US Policy Toward Afghanistan Was a Recipe for Collapse From the Start

We must not allow the tragedy unfolding in Afghanistan to be used to rewrite history and teach the wrong lessons. The rapid fall of the U.S.-backed government in Afghanistan and the takeover of that country by Taliban extremists has stunned the world. President Joe Biden has nevertheless defended his decision to withdraw U.S. forces, arguing that Americans should not be forced to fight and die for a government when Afghans were themselves unwilling to do so. [FULL LINK]

Behind the Headlines: the CIA and Post 9/11 National Security with NY Times Reporter Eric Schmitt (audio)

NPR/The Commonwealth Club November 19, 2012; Podcast & MP3
Eric Schmitt, New York Times National Security Senior Reporter
Stephen Zunes, Professor, Department of Politics/
Middle East Studies, University of San Francisco – Moderator 
Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times senior writer Schmitt has covered the military, terrorism and national security affairs for two decades. He is currently covering the evolving story of the FBI Investigation that led to the resignation of CIA Director David Petraeus. He co-authored Counterstrike: The Untold Story of America’s Secret Campaign Against Al Qaeda. Since the September 11 attacks, he has made many reporting trips to Iraq and Afghanistan to cover American military operations there. He has also reported on counter-terrorism operations in Pakistan, Mali and Southeast Asia.  As Pentagon correspondent, he covered the Persian Gulf War from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait and also reported from Haiti and Somalia. Domestic reporting included covering Congress, following financial and business news, demographic and immigration issues, commercial aviation and the travel industry. Come hear his inside view on the conflicts and challenges facing the U.S. in the post-9/11 world and the latest on the breaking news of the day.

Interview: The Afghanistan Mess (audio)

“Middle East scholar Dr. Stephen Zunes talks about how U.S. imperial hubris helped create, and continues to deepen and intensify the deadly chaos in Afghanistan. “The war not only was raised some moral and legal questions, but it has not resolved the situation, it has made matters worse. The problem is that there has been a gross oversight on the military side of the equation. The really important issues have been overlooked.”

Audio File:

The U.S. and Afghan Tragedy

One of the first difficult foreign policy decisions of the Obama administration will be what the United States should do about Afghanistan. Escalating the war, as National Security Advisor Jim Jones has been encouraging, will likely make matters worse. At the same time, simply abandoning the country — as the United States did after the overthrow of Afghanistan’s Communist government soon after the Soviet withdrawal 20 years ago — would lead to another set of serious problems.

In making what administration officials themselves have acknowledged will be profoundly difficult choices, it will be important to understand how Afghanistan — and, by extension, the United States — has found itself in this difficult situation of a weak and corrupt central government, a resurgent Taliban, and increasing violence and chaos in the countryside.

Many Americans are profoundly ignorant of history, even regarding distant countries where the United States finds itself at war. One need not know much about Afghanistan’s rich and ancient history, however, to learn some important lessons regarding the tragic failures of U.S. policy toward that country during the past three decades.

The Soviet Union invaded in December 1979, after the Afghan people rose up against two successive communist regimes that seized power in violent coup d’états in 1978 and 1979. The devastating aerial bombing and counterinsurgency operations led to more than six million Afghans fleeing into exile, most of them settling into refugee camps in neighboring Pakistan. The United States, with the assistance of Pakistan’s Islamist military dictatorship, found their allies in some of the more hard-line resistance movements, at the expense of some very rational enlightened Afghans from different fields and aspect of life.

The United States sent more than $8 billion to Pakistani military dictator Zia al-Huq, who dramatically increased the size of the Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) to help support Afghan mujahedeen in their battle against the Soviets and their puppet government. Their goal, according to the late Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, was “to radicalize the influence of religious factions within Afghanistan.” The ISI helped channel this American money, and billions more from oil-rich American allies, from the Gulf region to extremists within the Afghan resistance movement.

Extremist Education

The Reagan administration sensed the most hard-line elements of the resistance were less likely to reach negotiated settlements, but the goal was to cripple the Soviet Union, not free the Afghan people. Recognizing the historically strong role of Islam in Afghan society, they tried to exploit it to advance U.S. policy goals. Religious studies along militaristic lines were given more importance than conventional education in the school system for Afghan refugees in Pakistan. The number of religious schools (madrassas) educating Afghans rose from 2,500 in 1980 at the start of Afghan resistance to over 39,000. The United States encouraged the Saudis to recruit Wahhabist ideologues to come join the resistance and teach in refugee institutes.

