On September 11, 2001, the al Qaeda terrorist group based in Afghanistan carried out the most vicious terrorist attack against the American people in U.S. history. More than three thousand lives were lost when terrorists hijacked commercial airplanes and crashed into the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia. A fourth hijacked airplane crashed into a field in Pennsylvania. In October 2001, the U.S. military led an international force to Afghanistan to oust the al Qaeda network and to depose the terrorist-sponsored Taliban regime. By early 2002 the regime had crumbled and President George W. Bush promised that the United States would stay and help rebuild Afghanistan so that the country would never again become a haven for international terrorists.
In a speech in October 2002, Bush said that the U.S. actions in Afghanistan would show the Muslim world that the United States supports all peace and freedom-loving people in their struggle to create democratic futures:
As we stay in Afghanistan, it will be important for other brave people, whether they live in Muslim countries or the Middle East . . . to see [that] our commitment for freedom is . . . complete, it’s real, and it’s sincere. . . . Any nation that sacrifices to build a future of liberty will have the respect [and] the support . . . of the United States of America.
The U.S. performance in Afghanistan has assumed a significance that extends well beyond the borders of the small central Asian nation. Afghanistan has become the proving ground for U.S. credibility within the global Muslim community. “Afghanistan is a test case,” wrote American playwright Eve Ensler after her 2003 visit to Afghanistan, Egypt, Jordan, and Pakistan. “We may never recover the trust of the Muslim world . . . if the U.S. does not deliver security, substantial aid, and reconstruction . . . if we do not fulfill our promises [to Afghanistan].”
Westerners disagree about the U.S. record
Western participants and observers disagree about whether the United States is fulfilling its promises to the Afghan people. U.S. government officials say America’s achievements in Afghanistan have been considerable and should be a source of American pride. In their view, America has liberated Afghanistan from the repressive policies of the Islamic fundamentalist Taliban regime, brought hope to the Afghan people, improved security, and made progress in developing the political infrastructure of a modern democracy. “The toppling of the Taliban and the stabilizing presence of the coalition . . . have enabled the seeds of political progress to sprout . . . Americans can take pride in the role we have played in leading the multilateral effort to support Afghan democratization,” wrote Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. ambassador and special presidential envoy to Afghanistan, in January 2004.
Some Western commentators support the view of U.S. government officials that American intervention in Afghanistan has improved the lives of the Afghan people. American author Sally Armstrong interviewed Afghan women before and after the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan. In her 2002 book Veil of Courage, she describes the contrast in the lives of Afghan women and girls under the Taliban rule and after the American liberation. “Life was looking very different from the ordeal they were living through when we last met,” writes Armstrong. “Women were working again and not wearing burkas [traditional long black robes] in the offices. Girls’ schools had reopened, and the students were trying to catch up what they had missed.” Other Western commentators also praise the U.S. role in Afghanistan and say that Afghanistan’s achievements should inspire other Muslim countries in establishing modern democracies. Paul M. Rodriguez, editor of Insight magazine, asserts that the U.S.-backed Afghan constitution approved in January 2004 is an excellent model for Muslim people struggling for democratic reform.
Other Western commentators, however, argue that after two years of U.S. intervention, the situation in Afghanistan is not one that other Muslim countries would want to replicate. These critics point to continued security problems, human rights violations, repression of women, increase in opium production, and intimidation of the people by the U.S.-backed Afghan warlords as evidence of America’s failure. Some believe that faulty U.S. policies are to blame for what they consider Afghanistan’s deteriorating state. As Isabel Hilton, a journalist with the UK-based Guardian wrote in July 2003, “Reconstruction is crippled, political progress is nonexistent and human rights abuses are piling up. . . . What progress there has been is now threatened. . . . Girls’ schools have been attacked, and girls threatened and harassed on their way to classes.” Hilton warned that America’s performance in Afghanistan augurs poorly for other Islamic countries in which the United States has intervened, particularly Iraq:
Die hard defenders of the [U.S.] intervention in Iraq say . . . that time is required to restore order and prosperity to a country ravaged by every type of misfortune. . . . [But] if the example of Afghanistan is anything to go by, time makes things worse rather than better.
The Afghans also hold differing views
Afghan participants and observers also disagree about the U.S. performance in Afghanistan. Some Afghans believe that the United States has helped the country. They point to the new highways and buildings; the 4 million children attending school—many for the first time; the growing economy, the new constitution, and the return of more than 2.5 million refugees. These Afghans say that America has given their people hope. “Those of us who had to run are coming back,” said one returned Afghan shopkeeper. “As long as America is with us, we will start our new lives. . . . We feel hopeful.”
Some Afghan government officials praise America’s positive role in transforming the situation in their country. “Today, hope, peace, education, and construction are replacing despair, destruction, and violence as the prevailing reality in Afghanistan, thanks to your [American] assistance,” said Afghanistan’s ambassador to the United States, Said Tayeb Jawad, in December 2003. Afghan officials also say that Afghanistan’s new, U.S.- backed constitution provides a model for other Muslim countries. In January 2004, the Afghan minister of foreign affairs, Abdullah Abdullah, said that the constitution was the first among Muslim countries in the region to marry respect for Islam with human rights for men, women, and members of ethnic minorities, and was a “source of inspiration for other Islamic countries.”
