Sunday, July 23, 2006

Guns and poppies: The coming anarchy in Afghanistan

Remember Afghanistan? I won't blame you if you don't. It's hard to see it through the fog of war in Iraq and Lebanon, not to mention through the fall-out of nuclear crisis in Iran and North Korea. Not so long ago, Afghanistan was the focus of much of our attention. After 9/11, the U.S. went in and routed the al Qaeda-friendly Taliban, or at least sent Osama bin Laden, Mullah Omar, and their supporters scurrying into the mountains and across the border into Pakistan, a short war of revenge that was neither lost nor entirely won.

And yet there was optimism. In his 2002 State of the Union address, President Bush said this:

The American flag flies again over our embassy in Kabul. Terrorists who once occupied Afghanistan now occupy cells at Guantanamo Bay. (Applause.) And terrorist leaders who urged followers to sacrifice their lives are running for their own. (Applause.)

America and Afghanistan are now allies against terror. We'll be partners in rebuilding that country. And this evening we welcome the distinguished interim leader of a liberated Afghanistan: Chairman Hamid Karzai. (Applause.)

The last time we met in this chamber, the mothers and daughters of Afghanistan were captives in their own homes, forbidden from working or going to school. Today women are free, and are part of Afghanistan's new government. And we welcome the new Minister of Women's Affairs, Doctor Sima Samar. (Applause.)

Our progress is a tribute to the spirit of the Afghan people, to the resolve of our coalition, and to the might of the United States military. (Applause.)

There had been some success and there was, back on the American homefront, much applause, much self-congratulation. Karzai was elected president in 2004, although, given the weakness of his government and the strength of the warlords who control the rest of the country, he is more mayor of Kabul than president of Afghanistan. Here's President Bush in this year's State of the Union address:

We remain on the offensive in Afghanistan, where a fine President and a National Assembly are fighting terror while building the institutions of a new democracy.

He also mentioned, almost in passing, "women lining up to vote," but that was all there was about Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden is still out there somewhere, as is Mullah Omar, as are many of their supporters, but Afghanistan is no longer the focus of our attention. Bush's war in Iraq was the major distraction, but Afghanistan just isn't enough of an it-story anymore. It has been eclipsed by seemingly more immediate concerns from the Middle East to the Far East, from the Mediterranean to the Sea of Japan.

Which is partly why it should come as no surprise to learn that Afghanistan is sliding into anarchy, as The Guardian reports:

The most senior British military commander in Afghanistan yesterday described the situation in the country as "close to anarchy" with feuding foreign agencies and unethical private security companies compounding problems caused by local corruption.

The stark warning came from Lieutenant General David Richards, head of Nato's international security force in Afghanistan, who warned that western forces there were short of equipment and were "running out of time" if they were going to meet the expectations of the Afghan people.

(I recommend the entire article.) There are men and women in Afghanistan, both Afghanis themselves and military personnel from around the world, who have been tasked with the unenviable job of trying to bring stability to a historically unstable land, of providing security where there is little but lawlessness. They are doing extraordinary work under difficult conditions. It would be unfair of me to say that they've been forgotten -- we Canadians closely monitor the exploits of our own forces in Afghanistan (and mourn the loss of the fallen), as I have done here -- but we need to do more, our governments need to do more, if that country isn't to collapse entirely.

Given the sacrifices that have been made, the costs of going to war to liberate Afghanistan from the clutches of the Taliban and al Qaeda, that would be a great tragedy indeed.

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