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Afghanistan, Four Years On

Is Afghanistan overcoming its years of conflict and internal struggles or reverting to dangerous habits?

September 21, 2005

Is Afghanistan overcoming its years of conflict and internal struggles or reverting to dangerous habits?

Afghanistan's tragedy is that to the world's powers, it has never really mattered — or has not mattered for long.

In the end, a cruel joke has been played on Afghans. They believed the rhetoric of the West when it promised not to repeat the mistakes of the past and abandon Afghanistan, as it had after the Soviet Union withdrew in 1989 and the Communist regime collapsed in 1992.

But that's exactly what has happened. Apart from Kabul, Afghanistan today looks remarkably like the Afghanistan of 1992.

Once again, it has been carved up by — and relinquished to — the Afghan warlords, who have stepped in to fill the vacuum left by a United States not prepared to provide the soldiers and the funding needed to rebuild over the long term. Afghanistan, as before, is newly fractured and unstable.

The international community hasn't done much better, offering a mere $5 billion over five years, considerably less than the amount given to Kosovo after the war there. Afghans have received $50 per capita. Kosovars received $500 per capita — ten times as much.

It is four years later and Afghans feel cheated. They have a constitution and a president. But they don't have security, justice or rule of law.

Outside the major cities — where few foreigners venture these days because of the robberies and kidnappings — Afghans are disillusioned, not sure who can be trusted. The West? The rigidly religious Taliban? Neither?

In the last four years, a façade has been created. On the surface, Afghanistan appears to be forging toward democracy and freedom.

But beneath that façade are men and militias that harbor a thinly disguised contempt for the West and are knee-deep in the drug trade. They have the patience to wait until an overstretched West pulls out the few soldiers it has stationed there.

Four years later and Afghanistan still presents the same dangers today that it did before September 11, 2001.

The West has to take a critical look at itself and examine the apparent double standards at work that allow it to attack Iraq for possessing weapons of mass destruction but not North Korea, whose leader shares Saddam Hussein's megalomaniacal qualities, that permit it to rail against Iran about nuclear weapons but be silent about Israel's arsenal, that allow it to only selectively demand enforcement of UN resolutions.

The West has to own up to the mistakes it has made such as with Abu Ghraib and the torture in Afghan prisons, in the errant attacks on civilians and in its disregard for the basic precept of a civilized legal system, which maintains that an accused person is innocent until proven guilty.

The nature of the torture at Abu Ghraib reflected the West's perception of Muslims, hence the women soldiers who seemed to take such delight in the outrages and the especially humiliating use of dogs — considered abhorrent to Muslims — and the practice of making prisoners perform demeaning sexual acts.

The torture was based on a phobic perception of Islam. Had Saddam Hussein's soldiers carried out these abuses on American soldiers, the outrage would have been global and the retribution violent.

But because it was American and British soldiers who committed the torture, the blame was attached only to a few, to soldiers we were told were an aberration.

From the book “I is for Infidel: From Holy War to Holy Terror: 18 Years Inside Afghanistan” by Kathy Gannon, Copyright © 2005. Reprinted by arrangement with PublicAffairs, a member of the Perseus Books Group.