News & Politics

Bush's Afghanistan Disgrace

Bush's "new era of hope in Afghanistan" is hampered by his reluctance to send funds to the devastated region and lack of concern for severe human rights violations.
With the 2002 elections nicely tucked away in George W. Bush's pocket, it's back-to-Iraq time. The President succeeded in persuading (bullying?) the U.N. Security Council to pass an open-to-interpretation resolution that orders new inspections in Iraq and that Bush can view as permitting a U.S. attack in the case Saddam Hussein resists. It is difficult to say when, or if, war will ensue. In the event that Saddam does cooperate with the inspections -- I'm not taking bets -- and no provocation occurs, Bush's dash to war will falter.

But neocon war boosters already have Plan B; they are hyping the need to invade Iraq in order to liberate its people and to bring democracy to the region. (Next up China and Tibet?) It's doubtful Washington will be able to push the Security Council into okaying an invasion for regime change. In any event, it will probably be several weeks before there are any indications whether inspections will prevent a war. But with the war-or-no-war point approaching, it is a good time to consider what is occurring in post-war Afghanistan.

"We want to be a continuing part of the new era of hope in Afghanistan," said Bush on Oct. 11, at an event highlighting U.S. humanitarian assistance in that country. He added, "We are helping the people to now recover from years of tyranny and oppression. We're helping Afghanistan to claim its democratic future, and we're helping that nation to establish public order and safety."

The United States, after all, has assisted the U.N. in providing 575,000 metric tons of food to nearly 10 million Afghans and UNICEF in vaccinating over 8 million children against measles, and it has offered $300 million for reconstruction projects. Bush proudly noted that America's Fund for Afghan Children -- which raised money from American kids -- has collected more than $10.5 million.

"Ultimately," he said, "one of the best weapons, one of the truest weapons that we have against terrorism is to show the world the true strength of character and kindness of the American people. Americans are united in ... our concern for the innocent people of Afghanistan." Several weeks later, the Pentagon announced it would double number of its soldiers engaged in rebuilding efforts in Afghanistan.

That all sounds rather good and noble. But the folks on the ground tell a different tale.

"Rather than getting out there in a leadership role and saying, 'We need a Marshall Plan,' and fighting for it, they've taken a minimalist approach," complained Joel Charny, a vice president of Refugees International.

He's right. The reconstruction funds the Bush White House requested for Afghanistan have been flowing slowly to the country. Moreover, several months ago the White House opposed an effort in Congress to add $200 million to the total. And the total number of U.S. troops committed to rebuilding -- after the doubling -- will be 340. That's not a lot.

These civil-affairs units typically work on small-scale projects, rebuilding a school, repairing an irrigation system. Fine work, but not enough. Perhaps more importantly, the Bush Administration has also declined to beef up the international peacekeeping force in Afghanistan, which is mainly limited to Kabul. Consequently, warlordism has prospered in other regions. And, by the way, the $10.5 million raised for the Afghan children's fund is about one-twentieth of the amount Bush spent getting elected in 2000.

In a recent piece for the London Sunday Telegraph, Christina Lamb assessed U.S. and Western assistance to Afghanistan. On the streets of Kabul, she found a woman named Nadina who had walked five hours from her village to bring her son, Gulajan, to a hospital after he had fallen into a coma in his local hospital when it ran out of food. Three-year-old Gulajan weighed 13 pounds.

"Life is no different in our village than before," Nadina told Lamb. "We have no food because of the drought. We hoped the foreigners would come, but no one has. We don't know why."

Lamb then noted: "It is a question many Afghans are asking .... U.S. President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair promised never to forget Afghanistan .... Yet for all their promises, children are dying on the operating table for want of a $4,000 generator .... 'We're fed up with foreigners coming here to look but doing nothing,' said Omar Najibullah, the hospital's administrator. 'Children are dying here every day that we could prevent if we just had a generator and some basic medicine.'"