While willing to contribute billions to the war effort, the United States was far less generous in providing refugees with funding for education and other basic needs, which was essentially outsourced to the Saudis and the ISI. Outside of some Western non-governmental organizations like the International Rescue Committee, secular education was all but unavailable for the millions of Afghan refugees living in Pakistan. None of these projects could match the impact the generous funding for religious education and scholarships to Islamic schools in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. As a result, the only education that became available was religious indoctrination, primarily of the hard-line Wahhabi tradition. The generous funding of religious institutions during wartime made it the main attraction of free education, clothing, and boarding for poor refugee children. Out of these madrassas came the talibs (students), who later became the Taliban.

This was no accident. It seemed that such policies were intentionally initiated that way to drag young Afghans towards extremism and war, and to be well prepared not only to fight a war of liberation, but to fight the foes and rivals of foreigners at the expense of Afghan destruction and blood. And the indoctrination and resulting radicalization of Afghan youth that later formed the core of the Taliban wasn’t simply from outsourcing but was directly supported by the U.S. government as well, such as through textbooks issued by the U.S. Agency for International Development for refugee children between 1986 and 1992, which were designed to encourage such militancy.

Often mathematics and other basic subjects were sacrificed altogether in favor of full-time religious and indoctrination. Sardar Ghulam Nabi, an elementary school teacher in a Peshawar refugee camp, stated that he was discouraged by the school administration to teach Afghan history to Afghan refugee children, since most of the concentration and emphasis was placed on religious studies rather than other subjects.

This focus on a rigid religious indoctrination at the expense of other education is particularly ironic since, while the Afghans have tended to be devout and rather conservative Muslims, they hadn’t previously been inclined to embrace the kind of fanatic Wahhabi-influenced fundamentalism that dominated Islamic studies in the camps.

It seemed during the Afghan wars that no one cared and valued Afghan lives. Afghans became the subject of struggle between different rival and competing ideologies. The foreign backers of Afghanistan didn’t care about the impact and consequences of their policies for the future of Afghanistan. Milt Bearden, the former CIA station chief in Islamabad, Pakistan during the Afghan-Soviet war, commented that “the United States was fighting the Soviets to the last Afghan.” According to Sonali Kolhatkar, in her book Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords, and the Propaganda of Silence (Seven Stories Press, 2006), some in the United States saw the Soviet invasion as a “gift.” Zbigniew Brzezinski, former President Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor, even claimed that the United States helped provoke the Soviet invasion by arming the mujahideen beforehand, noting how “we did not push the Russians to intervene but we knowingly increased the probability that they would.” Once they did, he wrote to Carter, “We now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam War.”

Professor Hassan Kakar, a renowned Afghan historian formerly of Kabul University now exiled in California after spending time in a Afghan prison during the communist era, notes in his book how the competition between the Afghan left and right had been previously confined to a verbal debate, comparable to those taking place in intellectual and other politicized circles in other developing countries during the late Cold War period. With the invasion of Soviet troops and the U.S. backing of the mujahideen, however, it took the shape of direct armed conflict. The conflict evolved into open confrontation backed by the two Cold War rivals and other regional powers. Afghanistan was split and divided into different ideological groups, resulting in bloodshed, killing, destruction, suffering, and hatred among Afghans.

A whole generation of Afghan children grew up knowing nothing of life but bombings that destroyed their homes, killed their loved ones, and drove them to seek refuge over the borders. As a result, they became easy prey to those willing to raise them to hate and to fight. These children, caught in the midst of competing extremist ideologies from all sides, learned to kill each other and destroy their country for the interests of others.

Most Afghans with clear vision and strategic insight were deliberately marginalized by outside supporters of the Afghan radicalization process. Members of the Afghan intelligentsia who maintained their Afghan character in face of foreign ideologies and were therefore difficult to manipulate were threatened, eliminated, and in some cases forced into exile. One was Professor Sayed Bahauddin Majrooh, a renowned Afghan writer, poet, and visionary. Another was Aziz-ur-Rahman Ulfat, the author of Political Games, a book that criticized the politics of the U.S.-backed Afghan resistance movements based in Pakistan. Both were among the many who were assassinated as part of the effort to silence voices of reason and logic.

The Hezb-e-Islami faction, a relatively small group among the resistance to the Soviets and their Afghan allies, received at least 80% of U.S. aid. According to Professor Barnett Rubin’s testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives, the militia — led by the notorious Gulbuddin Hekmatyar — conducted a “reign of terror against insufficiently Islamic intellectuals” in the refugee camps of Pakistan. Despite all this, Rubin further noted how “both the ISI and CIA considered him a useful tool for shaping the future of Central Asia.”

