Pakistan lies at the heart of President Barack Obama’s plan to wind down America’s war in Afghanistan. If — as he avers — the “overarching goal” is to “disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” the war will be fought mainly in Pakistan. With fewer than a hundred fighters, al-Qaeda was defeated long ago in Afghanistan.
For the past two months, President Barack Obama has been weighing Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s request to send an additional 40,000 troops to Afghanistan to “disrupt, dismantle and defeat” al-Qaeda. That same effort, according to Obama, entails ensuring that the Taliban can’t regain control of the country. But a military strategy alone won’t beat al-Qaeda or the Taliban. Achieving lasting stability in Afghanistan will require national political reconciliation, the establishment of a functioning, accountable political system, and a credible government. In this respect, the outcome of Afghanistan’s presidential election, marred by cheating, was a step in the wrong direction.
The Pakistani army’s operation in the Swat Valley in northwest Pakistan is the most sustained in five years of selective counterinsurgency against the local Taliban. The toll already is immense: 1.9 million internally displaced, including tens of thousands housed in tents on parched plains; 15,000 soldiers battling 5,000 guerrillas; and more than a thousand dead, mainly militants according to available counts but also soldiers and of course civilians.
The international occupation of Afghanistan is in bad shape. US casualties are up — at times the ratio of killed and wounded to troops deployed is equal to that in Iraq, though of course the total numbers are not. Taliban attacks are intensifying, and now include frequent suicide bombings. Kidnappings are becoming more common. NGOs are being attacked and pulling out. Over 200 schools have been burned down and closed. Each year, fewer roads are safe to travel. The country’s economy lies in ruins and its government is a largely dysfunctional kleptocracy. A new round of aid is coming — at a February 2006 donors’ conference in London, $10.5 billion was pledged through 2011 — but the long-term prognosis looks bad.
Less than a month before George W. Bush's second bid for the White House, his protégé and partner in post-Taliban Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, faces an election that both men hope will not only establish the legitimacy of Karzai's presidency but also prove the Bush administration's claim that the war-ravaged nation's transition to democracy has been a success. Over 10.5 million Afghans have reportedly registered to choose from among a slate of 16 candidates on October 9, 2004, less than three years after the removal of the infamous Taliban regime and their al-Qaeda allies from power in Kabul.
When asked what she desired most for Afghanistan’s future, “Nadia,” a Kabul university student, didn’t hesitate. “First, we wish the girls who live in the provinces would have schools — not just grades one through five at most. Second, we wish that they would collect all the guns from the gunmen, so girls can go out and go to school. Third, we wish they would talk with families — girls are interested but some families won’t let them go out. Yes, people are afraid of what would happen from the gunmen if they allowed their girls to go to school. Of course they are afraid of men with guns or other groups,” she said.
When we are hungry, nobody listens, but when we are fighting, they send us loads of firearms and artillery. Why? — Zubaida (April 1998)
Radical Islam and the activities of jihadi groups have been central to Pakistan’s relationship with Afghanistan as well as India. But the Pakistani military was already turning against such groups for internal reasons, before the US assault on al-Qaeda and the Taliban and this winter’s confrontation with India.
On a cold January morning, Uzbekistan opened its first mission in its battered neighbor to the south with as much ceremony as weary Afghanistan could muster: generals were in uniforms, bureaucrats in Western suits and delegates from the rugged hinterland wore their traditional pakul.
On October 19, 2001, Iran agreed to build camps to accommodate new refugees fleeing US bombing and internal chaos in Afghanistan. This was the first piece of good news for relief workers concerned that Operation Enduring Freedom is accelerating the descent of Afghanistan's decades-old refugee crisis into a humanitarian disaster of untold proportions.
In the first few days after the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, it became clear that the United States was going to seek out allies in the region to assist efforts to destroy al-Qaeda bases and networks of support in Afghanistan. Very quickly that objective was expanded to include dislodging or crushing the Taliban, who have ruled most of Afghanistan in recent years and who have provided Osama bin Laden safe haven since 1997.
The hijackings and mass murders of September 11 were horrible and momentous, but the world did not suddenly change on that crystal-clear morning. Existing cracks in the US-led world order widened and deepened, and lurking insecurities strode forth from the shadows.
The collapse of the Taliban in northern and western Afghanistan in November was good news for aid workers seeking to get food and other necessities to war- and drought-affected Afghans. Expectations of greater security, of an end to US bombing in many areas and the opening of new supply routes from Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Iran suggested the possibility of reaching many more needy Afghans than previously thought likely.