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Drop Zone

At 10:15 a.m. on April 17, President George W. Bush demonstrated just how much his foreign policy outlook has matured since September 11. Honoring the winners of the Virginia Military Institute's (VMI) George C. Marshall ROTC Award, Bush summoned the spirit of the architect of U.S. postwar nation- building to signal his newfound appreciation for such tasks. Where during the campaign Bush had dismissed nation-building as glorified social work, at VMI he outlined an expansive vision of America's continuing commitment to post-Taliban Afghanistan. "[T]rue peace will only be achieved when we give the Afghan people the means to achieve their own aspirations," he declared, paying tribute to "the success of Marshall's vision" as he suggested that a new Marshall Plan was in order for Central Asia. It was a stirring moment, an impressive change of heart and mind. And its message did not even endure until lunchtime.

At 11:30 that morning Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld began his daily press briefing at the Pentagon and quickly found himself fielding questions about the U.S. military's role in the international peacekeeping operations meant to pacify warlord-riven Afghanistan. "Ah, peacekeeping," he sighed. In a classically Rumsfeldian exchange, the exasperated defense secretary insisted that America's primary role was to pursue remaining pockets of Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters. That focus, he cautioned, did not signal Pentagon opposition to expanding the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), which oversees Afghan peacekeeping: Coalition allies were free to do so; unfortunately none were stepping forward with troops or money. One frustrated reporter finally interjected, "Sir, you are against U.S. troops as peacekeepers in Afghanistan." Rumsfeld dodged the accusation. "I said four times that's a presidential decision, and if I'm going to give advice, I will give it to the president," he insisted, before wryly adding, "Although I think you've got a hint." The press corps broke out in laughter.

When it comes to nation-building, the 185 miles between VMI and the Pentagon symbolize the distance between the administration's rhetoric and its policies. The president talks a better game on nation-building than he did before Al Qaeda struck. But as disorder increases in Afghanistan and the U.S.-led coalition drags its feet on reconstruction, observers inside and outside of Kabul are becoming more and more cynical. Increasingly, it looks like the Bush administration hasn't learned much of anything about nation-building in the year since September 11.

To be fair, the United States is putting money into Afghanistan's post- Taliban reconstruction. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) estimates that America spent $505 million on assistance to the Afghan people in fiscal year 2002, with $275 million of that going through USAID and its partner agencies. Yet the biggest disbursements have been for humanitarian aid such as food, medicine, potable water, shelter, and refugee care and support. U.S. redevelopment aid--money for longer-term projects to rebuild Afghanistan's economy and society--has been far less generous. For instance, Afghanistan needs significant agricultural assistance so it can grow crops other than poppies for the heroin market, but the United States has spent at most $12 million on vital agricultural improvements, like the rehabilitation of wells and seed multiplication. Then there's the country's water crisis: Afghanistan has endured a devastating three-year drought and desperately needs an irrigation system; but the USAID money devoted to water projects in Afghanistan is minuscule. Also domestic politics has interfered: Bush recently announced that he will not spend $5.1 billion of an emergency appropriation, shooting down several million dollars in supplementary aid to Afghanistan. And that's not all the United States has failed to help with. As one American consultant working in Kabul puts it, "Basic reconstruction tasks have not begun, like repair of the major highways, and no one can provide an acceptable explanation."

One explanation is that in most of Afghanistan it is too dangerous to pursue development projects. To take only the most recent examples: Three gunmen forced their way into an office of the U.N. high commissioner for refugees on August 13 in the southeastern province of Ghazni, locked the staff in the bathroom, and stole cash and communications equipment. Near the Pakistan border the warlord Padshah Khan is openly defying the Hamid Karzai government's order to lay down his arms, and he has reportedly blocked the road from Gardez to Khost. Even on the outskirts of ISAF-secured Kabul, a group of twelve escaped Al Qaeda suspects stormed a military post on August 7, killing three Afghan soldiers.

