Afghanistan Five Years After 9/11

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The strongest growth in Afghanistan? [andrew lopez / Flickr]

When we were talking about whether/how to cover the 5th anniversary of September 11th, we decided that a show on Afghanistan — which, like the rest of the media, we’ve neglected — could be interesting. It was our first front in the “war on terror,” so it begs the question: how are we doing?

This year Afghanistan grew a record-breaking poppy crop (92% of the world’s opium supply). Not unrelatedly, the Taliban is becoming increasingly muscular, especially in the south — so much so that it’s now almost as dangerous for American soldiers to serve in Afghanistan as in Iraq. It seems clear that the world failed to provide the post-war peacekeeping forces necessary to support Hamid Karzai’s democratically elected government (frequently accused of corruption and inefficiency) and to keep the Taliban from returning. The U.S., for example, has given vastly less development money and attention to Afghanistan than it’s poured into post-war Iraq.

The real question here may be what kind of opportunities we’ve lost. The war in Afghanistan was, after all, generally supported by the rest of the world — and could have been a model of cooperation. There have been some successes (roads, schools, hospitals), especially around Kabul, and they make you wonder what we could have achieved with our full attention. Osama bin Laden captured? A social and government infrastructure that could have kept the Taliban at bay? A real reduction of drug-funded terrorism? What do you think?

Ahmed Rashid

Pakistani journalist based in Lahore

Writes for the Daily Telegraph and The Wall Street Journal, among others

Author, Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil, and Fundamentalism in Central Asia

David Rohde

Investigative reporter, The New York Times

Covered Afghanistan and South Asia for The New York Times, 2001-2005

Author, An Afghan Symbol for Change, Then Failure, The New York Times, 5 Sept 2006

Charlie Sennott

Reporter, Boston Globe

Covered the war in Afghanistan in 2001

Author of upcoming piece on Afghanistan in this weekend’s Globe

Extra Credit Reading

Ahmed Shuja, “Staggering” Increase in Afghan Drug Cultivation, MyScribbles: Write-Ups of an Afghan, September 5, 2006: “Since 2001, when the Taliban put a highly successful ban on cultivation, drug production has been steadily increasing.”

Linda Barnes, Summer 2006 in Kabul, A Midwife in Kabul, August 24, 2006: “As America’s focus turns toward other ‘hot spots’ Afghanistan is being weaned off American reconstruction funding, but Afghanistan remains 100% dependent on those funds.”

Sohrab Kabuli, NATO and Important mission in Afghanistan, Afghan LORD, August 10, 2006: “Recently insecurity and suicide attacks against coalition forces and Afghan forces are not stopped but increasing in southern Afghanistan.”

David Rohde, An Afghan Symbol for Change, Then Failure, The New York Times, September 5, 2006: “Today, Little America is the epicenter of a Taliban resurgence and an explosion in drug cultivation that has claimed the lives of 106 American and NATO soldiers this year and doubled American casualty rates countrywide.”

Ahmed Rashid, Afghanistan: On the Brink, The New York Review of Books, June 22, 2006: “How is it, then, that Afghanistan is near collapse once again? To put it briefly, what has gone wrong has been the invasion of Iraq.”

BBC News, Pakistan urges joint terror fight, BBC News, September 6, 2006: “Pakistan and Afghanistan have to fight ‘the scourge of terror and extremism’ together, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has said on a visit to Kabul.”

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  • Old Nick

    Here’s a primer-piece from Middle East Transparent ( ) that’s nearly as poignant as it is pertinent to this thread:


    I Still Remember Afghanistan!

    Abir Zaki

    The crossroads of Central Asia, which is Afghanistan, has had a very turbulent history. Through the ages, it has been occupied by many forces including the Persian Empire, Genghis Khan and Alexander the Great.

    As a nation-state as it is known today came to existence in 1746 under the Durrani Empire, but control was granted to the United Kingdom until King Amanullah acceded to the throne in.

    The last period of stability in Afghanistan lay between 1933 and 1973, when the country was under the rule of King Zahir Shah. However, in 1973, Zahir’s brother-in-law, Sardar Mohammed Daoud launched a bloodless coup. Daoud and his entire family were murdered in 1978 when the communist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan launched a coup and took over the government.

