Operation Enduring Freedom: A Retrospective

It has become a given, even among many progressive critics of Bush administration policy, that while the U.S. war on Iraq was illegal, immoral, unnecessary, poorly executed, and contrary to America’s national security interests, the war on Afghanistan?which was launched five years ago last week?was a legal, moral, and a necessary response to protect American national security in the aftermath of 9/11. Virtually every member of Congress who has gone on record opposing the Iraq War supported the Afghanistan War. Similarly, a number of soldiers who have resisted serving in Iraq on moral grounds have expressed their willingness to serve in Afghanistan.

Relatively speaking, the war in Afghanistan has not been nearly as much the unambiguous tragedy as the U.S. war on Iraq. Only the most committed pacifists or the most extreme among the ideological critics of U.S. intervention would have ruled out the possibility of at least some use of force against al-Qaida following the 9/11 attacks against the United States.

Were it not for the Iraq War, however, there would be a lot more debate and serious questions regarding U.S. policy in Afghanistan. On the fifth anniversary of Operation Enduring Freedom, the large-scale civilian casualties inflicted by U.S. forces, the torture and abuse of detainees, the ongoing suffering and violence in that country, and the resurgence of the dreaded Taliban all demand a significant rethinking of the war.

Non-Military Options

The first question is whether al-Qaida’s operational base in Afghanistan could have been destroyed and Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaida leaders could have been brought to justice without the use of military force. Was a war of this magnitude really necessary?

The Bush administration insisted that it launched its war against Afghanistan only after the Taliban regime had refused to accept non-military means of resolving the conflict such as handing over bin Laden. Unfortunately, the absence of an International Criminal Court at that time, delayed in large part by U.S. objections, made it impossible for the Taliban to find a face-saving means of bringing bin Laden to justice without giving him to a hostile foreign government. Furthermore, the United States refused Taliban requests for evidence that bin Laden was connected with the terrorist attacks, even though such evidence presumably existed at the time and sharing such evidence is normally expected before complying with an extradition request.

In addition, Pakistani and British newspapers reported that in late September and early October, leaders of Pakistan’s two Islamic-identified parties negotiated a deal that could have avoided war. According to these reports, the Taliban was apparently willing to extradite bin Laden to Pakistan to face an international tribunal that would then decide whether to try him there or hand him over to the United States. However, U.S. ambassador to Pakistan Wendy Chamberlain pressured Pakistan’s military ruler, General Pervez Musharraf, to kill the deal. An American official was later quoted as saying that ?casting our objective too narrowly? risked ?a premature collapse of the international effort if by some luck chance Mr. bin Laden was captured.? In short, the Bush administration appeared to prefer going to war than bringing bin Laden to justice.

Other U.S. demands were even more difficult for the Taliban to accept: the Bush administration demanded the expulsion of all al-Qaida fighters, even though most had nothing to do with foreign terrorist operations but instead were brought in by bin Laden as a mercenary force that served as the backbone of the Taliban’s defense against the Northern Alliance. Similarly, the Taliban viewed the Bush administration’s additional demand of unfettered U.S. inspections throughout the country as an unreasonable encroachment of Afghan sovereignty.

The United States might have pursued another non-military option by taking advantage of the deep divisions within the Taliban and the restive political leaders in the southeastern part of the country. Such an exploitation of political differences might have also broken the impasse regarding al-Qaida’s presence in Afghanistan, which was causing great resentment even among some Taliban partisans. No attempts from the Bush administration were forthcoming, however.

It is very possible that such efforts would have failed anyway, requiring serious consideration of military options. This leads to the second question. Why did the United States focus on high-altitude bombing instead of precisely targeted small-unit commando operations, which would have presumably been a more appropriate tactic against a terrorist group like al-Qaida?

Military Failures

When the Taliban refused to give in to its demands, the United States?with support from Great Britain?began a major bombing campaign against Afghanistan on October 7, four weeks after the alleged al-Qaida attacks against the United States. Given the physical devastation of the preceding 20 years of conflict on one of the poorest countries in the world, the United States conducted war on what some strategic analysts called ?not a target-rich environment.? General Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, acknowledged that by the third day of the air strikes U.S. planes were returning with their ordnance since they could not find obvious targets. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld added, to the laughter of assembled journalists, ?We’re not running out of targets. Afghanistan is.?