Afghan discontent with America’s role
Islamic fundamentalists, on the other hand, say America’s actions should inspire Muslims around the world to take up arms to resist America’s “illegal occupation” of Afghanistan. For example, Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, founder of the radical Islamic party Hezbi Islami, says that the U.S. occupation is part of America’s imperialist agenda to dominate the Islamic world. He urges Muslims inside and outside Afghanistan to stop supporting “heartless killers of innocent Afghans” and to stop “violating the norms of Islamic brotherhood and neighborhood.” Hekmatyar claims that the Afghan people deeply resent the U.S. presence, that the U.S.-backed government of Afghan president Hamid Karzai does not have the people’s loyalty, and that the Afghan people are being persecuted by U.S. soldiers who are insensitive to their religious beliefs and practices. According to Hekmatyar, the increasing number of attacks by Afghan rebels against foreigners shows that the people do not want Americans in their country. In his letter to President Bush and the U.S. Congress in October 2002, Hekmatyar wrote, “In our [the Hezbi Islami] opinion, no wise and wellinformed person could consider the invasion of Afghanistan a success to be repeated in any other place in the world.”
Islamic fundamentalists are not the only Afghan people who are voicing their discontent with the U.S. presence in Afghanistan. Other Afghans say that America has failed to fulfill its promises to the Afghan nation and that they have lost hope. One man from Herat in northeastern Afghanistan who had been attacked by a warlord said, “What has changed in Afghanistan? . . . Look—all the same warlords are in power as before. . . . All our hopes are crushed.” Members of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), the most vocal group of Afghan women in the country, agree that the Afghans are still terrorized by Islamic fundamentalists and say that America has not alleviated their people’s poverty or improved the condition of women, who continue to suffer inhumane punishments such as death by stoning. They say that the United States is in Afghanistan to further its own interests and has no real concern for improving the lives of the Afghan people. According to RAWA’s statement on International Human Rights Day on December 10, 2003:
The continuation of the present chaotic and anarchic situation and the support of the West for the . . . [warlords] . . . prove and validate that America . . . [does not] give any importance to human rights and women’s rights . . . the only values [Americans] consider of importance are their own political and economic interests.
The United States commits to long-term help for Afghanistan
U.S. government officials concede that the Afghan people have cause for their distrust based on past U.S. performance. When the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, the United States and the international community abandoned the impoverished and war-weary Afghan people, who had lost more than a million of their compatriots during the superpower rivalries of the 1970s and 1980s. Left to the mercy of the Taliban, one of the cruelest and most repressive regimes of modern times, Afghanistan became a training ground for international terrorists. In January 2004, William Taylor, coordinator for the U.S. State Department, acknowledged the mistakes the United States has made and assured the Afghan people and the Islamic world community that the United States has learned from these errors. He stated,
I think people need to know that Americans have learned their lessons. . . . That we made a mistake before when we walked away and we paid a horrible price. And now we’re committed with a lot of people, a lot of money, and a lot of effort and energy to rebuild this country. We’re in it for the long term.
Both U.S. and Afghan government officials acknowledge that a long-term commitment by the United States to Afghanistan will be required to address the many challenges that face the country. Afghanistan’s climate is harsh and its natural resources are limited. Its economy has long depended on opium exports, which continue to flourish despite international efforts to stop the narcotics trade. The country’s physical infrastructure lies in ruins, and the earth is so filled with Russian land mines that farming is hazardous and more than half a million Afghans have had to have limbs amputated. Various ethnic groups vie for power in a country made up mostly of tribal communities with no national identity or experience with democratic decision making. Generations of children have had no schooling, and less than 10 percent of the population is literate. One in five children dies before the age of five, and the average life expectancy for those who survive childhood is forty-eight—an expectancy that ranks among the lowest in the world. To make matters worse, Islamic militants have been murdering foreign aid workers, which is seriously hampering international aid efforts. James Kundner, the representative of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in Kabul, says that Afghanistan poses “one of the most complex reconstruction challenges the U.S. government has encountered anywhere.”
The consequences of failure
The job of the United States in Afghanistan will require every ounce of the “skill, character, generosity, and courage of the American people” to which Bush has credited American achievements so far. The stakes are high. Observers assert that if America fails to honor its promise to restore peace and security to Afghanistan, the consequences will reverberate through the Muslim countries. “Afghanistan is a metaphor for the Muslim world. The consequences of Afghanistan’s failure will not be restricted to Afghanistan. It will spill over into Pakistan and Central Asia and the Middle East,” says Pakistani scholar Akbar Ahmed. Observers further assert that if America fails to keep its promises to the Afghan people, the safety and security of the free world will be jeopardized. “In the cracks of broken promises,” warns Ensler, “terrorists are born.”