Afghan mission unravels

Published June 9, 2007

Iraq continues to consume the oxygen in Washington, but a new congressional report should shift public attention back to the first front in the war on terror.

The Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, reported in alarming detail last month on the extent to which the security and domestic situations have deteriorated in Afghanistan, where NATO and a U.S.-led coalition are fighting Taliban and al-Qaida terrorists.

The United States attacked Afghanistan a year and a half before invading Iraq as punishment for the Taliban government harboring al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden and has spent $15-billion, not including the cost of military operations, to stabilize and rebuild the country. While the GAO acknowledged areas of progress, such as in diversifying the economy and training an Afghan army, it found that after five years of international efforts, the security situation "has not improved and, moreover, has deteriorated significantly in the last year." The rebuilding is hampered by a resurgence of the Taliban, the limited capability of Afghan security forces, an inept government, corruption and the labor force's reliance on growing opium, with some of the profits going to fund terrorist activity.

The picture is bleak across the board. While Washington provided $6-billion through last year to train and equip the Afghan security services, no army combat units or police units are fully capable of operating by themselves. Even with coalition support, only one of 72 police units can lead an operation. Trainees have sold their equipment before reporting for duty, hoarding is a problem, and of those absent from their posts, 60 percent are AWOL.

Broader dysfunctions within society only compound the security problem. The report notes: "Afghanistan still has no formal national judicial system for the police to rely upon, opium poppy cultivation is at record levels and the Afghan police often find themselves facing better- armed drug traffickers and militias." The population of 32-million is largely illiterate, and nearly half is younger than 15. The penal system is "nonfunctioning" and reforms are "undermined by systemic corruption." No wonder officials predict the foreign mission "will take at least a decade."

The United States and its allies will need to spend billions more on security, economic development and democratic reforms to prevent Afghanistan from reverting to the terrorist haven and narco-state it was under Taliban rule. Even if American troops were withdrawn from Iraq tomorrow, we would still have a major war on our hands in Afghanistan.