The U.S. military operation resulted in widespread civilian casualties. During the heaviest phases of the air strikes that fall, American bombs struck a Red Cross food convoy, a military hospital, a boys’ school, an old age home, several small villages, and residential neighborhoods. Twice, U.S. planes attacked a Red Cross food distribution center. Amnesty International demanded ?an immediate and full investigation into what may have been violations of international and humanitarian law such as direct attacks on civilian objects or indiscriminate attacks? by the U.S. military. A study by Carl Conetta of the Project on Defense Alternatives estimated that, by the end of the year, civilian deaths from the bombing ranged between 1,000 and 1,300. Another study, by Professor Marc Herold of the University of New Hampshire, estimated that the civilian deaths toll had risen to above 3,700. In addition, Conetta estimates conservatively that the U.S. air campaign created more than a half million additional refugees as well as an additional 3,200 civilian deaths from starvation, exposure, and related illness and injury sustained while trying to flee from the bombing. These civilian deaths are particularly tragic given that the Afghan people were the first and primary victims of the Taliban, perhaps the world’s most totalitarian regime during its five years of rule.

Since these estimates were first made at the end of 2001, the civilian death toll may have doubled. The number of civilian casualties?from both the bombing and the resulting refugee crisis?have far surpassed the numbers killed in the Pentagon, the World Trade Center, and on the four hijacked airliners.

A case can certainly be made that there is a significant difference in moral culpability between terrorists who kill civilians on purpose and military personnel who kill civilians accidentally. However, most U.S. bombing raids in Afghanistan have taken place when there was no serious enemy fire and when the Americans had plenty of time and technology to avoid such mistakes. Manslaughter may not be as bad as murder, but it is still a crime. The emphasis on high-altitude bombing was less a strategic necessity than an effort to avoid casualties among U.S. pilots. Such a trade-off is understandable when soldiers face enemy soldiers, but it is unethical and illegal when the result is a higher civilian death toll. The high rate of casualties among Afghan civilians seemed particularly questionable since none of the terrorists involved in the hijackings and none of their leaders were Afghans. The 9-11 plotters were outsiders who had taken advantage of Afghanistan’s political tragedy, which was rooted in foreign invasion over 20 years earlier. Similarly, Afghan citizens did not elect the Taliban and had no party in the decision to provide sanctuary for bin Laden and his followers.

Fighting Terrorists

A war against a foreign government involves clear, fixed targets such as command-and-control centers, intelligence headquarters, heavy equipment, major weapons stockpiles, large concentrations of troops, and major military complexes. A war against a terrorist group is not so straightforward. Due to the nature of attacks organized by small groups using clandestine methods, so-called ?terrorist bases? generally contain no tangible assets that can be seriously crippled by military strikes. As a result, such air campaigns have a mixed success rate at best, particularly in poor rural countries that have few obvious targets to destroy or damage.

Furthermore, the Taliban regime’s provision of sanctuary to bin Laden and his supporters was not a typical case of state-backed terrorism. As a result of bin Laden’s personal fortune and al-Qaida’s elaborate international network, al-Qaida did not need and apparently did not receive direct financial or logistical support from the Afghan government. If anything, al-Qaida had more influence over the Taliban than the Taliban had over al-Qaida.

The further decentralization of al-Qaida operations resulting from the loss of its base in Afghanistan has made it even harder to track down and arrest or eliminate its operatives. Much of the terrorist network’s capability to launch terrorist attacks has always resided outside of that central Asian country. Carl Conneta predicted in early 2002?correctly, according to recent intelligence reports?that:

The capacity of Al-Qaida to repair its lost capabilities for global terrorism rests on the fact that terrorist attacks like the 11 September crashes do not depend on the possession of massive, open-air training facilities. Warehouses and small ad hoc sites will do. Moreover, large terrorist organizations have proved themselves able to operate for very long periods without state sanctuaries?as long as sympathetic communities exist ? Thus, Al-Qaida may be able to recoup its lost capability by adopting a more thoroughly clandestine and ?stateless? approach to its operations, including recruitment and training.

