The Other Battlefront

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 2, 2006; 11:45 AM

Afghanistan is the forgotten war.

No television bureaus there, no nightly reports, no great debate. Totally overshadowed by Iraq. We've got 19,000 troops there, and you'd hardly know it from most of the media.

Yesterday, thanks to President Bush's five-hour stopover, Afghanistan was a big story--for a day. Yesterday, Bush was again talking about Osama. Yesterday, Bush was again talking about Mullah Omar, who harbored and empowered Osama.

For Americans, the 2001 conflict in Afghanistan was the Good War. Widely supported by the country after 9/11. A clear target in the Taliban. Afghans did the ground fighting. Over in three weeks. Democracy, and women's rights, restored after years under an ugly and repressive regime.

But the surprise Bush visit provided a reminder that for all the carnage in Iraq, things haven't been going so well around Kabul either. The Taliban are resurgent, American troops are being killed and Karzai seems to have a fragile grip on power. Attacks are up 20 percent, suicide bombings up fourfold. So while it was a great presidential photo-op (without the fake turkey), it also forced journalists--especially the captive-audience White House press corps, which thought it was only going to Pakistan and India--to give the country an update on the lingering difficulties there.

The L.A. Times is on the case:

"Unlike the president's trip to Iraq for Thanksgiving dinner in 2003, for which a news blackout was imposed until he had safely left the country, Wednesday's visit to Afghanistan was more high-profile. Bush appeared at a televised outdoor news conference with Afghan President Hamid Kharzai, gave an address to U.S. Embassy staff and spoke to cheering troops while standing with wife Laura and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

"The symbolism was clear: Bush seeking to showcase a new democracy. But armed helicopters buzzed overhead during the news conference, occasionally drowning out the leaders' words; and the latest remarks on capturing Bin Laden illustrated the challenges that remain in a country struggling with insurgent attacks and a growing drug trade.

"Bush's visit came in the same week that the Senate Armed Services Committee heard testimony from a U.S. intelligence official that insurgent violence in Afghanistan had risen 20% over the last year, putting the Afghan government in greater danger than at any point since Karzai became president in June 2002."

The New York Times is no less pessimistic: "Four years after the Taliban were ousted from power by the American military, their presence is bigger and more menacing than ever, say police and government officials, village elders, farmers and aid workers across southern Afghanistan.

"American and Afghan officials have said for months that the Taliban are no longer capable of fighting large battles, and in their weakness have changed tactics to roadside bombings or attacking soft targets, like harassing villagers, killing teachers and burning schools.

"Yet despite its evident military supremacy, the American-led alliance has not been able to root out the insurgency. And the Taliban's tactics have succeeded in sowing fear, nearly all here agree."

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