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The West is Walking Away From Afghanistan - Again
24 June 2002
In the heady days after the Taliban fell, western politicians developed a simple refrain. "This time we will not walk away," they promised. By that they meant no repetition of what happened after western-supported mojahedin forces gained control of Afghanistan a decade earlier. Foreign governments had cheered their allies' victory, but when the mojahedin factions fell out and destroyed Kabul in an orgy of artillery shelling, rape and murder, they turned a blind eye.
It was an experience that Mohammed Latif will never forget. A civil servant who now earns more by driving a taxi, he lives across the street from the site of the loya jirga or grand tribal council which chose the country's new government last week. His house was damaged during the mojahedin fighting. Huge shell-holes are still visible on the two-story facade, now partly filled by bricks. Latif pointed up the hill to the Intercontinental Hotel (where most of the loya jirga press corps was staying) and described how forces loyal to the main Tajik mojahedin commander, Ahmed Shah Massoud, had fired down from the ridge on to his neighborhood during the years of anarchy.
He hoped the west would exert a restraining hand this time. Yet, as the loya jirga ended, it was hard to be optimistic. Admittedly, there had been unprecedentedly open debate. Around half the delegates were chosen in elections which were reasonably free. When it came to sharing jobs in President Hamid Karzai's new government a balance was struck between the country's main ethnic groups, the Tajiks and the Pashtun. But on the major issue of whether Afghanistan will be run by educated people with a vision of democratic development, the loya jirga was a disaster. The struggle between the modernizers and the old mojahedin leaders was won decisively by the latter. Men responsible for the mayhem of the early 1990s hogged the microphones to boast of their role in resisting Soviet occupation but ignored the more recent destruction they caused and the fact that ordinary Afghans despise them as reactionary warlords. They forced their fundamentalist views of Islam on to the assembly, demanding - and getting from Karzai - the right to call the government "Islamic". A chief justice was appointed who believes in a strict interpretation of sharia law. The minister for women's affairs was denounced as "Afghanistan's Salman Rushdie".
The loya jirga also failed to enhance the power of the central government and extend it to the provinces. The thugs who run the cities of Herat and Mazar-i-Sharif rejected offers to join Karzai's government in Kabul, preferring to stay in monopoly control of their regional fiefdoms. How much western governments could do to stop these internal processes can be debated. But by refusing to send international peacekeepers out of Kabul to help Karzai to disarm the warlords the west is helping the forces of conservatism. By declining to make aid for regional government projects conditional on human rights progress, it is doing the same. Indeed, it is not even providing all the aid it promised, with or without strings attached.
The World Food Program estimates that over half of all Afghan families are in need of emergency supplies, but it has received only 57% of the food it asked for from foreign donors. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is also short of funds. Afghan refugees in Pakistan have been coming home in far higher numbers than the UN anticipated. Their mass return is not necessarily a sign of confidence in the "new" Afghanistan. Many lived in Pakistani cities rather than refugee camps, and complain that government-encouraged police harassment forced them to leave Pakistan. They come back to a country where homes are destroyed and livestock is dead. Yet the UNHCR had to cut food rations to the returnees by two-thirds last month. Now it is warning it may have to end all food handouts if foreign governments do not deliver the cash they promised.
Removing the Taliban was not the primary purpose of the US air strikes on Afghanistan last autumn. "Regime change" became a war aim relatively late in the day. The main goals were to capture Osama bin Laden and eliminate the danger of further al-Qaida attacks. But neither Bin Laden nor his main lieutenants have been found. A new audio tape obtained by the al-Jazeera TV station says they are alive and ready for more outrages. So the hunt for al-Qaida inside Afghanistan has failed, as Britain's decision to abandon its help for the United States and withdraw its marines next month demonstrates.
And the Bush administration now admits the threat may be greater than it was before it bombed Afghanistan. The New York Times last week reported senior US government officials as saying that a group of mid-level operatives have taken over from Bin Laden and have forged links with extremists in several Islamic countries. "This new alliance of terrorists, though loosely knit, is as fully capable of planning and carrying out potent attacks on American targets as the more centralized network once led by Osama bin Laden. Classified investigations of the Qaida threat now under way at the FBI and CIA have concluded that the war in Afghanistan failed to diminish the threat to the United States, the officials said. Instead, the war might have complicated counterterrorism efforts by dispersing potential attackers across a wider geographic area," the paper wrote.
By this analysis the internal politics of Afghanistan are the only area where the United States can claim success from its decision to respond to the September 11 attacks with military force. Forget, for a moment, the hundreds of civilians killed by bombs and the thousands who died of hunger during the disruption of aid supplies. Ignore the dangerous precedent of accepting one nation's right to overthrow a foreign government, however brutal, by bombing another country. The crude test of the operation depends on whether the fall of the Taliban outweighs the high costs. In the euphoria of last December many people felt it did. Can they feel so sure six months down the line?
The Taliban's collapse created real opportunities for progress and Kabul has become a vibrant city once again. Women are able to lead normal public lives, and at the loya jirga, in spite of efforts at intimidation, many spoke out against the warlords with more courage than the men. But signs of regression are already emerging. Many delegates were concerned that when they left the spotlight of publicity and returned to the provinces they could be targeted. The fundamentalists are reasserting their authoritarian rule. In spite of its loud promises the west has begun to "walk away".