Assassinations of Afghan intellectuals deprived Afghan refugees of enlightened visionaries who would have represented the balanced Afghan character of religious faith, cultural traditions, and modern education. What these early victims of extremist violence had in common was opposition to the radicalization and hijacking of the Afghan struggle for purposes other than Afghan self-determination. The Afghan resistance to the Soviets was a nationalist uprising that included intellectuals, students, farmers, bureaucrats, and shopkeepers as well as people from all the country’s diverse ethnic groups. Their purpose was the liberation of their country, not the subjugation and radicalization of their society by bloodthirsty fanatics. Some Afghan field commanders with clear conscience and strategic insight also took a different approach than radical Afghan leaders supported by Pakistan and Saudi Arabia who — with U.S. acquiescence — sought to replace hard-line communist puppets with hard-line Islamist puppets.

Abdul Haq

Among these was the legendary Afghan resistance leader Abdul Haq (Full disclosure: Haq was the uncle of Khushal Arsala, one of this article’s co-authors). He realized that the Afghans’ legitimate struggle for their independence and self-determination was being intentionally dragged towards fanatical indoctrination for the interests of others. In a letter to The New York Times he wrote:

We started our struggle with the full support and determination of our people and will continue regardless of the wishes or commands of others. We don’t want to be an American or Soviet puppet…I would like you to be with us as a friend, not as somebody pulling the strings. The struggle of our nation is for the establishment of a system that assures human rights, social justice and peace. This system does not threaten any nation.

Haq openly criticized the United States and its allies’ support for extremists among the resistance through the Pakistani government, warning U.S. officials of the dire consequences of such support for the radicalization of Afghan society through the support for extremists. In a 1994 interview with the Times, he warned that terrorists from all over the world were finding shelter in his increasingly chaotic country and that Afghanistan “is turning into poison and not only for us but for all others in the world. Maybe one day the Americans will have to send hundreds of thousands of troops to deal with it.” Noting that Afghanistan had been a graveyard for both the British and Russians, he expressed concerns that soon American soldiers could be flying home in body bags due to Washington’s support for extremists during the Afghan-Soviet War during the 1980s and then abandoning the country following the Communist government’s overthrow in 1992.

Preference for Extremists

In a 2006 interview on the PBS documentary “The Return of the Taliban,” U.S. Special Envoy to the Afghan Resistance Peter Tomsen observed how the leadership of the Pakistani army

wanted to favor Gulbuddin Hekmatyar with seventy percent of the American weapons coming into the country, but the ISI and army leadership’s game plan was to put Hekmatyar top down in Kabul, even though he was viewed by the great majority of Afghans — it probably exceeded 90 percent — of being a Pakistani puppet, as unacceptable as the Soviet puppets that were sitting in Kabul during the communist period. However, that was what the [Pakistani] generals wanted to create: a strategic Islamic [ally] with a pro-Pakistani Afghan in charge in Kabul.

Hekmatyar was extremely useful to Pakistan not only because he was rabidly anticommunist, but also because — unlike most other mujahideen leaders less favored by Washington — he wasn’t an Afghan nationalist, and was willing to support the agenda of hard-line Pakistani military and intelligence leaders. Pakistan’s support for radical Muslim domination has been in part for keeping the long-running territorial dispute with Afghanistan over Pashtun areas suppressed. Islamist radicals like Hekmatyar, Burhanuddin Rabbani, and later the Taliban mullahs tended to de-emphasize state borders in favor of uniting with the Muslim Umma (community of believers) wherever it may be — in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Kashmir, the Middle East, or Central Asia.

Many State Department officials were wary of U.S. support for Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e-Islami. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State John Kelly was quoted as saying that Hekmatyar “is a person who has vehemently attacked the United States on a number of issues…. I think he is a person with whom we do not need to have or should not have much trust.” However, even when the State Department — over CIA objections — succeeded in cutting back on U.S. support for Hezb-e-Islami, U.S. ally Saudi Arabia would then increase its aid and, with CIA assistance, recruited thousands of Arab volunteers to join the fight, including a young Saudi businessman named Osama bin Laden.

The renowned journalist Ahmed Rashid stated in his book the Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia that

CIA chief William Casey committed CIA support to a long-standing ISI initiative to recruit radical Muslims from around the world to come to Pakistan and fight with the Afghan Mujahideen. The ISI had encouraged this since 1982 and by now all the other players had their reasons for supporting the idea. President Zia aimed to cement Islamic unity, turn Pakistan into the leader of the Muslim world and foster an Islamic opposition in Central Asia. Washington wanted to demonstrate that the entire Muslim world was fighting the Soviets Union alongside the Afghans and their American benefactors. And the Saudis saw an opportunity both to promote Wahabbism and get rid of its disgruntled radicals…which would eventually turn their hatred against the Soviets on their own regimes and the Americans.