Indeed, the key figures in the 9/11 attacks lived in residential neighborhoods in Hamburg, Germany, not in the bombed-out ?terrorist bases? in Afghanistan. Similarly, they received more training from flight schools in the United States than from military camps in Afghanistan. No countries outside the Taliban’s Afghanistan have formally granted sanctuary to the al-Qaida network, but these terrorists have still continued to operate.

Regardless of the nature of the Taliban government or its support for al-Qaida, the image of one of the richest nations in the world bombing one of the world’s poorest nations contributed to growing anti-American resentment, particularly in the Islamic world. The New York Times noted four weeks into the bombing campaign that ?portraits of the United States as a lonely, self-absorbed bully taking out its rage on defenseless Afghanistan are on the rise.?

Much of this anti-Americanism could have been avoided had the United States found a means of avoiding military action in Afghanistan or if the military response had been limited to special operations and tactical air strikes. Indeed, the most urgent action related to the post-September 11 defense needs were related to al-Qaida cells outside of Afghanistan, which would be primarily the responsibility of intelligence and law enforcement agencies. Even if an international consensus had developed to oust the Taliban regime, the United States and its allies should have taken the time to lay the political groundwork for a post-Taliban government and prepare post-war peacekeeping troops and development aid prior to the launch of military action.

Most American allies supported this strategy, but the Bush administration opposed it. As Conetta observed, ?The lack of proper political preparation makes it harder to achieve military success and raises its cost.? Indeed, the Bush administration paid very little attention to the political future of Afghanistan. The Bush administration has ?one part-time upper-middle-level figure working on the political side,? Afghan scholar Barnet Rubin noted soon after the launch of the war on Afghanistan in 2001, ?and they’ve got all of the Joint Chiefs of Staff working on the military side.?

A Less Secure America

While many Americans celebrated the U.S. triumph over a few thousand Pashtun tribesmen in Afghanistan, getting involved in such a tribal war has not likely made the United States more secure. The United States has little to show for its efforts beyond the overthrow of the weak and impoverished Taliban regime. It was unable even to capture bin Laden. As one veteran British journalist noted, ?There is no victory in Afghanistan’s tribal war, only the exchange of one group of killers for another.? Not long after the Taliban fell came widespread reports of massacres of prisoners by Northern Alliance forces, some of which may have had U.S. complicity. Referring to non-Afghan fighters in Afghanistan, Rumsfeld declared that ?they will either be killed or taken prisoner,? highlighting U.S. ambivalence toward such atrocities.

The Bush administration’s lack of apparent concern over what would happen to Afghanistan after the ouster of the Taliban is at the root of the country’s deteriorating situation today. The United States, while continuing counter-insurgency operations in various parts of the country, refused to provide forces for the European-led UN peacekeeping operation dispatched to Afghanistan to operate beyond the capital of Kabul. In recent years, the United States has taken leadership in bombing a country but relied on the UN to provide the subsequent humanitarian relief and the Europeans to provide post-war security. The hesitancy in getting involved in peacekeeping operations does not extend to an unwillingness to engage in other military operations, however. The U.S. Air Force has engaged in air strikes against rival forces of the Afghan government that had no affiliation with al-Qaida or the Taliban, despite Congress not having authorized the use of military force beyond those responsible for the 9/11 attacks or those harboring them.

The initial U.S. victory over the Taliban regime was more difficult than some hoped but quicker than others feared. Unlike the Soviets, who faced as many as 100,000 Afghan resistance fighters armed with sophisticated American equipment, the Taliban were a small ragtag group of a few thousand tribesmen.

Ridding the world of perhaps the most oppressive and misogynist regime on the planet could be considered a worthwhile result whether or not it enhances the struggle against terrorism. However, questions remain as to whether the regime would have shortly collapsed from within as some had predicted; whether suddenly bringing to power opposition warlords has been worth the price in terms of Afghanistan’s ongoing violence, instability, reinvigorated opium trade, and other problems; and, whether the devastation from the U.S. assault will create a reaction that will lead to the rise of new extremists in the future. Also worthy of critical evaluation is whether the United States is culpable for creating the conditions that brought the Taliban to power in the first place.

