REVIEW: Article

Afghanistan: The Fight Against Terrorism and the Road to Recovery

In January, I visited Afghanistan for four days to learn more about its prospects for political, social and economic reconstruction.  I met with members of the Afghan interim administration, representatives of the United States (US) government, officials at the United Nations office in Kabul and a variety of military and civilian authorities from several countries.

The places I saw and the people I met convinced me more than ever that the highest priority for involvement in Afghanistan—immediately and in the long term—is to help it achieve stability.

I asked the Afghan minister of Education, Rasul Amin, what resources his department needed most urgently. He looked me in the eye and said, “Security. Without that nothing can be built.”  The Minister was less concerned about getting new textbooks to replace the old books—the ones that explain math with pictures of land mines and guns—than he was about the physical safety of his students.

At the old Soviet Embassy, I saw 20,000 refugees from the Shomali Plain living in absolute squalor. The windows had nothing more than plastic sheeting to keep out the snow and sub-zero chill. The sewage system could only generously be described as rudimentary.  The people who lived there had little food, little water, little hope.  But they said they can’t go back to their lives as farmers now because they have no assurance that their families will be safe if they try to return.

Taking this trip certainly strengthened my belief in the need for a firm international commitment to Afghanistan.

Our first order of business should be to ensure the immediate provision of sufficient funds to let the interim authority perform the basic functions of a civil government. 

Similarly, we must ensure the operational success of a robust, well-equipped international security force with the mandate and rules of engagement necessary to prevent Afghanistan from relapsing into chaos.

We must also facilitate the creation and training of an independent Afghan army and police force, to take over the duties of the international security force.

The world community must provide sufficient financial assistance to bring about the political, social and economic recovery of Afghanistan. This has to be a long-term commit­ment, and should not come at the expense of existing aid programs elsewhere in the world.

There are two basic elements to the overall equation in Afghanistan: military and economic. We have to craft our policies carefully on both fronts if we are to build upon the battlefield success our men and women in uniform have achieved over the past few months.

One needs only to be in-country and to see the desperation of a war-weary nation, isolated by an extremist government, to understand why bin Laden picked it. He could hide in mountain caves. He could operate under the radar with the complicity of a government that was willing to give him the support and the cover he needed. One needs only to be there to realize that if we do not finish the job now, it could happen again.

There’s a lot of talk in Washington about “draining the swamp.”  It is a cliché, but at least it gets the idea across.  Right now, we’ve driven the crocodiles deep into the weeds—but if we were to leave tomorrow, they’d be crawling right out the following day.

So what do we do?  The answer is pretty simple: We stay the course.  We live up to our rhetoric.  We do what we promised to do—make sure that Afghanistan does not revert to being a chaotic, lawless haven for terrorists and drug traffickers. And the most important way in which we do this is by ensuring the success of a strong, no-nonsense international security force.

If security operations can be done without the United States, fine. But at the very minimum, American airlift and extraction capabilities, along with our ultimate guarantee of support, will be vital to the success of any international security operation.

What Afghanistan needs now is a stable central government. Absent that, warlordism will triumph and long-term security will not be possible.  Absent a viable central government, economic growth and improvement in the quality of life will not be possible. And absent a central government that can demonstrate leadership, it will not be possible to gain the level of international support necessary to reconstruct this nation in ruin.

Much of Kabul, like much of Afghanistan itself, is a moonscape. It has been devastated, utterly destroyed.  This wreckage was caused primarily not by American bombs, but by years of civil strife, failed regimes and the struggle for power among armed warlords.  In fact, while I was there our military men and women were calling West Kabul “the other end of ground zero.”

Now, after 23 years of almost constant war, the country is in total chaos. Mounds of sand-colored rubble litter the streets.  Food and water are scarce.  Power is sporadic at best. Guns and lawlessness make Kabul, a proud old city on the ancient Silk Road, virtually unlivable for the thousands of returning refugees trying to rebuild their lives.

The question now is whether we help Afghanistan return to stability, or let it return to the warlordism and lawlessness of the last quarter century.

The meeting in Bonn may have succeeded in bringing together ethnic and tribal groups from every part of Afghanistan, from the Pashtuns to the Uzbeks, to the Tajiks and Hazaras, all of whom agreed on a three-step process that will eventually put Afghanistan on a course to stability. They agreed to establish the interim government now in place under the leadership of Chairman Hamid Karzai. They agreed that the Loya Jirga, or Grand Council, would convene to vote on a future permanent government. And they agreed that such a government would be a viable central authority that could extend its command throughout the nation.

So what do we do to make absolutely certain that Afghanistan succeeds? Chairman Karzai is the right man to lead his country to success: He is a strong leader—not a warlord, in control of a ragtag force of armed followers, but a leader—intelligent, capable and respected by his people as a powerful voice for Afghanistan in the world community.  We must help his government succeed, so he can lead his country to a brighter future.

And for those who may be concerned that their troops might be seen more as an occupying force than a liberating one, I’d like to share one more anecdote from my visit:

In one of my meetings with Chairman Karzai, he told a story that illustrates the good will his people feel toward the military assistance they have been provided. 

When the region was still in control of the Taliban, a group of conservative mullahs near Kandahar came to Karzai and handed him a map.

Karzai thought the mullahs had come to plead with him to tell the Americans that they must stop bombing the area because there were civilians there. He thought the mullahs had come to BLAME the United States for the bombing and for endangering innocent people.  Then the most powerful mullah stood.  He pointed to the map that showed a civilian area at the bottom and a Taliban stronghold at the top. The mullah held out the map to Karzai. He said, “Here,” pointing to the Taliban stronghold. “Tell the Americans they should bomb here.”

Time and again, everywhere I went in January, Afghans asked if the United States was committed to stay and help. The answer must be an unequivocal YES. 

And the world community should stand shoulder-to-shoulder in upholding this commitment, for the benefit of us all.

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Chairman, Committee on Foreign Relations, United States Senate