After having their country largely destroyed and its social fabric torn apart as pawns in a Cold War rivalry, the Soviets were finally forced out in 1989 and the communist regime was overthrown two years later.

While Hizb-e-Islami and other U.S. and Pakistani-backed groups weren’t truly representative of the Afghan people, they had become the best-armed as a result of their foreign support. Wanting power for themselves, they soon turned the capital city of Kabul into rubble as the remaining infrastructure surviving from the Soviet-Afghan war was destroyed by a senseless civil war.

Afghanistan became a failed state. In the three years following the fall of the Communist regime, at least 25,000 civilians were killed in Kabul by indiscriminate shelling by Hezb-e-Islami and other factions. There was no proper functioning government. Educational institutions, from elementary schools to university buildings, weren’t spared in the violence. Most of the teachers and students again joined refugees in the neighboring countries. The chaos and suffering created conditions such that when the Pakistani-backed Taliban emerged promising stability and order, they were welcomed in many parts of the country.

Once in power, the Taliban — made up of students from the same refugee religious institutions promoted and encouraged by the United States and its allies — shrouded Afghan society in the darkness of totalitarianism and illiteracy. They didn’t value modern scientific education. They barred girls from school. With the help of Arab recruits originally brought in with support of the United States to fight the Soviets, they destroyed Afghan cultural heritage and attempted to transform Afghanistan into a puritanical theocracy. Fanatics and criminals from all over the world found safe-haven in Afghanistan, thanks to the blunders made by U.S. policymakers who created, promoted, and encouraged fanaticism against the Soviet Union.

In October 2001, in an interview with Newsweek, Abdul Haq said:

Why are the Arabs here? The U.S. brought the Arabs to Pakistan and Afghanistan [during the Soviet war]. Washington gave them money, gave them training, and created 10 or 15 different fighting groups. The U.S. and Pakistan worked together. The minute the pro-Communist regime collapsed, the Americans walked away and didn’t even clean up their shit. They brought this problem to Afghanistan.

One week after this interview, Abdul Haq — an opponent of the 2001 U.S. intervention and one of the few Afghans capable of uniting his country under a nationalist banner — was captured by the Taliban and later executed. U.S. forces in the area ignored pleas for assistance to rescue him and his comrades while they were being pursued and in the period soon after their capture.

Afghans are still paying the price for the Taliban’s continued destruction in Afghanistan from their bases in Pakistan. Taliban remnants are killing and threatening school staff members and burning down educational facilities. Their heinous crimes mean that the young minds needed to drag the country out from current miserable situation are being deprived of their desperately needed education. And, despite strong evidence of ongoing support for the Taliban by elements of the ISI and the Pakistani military, the Bush administration continued to send billions of dollars worth of arms and other support for the Musharraf dictatorship in Pakistan.

Implications for Today

The consequences of U.S. policy towards Afghanistan through the 1980s and 1990s played a major role in the Taliban’s rise and al-Qaeda’s subsequent sanctuary. The September 11 attacks brought the United States directly into battle in Afghanistan for the first time, and U.S. troops are to this day fighting the forces of former Taliban and Hezb-e-Islami allies.

The United States has made many errors during the more than eight years of fighting, but one of most dangerous was repeating the tragic mistake of placing short-term alliances ahead of the Afghanistan’s long-term stability. During the 1980s, the United States was so focused on defeating the Soviets and the Afghan communists that an alliance was made with Islamist extremists, who ended up contributing to the country’s destruction. In this decade, the United States has been so focused on defeating the Taliban and al-Qaeda it’s made alliances with an assortment of drug lords, opium magnates, militia leaders, and other violent and corrupting elements which have contributed to the country’s devastation still further.

There’s no easy answer to Afghanistan’s ongoing tragic situation. Nor is the question of the most appropriate role the United States can now play after contributing so much to this tragedy.

What’s important, however, is recognizing that Afghanistan’s fate belongs to the people of Afghanistan. Indeed, any further efforts by the United States to play one faction off against the other for temporary political gain won’t only add to that country’s suffering but — as we became tragically aware on a September morning eight years ago — could some day bring the violence home to American shores.

Holbrooke: Insensitive Choice for a Sensitive Region

Obama’s choice for special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, arguably the most critical area of U.S. foreign policy, is a man with perhaps the most sordid history of any of the largely disappointing set of foreign policy and national security appointments.

