The recent International Summit on Democracy, Terrorism and Security in Madrid included a plenary session on 03/10/05 on The Way Ahead featuring the following participants:
Miguel Angel Morantinos foreign minister of Spain, moderator
Hamid Karzai, president of Afghanistan
Kjell Magne Bondevik, prime minister of Norway
Javier Solano, foreign policy "high representative" of the European Union (i.e., the EU's foreign minister)
Enrique Iglesias, president of the Inter-American Development Bank
George Soros, "philanthropist and millionaire" and president of the Open Society Institute (OSI)
The conference site linked about includes both a 79-minute audio recording of the session and a transcript. Karzai, Bondevik and Soros presented in English, and Morantinos, Solano and Iglesias presented in Spanish. No English translation is provided in the transcript for the Spanish portions.
Karzai and lessons from Afghanistan
Afghan President Karzai's presentation was surprising to me because he presented such a rosy picture of conditions in his country. His government's authority scarcely extends beyond the borders of the capital city of Kabul and thousands of American troops remain in-country hunting Taliban and Al Qaeda guerrillas. In an earlier post, I quoted Colin Gray from the US Army War College's quarterly Parameters on how the US-Northern Alliance "the victory of 2001 in Afghanistan has restored the traditional power of the warlords in the countryside." Afghanistan remains a "failed state," which can easily become more of a haven for Muslim terrorists than it still is today.
Reflecting on the lessons of the anti-Soviet war waged by Afghan warlords and radical jihadist groups, Karzai said:
Once the international community forgot about us and we were left to interferences and the arrival of extremists in our country, our country became a haven for terrorism. We kept informing the international community on a daily basis of the danger brewing in Afghanistan to the Afghan people and to the international community. ...
Another very significant question here is the arrival of extremism and terrorism in Afghanistan was because, unfortunately, the world neglected the arrival and rise of extremism in Afghanistan – that some even used extremism as an instrument of policy.
Now, it's not surprising that as the head of country desperately in need of international assistance of all kinds, a government whose existence still depends on the presence of NATO troops and elite American bodyguards for himself, that Karzai would stress the importance for the international community of not forgetting about Afghanistan. And, as far as it goes, he's correct. The US and other countries that actively supported the anti-Soviet war neglected the country afterwards, and failed to understand the magnitude of the threat we had helped create in the Frankenstein's monster of the international jihadist groups.
But from the point of view of American interests, the problem in Afghanistan was much deeper. The Carter administration and even more so the Reagan administration pumped aid the the Islamic extremists in Afghanistan and encouraged the recruitment of foreign fighters (we didn't call them The Terrorists when they were on "our" side) with little understanding or foresight of the potential "blowback" risks for the United States. It's all the more puzzling because the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan quickly followed the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the taking of American hostages. This was making the US aware of the potential dangers of Muslim extremism. And yet we eagerly pumped money to Muslim extremists in Afghanistan.
I suspect part of the problem was that there was a widespread assumption that the problem was the "Shiite" Muslims, and "Shiite" until recently was a synonym in America for "fanatical." (I once heard Clinton loyalist James Carville refer to himself as a "Shiite" Clinton supporter, which he knew his audience would understand as meaning fanatical loyalist.) Today, we're wrestling with the problem of revolutionary Sunni jihadist groups and we overthrew the secular Baathist regime in Iraq and held an election in January that elected a parliament with a Shia majority. It would surely have helped if US policymakers had thought through the implications of promoting a new variety of violent Sunni extremism in Afghanistan.
But let's not pretend that that this was something that just happened. It took very particular decisions to make it happen, and not everyone had such a starry-eyed view of what "the heroic Afghan mujahadeen" (as they were often called in the 1980s) were about. Lou Cannon wrote in his President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime (1991):
Except for the [rightwing Nicaraguan] contras, the only "freedom fighters" in which Reagan showed much interest were the Afghan mujahadeen. And even though he frequently issued bristling denunciations of Soviet behavior in Afghanistan, Reagan was relatively slow to provide the mujahadeen with the military assistance they sought. Throughout Reagan's first term the mujahadeen tried unsuccessfully to obtain U.S. Stinger antiaircraft missiles that could be used against the Soviet helicopter gunships that were then the most devastating weapon of the Afghan war. In his public performances Reagan expressed revulsion at the brutal destruction of Afghan villages and such Soviet practices as the scattering of mines disguised as toys that killed and maimed Afghan children. But Reagan nonetheless initially heeded Pentagon concerns that the Stingers would be captured and copied by the Soviets.
