The Other War
Former Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld says in the current edition of GQ magazine that the war in Afghanistan has been "a big success," with people living in freedom and life "improved on the streets."
To anyone working in the country, there is only one possible, informed response: What Afghanistan is the man talking about?
In reality, Afghanistan -- former Taliban stronghold, Al Qaeda haven and warlord-cum-heroin-smuggler finishing school -- feels more and more like Sept. 10, 2001, than a victory in the U.S. war on terrorism.
The country is, plain and simple, a mess. Al Qaeda and its Taliban allies have quietly regained territory, rendering wide swaths of the country off-limits to U.S. and Afghan forces, international aid workers and even journalists. Violent attacks against Western interests are routine. Even Kabul, which the White House has held up as a postcard for what is possible in Afghanistan, has become so dangerous that foreign embassies are in states of lockdown, diplomats do not leave their offices, and venturing beyond security perimeters requires daylight-only travel, armored vehicles, Kevlar and armed escorts.
Fear reigns among average Afghans in Kabul. Street crime, virtually unheard of in Afghan culture, has increased dramatically over the last three years as angry, unemployed and often radicalized young men settle scores with members of other tribes and clans, steal and rob to feed their families and vent their frustration with a government that appears powerless to help them. Taking a chance by eating in one of Kabul's handful of restaurants or going shopping in one of the few markets left is a new version of Russian roulette.
For U.S. officials and diplomats, Kabul is simply a prison. Embassies are completely closed to vehicular and even foot traffic. Indeed, at the American Embassy, the consular section issues visas only to Afghan government officials. If an average Afghan wants a visa to the U.S., he or she must travel to Islamabad, Pakistan, to apply. To allow Afghans to stand in line for visas at the embassy in Kabul would invite terrorist attacks or attract suicide bombers.
Most Americans, still in shock over the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, approved going over to this tiny country to kick some backside in revenge. Everyone figured it would be a quick and easy war: take down the repressive Taliban rulers, demolish the Al Qaeda training camps, capture Osama bin Laden and his cohorts: a week, maybe two. The Russians figured Afghanistan would be a walk in the park not too long ago as well. They got bogged down and finally limped back home. But, we were told, we're Americans: we're exceptional, plus we have God and justice on our side. A week, maybe two.
Well, it's been close to six years and we still have some troops there, as do our allies in NATO, and things are not going so well. In fact, Afghanistan is broken and longing for the very stability that is being promised by the Taliban we drove out.
By any measure, this remains a "hot" war with a well-armed, motivated and organized enemy. Village by village, tribe by tribe and province by province, Al Qaeda is coming back, enforcing a form of Islamic life and faith rooted in the 12th century, intimidating reformers, exacting revenge and funding itself with dollars from massive poppy cultivation and heroin smuggling. As Al Qaeda reestablishes itself, Osama bin Laden remains free to send video messages and serve as an ideological beacon to jihadis worldwide. The country's president, Hamid Karzai, meanwhile, is in effect little more than the mayor of Kabul.
Heckuva war, George.