Richard Holbrooke got his start in the Foreign Service during the 1960s, in the notorious pacification programs in the Mekong Delta of South Vietnam. This ambitious joint civilian-military effort not only included horrific human rights abuses but also proved to be a notorious failure in curbing the insurgency against the U.S.-backed regime in Saigon. This was an inauspicious start in the career of someone Obama hopes to help curb the insurgency against the U.S.-backed government in Afghanistan.

In Asia

In the late 1970s, Holbrooke served as assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs. In this position, he played a major role in formulating the Carter administration’s support for Indonesia’s occupation of East Timor and the bloody counterinsurgency campaign responsible for up to a quarter-million civilian deaths. Having successfully pushed for a dramatic increase in U.S. military aid to the Suharto dictatorship, he then engaged in a cover-up of the Indonesian atrocities. He testified before Congress in 1979 that the mass starvation wasn’t the fault of the scorched-earth campaign by Indonesian forces in the island nation’s richest agricultural areas, but simply a legacy of Portuguese colonial neglect. Later, in reference to his friend Paul Wolfowitz, then the U.S. ambassador to Indonesia, Holbrooke described how “Paul and I have been in frequent touch to make sure that we keep [East Timor] out of the presidential campaign, where it would do no good to American or Indonesian interests.”

In a particularly notorious episode while heading the State Department’s East Asia division, Holbrooke convinced Carter to release South Korean troops under U.S. command in order to suppress a pro-democracy uprising in the city of Kwangju. Holbrooke was among the Carter administration officials who reportedly gave the OK to General Chun Doo-hwan, who had recently seized control of the South Korean government in a military coup, to wipe out the pro-democracy rebels. Hundreds were killed.

He also convinced President Jimmy Carter to continue its military and economic support for the Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines.

At the UN

Holbrooke, as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in the late 1990s, criticized the UN for taking leadership in conflict resolution efforts involving U.S. allies, particularly in the area of human rights. For example, in October 2000 he insisted that a UN Security Council resolution criticizing the excessive use of force by Israeli occupation forces against Palestinian demonstrators revealed an unacceptable bias that put the UN “out of the running” in terms of any contributions to the peace process.

As special representative to Cyprus in 1997, Holbrooke unsuccessfully pushed the European Union to admit Turkey, despite its imprisonment of journalists, its ongoing use of the death penalty, its widespread killing of civilians in the course of its bloody counter-insurgency war in its Kurdish region, and other human rights abuses.

In the Former Yugoslavia

Holbrooke is perhaps best known for his leadership in putting together the 1995 Dayton Accords, which formally ended the conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Though widely praised in some circles for his efforts, Holbrooke remains quite controversial for his role. For instance, the agreement allows Bosnian Serbs to hold on to virtually all of the land they had seized and ethnically cleansed in the course of that bloody conflict. Indeed, rather than accept the secular concept of national citizenship that has held sway in Europe for generations, Holbrooke helped impose sectarian divisions that have made the country — unlike most of its gradually liberalizing Balkan neighbors — unstable, fractious, and dominated by illiberal ultra-nationalists.

As with previous U.S. officials regarding their relations with Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Panama’s Manuel Noriega, Holbrooke epitomizes the failed U.S. policy toward autocratic rulers that swings between the extremes of appeasement and war. For example, during the 1996 pro-democracy uprising in Serbia Holbrooke successfully argued that the Clinton administration should back Milosevic, in recognition of his role in the successful peace deal over Bosnia, and not risk the instability that might result from a victory by Serb democrats. Milosevic initially crushed the movement. In response to increased Serbian oppression in Kosovo just a couple years later, however, Holbrooke became a vociferous advocate of the 1999 U.S.-led bombing campaign, creating a nationalist reaction that set back the reconstituted pro-democracy movement once again. The pro-democracy movement finally succeeded in the nonviolent overthrow of the regime, following Milosevic’s attempt to steal the parliamentary elections in October 2000, but the young leaders of that movement remain bitterly angry at Holbrooke to this day.

Scott Ritter, the former chief UN Special Commission (UNSCOM) inspector who correctly assessed the absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and predicted a disastrous outcome for the U.S. invasion, observes that “not only has he demonstrated a lack of comprehension when it comes to the complex reality of Afghanistan (not to mention Pakistan), Holbrooke has a history of choosing the military solution over the finesse of diplomacy.” Noting how the Dayton Accords were built on the assumption of a major and indefinite NATO military presence, which would obviously be far more problematic in Afghanistan and Pakistan than in Europe, Ritter adds: “This does not bode well for the Obama administration.”

Ironically, back in 2002-2003, when the United States had temporarily succeeded in marginalizing Taliban and al-Qaeda forces, Holbrooke was a strong supporter of redirecting American military and intelligence assets away from the region in order to invade and occupy Iraq. Obama and others presciently criticized this reallocation of resources at that time as likely to lead to the deterioration of the security situation in the country and the resurgence of these extremist groups.

