Two Myths About Afghanistan

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By Ann Marlowe
Monday, February 11, 2008

As Western leaders and Congress debate NATO's responsibilities in Afghanistan, it's time to dissolve two great American illusions about Afghanistan.

The first is that Hamid Karzai is a good president who looks after American interests. The second is that the situation in Afghanistan is going from bad to worse. Both of these unchallenged "facts" are dangerous errors.

Karzai manages by panic, with massive corruption and an absence of vision. It's a tribute to the Afghan people's energy and U.S.-implemented economic regulations and reforms that Afghanistan's gross domestic product has more than doubled since the invasion. But Karzai has sought to derail grass-roots efforts at building democracy and to stifle Afghanistan's nascent civil society, repeatedly siding with fundamentalists against progressives.

Consider his silence at the death sentence recently given to a college student for reprinting an article critical of Islam; Sibghatullah Mojaddedi, the speaker of the upper house of parliament, which initially endorsed the sentence, is close to Karzai.

It's an American illusion that Karzai is Afghanistan's bulwark against the Taliban or ethnic strife. The reverse is more likely. On Aug. 20, 1998, the day the United States sent cruise missiles to kill Osama bin Laden, Karzai told The Post that "there were many wonderful people in the Taliban." Yes, Karzai fought the Taliban -- for a month in 2001, when we insisted. But his main interest is in winning reelection, so he has to pander to the worst elements among his Pashtun compatriots. Voting in 2004 followed ethnic patterns. Karzai won 55 percent of the vote but didn't draw a majority from any non-Pashtun group. Karzai's support among Pashtuns and non-Pashtuns alike is much lower today than in 2004. He can't afford to antagonize any Pashtuns, and while most Pashtuns aren't Taliban, all of the Taliban are Pashtuns. So he spent much of the fall offering to negotiate with Taliban chief Mohammad Omar and the vicious warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

Today, most Afghans are living in the best conditions they have ever known, slowly growing their country out of poverty. Most of the north and west is peaceful. Much of the east is, too, except some areas that are very undeveloped and very remote or directly border Pakistan's lawless tribal belt. American estimates for the 14 provinces and 158 districts of Regional Command East show that 58 percent of the kinetic activity there last year (direct fire, indirect fire and detonations of improvised explosive devices) occurred in three provinces (Konar, Paktika and Ghazni). Fifty-two percent occurred in 12 of the 158 districts, and about 75 percent took place in 30 of the districts.

The American war in Afghanistan is not a shooting war; most of our casualties are the result of IEDs, which insurgents use because they can't capture and hold territory, or prevail in firefights with American troops or the Afghan National Army (ANA). The numbers are not what many might think: In 2007, there were 89 suicide bombings and 94 car bombings..

Col. Martin Schweitzer, commander of the coalition forces in six provinces in Regional Command East, told me that the ANA has not lost an engagement with the Taliban since last April. Fewer than 300 U.S. soldiers have been killed in action in Afghanistan since the invasion six years ago. We lost 83 soldiers plus two military civilians to hostile causes in 2007, when 24,000 to 27,000 personnel were in country. In 2006, 98 died. The decrease in deaths in action last year is even more significant when you consider the danger our troops were exposed to. American strategy has evolved from concentrating forces in large forward operating bases to building up provincial reconstruction teams in province capitals to establishing combat outposts in district centers (county seats) this past year.

In 2007, the Army's counterinsurgency strategy of stationing platoons in district centers and delivering quick infrastructure aid started to produce visible results for ordinary Afghans in the east. Not all areas in the Pashtun belt are equal -- Khost, for instance, is thriving, while Ghazni is still very poor -- but security is improving. When Schweitzer took command early last year, 20 of the 85 districts were "green," or on the side of the Afghan government. By year-end, 58 were classified as "green."

I saw this as an embedded reporter in Ghazni province in November. The young captain in charge of Four Corners, once the "worst neighborhood" in Ghazni, told me that in the spring of 2007 his base had taken fire twice a week, but as of late November it hadn't been rocketed in 60 days.

One reason may be Ghazni's new roads. Roads are development magic, and the U.S. Army is building them like crazy. In Ghazni alone, 10 roads have been funded at a cost of $5 million, and an 11th is in the approval process. Freight truck traffic along Highway 1, which runs from Kabul through Ghazni City to southern Zabol province, more than quadrupled in 2007.

In March, the Army paved a seven-kilometer stretch near Four Corners. This road, nicknamed "Route Rebel," used to be the second worst in Afghanistan for IEDs, which kill far more Afghan civilians and police than they do coalition troops. Daily traffic on "Route Rebel" has gone from 20 to 200 cars. There hadn't been any roadside bombs in eight months when I visited in late November -- it's much harder to plant them on asphalt.

Considering where it started, Afghanistan isn't doing too badly. It would be doing much better with a courageous, inspired president committed to honest and transparent government.

Ann Marlowe, a freelance writer, was embedded with U.S. forces twice in 2007. She has visited Afghanistan nine times since 2002.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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