Five Minutes With
Live Chat - Hey, Remember Afghanistan? Assessing problems, finding solutions
Prior to 9-11 many Americans, especially young people, had barely heard of Afghanistan—or thought it was just a type of rug. This was in spite of the fact that the U.S. had supported proxy fighters, known as the Mujahideen, against the Soviet army there throughout the 1980s. After the Soviet withdrawal , some Mujahideen became the repressive Islamist government known as the Taliban, which gave safe harbor to the Al – Qaeda terrorist network that attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11. When President Bush declared “either you’re with us, or you’re with the terrorists” he was pointing his finger directly at Afghanistan. Special forces infiltrated immediately, and the U.S. invasion began on October 7, 2001.
As we’ve seen elsewhere, the invasion occurred swiftly, while the effort to secure the peace has been anything but. The Karzai government’s control over territory remains limited, drug production has skyrocketed, and economic reconstruction is moving slowly as local warlords and Taliban loyalists impede progress. Americans have begun asking whether the mistakes of the past are being repeated—and whether one day we may again pay a price for failure.
To mark the fourth anniversary of the invasion of Afghanistan, Campus Progress held a live web chat on October 11 to assess the current situation on the ground and explore what the future holds for Afghanistan and what it means for U.S. security.
Our guests for the chat were:
Dr. Nazif Shahrani, a Professor of Anthropology, Central Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at Indiana University (IU) at Bloomington. He has also served as the Chairman of the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures, and Director of the Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies Program (2001-2004) at IU. He is currently working on a book entitled Post-Taliban Afghanistan: The Challenges of State-Building, Governance and Security.
Caroline Wadhams, National Security Senior Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress. Prior to joining the Center, Caroline worked as a Legislative Assistant for Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI) on foreign policy issues. She also worked at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York as a research associate on national security issues and in Washington, D.C. as the assistant director for the Council’s Meetings Program.
Below is the transcript of the chat:
August J. Pollak (Campus Progress): Okay, both our guests are here, so let’s start with the questions!
Ben: What do you both think has been the U.S.’s biggest mistake in Afghanistan since the invasion began?
Nazif Shahrani: Lack of a clear and well thought out policy after the defeat of Taliban and relying on the individual Afghans or Afghan American who were working for the government to make policy. Sending an Afghan-American to represent the US as our Ambassador.
Caroline Wadhams: It seems that one of the biggest mistakes of the United States, as well as of the international community, is that for a long time we did not assist in establishing a security presence outside of Kabul. This enabled local warlords to maintain power without a connection to the central government, many of whom been implicated in human rights abuses throughout the country.
Andrew Garib (Cornell University, Toronto): Does al Qaeda still form a considerable component of anti-government forces in the country, and if so, who directs them?
Caroline Wadhams: It appears that Al-Qaeda maintains connections with the Taliban, but may not be the central element of the insurgency. Many experts have talked about a strengthened Al- Qaeda in the past year. What’s more, the Afghan insurgency appears to be learning tactics from the insurgency in Iraq. It is not clear, however, who is leading this group. It appears that most of the insurgency is made up of Taliban elements and a Hekmatyar faction and not Al Qaeda.
Nazif Shahrani: Asama Bin Laden is still in Pakistan or Afghanistan and so is his second in command- Al Zawaheri. They are active along with Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader in terrorizing parts of Afghnaistan and their activities are probably also coordinated by segments of Pakistani establishments as well.
Dora Lazzaro (Boston): Why was it a mistake to send an Afghan-American as ambassador?
Nazif Shahrani: Because he belongs to an ethnic and tribal community in Afghanistan and it give many Afghnas the impression that American policy was to promote one group in the country only. Our Amabassador also supported the Taliban in their early periods and later was looking for the moderate Taliban to make peace with. US should have been represented to all the people of the country as fair brooker and not a partisan favoring one group among many.
Maggie Brock (University of South Carolina): Are women enjoying civil rights gains since the fall of the Taliban? What do American progressives need to do to ensure that the government of Afghanistan will be proactive in guaranteeing civil rights?