It’s unclear, then, why Obama would choose someone like Holbrooke for such a sensitive post. Indeed, it’s unclear as to why — having been elected on part for his anti-war credentials — Obama’s foreign policy and national security appointments have consisted primarily of such unreconstructed hawks. Advocates of a more enlightened and rational foreign policy still have a long row to hoe.

Pakistan’s Dictatorships and the United States

In his 2005 inaugural address, President George W. Bush declared that the United States would support democratic movements around the world and work to end tyranny. Furthermore, he pledged to those struggling for freedom that the United States would “not ignore your oppression, or excuse your oppressors.” Despite these promises, the Bush administration—with the apparent acquiescence of the Democratic-controlled Congress—has instead decided to continue U.S. support for the dictatorship of General Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan’s president.

On November 3, the U.S.-backed chief of the Pakistani Army, fearing an imminent ruling by the Supreme Court which could have invalidated his hold on power, declared a state of emergency. He immediately suspended the constitution, shut down all television stations not controlled by the government, ordered the arrests of thousands of political opponents and pro-democracy activists, fired judges not supportive of his crackdown, jammed mobile phone networks, and ordered attacks on peaceful demonstrators. Leading Pakistani journalist Hamid Mir reported that the U.S. Embassy had given a green light to the coup in large part due to its opposition to the chief justice of the Pakistani Supreme Court Iftikhar Chaudhry, who had issued key rulings challenging the government’s policies on political prisoners, women’s rights, and the privatization of public enterprises. Musharraf’s efforts to sack the chief justice six months ago resulted in months of protests which led to his reinstatement just a few weeks before this latest crackdown.

No Impact

Within hours of the martial law declaration, a Pentagon spokesman tried to reassure the regime that “the declaration does not impact on our military support.” This reiteration of support comes despite the fact that the U.S.-armed police and military, instead of concentrating on suppressing extremists waging a violent jihad along the Afghan border as promised, are instead suppressing judges, lawyers, journalists, and other members of the educated urban middle class struggling nonviolently for the restoration of democracy. Indeed, Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte argued before a recent congressional hearing that continued support for Pakistan’s authoritarian regime is “vital to our interests,” that it is “contributing heavily to the war on terror,” and that it remains “an indispensable ally.”

Musharraf originally seized power in October 1999 following an effort by the democratically elected Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to dismiss him from his position as army chief. Sharif has been exiled by Musharraf ever since; an attempt by the former prime minister to return in September was aborted at the airport and he was immediately deported.

Despite its unconstitutionality and its repression, the United States has sent over $10 billion in military and police aid to Pakistan over the past six years to prop up Musharraf’s regime. And, in 2005, Pakistan became one of only a handful of states to be formally designated as a “major non-NATO ally” of the United States. During his visit last year to Pakistan, Bush praised Musharraf’s commitment to democracy just hours after Pakistani police beat and arrested scores of opposition leaders and anti-Bush protesters.

Indeed, despite his well-documented human rights abuses, the Pakistani general has been repeatedly praised by America’s political, academic, and media elites. Bush has commended Musharraf’s “courage and vision” while Negroponte told the recent House panel that the dictator was “a committed individual working very hard in the service of his country.” Similarly, Columbia University president Lee Bollinger—who called Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a “cruel and petty dictator” in his introduction of the Iranian president—introduced Musharraf at an earlier forum by expressing his “great gratitude and excitement” of hosting “a leader of his stature,” praising the Pakistani general’s “remarkable” contributions to his country’s economic development and the “international fight against terror.”

Support for Extremists

The Bush administration and its supporters claim that the United States must continue its backing of the Pakistani dictatorship because of its role in suppressing Islamist extremists. The reality, however, is far different. For its first two years in power, Musharraf was a major supporter of the Taliban regime, making Pakistan one of only three countries in the world that recognized that totalitarian government, despite the Taliban providing refuge for Osama bin Laden and others in the al-Qaida network. As correctly noted by the 9/11 Commission in its final report, “On terrorism, Pakistan helped nurture the Taliban” and that “Many in the government have sympathized with or provided support to the extremists.”

Throughout his eight years in power, Musharraf has suppressed the established secular political parties while allowing for the development of Islamic political groups that show little regard for individual freedom. Despite claims that they had been shut down, madrassas run by Islamist extremists still operate openly. Taliban-allied groups effectively run large swathes of territory in the western provinces and the regions bordering Afghanistan are more controlled by pro-Taliban extremists than ever. In a press conference during a recent visit to Washington by Afghan president Hamid Karzai, in which Bush tried to blame Iran for the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan, Karzai corrected him by noting that Iran had actually been quite supportive of his government’s efforts and it was actually Pakistan that was backing the Taliban.

