WASHINGTON — Three years after the Bush administration led a remarkably quick and bold military operation to overthrow the Taliban regime, how are things going in Afghanistan? The short answer is that there has been considerable progress. But that is largely because things were so bad under the Taliban, not because they are good now.
And unfortunately, the current “security-lite” strategy being followed by the United States and its partners in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization does not inspire confidence that Afghanistan will soon do better.
In early November 2001, President George W. Bush promised at the United Nations that “when that regime is gone . . . America will join the world in helping the people of Afghanistan rebuild their country.” A year later, in October, he pledged a “full commitment to a future of progress and stability for the Afghan people.” However, the U.S. and its allies have fallen short of the president’s promises.
To be sure, some real achievements have been made. A horribly oppressive regime is gone. Two successful loya jirga meetings have resulted in the creation of an interim government and the ratification of a new constitution. On Saturday the Afghan people will choose their first democratically elected president, and the majority of eligible Afghans have registered to vote.
Gross domestic product growth rates have been averaging 20 to 30 percent a year, markets in the north in particular are bustling, and school enrollment is now 300 percent greater than before the war. Most Afghans consider the overall security environment improved from the recent past.
That said, Afghanistan remains a medieval-like fiefdom of warlords. Some are more benign than others, but most are oppressive, none is conducive to the creation of a healthy economy, and none has produced a safe environment for their citizens. Militia forces total close to 90,000 members, and little progress has been made toward demobilizing them.
Fortunately, official Afghan security forces are growing; as of Sept. 18, there were 15,000 troops in the Afghan Army, and as of Aug. 5 the police forces were 22,300 strong. Some of these successfully resolved a looming crisis in the western region near Herat this summer. But most rural parts of the country, where 80 percent of Afghans live, remain beyond President Hamid Karzai’s control.
Continued attacks on aid and reconstruction workers have now driven even groups notorious for their bravery like Doctors without Borders to leave the country. Their departure is particularly tragic given how poor humanitarian conditions remain in Afghanistan. About 70 percent of the Afghan people continue to be malnourished, only 13 percent have access to clean water and sanitation, and a mere 6 percent have electricity.
Some 20,000 U.S. troops have been valiantly fighting an increasingly bloody war against the Taliban in Afghanistan’s south. Thirty Americans have lost their lives in Afghanistan this year, after only 12 were killed in 2003 — bringing the overall total of the last three years to more than 100. Unfortunately, despite this sacrifice, the Taliban appears to be reconstituting in places.
Indeed, according to a New York Times interview with an Afghan intelligence chief on Aug. 1, the Taliban’s strength in Afghanistan may have grown by 50 percent since 2003. Thankfully, most parts of the country are affected to just a limited extent by this, but as noted, militias generally continue to hold sway elsewhere.
It has now been a year since the United Nations gave NATO the mandate to expand its presence beyond Kabul. But troops making up the International Security Assistance Force mission remain concentrated in the capital; only a few dozen are now located in each of five additional provinces. Although NATO has increased the number of ISAF troops temporarily from 6,500 to 9,500 during the election period, more troops need to be deployed on a more long-term basis to ensure security in Afghanistan — probably at least 20,000.
Largely because of the poor security situation, the Afghan economy is not doing very well. It has improved since 2001, but it remains very weak, with a per capita income of some $250 a year — comparable to the poorest countries in Africa. International assistance has been flowing in to the tune of about $1 billion a year, but that is only half what donors had promised, and hardly enough for a country ravaged by war for three decades.
Much of what economic growth has occurred in Afghanistan has resulted, directly or indirectly, from a big-time resumption of the drug trade. Only four years after the Taliban had largely eliminated the cultivation of opium, the country is believed to provide 75 percent of the world’s total supply. In 2003, revenues from the Afghan drug trade equaled half of Afghanistan’s nondrug GDP. In addition, heroin trafficking is believed to be the principal source of funding for the remnants of the Taliban and al-Qaeda still present in the country.
The Bush administration, its NATO allies and most of all the Afghan people have much to be proud of in Afghanistan. But the glass is at most half full. Afghanistan is a unified country in name and form only; it remains factionalized, unsafe and poor.
The next U.S. presidential term will be crunch time. In all likelihood, we will either declare victory and leave the place a barely functioning entity, or we will commit to do the job right, prevent the country from again becoming a sanctuary for terrorists, and show Muslims that we really care about their well being.