It seems like it was not so long ago that the war in Afghanistan was the "good" war and Iraq was a clusterfuck. Even as recently as 2006 Ann Coulter could claim with a straight face that things were going "swimmingly" in Afghanistan. But somehow, in a bizarre turn of events, Iraq is starting to look like a success story in comparison to Afghanistan.
In a depressing but eye opening article in Rolling Stone magazine, journalist Nir Rosen writes about the war in Afghanistan and his encounters with the Taliban. Below are some excepts, though I recommend you read the entire article.
Until recently, Ghazni, like much of central Afghanistan, was considered reasonably safe. But now the province, located 100 miles south of the capital, has fallen to the Taliban. Foreigners who venture to Ghazni often wind up kidnapped or killed. In defiance of the central government, the Taliban governor in the province issues separate ID cards and passports for the Taliban regime, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Farmers increasingly turn to the Taliban, not the American-backed authorities, for adjudication of land disputes.
By the time we reach the town of Salar, only 50 miles south of Kabul, we have already passed five tractor-trailers from military convoys that have been destroyed by the Taliban. The highway, newly rebuilt courtesy of $250 million, most of it from U.S. taxpayers, is pocked by immense craters, most of them caused by roadside bombs planted by Taliban fighters. As in Iraq, these improvised explosive devices are a key to the battle against the American invaders and their allies in the Afghan security forces, part of a haphazard but lethal campaign against coalition troops and the long, snaking convoys that provide logistical support.
The numbers tell the story. Attacks on coalition and Afghan forces are up 44 percent since last year, the highest level since the war began. By October, 135 American troops had been killed in Afghanistan this year — already surpassing the total of 117 fatalities for all of 2007. The Taliban are also intensifying their attacks on aid workers: In a particularly brazen assault in August, a group of Taliban fighters opened fire on the car of a U.S. aid group, the International Rescue Committee, killing three Western women and their Afghan driver on the main road to Kabul.
To return to Kabul from a feudal province like Ghazni is to experience a form of time travel. The city is thoroughly modern, for those who can afford it: five-star hotels, shiny new shopping malls and well-guarded restaurants where foreigners eat meals that cost as much as most Afghans make in a month, cooked with ingredients imported from abroad. If you can avoid falling into the sewage canals at every crosswalk, and evade the suicide bombers who occasionally rock the city, you can enjoy the safety of Afghanistan's version of the Green Zone.
But the barbarians are at the gate, and major attacks are getting closer and closer to the city each day. Upon my return to Kabul, I discover that the Taliban have fired rockets at the airport and at the NATO base; the United Nations has been on a four-day curfew; and President Karzai has canceled his public appearances. The city is being slowly but systematically severed from the rest of the country.
Officials on the ground in Afghanistan say it is foolhardy to believe that the Americans can prevail where the Russians failed. At the height of the occupation, the Soviets had 120,000 of their own troops in Afghanistan, buttressed by roughly 300,000 Afghan troops. The Americans and their allies, by contrast, have 65,000 troops on the ground, backed up by only 137,000 Afghan security forces — and they face a Taliban who enjoy the support of a well-funded and highly organized network of Islamic extremists. "The end for the Americans will be just like for the Russians," says a former commander who served in the Taliban government. "The Americans will never succeed in containing the conflict. There will be more bleeding. It's coming to the same situation as it did for the communist forces, who found themselves confined to the provincial capitals."
But if you don't want to take Nir Rosen's word for it, the U.S. State Department's travel advisory page for Afghanistan tells a similarly bleak story:
Kabul, in particular has seen a rise in militant attacks, including rocket attacks, vehicle borne IEDs, and suicide bombings. The number of attacks in the south and southwestern areas of the country continues to be high as a result of insurgent and drug-related activity, but no part of the country is immune from attacks. Over 100 attacks were reported in Kabul over the past year, although many additional attacks were thwarted by Afghan and coalition forces. An additional 4,400 attacks occurred nationwide during the same timeframe.
Foreigners throughout the country continue to be targeted for violent attacks and kidnappings, whether motivated by terrorism or criminal activity. In January, gunmen attacked the Serena Hotel and killed eight people, including an American contractor and a Norwegian journalist. In April, an assassination attempt against Afghan President Karzai showed the continued desire of the insurgency to destabilize the Afghan government. The July 2008 bombing of the Indian Embassy in downtown Kabul, near many western embassies and Afghan Government institutions, demonstrated the ability of the insurgents to undertake assaults within Kabul itself. Rocket fire and rocket propelled grenade (RPG) attacks have occurred with increasing frequency. In August, three female western non-governmental organization (NGO) employees, along with their male Afghan driver, were gunned down as they traveled south of Kabul. An American NGO worker and her driver were kidnapped in Kandahar in January. Other Americans were kidnapped in Afghanistan in February and August 2008.
In the wake of the terror attacks on September 11, 2001, the rationale for invading Afghanistan was clear to the American people. Osama bin Laden and his organization had established themselves there and were sheltered by the Taliban regime. We could not continue to allow them to use the country as a place to train their adherents to launch future attacks against us.
For secular minded people such as myself, the war in Afghanistan had an added rationale. We were appalled at the theocratic intolerance of the Taliban, which included among other things, forcing women to wear burqas and denying them the right to go to school or to work, and the destruction of the Buddhist statues in Bamiyan. This was a war not just against terrorism, but against a regime that to atheists was the very embodiment of the worst excesses of a state ruled by religious fundamentalists. Destroying the Taliban would strike a blow for secularism, pluralism and tolerance, whereas in Iraq, the overthrow of the brutal but secular Baathist regime created a vacuum exploited by Islamic fundamentalists.
Therefore, the deteriorating state of affairs in Afghanistan is doubly troubling to me. Not only have we failed to catch or kill Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and Taliban leader Mullah Omar, our failure in Afghanistan is providing renewed inspiration for the forces of militant Islamic fundamentalists. It is like the return of a cancer that was in remission and now threatens to metastasize even further.
Honestly, I don't know now if we can win in Afghanistan now. I generally tend to be an optimist, but my optimism is tempered by realism. If we can win in Afghanistan, then we must. I never supported the war in Iraq and look forward to the day we withdraw our forces from there. But I just cannot stomach the prospect of returning Afghanistan to the rule of a group of people inspired by Islamic zealotry. Civilization and enlightenment cannot be allowed to be in retreat.
Addendum: Of course, civilization and enlightenment needs to be advanced here in the United States as well.