Afghanistan: Five Years Later
On Oct. 7, 2001, President Bush spoke from the Treaty Room of the White House to announce the beginning of Operation Enduring Freedom, a mission designed to disrupt and destroy al-Qaeda operations in Afghanistan and the regime that had harbored and supported Osama bin Laden's terrorist network.
It was never going to be an easy mission. Afghanistan was among the world's poorest nations, with little political or economic infrastructure. Nearly three decades of war, drought and a Soviet occupation by hundreds of thousands of troops had yielded a broken, lawless nation.
Yet from halfway around the world -- with but a few weeks' notice -- coalition forces were charged with securing a landlocked, mountainous country that history had dubbed the "graveyard" of great powers.
Given the circumstances, it is not surprising that military experts and columnists raised the specter of Vietnam and "quagmires" -- both before and during combat operations. They cited the forbidding terrain, brutal weather and the Soviet Union's total failure.
Within weeks of our launching combat operations, however, the Taliban regime had been defeated, consigning yet another cruel regime to the dustbin of history. Coalition forces took control of Kabul, and since then the Afghan people have fashioned a new constitution and successfully held the first democratic presidential election in their long history.
Now, five years after the start of Operation Enduring Freedom, another signpost has been marked on Afghanistan's long, difficult road to stability: NATO took control of security operations for the entire country on Thursday, as well as the 24 Provincial Reconstruction Teams that are strengthening infrastructure across the nation.
This is an unprecedented moment for the NATO alliance. In 2001 NATO forces were for the first time deployed beyond their traditional European borders. Today the number of troops in Afghanistan from nations besides the United States has reached more than 20,000 -- to add to the approximately 21,000 American troops serving there.
Not all the news about Afghanistan is encouraging. There is, for example, the legitimate worry that increased poppy production could be a destabilizing factor. And rising violence in southern Afghanistan is real.
President Hamid Karzai, speaking with President Bush recently at the White House, acknowledged the difficulties: "Afghanistan is a country that is emerging out of so many years of war and destruction. . . . We lost almost two generations to the lack of education. . . . We know our problems. We have difficulties. But Afghanistan also knows where the problem is."
The problem, he said, is poverty and extremism. Success requires a strong and capable Afghan government that can provide services and opportunities for all its people.
During the active combat or conventional phase of any war, there are clear signs of progress: battles won, key strategic points taken, enemy forces captured or killed. In the post-battle phase, however, the measure of progress is not as clear -- especially in a war such as the Global War on Terror, which relies so heavily on the development of civic institutions in places
that have known little more than war and destitution.