Undersecretary of Defense Fred Iklé, a conservative who strongly backed the mujahadeen and the contras, thought that the Pentagon concerns were unjustified. The Army, he said, wanted to hold on to the Stingers "to fight World War III." The CIA bureaucracy also was cautious about supplying advanced weapons to the Afghan rebels. It took pressure from Ikle and Casey on their bureaucracies and bipartisan pressure from Congress, led by Texas Democrat Charles Wilson in the House and New Hampshire Republican Gordon Humphrey in the Senate, to convince Reagan to supply the mujahadeen with the Stingers that became so crucial to their cause. And it took the realism of Mikhail Gorbachev, who called Afghanistan a "bleeding wound," to face the unpopularity of the costly war at home and finally withdraw Soviet troops.
Yes, it remains true in politics, from the international kind to city councils, that "the enemy of my enemy is my friend." But some of those kinds of friendships are more helpful than others. But our press corps, already showing some of the symptoms that became full-blown dysfunctionality in the 1990s, were eager to cheer the romantic, exotic Muslim freedom fighters in the Hindu Kush mountains. For the press, and much of the public, sticking it to the Russians was an overriding concern. Cannon:
Unlike the contra war, the U.S. commitment to the Afghan rebels was popular with the American people. Americans were not worried that U.S. combat troops would be sent to faraway Afghanistan, and the rebels were romantically portrayed in the U.S. media as valiant underdogs who were securing surprising military victories against the Red Army. The Carter administration had provided $30 million in aid to the rebels, a trickle that would eventually become a torrent of $600 million curing the Reagan years. In 1986 Stingers were finally sent to the mujahadeen, who used them to good effect against the Soviet helicopter gunships. But the administration's assistance to the mujahadeen did not require Reagan Doctrine justification or even Truman Doctrine rationale. Afghanistan was a sovereign nation that had been invaded in the most flagrant act of Soviet expansionism since the early Cold War years. The invasion was opposed and denounced by every Muslim nation and by every democracy in the world save India. Communist China, which saw the Afghan war's destabilization of Pakistan as a threat to its own interests, provided significant military aid to the mujahadeen. So did Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, nations hardly motivated by "democratic militance." In imposing a U.S. grain embargo on the Soviets and canceling U.S. participation in the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow, President Carter had gone farther in reacting to the invasion of Afghanistan than Reagan was willing to go. (my emphasis)
That last point is worth remembering. Although Carter's administration initially provided some low-leve assistance to the Muslim extremists in Afghanistan, its main reaction was the grain embargo, which was a tough economic measure to use against the Soviet Union at the time. (Agriculture was always the worst basket case for the Soviet economy.) When the supposedly fiercely anti-Communist Reagan took office, he immediately rescinded the grain boycott. In line with the Republicans' core mission of comforting the comfortable, Reagan didn't want his foreign policy supporting freedom in Afghanistan to impose any perceived unpleasantness on American agribusiness, which he had loyally patronized as California governor. Instead, he chose the "painless" route of funding a jihadist network to recruit fanatical Muslims to fight in Afghanistan. The eventual costs would become problems for someone else to deal with later.
And it's worth repeating this sentence from Cannon: "Americans were not worried that U.S. combat troops would be sent to faraway Afghanistan ..." Little did we know what was coming. And neither the political leaders nor the press, for the most part, were willing to look at that situation without the ideological blinders of the Cold War.
It's also worth noting that our justification for helping to create the Sunni jihadist movement in Afghanistan was that Afghanistan was "a sovereign nation had been invaded." Our justification for the Gulf War in 1991 over Iraq's invasion of Kuwait was that "a sovereign nation had been invaded." That quaint notion was even taken seriously by many Republicans in the days before we discovered the moral virtues of preventive war.
Karzai also drew some very optimistic lessons from more recent experiences in Afghanistan:
... [W]ith the arrival of the international community, we saw that Afghanistan freed itself from terrorism in a matter of ... a month and a half. Subsequent to that liberation with the help of the international community, the building of Afghanistan began, which we saw had tremendous participation from the Afghan community and people in it. The peace that we enjoy today in Afghanistan is the result of the cooperation of the international community with the Afghan people.
Two elements have brought today’s stability and the movement towards prosperity in Afghanistan, and, most important of all, the defeat of terrorism in Afghanistan: the desire of the Afghan people for a sovereign, stable, peaceful, democratic country and the assistance the Afghan people received from the international community. (my emphasis)
This is largely fantasy. But the Bush administration, again with the help of an even lazier and less responsible press than the one who brought us those romantic stories about the brave Afghan mujahadeen two decades ago, has been able to sell Afghanistan as a successful democratic country and a great victory in the "war on terrorism." Karzai is obviously happy to help peddle that picture:
Democracy in Afghanistan has also caused a tremendous movement forward in bringing stability to Afghanistan and also in defeating terrorism. Before the Presidential elections in Afghanistan, we did have incidents of violence, of terrorism inflicted on the Afghan people and international people in Afghanistan. With elections in Afghanistan, we saw the magnitude of the defeat of terrorism in Afghanistan. With the elections we saw that not only did they not have the ability to interfere with elections, but they had actually been moved out of the minds and presence within the community in Afghanistan. So for us the example of international cooperation, of the joining of hands of the international community with any willing nation, like Afghanistan was willing, is the crux of the matter in the defeat of terrorism. (my emphasis)
How long will American interests fall victim to illusions (both the sincere and cynical varieties) about Afghanistan?