Former Kandahar-based NPR correspondent Sarah Chayes noted in her recently-released book The Punishment of Virtue: Inside Afghanistan After the Taliban that Pakistan has continued its decades-long policy of using religious extremists to exert its influence in Afghanistan. In return for providing limited cooperation against al-Qaida, the United States is willing to ignore Pakistani backing of Taliban and Hizbi-Islami militants as they wreak havoc on the people of that war-ravaged country. Chayes also noted how Pakistani intelligence, through the assassination of moderate Afghan political leaders and other acts of intimidation, has effective veto power over key decisions of the democratically-elected Afghan government, and without any apparent objections from Washington.

Support for Previous Dictators

For decades, the United States has backed the military dictators who have ruled Pakistan. Whether in the name of containing Communism or fighting terrorism, the well-being of the people of the sixth most populated country in the world has been of little concern to Washington policy makers of both parties.

During the Nixon administration, the United States served as the major foreign backer of General Yahya Khan, who declared martial law in 1969. In response to electoral victories by the Bengali-based Awami league in 1971, he began mass arrests of dissidents following a general strike.

As army units began revolting in response to the repression, General Khan cracked down with a brutality that Archer Blood, the U.S. consul in Dhaka, referred to as “genocide.” In one of the strongest-worded dissents ever written by U.S. Foreign Service officers, Blood and 29 others declared “Our government has failed to denounce the suppression of democracy. Our government has failed to denounce atrocities. Our government has failed to take forceful measures to protect its citizens while at the same time bending over backwards to placate the [Pakistani] government and to lessen any deservedly negative international public relations impact against them. Our government has evidenced what many will consider moral bankrupt.” Despite these protests, the Nixon administration continued its support for the repression, which took hundreds of thousands of lives, before Congress—in response to public outcry—suspended aid.

Khan was forced from power soon thereafter, leading to a democratic opening until Zia-ul-Haq seized power in 1977, declaring martial law and executing the elected prime minister he had overthrown. Imposing a rigid and reactionary version of Islamic law, Zia-ul-Haq systematically dismantled many of the country’s civil society institutions. U.S. aid to his regime increased dramatically after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in late 1979 and the CIA began collaborating with Pakistan’s notorious Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) to arm the Afghan resistance, sending the bulk of the aid to the most hard-line Islamist elements, particularly the extremist Hezbi-Islami faction, despite its propensity to fight the more moderate Afghan resistance groups as much as it did the Soviets.

In the summer of 1983, massive and largely nonviolent demonstrations in Sindh and elsewhere in Pakistan by the pro-democracy movement were crushed without apparent objections from Washington. Pro-democracy agitation resumed later that decade to again be met by severe repression. The dictatorship did not end, however, until Zia-ul-Haq—along with U.S. Ambassador Arnold Raphel, top Pakistani military commanders, and other key supporters of the regime—were killed in a mysterious air crash in August 1988. President Ronald Reagan expressed his “profound grief” at Zia’s death, eulogizing the dictator as “a statesman of world stature” and praising his “dedication to regional peace and reconstruction.”

Pakistan’s Nuclear Weapons

Beginning in the late 1970s, as the extent of Pakistan’s nuclear program became known, the international community began expressing concerns over the possibility of politically unstable Pakistan developing nuclear weapons. Throughout the 1980s, however, the Reagan and the George H. W. Bush administrations formally denied that Pakistan was engaging in nuclear weapons development despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. In addition, the United States continued supplying Pakistan with F-16 aircraft even as nuclear analysts concluded that Pakistan would likely use these fighter planes as its primary delivery system for its nuclear arsenal. To publicly acknowledge what virtually every authority on nuclear proliferation knew about Pakistan’s nuclear capability would force the United States to cut off aid to Pakistan, as required by U.S. laws designed to enforce the non-proliferation regime. The annual U.S. certification of Pakistan’s supposed non-nuclear status was halted only in 1990, when the Soviet-backed Afghan regime was finally collapsing.

However, George H.W. Bush’s administration insisted that the cut-off of aid did not include military sales, so the transfer of spare parts for the nuclear-capable F-16s aircraft to Pakistan continued. President Bill Clinton finally imposed sanctions against the regime when Pakistan engaged in a series of nuclear weapons tests in 1998, but the sanctions as well as restrictions regarding military aid to new nuclear states were repealed by Congress and the Bush administration three years later.