While the serious negative legal, moral, and security implications of the U.S. war on Iraq remain in the forefront of debate today, similar concerns regarding the U.S. war on Afghanistan should not be ignored.


Afghanistan: Five Years Later

On the fifth anniversary of the launch of the U.S.-led war against Afghanistan, the Taliban is on the offensive, much of the countryside is in the hands of warlords and opium magnates, U.S. casualties are mounting, and many, if not most, Afghans are actually worse off now than they were before the U.S. invasion.

UN figures place Afghan living standards as the worst in the world, outside of the poorest five countries of sub-Saharan Africa, with life expectancy of less than 45 years (compared with 70 years in neighboring Iran). The per capita gross domestic product (GDP) is under $200 (compared with $1650 in Iran). Fewer than three Afghans in 10 are literate, and infant mortality is among the highest in the world. The economy is barely functioning, with the country’s 24 million people dependent on foreign aid, the opium trade, and remittances from the five million Afghans living abroad.

The U.S.-backed government of President Hamid Karzai has little credibility within the country. Afghans routinely refer to him as ?the mayor of Kabul,? since his authority doesn’t extend much beyond the capital city, or more derisively as the ?assistant to the American ambassador,? given his lack of real authority relative to U.S. occupation forces. Historically, Afghans respect strong leaders who can at minimum deliver some degree of security and occasional economic favors. Karzai has thus far been unable to provide either to the vast majority of his country’s people.

The U.S.-managed presidential elections in 2004 and parliamentary elections last year?organized with very little input from the Afghan people regarding structure or scheduling?were riddled with fraud, including stuffed ballot boxes, vote-buying, intimidation, and multiple voting. U.S. officials actively pressured a number of prominent presidential candidates to drop out of the race to help ensure Karzai’s election. Even if the results of the elections were broadly representative of public sentiment, unelected warlords in the provinces make the majority of political decisions that affect people’s daily lives.

Barnett Rubin, America’s foremost scholar on Afghanistan, described the country as not having ?functioning state institutions. It has no genuine army or effective police. Its ramshackle provincial administration is barely in contact with, let alone obedient to, the central government. Most of the country’s meager tax revenue has been illegally taken over by local officials who are little more than warlords with official titles.? According to Rubin, the goal of U.S. policy in Afghanistan ?was not to set up a better regime for the Afghan people, but to recruit and strengthen warlords in its fight against al-Qaida.?

While women are now allowed to go to school and leave the house unaccompanied by a close male relative?rights denied to them under the Taliban?most women in large parts of Afghanistan are afraid to do so out of fear of kidnapping and rape. Human Rights Watch reports that, despite the ouster of the misogynist Taliban, ?Violence against women and girls remains rampant.?

The security situation in the countryside is so bad that groups like Medecins Sans Frontieres?which stayed in Afghanistan throughout the Soviet war and occupation of the 1980s, the civil war and chaos of the early to mid-1990s, and the brutal repression of the Taliban through 2001?have completely withdrawn from the country.

Yet the Bush administration continues to be in denial about the worsening situation in Afghanistan. President Bush recently declared that Afghanistan was doing so well that it was ?inspiring others ? to demand their freedom.? And Vice President Cheney has referred to the rapidly deteriorating Afghan republic as a ?rising nation.? Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld earlier described the new Afghanistan as ?a breathtaking accomplishment? and ?a successful model.?

Amnesty International reports, however, that during the past year, ?The government and its international partners remained incapable of providing security to the people of Afghanistan. Absence of rule of law, and a barely functional criminal justice system, left many victims of human rights violations, especially women, without redress. Over 1,000 civilians were killed in attacks by U.S. and Coalition forces and by armed groups. U.S. forces continue to carry out arbitrary arrests and indefinite detentions.?

