Afghanistan: Waiting for the Bottom to Drop

Afghanistan is slipping – it’s low on the Bush administration’s radar screen, absent from the public debate, and spiraling once again into lawlessness and poverty. Though it may not yet be the quagmire that Iraq has become, Afghanistan too is beset by an insurgency, and serious obstacles threaten the transition to stability. Yet, the country’s steady decline is somehow failing to set off the necessary alarm bells in Washington and other international capitals.

President Bush and his national security team, for their part, continue to tout Afghanistan as a victory, with statements such as “its a big success story,” and “by removing the Taliban out of Afghanistan and introducing democracy into this country, al Qaeda lost safe haven.” But the issue is no longer whether we ousted the Taliban government. Instead, it’s what we have done – or can do – to eliminate the obstacles to security and stability in Afghanistan.

It seems that the administration, grown accustomed to dealing with its foreign policy engagements only in crisis terms, is waiting for the bottom to drop out from under Afghanistan before taking appropriate action. But in a country where the narco-economy is becoming increasingly entrenched, and where militants melt into the landscape with ease, it’s not a sinkhole we’re standing on the edge of, but a bog. If we fail to take corrective measures now, we risk finding ourselves waist deep in a crisis and unprepared.

The real prospect of Afghanistan relapsing into a state of conflict is apparent everywhere: in the rise of militant forces, the limited international security presence, the wanton warlords and the booming drug trade. Some forty Afghan soldiers and policemen, along with two American soldiers have been killed by militants in the past few weeks alone. This year has also seen a spike in the killings of aid workers. And last week’s murder of two contractors working for the U.N. election effort risks further stalling a voter registration process that is less than one fifth complete. Elections have already been postponed once because of acute logistical and security constraints.

While Afghanistan may no longer be under official Taliban control, Taliban and al-Qaeda operatives are back in the country and fattening off the mothers milk of a vast drug industry. The Taliban appear to be reconstituted to such an extent that they have spokesmen who give interviews to reporters. And these are only the developments we know of. The Tajikistan Drug Control Agency estimates that there are some 400 clandestine heroin labs in Afghanistan proper. If that’s true, what’s to say there are not Taliban bases or chemical weapons labs and other terrorist related facilities in the mix?

The fact of the matter is that there is virtually no international security presence in large parts of Afghanistan. In a country greater than Iraq in both size and population, we have barely 20,000 US forces (and that figure is temporarily inflated by several thousand due to troop rotation overlaps) versus the approximately 135,000 in Iraq. Outside of nine small and scattered U.S.-led provincial reconstruction teams (PRTs), U.S. soldiers operate largely in the South and East regions, fighting Taliban and al-Qaeda militants until they slip into the safe-zone on the Pakistani side of the line.

Much of the security in the North and West, meanwhile, is in the hands of warlords nominally loyal to the government, who meanwhile traffic drugs and fight amongst one another, throwing whole portions of the country into turmoil. Warlord militias provoke instability and factional fighting, which has reportedly killed thousands in the past two years, forcing the nascent Afghan security forces into intervention efforts. The NATO troop expansion planned some six months ago has failed to materialize, and neither we nor our allies seem to be losing much sleep over it.

Perhaps most worrisome is the idea that we may be working at cross purposes with ourselves in Afghanistan. It is becoming increasingly apparent that drug money from the country’s massive opiate trade is filling the coffers of extremists across Central Asia. The United States’ permissive relationship with some of the warlords who traffic these drugs undermines our efforts against Taliban and al-Qaeda militants as well as the larger war on terrorism. Moreover, there is an increasingly serious prospect that we are beginning to lose the war for hearts and minds, countering the positive developments made by the PRTs.

Take for example the Pentagon’s recent leaflet incident – relatively minor, but nevertheless symbolic – in which U.S. forces reportedly distributed leaflets to Afghans that said essentially “give us information on the Taliban and al-Qaeda or you lose your humanitarian aid.” And even more disturbing news is emerging now, that, as in Iraq, prisoners in U.S. custody have been abused in Afghanistan. Beyond this, we should not underestimate the growing fatigue of ordinary citizens suffering under the warlords; warlord crimes and excesses were one of the main reasons the Taliban rose to power so easily in the first place.

It is not too late to save our policy in Afghanistan, but doing so will require coming to terms with the reality of the present, rather than basking in the glory of a victory that is, by now, long past. There are a number of positive steps that the United States can take, although some of them may be tough. These include increasing the number of U.S. boots in the country, and using them to cover more area; working more closely with ally Turkey to secure a substantial number of its troops for the NATO operation; rethinking our military relations with warlords; and jumpstarting the demobilization process, so that militias can be disarmed and, where appropriate, incorporated into the growing Afghan National Army.

We cannot forget that we are fighting in two main theatres right now. Although Iraq has received much more attention than Afghanistan, the latter is every bit as crucial to our national security, and we must begin to treat it as such.

Mirna Galic is a national security analyst at the Center for American Progress.

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