It's not that no money is available. Between $1.2 billion and $1.4 billion will arrive by the end of this year. But, Lamb writes, "The aid money seems to be going to build plush offices for 2,000 non-governmental organizations -- offering everything from U.S. feminists to a traveling circus -- and flying in consultants as well as sharp-suited U.S. lawyers to advise on a new constitution....'The problem is how the money has been distributed,' explained Zia Mojadeddi, a close friend of President Hamid Karzai. 'Around $750 million has gone on returning refugees, another $150 million to $200 million through NGOs, and the central government has received only $90 million, which is not enough to even pay salaries.'

"Police and soldiers in Jalalabad said they had not been paid for 11 months," Lamb's article continues. "'We have 10,000 to 15,000 military and police in this province with guns but no money to pay them or for uniforms,' Din Mohammed, governor of Nagaharm, complained. 'They all have families to feed, and I say to Americans: How can I blame these people if they take money from Taliban or Al Qaeda.'"

Another estimate less rosy than Bush's comes from Human Rights Watch. In early November, it released a report on torture and repression in Afghanistan. From its summary:

"When the United States-led coalition overthrew the Taliban in November 2001, Afghans were promised a new era of democracy and respect for human rights .... For many Afghans, the end of the Taliban's uniquely oppressive rule was indeed a liberation. Yet almost one year later, the human rights situation in most of the country remains grim .... This has happened not simply because of the inherent difficulties of rebuilding an impoverished, devastated country, but because of choices the United States and other international actors have made, and failed to make.

"In most parts of the country, security and local governance has been entrusted to regional military commanders -- warlords -- many of whom have human rights records rivaling the worst commanders under the Taliban .... American military forces have maintained relationships with local warlords that undercut efforts by U.S. diplomats and aid agencies to strengthen central authority and the rule of law."

The report focuses on western Afghanistan and the city of Heart, which were taken over in late 2001 by warlord Ismail Khan and his troops, who were backed by the U.S.-led military coalition. It documents widespread political intimidation, arrests, beatings and torture by the police and security forces under Ismail Khan's command. It notes that women and girls in Herat "continue to suffer extreme forms of discrimination, including many Taliban-era practices that are now being revived." Dissent is not allowed.

Herat is a closed society. Members of the Pashtun minority are persecuted. A man who was severely beaten by Ismail Khan's forces told Human Rights Watch: "What has changed in Afghanistan? All our hopes are crushed. We are completely disappointed. Look -- all the same warlords are in power as before. Fundamentalism has come into power, and every day they strengthen their power."

The report blames both the United States and the U.N. for turning a blind eye to Ismail Khan's abuses. One piece of the problem is that the U.N. has deployed few human rights workers in Afghanistan.

"Having spent years learning hard lessons in places like Bosnia, Rwanda and Cambodia about the primary importance of human rights to long-term development and political stability," the study says, "the U.N. seems to be reverting to a preference for political stability over human rights."

And the United States, which supplied Ismail Khan with military and financial assistance, has relied upon him for providing security in the region. By doing so, the United States avoids having to consider deploying peacekeepers in the area. One Herat resident quoted in the report said, "Ismail Khan and his followers -- their hands are bloody. For them, killing a bird is the same as killing a man."

Yet when Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld visited with Ismail Khan last spring, he called the warlord "an appealing person .... He's thoughtful, measured and self-confident."

The "new era of hope" that Bush pronounced for Afghanistan has not yet come to pass for many there, partly as a result of U.S. decisions. That should be kept in mind, as administration officials and others tout war in Iraq, especially if such a war is to be waged not just to disarm Saddam but to "liberate" the people of Iraq.

If promises made to Afghanistan go unfulfilled, if the United States does nothing to challenge warlord dictators who come to power in the aftermath of its military victory there, what reason is there to believe the United States will do better -- be more engaged and care more about post-war democracy and reconstruction -- in Iraq?