    But I am neither going through its history nor to its political warlordship, for it has been written in amount less times.

    Personally I want to remember Afghanistan during the most stable period of its time, its golden period. I want to remember its great people, poets, its mystic landscapes, and beautiful soul. Even its hound which tended to outdistance the horses, which hunted on their own, without direction by the huntsman, giving rise to the independence of thought and spirit still typical of the breed…


    Read the rest at:

  • Old Nick

    And here’s one staggering expense of our daft (and unnecessary) switch of attention from Afghanistan to Iraq:


    Opium Harvest at Record Level in Afghanistan


    KABUL, Afghanistan, Sept. 2 — Afghanistan’s opium harvest this year has reached the highest levels ever recorded, showing an increase of almost 50 percent from last year, the executive director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Antonio Maria Costa, said Saturday in Kabul.

    He described the figures as “alarming� and “very bad news� for the Afghan government and international donors who have poured millions of dollars into programs to reduce the poppy crop since 2001.

    He said the increase in cultivation was significantly fueled by the resurgence of Taliban rebels in the south, the country’s prime opium growing region. As the insurgents have stepped up attacks, they have also encouraged and profited from the drug trade, promising protection to growers if they expanded their opium operations.

    “This year’s harvest will be around 6,100 metric tons of opium — a staggering 92 percent of total world supply. It exceeds global consumption by 30 percent,� Mr. Costa said at a news briefing.

    He said the harvest increased by 49 percent from the year before, and it drastically outpaced the previous record of 4,600 metric tons, set in 1999 while the Taliban governed the country. The area cultivated increased by 59 percent, with more than 400,000 acres planted with poppies in 2006 compared with less than 260,000 in 2005.

    “It is indeed very bad, you can say it is out of control,� Mr. Costa said Friday in an interview before the announcement.

    President Hamid Karzai expressed disappointment at the results in a statement issued on Saturday and urged the international community to expand its commitment to strengthen the Afghan police and law enforcement agencies.


    Read the rest at:

  • Potter

    I had been following the hopeful, courageous, inspiring blog/diary of Sarah Chayes, from Kandahar this summer in the NYTimes. I don’t know if you can read it from this link. I hope so. (Great photos as well).

    Sarah Chayes is a former NPR reporter who decided to stay in Afghanistan after her assignment in 2002 to help build the country, last year establishing a cooperative that makes what sounds like divine soaps from local herbs, flowers and fruits.

    You can read about her in this article from the Boston Globe as well:

  • Here is a link to a investigative jounalist, Anne Jones, who has spent the past 4 years in Afghanistan.

    Her article raises the critical issue of reconstruction and development, or its lack thereof.

    Why It’s Not Working in Afghanistan

    Ann Jones


    September 4, 2006

    Doctors Without Borders pulled out of Afghanistan in 2004

    Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) put projects on hold earlier this year in Southern Afghanistan

    So my question for the guests is, are we back to the beginning? Is there any chance for the stability required for sustained development efforts? And how can any lasting peace be achieved?

  • Ben

    “…could have achieved with our full attention.” Absolutely. I’d be curious to see how an involvement comparison stacks up. How many resources, human and cash, have been poured into Afghanistan vs. Iraq in the last 5 years?

  • jlmprice

    I’m shocked that part of this discussion is not about the devastating effect the opium trade is having on our children. As I near the first anniversary of the death of my beautiful 20 year old nephew from a heroin overdose, I still cannot believe that people are not screaming from the rooftops about the epidemic of addiction there is in this country. Another show needs to be done on this. The rise of heroin/OC-related overdoses and deaths in just my little part of Massachusestts is astronomical. In my city alone, it has doubled in 4 years, as it has in many of the more affluent towns around us (Boston Globe 3/5/06). Of my nephew’s 10 close childhood friends, 5 of them were addicted. 2 died within two months of each other last year. Groups like Learn to Cope in our area, which supports families trying to come to grips with heroin/OC addiction and trying to save their children, cannot accomodate the number of people who attend each week in their current community space in a local police station. I organized an information night on the heroin use in our area last spring with my minister, and we could not squeeze another person into our church. We don’t need to worry about another attack of 9/11 proportions. We need to fear the kid who is putting the purest heroin ever available up his/her nose for the first time, thinking if it’s snorted it’s not addicting. Our destruction as a society will be through the addiction of our children if something is not done. The families struggling with this are exhausted and ashamed and scared out of their wits. And there is no help.

