“I stand before you today as a citizen of a country that has had nothing but disaster, war, brutality and deprivation against its people for many years,” Hamid Karzai, leader of the interim government in Afghanistan, told the conference of international donors in Tokyo. The representatives responded with pledges totaling more than $4.7 billion, over time spans ranging from a year to the next three to five years. That’s a start, but much more will be needed–the United Nations estimates $15 billion over the next ten years–and we can only wait and see whether these promissory notes to a battered but resilient people will be redeemed in full.
The war, now winding down, that resulted in the ouster of the Taliban regime and the smashing of Al Qaeda bases in Afghanistan can be called a success in terms of the US-led coalition’s initial goals, although Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar have eluded capture. But the war’s effects on the Afghan people have not begun to be dealt with, and US strategies and objectives in the fight against terrorism it claims to lead remain ambiguous.
The US bombing campaign was ferociously effective against Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters in the field, but was the civilian toll excessive? Official information is scanty, and independent investigations by human rights groups have not yet been made, but the question has to be asked: Was the utmost effort made to avoid civilian suffering, and was the cost in lives excessive in proportion to the goals of the war (see Howard Zinn on page 16)?
The tempest of high-tech ordnance loosed on the land drove thousands of Afghans from their homes, and many of them languish in refugee camps on the brink of starvation. The bombs halted humanitarian food deliveries, and only now are stockpiles being restored to normal levels. In the countryside and in cities like Kandahar and Jalalabad, deliveries of food, shelter and medicine are being stolen by resurgent warlords or armed gangs.
And then there is the deadly legacy of mines and unexploded bombs from years of warfare. According to a UN report, “Afghanistan is the most mine- and unexploded ordnance (UXO) affected country in the world.” A massive cleanup effort is under way, but it will be months or years before roads and fields will be cleared for normal agriculture and commerce.
Much of Afghanistan’s plight is the culmination of twenty years of war, three years of drought and the destructive policies of the Taliban’s repressive theocracy. The cold statistics give a bare sketch of a nation in ruins: Life expectancy, forty-four years; one in four children dies before age 5; one in twelve women dies in childbirth; only 38 percent of boys and 3 percent of girls are in school; scarcely a quarter of the population has access to potable water and one in eight to sanitation; electricity consumption is about the lowest in the world; there are two telephones per 1,000 people (compared with twenty-four per 1,000 in Pakistan and sixty-eight per 1,000 in Uzbekistan).
The interim government desperately needs immediate infusions of cash to pay civil servants, who have gone unpaid for months, and to recruit more teachers and police. Kabul has only 100 trained policemen, and the rate of murder and theft is on the rise. Daily life in the capital has returned to a semblance of normality, but armed Northern Alliance fighters commit theft and extortion, while other cities and large stretches of the countryside are ruled by bandits and warlords. Some 700,000 fighters are at large.
Secretary of State Colin Powell has reiterated the US commitment to remain engaged with Afghanistan, but as UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi’s spokesman said in response to Powell’s speech in Kabul, “Reassurance is good. Cash is better.” Aid funds pledged must be delivered quickly; beyond that, a rich country like America should be providing leadership in the financial arena. A dependable flow of money and technical assistance must last for the next decade.
The mission of the US military in Afghanistan should expand to include shoring up the frail Karzai government, helping it to restore security, to provide for the welfare of the people and to enlist the support of the fractious ethnic groups for the Loya Jirga to convene in June to set up a provisional government. Largely at US behest, the role of the international security force has been confined to Kabul. But if the interim government and its successor are to extend their writ over the entire country, they’ll need a strong army and a police force. In this effort the international security force will be an essential player, and the United States should give it robust support.
The work in Afghanistan won’t be finished until the international community is fully engaged in helping Afghanistan build a government that can provide the security the people crave. Immediate steps that need to be taken include integrating idle armed fighters into a national army and disarming and providing work for the rest of the 700,000 armed men who have no jobs and who are rapidly becoming part of the security problem. (And jobs must be created for millions of newly liberated women.) The country is awash in guns, and the UN Development Program has launched a campaign to reduce their number. The United States could help by supplying money to buy these weapons and even to bribe warlords and would-be drug lords into supporting the government.
Of course, the flow of aid money must be monitored to avoid corrupt diversions. And as Barnett Rubin of the Center on International Cooperation has recently pointed out, competition among international donor groups should be curbed; money should be channeled through representatives of the Afghan people so that it does not become, as Rubin writes, “simply a new political currency to be fought over by warlords, who will play one aid agency against another and all of them against the central government.”
Achieving stability–preventing Afghanistan from reverting to anarchy, violence, terrorism and drug running–must be the top priority of the US government. The war in Afghanistan should not be adopted as a template for future military actions elsewhere, as the right-wing warriors in Rumsfeld’s Defense Department contemplate. The conditions that brought military success in Afghanistan cannot be replicated in countries like Iraq, Somalia, Indonesia or the Philippines. Nor should they be. And rather than base-building in neighboring countries–where US support for dictators could breed even more anti-American resentment–Washington should focus on nation-building in Afghanistan.
For the terrorist threat must not be considered solely a military problem. The “enemy” is too scattered, too amorphous. The struggle against terrorism must become a cooperative global intelligence and law-enforcement campaign, with a strong UN presence. Rather than being a pretext for an expensive military buildup that wastes funds better spent on social welfare, this campaign should incorporate international economic development efforts aimed at killing the roots of terrorism–poverty and alienation. It must also include diplomatic outreach that rises above realpolitik and economic interest to oppose obsolete oligarchies and support democratic movements worldwide. And Washington must work through international bodies so that legitimate self-defense is not seen as a US war on the Arab world.
The Bush Administration’s policies have been less than heartening thus far. Despite a few humanitarian commitments of hard cash, this Administration is congenitally skewed toward nationalism and unilateralism. Its inclination is to withdraw into fortress America, the latest example being the cruel treatment of the Al Qaeda prisoners now caged at Guantánamo naval base, which has set off a furor abroad and further alienates the Arab world. The Pentagon categorizes them as “unlawful combatants” so they can be sequestered, interrogated and possibly tried before military tribunals. According to the Third Geneva Convention, if there is a dispute about soldiers’ prisoner-of-war status, a “competent tribunal” should determine it.
America’s most effective weapon in the fight against terrorism is our democratic and juridical ideals. Our foreign policy should, above all, be grounded in those ideals and be a bedrock for human rights.