The Bush administration has not taken kindly to reports of abuse of prisoners and other violations of international humanitarian law. Last year, angry anti-American demonstrations in Afghan cities protesting abuses of Afghan prisoners by American jailers resulted in U.S.-commanded Afghan police shooting into crowds, leaving 16 dead. Following a Newsweek report of abuses of Afghan prisoners, Rumsfeld angrily denounced the magazine and warned that ?people need to be careful what they say.? The Bush administration dismissed pleas by President Karzai to rethink its tactics and to allow for greater Afghan control of police and military operations.

Warlords, including war criminals that brutalized the Afghan people prior to the Taliban’s takeover, now rule a number of Afghan provinces. In the north of the country, they are actually allied with former leaders of the repressive Communist regime against whom the United States fought a proxy war in the 1980s. A number of notorious warlords now sit in the cabinet and hold other high posts in the U.S.-backed regime. Kathy Gannon, who worked for 18 years as the Associated Press correspondent in Kabul, has observed in her new book I is for Infidel that the Afghan government includes ?the biggest collection of mass murderers you’ll ever get in one place.? Gannon reports that Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rashid Dostum’s ?viciousness was legendary in Afghanistan.? The United States, which has enormous leverage on the Afghan government, has refused to press Kabul to bring these war criminals to justice. In fact, top U.S. military officials work closely with the war criminal Dostum on internal security issues.

The Rise of the Drug Lords

Fifteen years ago, Afghanistan supplied 90% of the heroin entering Europe. When the Taliban came to power in 1996, they imposed the greatest curtailment of opium production in a half century, reducing production to only a small fraction of its size earlier in the decade. Virtually the entire crop that remained at the time the United States began bombing Afghanistan five years ago was in areas controlled by the Northern Alliance, which the United States helped bring to power soon thereafter. Indeed, the Bush administration has had a history of cozying up to drug lords. Hazrat Ali and Haji Mohammed Zaman?who along with U.S. forces led the Afghan ground attack against the al-Qaida holdout in Tora Bora?had long been the biggest heroin and opium magnates in the Pashtun areas of Afghanistan.

This past year saw the largest harvest of opium poppies in history, now representing a full one-third of the Afghan economy. As much as 92% of the world’s illegal heroin now comes from Afghanistan, leading to a dramatic drop in prices and an increase of consumption. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime, in its authoritative annual survey, reported that ?opium cultivation in Afghanistan is out of control? and that ?Afghan opium is fueling insurgency in Western Asia, feeding international mafias and causing 100,000 deaths from overdoses every year.?

The Bush administration has resisted pressure to take action against the drug lords, refusing to bomb drug labs and directing troops not to take action if they come upon opium crops or heroin production. According to New York Times reporter James Risen in his book State of War, Rumsfeld has met personally with Afghan military commanders known to be among ?the godfathers of drug trafficking? and made it clear that their illegal enterprise would be tolerated as long as they remained allied with the United States.

Aside from the impact of increased opium production on addicts and their societies worldwide, this resumption of large-scale Afghan opium production is a significant threat to Afghanistan’s stability, since it is one of the major sources of the warlordism that has wreaked such havoc on the country. And, despite cracking down on opium production while in power, the Taliban are now taxing poppy growers to finance as much as 70% of their renewed military operations. As in Colombia, the ongoing violence since the United States launched its war five years ago has resulted in all sides taking advantage of the drug trade to advance their power and influence.

The Taliban’s Comeback

The Taliban emerged under the leadership of young Islamist seminarians raised in refugee camps in Pakistan during the 1980s. During that time, a repressive Communist regime ruled Afghanistan with the support of tens of thousands of Soviet troops who occupied the country and engaged in a brutal bombing campaign that took the lives of hundreds of thousands of civilians and forced up to six million Afghans into exile. In 1992, U.S.-backed mujahadeen fighters ousted the Communist regime. The country then descended into chaos as competing factions fought one another. Out of this turmoil arose the Taliban militia. Many Afghans initially welcomed the new force for bringing desperately needed stability and order to the country despite their extremist and totalitarian brand of Islamic rule.

