Nation building not happening in Afghanistan

Friday, August 24, 2007 | 12:12 p.m. CDT; updated 1:17 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Loory: The United States is fighting two wars, one in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. The latter is considered by many to be a good war fought for worthy reasons: to destroy the worldwide terrorist organization al-Qaida and to do away with domination by the ruthless, backward-looking Taliban of Afghanistan. The so-called good war has always had problems. Much of the al-Qaida enemy is holed up in areas in Pakistan where President Pervez Musharraf does not have the political will or the logistic support to fight al-Qaida. The Afghan people have never tolerated foreigners who seem intent on colonizing the country. The British, who fought four wars there, have failed over the centuries. The Russians failed in the 1980s, and now the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, led by the U.S., has perhaps come to grief. Still, the idea persists that this good war can result in a rebuilt, functioning Afghanistan where al-Qaida is at least neutralized if not destroyed. The New York Times ran an article detailing how the good war in Afghanistan was going bad. It also ran an editorial saying that this bad war was still winnable. Is this a good war, and is it still winnable?

Carlotta Gall, Afghanistan correspondent, The New York Times, Islamabad, Pakistan: It is still winnable. In Afghanistan since 2001, there was immediate success followed by a few years of just going along, and last year a dramatic resurgence of the Taliban and of terrorism. That has really affected the south and the southeast and has set the country back. There has been a rise in violence and a return of a state of war with heavy bombing, destroyed houses and displaced people. However, in Kabul and in much of the north and the west, the country is progressing and is much improved from the days of the Taliban, when people were very close to the edge of hunger.

Loory: Who is the enemy now? Is it the Taliban, al-Qaida, bands of warlords or others?

Gall: The great irony is that Osama bin Laden and the people that the war was aimed at are still out there, probably in Pakistan. They still have links in Afghanistan, funding is coming through, and they’ve benefited from outside support from al-Qaida and from having a safe haven in Pakistan. They’re continuing in a different way from when they were in power, but now they’re waging a guerilla war that looks to go on for a long time.

Loory: Why isn’t al-Qaida being brought under control in Pakistan?

Declan Walsh, Pakistan-Afghanistan correspondent, The Guardian, Islamabad: Principally because the majority of al-Qaida people in Pakistan are based in the tribal areas along the Afghan border. That is where colonial forces like the British traditionally haven’t been effective. The Pakistani government had an ambiguous and proactive rule with jihadist groups in the 1980s and 1990s. The question now is whether Musharraf and the Pakistani military have, as they say, fully turned their backs on these groups, some of whom are allied with al-Qaida.

Loory: NATO and the Western European countries are beginning to have serious questions about keeping troops in Afghanistan, aren’t they?

Bruce Crumley, bureau chief, Time Magazine, Paris: Nobody wants to pull out of Afghanistan. Everybody recognizes that it must be rebuilt, must be brought into the modern world and must be made a place where extremists will not set up shop. The problem is that a lot of countries that have troops in Afghanistan have become disgruntled because they’ve seen the military arrangements inside Afghanistan changed to work around the shortage of manpower. They’re thinking, if we’re going to police Afghanistan while the U.S. throws all its assets into an absolute debacle in Iraq, do we really want to put our back into that one? It’s a tough situation, and it’s one that everyone pretty much predicted when they saw the Iraq War looming.

Loory: President Bush continues to talk about nation building, yet the U.S. is not giving much aid to Afghanistan.

Walsh: Over the last few years, the amount of American money being spent has been reduced. Some say it’s not just a question of not enough aid for reconstruction; it’s also a question of the Afghan government’s capacity to spend money in a way that Westerners believe that it’s not being abused. The poppy heroin trade counts for a major portion of the Afghan economy, and it has very badly infected the body politic.

Loory: The New York Times reported that the U.S. has very few people in Afghanistan working on nation building.

Bob Deans, foreign affairs correspondent, Cox Newspapers, Washington, D.C.: It’s an old, sad story. In Afghanistan in 1989, the Soviets were leaving and that was seen as a big victory for the U.S. Yet in Afghanistan at that time, one could see how desperately that country needed basic help. The U.S. walked away after 1989, and its aid and commitment dropped, leaving a vacuum that was exploited by the Taliban. It’s difficult to understand why the U.S. is making the same mistake again. Afghans need hope, opportunity and alternatives to the heroin trades and to the Taliban. The global community in general hasn’t responded to that need.

Loory: The conventional view is that Afghans are not interested in help from the outside world. How can that be overcome?

Crumley: It can be overcome by outside countries making a demonstrative effort that they are willing to help. It’s not just a question of coming in with enough money and people to stabilize the situation and to help rebuild. It’s also a matter of asking Afghans what they want, what is best for them.

Naveed Ahmad, senior correspondent, Geo News, Islamabad: That is where Americans are not learning from history. The real answer lies in how these people want to live together. They know how to live together. We need to provide them a form and space.

Walsh: In the past five years, Afghans have been very open to outside help. The problem is that because there has been so much focus on the war on terror, the U.S. didn’t focus on reconstruction. Instead it allied itself with dubious local characters, particularly warlords who hunted figures like bin Laden. That wasn’t successful, but it did manage to discredit the government to some degree in the eyes of the local people, and some of the chaos and unhappiness that we see in Afghanistan now is due to that failure.

Loory: Are there any good ideas among the Western European members of NATO concerning nation building in Afghanistan?

Crumley: In short, no. It’s clear that the U.S. is going to have to lead or take a bi-leading role in Afghanistan, and everybody realizes that isn’t going to happen until the Iraq situation is resolved. Iraq was a Pandora’s Box. Now that it’s open, everybody realizes that the U.S. cannot pull out.

Loory: It is ironic that we’re talking about winnable wars in countries like Afghanistan. The concept seems to ignore all of the death, destruction and turmoil wreaked on the Afghan people by outsiders with agendas much different from their own.

Producers of Global Journalist are Missouri School of Journalism graduate students Devin Benton, Yue Li and Catherine Wolf.

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