Friday, July 21, 2006

The Jabberwock in Afghanistan

“And, as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!

One two! One two! And through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.”
Lewis Carroll

Four battle-hardened Afghan mujahideen visited my office July 20 ostensibly to discuss how a pluralistic, secular (non-establishment) government interacts with, discerns, harmonizes, and incorporates into its laws the values of the many faiths practiced by its people.

Their visit, long planned, seemed from another world, given the events in Iraq, Gaza, Lebanon, and Israel and the seemingly indifferent attitude of the Bush administration to the carnage being inflicted.

But it also comes at a time when the U.S. press is noting a degree of malaise among the president’s conservative supporters. One gets the sense that conservatives are nostalgic for George H. W. Bush’s presidency and what is remembered as an unambiguously successful U.S. foreign policy. On his watch, the Warsaw Pact dissolved, the Soviet Union imploded, comprehensive reductions in nuclear arsenal were negotiated, the U.S. rallied an unprecedented “coalition of the willing” – including Arab countries – to reverse Iraq’s seizure of Kuwait, and the initiation of what some regard as the most evenhanded, U.S.-brokered discussions cum direct negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis.

The world may not have been completely transformed into a U.S. clone, but like the poem declares, much seemed to have been done with minimal effort (two one-two’s) and minimal time. Moreover, the great enemy, the Soviet Jabberwock, was dead.

The reason for today’s nostalgia is simple: Fourteen years after GHWB left the White House and five years after his first electoral “win” for the presidency, son George W. Bush was accused of squandering his father’s achievements through a series of miscalculations – both opportunities passed up and initiatives that misfired.

What makes the current state of affairs so galling to conservatives is that “Bush-43” had the entire country and most of the world ready to help out the U.S. following the destruction of the World Trade Center and part of the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. If there has ever been an international “blank check” openly proffered to a single country, Bush had it then.

But almost immediately, the good-will began to ebb. The first error was to declare “war” (at one point the word “crusade” was used) on those who planned the September 11 attacks, thereby shifting the focus and the resources away from a reinvigorated law enforcement establishment (the FBI in the U.S.) into the Pentagon. Because sorting out Taliban from al-Qaeda from any person, group, or country that might be in league with al-Qaeda would be time-consuming, the administration decided to lump everyone together as “terrorists with a global reach.” Lists of individuals, groups, businesses, and charities were compiled and sanctions – often echoed by other countries and the UN – declared.

Almost unnoticed in the “rockets’ red glare,” the unraveling began in earnest October 8, 2001 with the first bombs that rained down on Afghanistan. One had to be in Europe (where I was) or in Asia to grasp the beginning of the divide separating governments from their publics.

By December the Taliban had been driven from power. Victory, although not proclaimed officially, was simply accepted. There would be congressional hearings on intelligence failures and other shortcomings, but these were destined to be overshadowed by cautiously enthusiastic articles about the political steps taken – election of a president, convening of successive loya jurgas (parliaments), and a constitutional drafting committee. But of some $14.6 billion in promised foreign aid, only $3.5 billion has been received by mid 2006.

In mid-July 2006, the Taliban poses a renewed threat to the government of President Hamid Karzai. According to a visiting Afghan parliamentarian, fully one-third of the 34 provinces in Afghanistan are effectively under the control or significant influence of Taliban fighters or sympathizers. Just days before the Afghan delegation arrived in the U.S., Taliban forces seized and held two towns in southeast Afghanistan along the border with Pakistan until a hastily assembled task force of 1,000 U.S. and Afghan army soldiers recaptured the terrain.

Having been abandoned by the U.S. once in the 1990s, Afghans, especially in the south and east, fear that the same future awaits them today. NATO has already assumed leadership of the UN-approved International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) around Kabul, and, now, non-U.S. NATO soldiers are taking responsibility for security in four of Afghanistan’s southern and eastern provinces as U.S. troops withdraw.

And that gets us back to today.

Listening to our Afghan visitors tell of that which sustains them, one can also detect what it is they fear. Give them equipment to build the security forces, money to rebuild the economy, and time to build a more democratic system of governance under law, they will see to the emergence of a re-formed and reformed Afghanistan – allowing foreign troops to go home. Should U.S. interest be diverted or waiver, or Afghan police and army units not get the training and equipment they need, or enough, sustained international funding not materialize, the upshot may be a defeat for the U.S. and a catastrophic relapse into chaos for the Afghan people.

Meanwhile, deep in the background, one hears the racing Jabberwock heading for his rendezvous with the "vorpal blade. " Only this Jabberwock is us -- the U.S.

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