Nazif Shahrani: The fact that Taliban are out of power and women can once again exercise minimal choice is a great improvement. But women in Afghnaistan have a long way to become full partners in the social, political and economic life of the country. Supporting women’s education in general and higher education in particular would be the best way to help the Afghan women while also improving their health and nutrition. Programs should be devised to support the integerity of Afghna families and not just one or the other sex. In Afghnaistan the family unit is the most critical element of Afghna society and we should keep that in mind in devising reconstruction and developmenet plans.
Caroline Wadhams: Women’s situation has improved in Afghanistan. They are now allowed to work and the recently adopted Afghan constitution states that “the citizens of Afghanistan – whether man or woman- have equal rights and duties before the law”. Women have been appointed to prominent positions in the government, and it appears that many women have done better than expected in the recent parliamentary elections. Despite these changes many challenges still remain. Repression of women in still common in rural areas, and abuse continues. Women are still forced into marriages and denied a basic education. The US needs to continue to pressure the Afghan government and provide funding to the government for women’s programs and schooling, as well as the Ministry of Women’s Affairs in the govenrment of Afghanistan.
Pauline Green (Loyola University New Orleans): What has been the role of U.S. forces in the efforts to reduce exportation of Afghan opium?
Nazif Shahrani: Since their arrival in Afghanistan both the production, refinement and traficking has gon up by leaps. So it is hard to tell what their role might have been in reducing the export of opium in Afghanistan. It is also my understanding that the US forces have been fighting a war on terrorism for the most part and not involved, at least not directly, with war on drugs as such.
Caroline Wadhams: In April 2005, the Bush administration began tasking the US military to play a greater role in drug eradication and in attacking traffickers and thier installation. However, according to Barney Rubin, the US recently moved away from an extraordinarily dangerous counternarcotics policy last year, which would have started with massive eradication including aerial eradication. However, despite U.S. efforts, opium production has only grown.
Amye Greene (Wesleyan, Houston): Though Afghanistan has not sustained itself agriculturally since the mid seventies, it produces 87 percent of the world’s opium. Should the US and other countries try to restore Afghanistan’s wheat industry by making it profitable? Is this a practical effort?
Caroline Wadhams: Experts have discussed the need for an extensive rural development strategy. That might include wheat, but it could also include other crops, as well. Whatever the crop, there must be an overall, comprehensive policy for making the licit economy grow very quickly, if you want to draw people out of opium production.
Nazif Shahrani: A well developed program in support of susbsistence agriculture in Afghnistan- helping with irrgation, land reclamation, improved seeds and solving the problem fuel for cooking and heating to free the animal manour from being used as feul and instead used as fertilizer in the fields—would go long way to assure that people could feed their families. Opium production now is seen is the only means for feeding ones family.
Jordan Lander (USC, Columbia): How is the drug trade interfering with our efforts to rebuild Afghanistan?
Nazif Shahrani: I am not convinced it has. The only development in country so far, in the cities at any rate, and even in most opium growing rural areas have been because of money from opium. Opium production in Afghnaistan is considered a problem in the West and farmers do not see it as aproblem. The problem has to be tuckled here in the West by reducing the users and cutting on the demand. The reason for claims of reduced production of opium in Afghnaistan is not because of better enforcement but because the price of opium has gone done considerably compared with two years and hence the farmers have decided to grow more subsitence crops instead of poppies.
Caroline Wadhams: The lack of security in Afghanistan continues to be a huge problem. Some of the groups who are creating this insecurity may be funded by drug money. According to many experts, the drug economy funnels money into the hands of illegal groups, terrorists, the insurgency generally and others who have the potential and desire to destabilize the country. Many Afghans involved in drug production want to get into another line of business, but there are few alternatives. The drug money is also creating corruption, as political officials are paid off by drug money. This undermines the political process, essential to reconstructing Afghan society.
Ben: Prof. Shahrani, what role should Islam play in the new constitution? What role do you think it actually will play?
Nazif Shahrani: The new Constitution is claimed to be Islamic and their are many articles that makes references to Islam. But these are mostly to pacify the population. In practical terms and in practice it means very little or no importance. It’s role if anything is symbolic and nothing more. Most of the other laws of the country- for example banking laws- are not in accordance with the Constitution if it wer Islamic.