I hope those of us who were actually paying attention to the Afghan presidential election last year can be forgiven for thinking that it signified something less than the total triumph of democracy and the crushing defeat of terrorism.
And if the 2004 Afghan presidential election mean victory over The Terrorists, then what does it mean that the Afghan parliamentary elections have now been postponed for the third time?
Rice Calls Afghans Inspiring, but Election Is Delayed Again by Joel Brinkley and Carlotta Gall New York Times 03/18/05.
And it was not President Karzai who actually made the announcement:
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made the announcement, apparently inadvertently, during a news conference with President Hamid Karzai.
"Oh, I hope I have not broken a story," she said with a smile after mentioning the September date. Moments later, President Karzai confirmed the date and blamed slower than expected preparations. It was the third postponement of the elections, originally scheduled for last June, and it was not unexpected.
Apparently not everyone in Afghanistan has gotten the memo about how The Terrorists have been roundly defeated:
As if to emphasize that, at least 5 people were killed and 32 wounded Thursday in a bombing in Kandahar. Afghan officials blamed Taliban fighters. The attack was the worst in seven months. The insurgency by the Taliban and fighters of Al Qaeda has claimed more than 1,000 lives in 18 months, and in February a spokesman for the Taliban, Abdul Latif Hakimi, said insurgent attacks would resume in earnest in the spring.
The headline writer for Knight-Ridder was somewhat less generous to Condi-Condi:
Rice expresses confidence in efforts after Afghan elections delayed by Renee Schoof, Knight-Ridder 03/17/05
Afghanistan must postpone elections for a new legislature until September, President Hamid Karzai announced Thursday during a visit by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
The delay, which raised questions about democracy in Afghanistan on a day when Rice was in the country to promote it, was the latest speed bump in the country's efforts to move from the brutal and repressive Taliban regime of four years ago to popular rule. National and local legislative elections originally were scheduled for last June, then rescheduled for May. ...
Karzai said Afghanistan was "very eagerly waiting" to have a Parliament because then the country's democratic system would be complete. He said the delay until September was necessary to allow time to register refugees and take care of other logistical problems. (my emphasis)
This is in line with the sunny position Karzai took in Madrid last week. It was the problems of refugees and a few logistical matters that caused the delay, not terrorism, and certainly not lack of commitment to democratic processes. But, no, the fact of holding parliamentary elections does not mean the complete triumph of democracy.
It also seems that The Terrorists are not entirely absent from Afghanistan, despite Karzai's claim in Madrid: "With the [2004 Afghan presidential] elections we saw that not only did they not have the ability to interfere with elections, but they had actually been moved out of the minds and presence within the community in Afghanistan."
While Rice was in the capital, a bomb killed five people and wounded at least 40 others in Kandahar, about 300 miles south, the U.S. military reported. The report said a landmine in Herat on Wednesday killed one American soldier and wounded four others.
But Karzai was able to assure Condi-Condi on her visit that every day in every way things are getting better and better:
There are 16,700 Americans and 1,600 allied soldiers on duty in Afghanistan.
Karzai said the current violence was "much, much less" than Afghanistan had once known and promised it would continue to decline as the country develops.
He also said the country's opium poppy crop would be less than last year's because the fight against narcotics had been stepped up. A State Department report earlier this month said Afghanistan risked becoming a narcotics state and that 510,000 acres were planted in poppies, three times the acreage in 2003.
And I know that I'm being repetitive in saying this. But think about how any American today who expressed overt sympathy with the Taliban or Al Qaeda would be seen. Forget the drooling-at-the-mouth superpatriots, even a lot of antiwar liberals would be ready to call them traitors or something akin to that. Yet today's Taliban and Al Qaeda and Afghan warlords are the same type of people - often the same individuals - with the same sort of fantatical Sunni Islamic jihadist beliefs and goals, as those heroic mujadeen that our superpatriots were cheering during the Reagan administration and their hero in the White House was generously funding and arming. Those about whom Lou Cannon wrote that "the rebels were romantically portrayed in the U.S. media as valiant underdogs who were securing surprising military victories against the Red Army."