UN Resolutions

The U.S. government has blocked the United Nations from imposing sanctions or other means to enforce UN Security Council resolution 1172, passed unanimously in 1998, which calls on Pakistan to dismantle its nuclear weapons and long-range missiles. (This contrasts with the Bush administration’s partially successful efforts to impose tough international sanctions against Iran for violating UN Security Council resolution 1696 calling for restrictions on its nuclear program, even though the Islamic Republic is still many years from weapons capability and is therefore much less of a threat to international peace and security than is Pakistan.)

Indeed, the United States has released the previously-suspended sale of sophisticated nuclear-capable F-16 fighter jets to that country. A Bush administration official claimed that the U.S. fighter-bombers “are vital to Pakistan’s security as President Musharraf prosecutes the war on terror” despite the fact that these jets were originally ordered 15 years earlier, long before the U.S.-led “war on terror” began. They were suspended by the administration of the president’s father out of concerns about Pakistan’s nuclear program and the Pakistani military’s ties with Islamic terrorist groups, both of which are of even greater concern today.

Rogue States

One of the most disturbing aspects of U.S. support for the Pakistani regime is that Pakistan has been sharing its nuclear materials and know-how with North Korea and other so-called “rogue states.” The Bush administration chose to essentially ignore what journalist Robert Scheer has referred to as “the most extravagantly irresponsible nuclear arms bazaar the world has ever seen” and to instead blame others. For example, even though it was actually Pakistanis who passed on nuclear materials to Libya, the Bush administration instead told U.S. allies that North Korea was responsible, thereby sabotaging negotiations which many had hoped could end North Korea’s nuclear program and resolve that festering crisis. Similarly, though it was Pakistan which provided Iran with nuclear centrifuges, the Bush administration is now citing Iran’s possession of such materials as justification for a possible U.S. military attack against that country.

The Bush administration, despite evidence to the contrary, claims that the Pakistani government was not responsible for exporting such dangerous materials, but that these serious breaches of security were solely the responsibility of a single rogue nuclear scientist named Abdul Qadeer Khan. Unfortunately, the Pakistani military regime has not allowed U.S. intelligence access to Khan, the former head of Pakistan’s nuclear program, whom the 9/11 Commission noted “was leading the most dangerous nuclear smuggling ring ever disclosed.” Recently pardoned by Musharraf, he now lives freely in Pakistan while Pakistani anti-nuclear activists have been exiled or jailed.


Despite President Bush’s claim that Islamist extremists attack American because they “hate our freedom,” the reality is that most people in Pakistan and other Islamic countries don’t have anything against our freedom. They do, however, recognize that the United States shares responsibility for their repression through its unconditional support of the dictatorship that denies them their own freedom. And, without the opportunity to press for changes through the political system, some turn to violence and extremism.

The United States has supported repressive regimes in the Islamic world and beyond for years with little concern over the consequences. On September 11, 2001, however, citizens from the U.S.-backed dictatorships of Saudi Arabia and Egypt hijacked four airliners, resulting in the deaths of thousands of Americans. A public opinion poll in Pakistan this past August showed that Osama bin Laden has a higher approval rating than either General Musharraf or President Bush. Extremist Islamist parties would not come close to winning a free election in Pakistan today, but in denying Pakistan’s pro-Western democratic opposition a chance to compete and in jailing its leaders, Musharraf and his American supporters may be creating the conditions that could eventually lead to the takeover of this nuclear-armed country by dangerous extremists.

As President John F. Kennedy observed, “Those who make peaceful evolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.”

The American Public

In 1971, during the height of the massacres of Bengalis by the Pakistani army, a small group of American Quakers organized a flotilla of canoes in Baltimore Harbor to block a Pakistani freighter from docking where it was to be loaded with American arms and munitions while other protesters on shore blocked the train which carried the weaponry. Though most of them were arrested and the weapons were eventually loaded, the publicity from the event alerted the American public of the largely clandestine U.S. military support for the Pakistani regime.

When protestors met another Pakistani freighter attempting to pick up weapons in Philadelphia shortly thereafter, dockworkers refused to load the ship, preferring to not get paid that day rather than to work for what their local union leader referred to as “blood money.” Within weeks, in the face of public outcry against U.S. support for the genocidal Pakistani regime, Congress cut off military aid, a testament to the power of nonviolent direct action.

Given the unwillingness of both the Republican administration and the Democratic-controlled Congress to stop U.S. military support for the current Pakistani dictatorship, it may be time once again for concerned citizens to engage in similar nonviolent actions to end U.S. support for the oppression. For those at risk as a result of U.S. policy are no longer just those currently oppressed by the Pakistani regime. Some day, as a result of a possible blowback from this policy, it could be Americans as well.

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