by Bill Berkowitz
November 4, 2003
After nearly two years of upbeat progress reports by President Bush, thanks to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's recently disclosed memo, we now know -- to put it in Rumsfeld-speak -- we know what we knew: The global war on terrorism is not going as well as the administration would have us believe. Case in point: Afghanistan.
While most Americans paid little attention to anything other Arnold Schwarzenegger's impressive victory in the California gubernatorial recall election on Tuesday, October 7, a bunch of guys who have proudly rejected most things Western and modern were at the tail end of the mother of all shopping sprees. On the second anniversary of the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan, London's Telegraph reported that more than 2,500 Taliban have been gathering in the Baluchistan province of Pakistan in preparation for what appears to be a major attack on Afghanistan. Along with purchasing more than 1,000 mostly Honda motorcycles -- apparently the vehicle of choice for attacking Taliban -- they have also bought hundreds of satellite telephones from the Arab Gulf states, "because those bought in Pakistan are closely monitored by America's Central Intelligence Agency." The Taliban, it is being reported, have been stashing significant amounts of arms and ammunition inside Afghanistan.
Taliban shoppers have also bought up hotels, houses and shops, and after evening prayers they are seen gathering to "take tea, eat ice-cream and plan their raids." The Telegraph report claimed that the Taliban have "virtually taken over several suburbs of Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan, and are being supported by Pakistani religious parties, the drug trade and Al-Qaeda." The drug trade has been especially profitable, raising as much money for the Taliban as the country has received in reconstruction aid.
Being a few weeks past the second anniversary of the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan, it's worth checking in on the country the U.S. rescued from the Taliban and Al-Qaeda:
That was then: Thousands of civilians were killed by U.S. bombs.
This is now: Civilians, many of them children, continue being killed and severely injured by previously unexploded ordinance, US bombs going astray, and thousands of buried landmines.
That was then: The Taliban was driven from power and Mullah Omar disappeared into the sunset. Al-Qaeda operatives were dispatched to ____, and Osama bin Laden was forced to flee to _____ -- you fill in the blanks.
This is now: According to the New York Times, the Bush administration's special envoy to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad -- who is awaiting Congressional hearings on his appointment to be the next ambassador to Afghanistan -- is warning "that the Taliban movement and its Al-Qaeda partners in the region may be planning larger or 'more spectacular attacks' in Afghanistan as part of a campaign against the reconstruction process."
That was then: The people of Kabul were free to listen to the music of their choice and dance in the streets if they wanted to. Hamid Karzai was installed as President, and elections were going to be held.
This is now: The Karzai government is pretty much limited to the Kabul city limits and he is guarded by a contingent of 50 U.S. soldiers, according to University of New Hampshire Prof. Marc Herold. The rest of the country is divided among longtime warlords with their own well-armed militias. U.N.-organized elections could be endangered by the lack of security.
That was then: Reconstruction aid was promised.
This is now: Little aid was delivered and not long ago, a United Nations official said that as much as one-third of the country was "off limits to U.N. reconstruction, aid and political personnel." The Bush Administration's currently pending $87 billion aid package for Iraq includes some $2 billion for Afghanistan.
That was then: The drug trade had been diminished.
This is now: The opium trade is flourishing and, according to Reuters, spreading into new regions of the country. Antonio Maria Costa, executive director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, pointed out that Afghanistan has retained its spot as the number one opium producer in the world.
That was then: President Bush promised to finish the job in Afghanistan. Six months after October 7, 2001, the president said: "We will stay until the mission is done. We know that true peace will only be achieved when we give the Afghan people the means to achieve their own aspirations. Peace will be achieved by helping Afghanistan develop its own stable government. Peace will be achieved by helping Afghanistan train and develop its own national army. And peace will be achieved through an education system for boys and girls that works."
This is now: President Bush is promising to finish the job in Afghanistan.
Although more or less out of sight -- especially on the 24/7 cable news networks -- news from Afghanistan hasn't totally disappeared from mainstream media outlets. Periodically there's a report chronicling another colorful-sounding U.S. "Operation" intended to strike a crippling blow at the Taliban and remnants of Al-Qaeda that are left in country. There are also occasional stories about a significant Taliban leader killed in action or a major Al-Qaeda figure captured by U.S. forces.
But these reports often lack context. Larry Goodson, author of a 2001 book about Afghanistan and professor of Middle East studies at the Army War College in Carlisle, Pa., recently told the Associated Press that "Afghanistan has flipped off the radar screen to some extent."
How will the Pentagon respond to these new threats from the Taliban and Al-Qaeda? Will the administration be forced to request more troops for the region? Thomas Gouttierre, the dean of international studies at the University of Nebraska who sees some progress being made in Afghanistan, says that the 9-12,000 U.S. troops and 5,500 NATO peacekeepers are not nearly enough to do the job. "They need at least five times that number of troops to provide the kind of security that will reduce the dependency of the Afghans on regional warlords and drug lords," Gouttierre told AP.
Is the $2 billion earmarked for Afghanistan enough to even begin the reconstruction process? And does it matter how much money is promised if the country remains in the hands of thugs and outlaws? Will the U.S. continue to cast its lot with President Karzai? Can the warlords be brought under control? Has the administration misunderstood the terrorist threat?
President Bush is fond of citing the number of Al Qaeda leaders killed or captured as his way of trumpeting the success of his war on terrorism, as if the success or failure of this kind of all-out never-ending war turns on the capture or deaths of one or two or ten major figures. As British journalist Jason Burke, the author of "Al-Qaeda: Casting a Shadow of Terror" pointed out in a recent interview with Buzzflash.com: "Al-Qaeda is commonly perceived to be a tight-knight terrorist organization led by bin Laden. Something that comes close to that description existed in Afghanistan between around 1997 and 2001. That entity no longer exists. What we have now is something far more diverse -- a whole series of groups, cells, and even individuals who are dissimilar in many ways, but are united by certain fundamental ideological ideas, and a particular way of viewing the world."
Whether it's frozen off the front page or whether the cable news networks have moved on, there is no denying that the news coming from Afghanistan is grim. "Since August Taliban attacks have killed almost 400 Afghan soldiers, aid workers and civilians," and four US soldiers have also been killed, the Telegraph reported.
And, even if we doubt the efficacy of remarks from a Taliban mullah in a Pushtunabad bazaar, who told the Telegraph that "We have the American forces and the puppet regime of [President Hamid] Karzai on the run, [and] [t]hey will collapse soon," a recent Reuters report pointing out that Taliban commanders "secretly met" with Mullah Mohammad Omar, "and vowed to step up attacks on Afghan government and U.S.-led allied troops," is proof that more destabilization is on the way.
Secretary Rumsfeld's October 16 memo predicted that the U.S. would win the global war on terrorism but it would be "a long, hard slog." Rumsfeld writes: "With respect to global terrorism, the record since September 11th seems to be: We are having mixed results with Al Qaida, although we have put considerable pressure on them -- nonetheless, a great many remain at large... .USG has made somewhat slower progress tracking down the Taliban -- Omar, Hekmatyar, etc."
October 7, 2003 was an anniversary the Bush Administration and much of the media allowed pass under the radar. And while most Americans aren't paying much attention to events tearing Afghanistan apart, the boys in Baluchistan are dropping cash like William Bennett in Vegas, and getting ready to launch another round of bloody attacks on U.S. and Afghanistan troops. It's time for Americans to hold the Bush Administration accountable for its failed policy in Afghanistan. That can only be done if a disinterested media is forced to pay attention to Bush's Afghanistan predicament.
Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His WorkingForChange.com column Conservative Watch documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right.