Wednesday, October 12, 2005

The "Other" Quagmire.

You rarely hear much about Afghanistan these days unless it is under some iteration of the tired rubric of " Qaeda reconstituting, Taliban reforming, bumper crops of opium, Karzai the President of Kabul, warlords yadda, yadda, yadda..." But if you listen to people who really spend time on the ground over there, the picture is somewhat different.

In no sense can Afghanistan be considered an unqualified success. The problems mentioned above are in some respects extant. But there are also positives that are too rarely reported (or more accurately, emphasized) in our mainstream media. To some degree, there seems to be a desire on the part of the media to suggest that Afghanistan is just another Bush Botch, another Iraq-driven "We told you so. By going to Iraq, Bush has created a retrograde Afghanistan." But this is simply untrue. In their zeal to superficially link Iraq and Afghanistan, Bush Administration critics and the media have failed to provide meaninful perspective on the situation in Afghanistan. They've also failed to to address the many metrics which should give us reason for cautious optimism.

With regard to perspective, why is it that expectations are so unreasonably high in the first place? Are we not talking about a country that has been historically poor and war-torn? Upon the outser of the Taliban, the international community didn't inherit a nation in any real sense. No central functions. No institutions. No infrastructure. Nothing. In my mind, that three years on there is a central authority and functioning institutions (admittedly weak ones), and that there have been two free and fair elections is a statement of real progress. You have to look at where the nation is coming from to accurately assess where it is.

As for positive metrics, fortunately, the fellas over at OxBlog have been vigilant in bringing attention to the other side of the coin. I'll address more of the positive metrics and the European forces' unwillingness to provide security in the hinterlands in an upcoming post, but today, they raise some important questions about the essential differences between Iraq and Afghanistan and call attention to Peter Baker's column in The Washington Post:

The last time I saw Hakim Taniwal, I thought he was a dead man walking.A slight, aging sociology professor with gentle manners, Taniwal returned to his homeland from exile in Australia after the fall of the Taliban to help build a new Afghanistan. When I ran across him in the spring of 2002, he had been dispatched by Hamid Karzai, the new Afghan president, to the untamed frontier to take over as governor and dislodge a brutal local warlord who ruled over these parts. Taniwal had no guns, no army and seemingly no chance. It seemed like a suicide mission.When I saw him again here two weeks ago, he was sitting in the provincial governor's office and the warlord was somewhere in the countryside, out of power, his militia largely disbanded. I reminded Taniwal of our first meeting, when he could not even get into the governor's house because it was occupied by the warlord's family and dozens of his thuggish guerrillas, bristling with Kalashnikovs and grenade launchers.Taniwal looked at me and smiled. "Things have changed," he said with satisfaction.

Baker's column, which I encourage you to read in its entirety, goes on to describe some of the the signs of progress since his last visit to the country in 2002. One of the more striking examples is this one from Kabul:

Most stunning, perhaps, is the handful of gleaming new glass buildings. Putting up a structure made of glass amounts to a mind-boggling act of optimism in a city where not long ago nearly every windowpane was shattered by years of rocket attacks.

He concludes with what I found to be a very apt and fair metaphor for the progress in Afghanistan.

Still, what I saw of Afghanistan during my visit struck me like the Restoration Room at the museum, where workers sifted through thousands of pieces of destroyed statues in hopes of reassembling as many as possible. They had no photographs, no models for how the pieces fit together or what the image would look like when they were done. They just kept trying different combinations in a trial-and-error fashion until they found two pieces that went together. Then they picked up some more fragments of their shattered country and tried to piece them together again, too.

We're a long way from success in Afghanistan, to be sure. And all of the worrying developments are worthy of our attention. But let's not forget from whence the Afghans came, nor overlook the courage, efforts and successes of the Afghans and their international partners in getting them much closer to where they want to go.

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