Because the United States failed to bring order to the country after attacking Afghanistan and overthrowing its government five years ago, the Taliban is tragically on the comeback. Rampant corruption within the U.S.-backed government and ongoing civilian casualties from U.S. military operations have also contributed to popular resentment and helped fuel the Taliban’s resurgence. British General David Richards, who serves as NATO’s commander in Afghanistan, said in an interview with the Associated Press that if conditions for ordinary Afghans do not improve soon, the majority could switch their support to the Taliban. While Afghans are aware of the ?austere and unpleasant life? under the extremist Islamist movement, Richards said, as many as 70% of the population would prefer a return to Taliban rule if the U.S.-led coalition fails ?to start achieving concrete and visible improvement? to the lives of ordinary citizens.

The respected European think tank, the Senlis Council, reported last month that the Taliban is ?taking back Afghanistan? and now controls much of the southern and eastern parts of the country. According to the report, ?U.S. policies in Afghanistan have re-created the safe haven for terrorism that the 2001 invasion aimed to destroy.? The Taliban are as ruthless as ever, attacking civilians who refuse to support them and specifically targeting women working for relief groups. They are not alone, however. What the Bush administration labels ?Taliban? also includes a growing coalition that consists of other clans of Pashtun warriors long renowned for their resistance to foreigners, as well as nationalist forces once backed by the United States during the 1980s in the war against the Communist regime in Kabul. Very few of the guerrillas confronting American and other NATO forces are foreigners or al-Qaida. Virtually all of them are ordinary Afghans. Some identify with the Taliban, some do not. All see themselves as part of the longstanding tradition of resisting outside invaders, whether British, Soviets, or Americans.

The Taliban offensive in the past year has taken the lives of more than 2,800 Afghans and 160 Coalition troops. U.S. troop strength has grown by 15% in the past six months to 22,000, and the casualty rate for U.S. soldiers relative to their numbers is even higher than in Iraq.

Even many Bush administration supporters are recognizing the seriousness of the situation. After meeting with senior U.S. military officials in southern Afghanistan, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist observed, ?It sounds to me ? that the Taliban is everywhere.? Raising questions as to whether a purely military strategy would work, he added that, to prevail, Coalition forces needed ?to assimilate people who call themselves Taliban into a larger, more representative government.?

Misplaced U.S. Priorities

The war waged five years ago this fall might well have been avoided by engaging in serious negotiations with the Taliban regime to bring Osama bin Laden to justice. The reliance on high-altitude bombing?with its concomitant high levels of civilian casualties?may have been less effective in rooting out al-Qaida than focusing primarily on small-unit commando operations.

Even after these questionable strategies in the initial U.S.-led military campaign, the United States still could have handled the post-Taliban situation better. The Bush administration should have pressed for peace negotiations between rival Afghans parties instead of handing power over to the Islamists and militia commanders who had allied with the United States in its proxy war against the Soviets in the 1980s.

Until recently, when it transferred command of Afghan military operations to NATO and successfully pushed for additional forces from Canada and various European countries, the United States did not actively solicit support from other nations out of an apparent desire to steer the political and economic direction of post-Taliban Afghanistan unimpeded. Instead, the United States subcontracted security of much of the country to the warlords, who have actually served to destabilize the country. Though President Karzai initially tried to curb the power of the warlords, the United States deliberately strengthened their power because they were fighting the scattered remnants of the Taliban and al-Qaida. Furthermore, following the Taliban’s overthrow, the United States rejected international calls for the establishment of a genuinely multinational force with adequate numbers to maintain order, which would have included large numbers of troops from Muslim countries.

If the United States had given priority to establishing security beyond the capital city of Kabul, the new Afghan government would have more easily consolidated its authority and disarmed warlords and other rogue elements. With adequate security and funding, development projects could have enabled the government to win more popular support and brought more moderate supporters of the Taliban into the political process. In addition, the power of the drug lords would have diminished, and farmers could have found better ways of making a living than growing opium poppies.

President Karzai has criticized the lack of development aid from the United States, particularly compared with the half trillion dollars the United States has poured into Iraq. In the past two years, the United States has slashed spending for reconstruction for Afghanistan by 30% to help pay for the Iraq war, and very little of the development aid promised by the United States has actually gone to help ordinary Afghans. The respected development agency Action Aid International estimates that only 14% of U.S. aid to Afghanistan has actually gone to legitimate development projects, with nearly half of it paying overpriced and dubiously qualified American technical consultants and much of the rest going for the purchase of American products of questionable value to Afghanistan’s development priorities. Indeed, U.S. economic assistance for rebuilding the country is only a fraction of what the United States has spent to bomb it.

