At a mini-press conference in the Rose Garden on June 1, Bush was practically bouncing up and down with hope as he discussed the new interim government in Iraq. Discussing the recent political developments in Iraq was probably more fun for him than explaining why the post-invasion period has been such a mess (or answering questions about suspected Iranian spy Ahmed Chalabi, the neocon darling who mounted a WMD disinformation campaign against the United States). And Bush is right: it would be a positive development for Iraqis and the Americans serving over there (and in the line of fire) if the new government–which was foisted upon UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi rather than chosen by him–is actually able to function and to win the support of the Iraqi people. Unfortunately, the creation of this temporary government–led more by politicos than managers–does not change the reality on the ground. The security situation remains dire; lawlessness continues. No US serviceman or servicewoman in Iraq is any safer today. Nor is any Iraqi. Perhaps that is why there is no dancing in the street in response to the establishment of the first post-Saddam Hussein government.
It is understandable that Bush would tout the appointment of the new government as a positive sign. That was even within the boundaries of acceptable spin. But in the same remarks, he truly went overboard when discussing Afghanistan. “The reports from Afghanistan, at least the ones I get, are very encouraging,” he said. “You know, we’ve got people who have been there last year and have been back this year [and they] report a different attitude. And they report people have got a sparkle in their eye. And women now all of a sudden no longer fear the future.” Sparkle in their eye? Does that information come from the sensitive intelligence reports Bush receives from the CIA?
Bush should get out more–or, at least, read the newspapers (which he says he does not). The recent news from Afghanistan has been rather sparkle-free. Here’s a sampling.
* Financial aid to Afghanistan has been paltry, despite Bush’s earlier promises. Measured per capita, financial assistance to Afghanistan has been lower than for Kosovo, Palestine, Haiti, and Rwanda, according to the Center on International Cooperation at New York University.
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* Opium poppy production is dramatically on the rise, and poppy harvests are estimated to account for almost half of the gross domestic product. The Washington Post recently reported that the residents of Wardak province, which is near Kabul, have become resentful of the United States and the Afghan government because of the ongoing (and not-too-successful) anti-poppy efforts. “The government has taken away our guns, and now it is destroying our livelihoods,” one told the newspaper. “We have agreed to turn in our weapons in the name of peace, but we don’t have enough water to grow any other crops but poppy. Why are they bringing this cruelty upon us?” The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy estimates that area of poppy cultivation in Afghanistan has grown from 1685 hectares in 2001 to 61,000 hectares in 2003.
* Attacks from the Taliban are up. Aid workers have been targeted, and nongovernmental organizations have pulled out of Afghanistan, slowing down the already slow reconstruction efforts. After five men who worked for the National Solidarity Programme, an NGO working southeast of Kabul, were killed, the group ended its work in 72 areas in the country. Ihsanullah Dileri, the organization’s head of coordination, told The Independent of London, “This is a very bad, very desperate situation. We had $60,000 to spend on each of those 72 areas. Now this cannot be done. All these areas are badly deprived, with poor people lacking basic facilities. But I am afraid the security simply is not there for us to continue with our work. It is too dangerous.” Barbara Stapleton of the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief, which represents 90 aid agencies in Afghanistan, said, “We are very concerned about security and deterioration of the situation. Impunity rules in the country. It’s not just the NGO community, but the Afghan people at large who are exposed to these levels of insecurity.”
* As for women’s rights, Amnesty International reports, “two years after the ending of the Taliban regime, the international community and the Afghan transitional administration, led by President Karzai, have proved unable to protect women. The risk of rape and sexual violence by members of armed factions and former combatants is still high. Forced marriages, particularly of girl children, and violence against women in the family are widespread in many areas.” After the war, a number of girls’ schools opened (or reopened) throughout the country. But since then, Islamic extremists have used intimidation to shut down many.
* Recent talks between Karzai and warlords have raised the possibility of a power-sharing agreement between Karzai and these militia leaders that could undermine the democratic elections scheduled for September.
Drugs, warlordism, a surge in fundamentalism–Afghanistan remains an unfinished, daunting and complicated challenge, as American GIs continue to lose their lives fighting the Taliban remnants and searching for Osama bin Laden. But Bush made it seem all is swell. What is it about him? Last fall, he declared his administration had “put the Taliban out of business forever.” At that time, Taliban attacks were increasing, and US troops were being killed in pursuit of the Taliban. Now Bush tells us things are going fine in Afghanistan because there is a gleam in the eyes of Afghans. And, no doubt, they are all humming, “The Future’s So Bright I Got To Wear Shades.”
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