The inconvenient truth about the Afghanistan `victory'

October 22, 2004|By Steve Chapman

CHICAGO - On Nov. 21, 2001, with the war in Afghanistan reaching a critical stage and American forces apparently closing in on Osama bin Laden, Gen. Tommy R. Franks got a request from his superiors that did not fill him with joy. Despite the other demands on his time, they wanted him to get to work on another task: planning a war in Iraq.

General Franks, head of the U.S. Central Command, reacted as though he'd been asked to wear a pink tutu. As Bob Woodward recounts in his book Plan of Attack, the general was "incredulous. They were in the midst of one war, Afghanistan, and now they wanted detailed planning for another, Iraq? `[Expletive], what the [expletive] are they talking about?'" he bellowed.

The request came about a week before bin Laden reportedly made his escape from the mountains of Tora Bora, in eastern Afghanistan. Yet General Franks, who was infuriated back then, is now supporting President Bush's re-election and solemnly insists that "neither attention nor manpower was diverted from Afghanistan to Iraq."

Sure. Running a war in Afghanistan is a part-time job. And I'm Hilary Duff.

General Franks' claims are in keeping with an administration that never admits a mistake. It also converges with the president's efforts to portray our mission in Afghanistan as a shining success that will soon be duplicated in Iraq. But the truth is, plenty of things have gone wrong in Afghanistan. And the modest achievements compiled there will be much harder to attain in Iraq.

General Franks says bin Laden may not even have been in Tora Bora. He also rejects John Kerry's claim that the United States "outsourced" the hunt for the al-Qaida leadership - though he does admit, "We did rely heavily on Afghans."

No kidding. Our first regular ground troops didn't arrive in Afghanistan until Nov. 25 - long after the Taliban fell and al-Qaida headed for the hills. So we relied very heavily on Northern Alliance fighters. If that's not outsourcing, maybe I need a new dictionary.

Despite General Franks' assertions, the evidence indicates bin Laden was there. An investigation this year by The Christian Science Monitor, based on "detailed interviews with Arabs and Afghans in eastern Afghanistan," reported that between Nov. 28 and Nov. 30 of 2001, "the world's most-wanted man escaped the world's most powerful military machine, walking - with four of his loyalists - in the direction of Pakistan." This just in: We're still looking for him.

As for whether resources were diverted from this fight, other people remember things differently. In his book Against All Enemies, former White House counterterrorism czar Richard A. Clarke said the buildup to the Iraq invasion inevitably meant the U.S. military "shifted its focus to Iraq." Arabic-speaking Special Forces soldiers, he noted, were pulled out of Afghanistan, and intelligence was likewise redirected.

Even though the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks were the work of enemies in Afghanistan, Mr. Bush quickly turned his attention to Saddam Hussein. Afghanistan went from Priority No. 1 to ancient history.

Over the last three years, it's true, we have helped establish a central government that recently held a presidential election. But President Hamid Karzai is really just the mayor of Kabul, rarely daring to venture outside the capital for fear of being gunned down. Most of Afghanistan is under the control of old-fashioned warlords. What we may get is a democracy in which the people choose the government, but thugs run the country.

The economy is dominated by opium. Hussain Haqqani, a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, says that more than 60 percent of Afghanistan's national income comes from heroin - raising the possibility that the country will become, in his words, "a South Asian Colombia."

The election did offer the heartening spectacle of a long-oppressed people participating in their first democratic presidential election. But turning out voters in Afghanistan doesn't put us on the road to democracy in Iraq.

One reason things have gone better in Afghanistan is that the United States never took on the role of occupier, which means we didn't provoke a widespread insurgency. In Iraq, by contrast, we've had a military presence big enough to breed intense resentment in the populace - but not big enough to contain the violence. And the government we installed carries the taint of its association with us.

Our policies in Afghanistan have failed to establish security, build a functioning economy or catch the world's bloodiest terrorist. Rather than a stunning triumph, it has merely been something short of a disaster. Which is more than you can say for Iraq.

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.

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