Such security threats are crippling redevelopment efforts in large part because the Karzai government cannot project power outside the nominal capital. "The actuality is that Karzai is the mayor of Kabul," says Robert Perito, a senior fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace. Turkey currently leads the 5,000- strong ISAF, but the force hasn't pushed beyond the city limits. And it won't unless the United States participates directly or exerts pressure on it-- because as Perito observes, only America can call in air strikes against the regional warlords who would likely challenge ISAF's expansion. The Bush administration says it is contributing to peacekeeping efforts by helping train a new Afghan army. But without credible power projection beyond Kabul, that army--which has graduated only about 350 recruits so far--will be merely one among several armed factions loyal to various warlords. "You can't build a new army without demobilization," says Ahmed Rashid, author of Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia. "Building a new army in itself is not good enough."

In fact, far from representing an ideological shift, Bush's Afghanistan policy represents a clear extension of his stance on intervention in Kosovo. When the United States committed militarily in 1999, the then-Texas governor supported the mission. But once the Serbs withdrew, Bush derided the idea of using American troops to help reconstruct the region. Before the 2000 elections the Bush campaign's foreign policy team--now-national security adviser Condoleezza Rice and now-Trade Representative Robert Zoellick--argued in Foreign Affairs that military power should be used only to protect clearly defined American interests. And since taking office the administration has tried to do just that. In June, for instance, it announced it would shutter the Army Peacekeeping Institute (PKI), a creation of the Clinton administration at the Army War College. PKI is the military's central authority for planning peacekeeping strategies, holding among other conferences an annual summer seminar with the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Despite its annual budget of only $200, 000, Perito argues that PKI "is very important if we believe in conducting operations in post-conflict environments." According to the Bush administration's plan, PKI should close down for good by the second anniversary of September 11.

All of which raises two serious problems regarding America's likely attack on Iraq. First, the Bush administration's weak record on sticking around once the fighting is done may be inhibiting allies from signing onto the effort. Second, if the United States takes on Saddam Hussein, the administration's appetite for nation-building in Afghanistan could decline even further, placing that country's reconstruction in even graver jeopardy. "I'm frankly extremely fearful Afghanistan will become a sideshow," says Rashid. "`Nation-building is simply the consolidation of the initial military victory," says the consultant in Kabul, "and without it, the victory will turn to dust, like most other projects here."

Marshall's success in Europe, Bush said at VMI, serves as "a beacon to light the path that we, too, must follow." If only he were following it with more than just words.

Author's Update: Thursday, September 5: At 10 a.m., Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz attempted to bring discussion of the continuing U.S. role in Afghanistan into perspective. "[O]n the whole, I would say that, over the last 11 months, there has been much more good news in Afghanistan than bad, " he told an audience at the Brookings Institution in Washington. As Wolfowitz spoke, the wires reported that an Afghan security guard had opened fire on President Hamid Karzai's entourage during his visit to the lawless southeastern city of Kandahar for his brother's wedding. Just hours before, explosions had shaken the Afghan capital of Kabul. At this time, ten are dead and dozens have been reported wounded in the two attacks. \tWolfowitz, on balance, is still right. But the attempt on Karzai's life and his government demonstrates undeniably that there is more bad news in Afghanistan than can be tolerated--and unless the United States leads the effort to bring the central authority of Karzai's government out of Kabul, the worst news is yet to come. \tThe attack on Hamid Karzai is an attack on the United States. Kabul police spokesman Dul Aqa told the Associated Press that al Qaeda is the obvious suspect, but so is former Prime Minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who has recently called for a jihad to force out both U.S. forces and the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). To the enemy, there is no difference between the presence and the objectives of the ISAF and the U.S. military. Such a conflation should reinforce our understanding that the missions of the two forces are indeed inextricable. There can be no stability in Afghanistan without security outside (and even in) Kabul, and there can be no safety for the United States or our allies without stability in Afghanistan. Before news of the attempted assassination reached Wolfowitz, he indicated that "some benefits" could come of expanding ISAF's mission. The fact that Hamid Karzai almost died this morning should remove all doubt.

This article originally appeared in the September 9, 2002 issue of the magazine.