Ben Hubbard (Burlington, VT): Caroline, the Center for American Progress’s new Iraq plan, Strategic Redeployment, calls for some troops who are drawn down from Iraq to be sent to Afghanistan. But if our counterterrorism efforts are proving unsuccessful in Iraq, why is it thought they would be any better off in Afghanistan?
Caroline Wadhams: I think one of the biggest differences between the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan is that in Afghanistan, the people want us there. They appreciate our presence. One of the most important ways to battle terrorist is through gathering intelligence – to get this intelligence, you need people on the ground who know the culture, the country, etc to assist you with providing information. This is more possible in Afghanistan than in Iraq. The security in Afghanistan is getting worse, especially through cross-border attacks. An increased troop presence might also assist in border control.
Jonathan Parnes (Tufts University, Washington DC): How do nations in the region, like Iran and Pakistan, impact our policy in Afghanistan? How will they affect the future of Afghanistan? How can the U.S. temper the adverse effects of their influence in Afghanistan (if there are any)?
Caroline Wadhams: Iran and Pakistan have a significiant impact on Afghanistan, and Afghanistan needs regional cooperation for its future security. They could severly undermine Afghanistan’s potential to be a stable country. For example, there is concern that Pakistan has not cracked down on Afghan insurgent elements within their borders, and terrorist training camps have reopened in Pakistan. The United States and the international community need to assist the Afghan government in creating security and economic arrangements (as well as resources arrangement) with its neighbors. Afghanistan’s neighbors should be brought into consultations whenever possible.
Nazif Shahrani: Both countrys have had enormous impact on the crisis in Afghanistan and will continue to do so. Pakistan’s policy of playing both sides, caliming to support the US efforts but also either protecting the Taliban and Al-Qaeda or not doing enough in the fight against them, is clearly undermining our efoorts. Pakistan has to asked to decide which side of the fence they are. If and when US leaves the country, Pakistan counts on the return of the Taliban to Kabul with theirt help. This is the real concern and nightmare of the Afghans. Iranian policy since the ouster of Taliban has improved as they were equally concerned about the Taliban andAl-Qaeda anti-Shi’i rhetoric. US should make its long term policy in the region public and stick to it. US must also have a fair policy toward the people of Iran to assure its positive role in the region.
Maggie Brock (University of South Carolina): Second to last question. Prof. Shahrani, what role should international organizations play in improving human rights conditions in Afghanistan?
Nazif Shahrani: It depends on what period we are talking about. If it is the past 25 years of bloodshed on all sides, and it is used selectively against some actors and not other for political reasons inside Afghnaistan, it will not help Afghans at all. If we focus on the current and the future then international community should insist on the rule of law and fair treatment of Afghnaistan’s citizen by its government and the government must gain the trust of the people to idetify and deal with any all individuals and groups who engage in abuse of human rights in the country. The past is very messy so let the international community focus on now and insure the rights of Afghhan in the future.
Andrew Garib (Cornell University, Toronto): Final question for both panelists. Why do we in the West forget so easily about the situation in Afghanistan?
Nazif Shahrani: In the past we forgot because the west attached no significance to country—it was small, poor in strategic resouces and of no consequence we thought. Now it has become clear that Afghanistan can and has had a tremendous impact on the situation of the region and far far away United States and the world. So I hope the West will not forget or abandone that small not so significant country again.
Caroline Wadhams: At least in the United States, I think, it’s because Iraq is taking up a lot of our mental energy. Compared to Iraq, the violence in AFghanistan has been lower; we are not confronted to the same extent by the daily deaths. I also think it’s a question of leadership. The Bush administration has diverted attention from Afghanistan (where the organizers of 9/11 lived and organized) to Iraq in order to built support for a war of choice. The problem is that Afghanistan has the potential to collapse again, hurting not only the Afghan people, but the security of the US and other countries. It must be a priority.
August J. Pollak (Campus Progress): Thanks to both of our guests for a very informative and interesting discussion. And thanks to everyone who visited!
Nazif Shahrani: Thanks for the excellent question and for the opportunity to do this. Cheers!
Caroline Wadhams: Thanks a lot.
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