Karzai has also called on the United States to concentrate its military efforts on stopping the flow of men and arms from sanctuaries in Pakistan instead of conducting air strikes against civilian areas and raids on private homes, which further alienate ordinary Afghans from the government and increase their sympathy for the Taliban. Though nominally a sovereign nation, the Afghan government has no control over U.S. military operations in the country, and U.S. troops can detain Afghan citizens indefinitely without charge and without permission of their government.

While the media and Democratic Party leaders have increasingly acknowledged the tragic blunders of U.S. policy in post-Saddam Iraq, few have raised their voices about the Bush administration’s tragic mishandling of post-Taliban Afghanistan beyond the failure to capture Osama bin Laden at Tora Bora at the end of 2001.

U.S. failures in Afghanistan are closely connected to the U.S. decision to invade Iraq. In addition to sapping financial resources that could have provided development aid needed to win over Afghan hearts and minds, the United States diverted soldiers, spy satellites, military equipment, and other vital resources away from the unfinished job in Afghanistan. For example, the U.S. Army’s Fifth Special Forces group and other elite units originally slated to continue tracking down al-Qaida remnants and Taliban leaders left for the Persian Gulf in 2002 to prepare for the invasion of Iraq.

Despite these manifold failures of Bush administration policy, however, the United States can take several steps to contribute to the prospects of peace and security in Afghanistan. It should develop a counter-insurgency strategy that lessens reliance on air power, which has thus far resulted in large-scale civilian casualties and, as a result, increased anti-American and anti-government sentiment. The multinational force in Afghanistan should expand to include troops from Muslim nations to counter the xenophobia resulting from the predominance of North American and European forces. The United States should insist that Pakistan eliminate the sanctuaries used by Taliban and al-Qaida forces to infiltrate into Afghanistan, which may require U.S. pressure on the Musharraf dictatorship to consent to free elections that can allow for a more credible representative government.

On the economic front, the United States should dramatically increase international assistance to Afghanistan under UN supervision designed to create sustainable development, particularly in rural areas. It should support a campaign against opium production and provide viable income-producing alternatives for the rural economy. And it should pressure the Karzai regime to crack down on corruption and purge his government of war criminals, opium magnates, and others who have abused the human rights of the Afghan people.

It’s not too late for the United States to reverse course in Afghanistan and, with sensible military and economic policies, prevent the country from further slipping into the violence and lawlessness that threaten to push the country down the same path as Iraq.


The Taliban is Back

On the fifth anniversary of the launch of the U.S.-led war against Afghanistan, the Taliban is on the offensive, much of the countryside is in the hands of warlords and opium magnates, U.S. casualties are mounting, and many, if not most, Afghans are actually worse off now than they were before the U.S. invasion.

U.S. policy is responsible for many of the problems afflicting Afghanistan today. The United States has tolerated the rise of warlords and has worked with drug lords as long as they promise to remain political allies. Civilian casualties in the war against the Taliban and endemic corruption in the U.S.-backed government have contributed to popular resentment. The war in Iraq has diverted U.S. resources that could have been used to stabilize Afghanistan and promote sustainable development.

Despite these manifold failures of Bush administration policy, however, the United States can take several steps to contribute to the prospects of peace and security in Afghanistan.

* develop a counter-insurgency strategy that lessens reliance on air power, which has thus far resulted in large-scale civilian casualties

* broaden the multinational force to include troops from Muslim nations to counter the xenophobia resulting from the predominance of North American and European forces

* insist that Pakistan eliminate the sanctuaries used by Taliban and al-Qaida forces to infiltrate into Afghanistan

* dramatically increase international economic assistance to Afghanistan under United Nations supervision designed to create sustainable development, particularly in rural areas

* pressure the Karzai regime to crack down on corruption and purge his government of war criminals, opium magnates, and others who have abused the human rights of the Afghan people