it is, to a great extent, a disillusionment among the people.”

Widely regarded as a necessary and justified military action, the initial regime change in Afghanistan was achieved within a matter of months. Yet wars must be prosecuted to a definitive resolution before they can be said to be won, or even over.

The greatest distortion of the facts put forward by the Bush administration, and perpetuated by the media, has been that Afghanistan has been in a postwar, reconstructive phase since Hamid Karzai’s government took power in late 2001. The fact is that the principal villains—al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden, Taliban leader Mullah Omar, and renegade warlord Gulbaddin Hekmatyar—are alive and at large in the frontier mountains, and in command of considerable support. The war has merely entered a low-intensity phase. The reconstruction effort has entered the same phase, regrettably, and it was on the successful reconstruction that the success of the venture to ensure that Afghanistan can never again serve as a haven for terrorists entirely depended.

A Proud Nation
Proud and tenaciously vigilant of their liberty, the peoples of Afghanistan accepted the US intervention in the hope that it would bring about a radical change in the desperate physical conditions to which they had been reduced by a quarter century of savage war. For the Pashtun ethnic group—the founding and traditionally ruling people of the Afghanistan and from whom the Taliban drew its main support—opposition to the fundamentalist militia was decidedly a secondary concern. By the time of its fall, the Taliban had succeeded in imposing an iron discipline over the pivotal Pashtun south and east of the county. This area had been especially ravished during the anti-Soviet war and the subsequent warlord and criminal anarchy it had produced. Also, by ousting the Tajik-dominated mujahideen government, which ruled Kabul from 1992 to 1996, in a series of lightning military campaigns, the Taliban had restored a sense of nang to the Pashtun, the all-important honor around which Afghan life revolves. If the Taliban’s excesses went far beyond even the most conservative dictates of Pashtunwali, the southern tribal code, the trade-off was considered more than acceptable.

Confronted with the universal world outcry that followed 9/11, and presented with the reality of the us military victory and the substantial role that anti-Taliban Pashtun leaders had played in it, the Pashtun acquiesced to the new internationally backed regime. With a respected southern tribal leader, Hamid Karzai, as head of the new government and the blessings of the returned ex-king, Zahir Shah, who symbolized a golden age of Afghan tradition, the Pashtun waited for the Marshall Plan–style transformations of infrastructure rebuilding and economic revival that President Bush promised them when speaking at the Virginia Military Institute in the spring of 2002.

“We know that true peace will only be achieved when we give the Afghan people the means to achieve their own aspirations,” the President said. “By helping to build an Afghanistan that is free from this evil [terrorism] and is a better place in which to live, we are working in the best traditions of George Marshall.”

Reconstruction Aid Bait & Switch
Two years later, those hopes have been utterly betrayed. Afghanistan, a country of more than 25 million people whose agricultural and industrial infrastructure had been utterly ravaged by decades of war, needed tens of billions of dollars in reconstructive aid. Instead only $4.5 billion was pledged at the Tokyo donors’ conference, held in January 2002, much of which was not effectively spent and, most importantly, not spent in the right place—the countryside, where most Afghans live. Excessive amounts were used in non-governmental-organization startups and salaries, symbolized by the expenditure on guesthouses and vehicles in the radically Kabul-centric relief effort.

Speaking of Afghanistan

  • Vanni Cappelli on the failure of US policy in Afghanistan.

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