  • jseeley

    I didn’t hear all of the program, but I didn’t hear anyone address an essential underlying issue: Here in the US, given what we know of our current rulers, what would make one think that “we” (the Bush admin.) have any but the most selfish, indeed exploitative, intentions regarding Afghanistan? Rumsfeld and his cronies have proved themselves to know nothing about, nor be interested in, true “nation building” of any kind.

    All they know and apparently seek is how to destroy things and people, to stir up trouble so that they can sell more weapons and keep people fighting each other so that they don’t present a challenge to US hegemony.

    How much more evidence do we need before the common wisdom comes around to reflect that world Democracy is not their real goal?

  • Potter

    I finally, prodded by this show, read the long article by David Rhode that caught my attention in Tuesday morning’s NYTimes because of the picture that accompnaied it on the front page of the beautiful Fowzea Olomi who we learn has to put a burka on when she goes out to proptect herself.

    The photo/slide show that accompanies the article is terrific. Thanks to David Rhode for an excellent article.

    From the show intro: The real question here may be what kind of opportunities we’ve lost.

    It’s unbearably sad to think not only of the opportunities we have lost but the harm done. This is a monument to incompetence from the highest levels where attention money manpower was shifted to Iraq when it could have been used to try to make a real difference in Afghanistan with a better chance of success.

    How long will voters here continue to support GOP for their strengths in foreign policy and security as they screw us up around the globe and at home ( see jimprice’s above) ?

  • “How many resources, human and cash, have been poured into Afghanistan vs. Iraq in the last 5 years? ”

    But this is an ontological problem. And if we don’t recognize the ontological difficulties here we won’t make progress.

    In discussing the resources we and the Europeans are putting into Afghanistan we need to define who “we” are, and who the Europeans or the Americans are. Nations are more than their governments, and just as ocean waves can appear to be rolling in to shore even as an object sitting on the waves might just bob up and down without actually getting any closer to the beach, we need to distinguish the real from the apparent.

    For example, all those poppies: Afghan famrers aren’t growing them as a hobby – they are growing them to satisfy a market demand. So PLENTY of resources are flowing into Adghanistan from Europe and the US, but they’re not coming from the government; they’re coming from what we might call “NGO’s”, but in this case VERY non-governmental organizations, namely the millions of drug users who are donating their money to Afghan farmers and, oh by the way, to the criminals and terrorists. This is a true grass-roots, street-level effort, the likes of which mainstream political organizers can only dream of.

    I don’t know if it’s still true, but a few years ago in Colombia it was the case that American drug users were contributing 2-3 dollars for every dollar the US government was spending on anti-narcotics and eradication efforts there. In my opinion any accurate discussion of resources needs to be based on the NET contributionjs to and from various sources. Otherwise a discussion of resources is meaningless.

  • Thanks for this show. Recently I read The Places In Between by Rory Stewart. Stewart is a Scotsman and a historian who walked across Afghanistan right after the fall of the Taliban. The book is about his treck and who he meets and because he is a scholar/historian it relates to the history of the region as well. Nothing eles I’ve read has revealed the complexity of Afghanistan quite so well.

    I just started his new book Prince of Marshes about a year spent in Southern Iraq in the civil service of Britain. I highly recommend his books.

  • Potter

    Peggy Sue- Thanks. I am listening to an hour he did on the radio- wonderful. He’s an amazing person. He said perhaps we are expecting too much ( progress at once) regarding Afghanistan.

  • Potter,

    Wow! What hour on what radio? I love this guy and would love to hear it if possible.

  • “He said perhaps we are expecting too much ( progress at once) regarding Afghanistan. ”

    Of course part of this depends on how we define “progress”.

    As I’ve noted before, we do not have a real science of sociology or social psychology or anthropology to help us predict what form of government will actually work on the ground and produce what result in what cultures.

    But we continue to promote pluralistic multiparty democracy with the same fervor as Christian missionaries who used to go to the south sea islands and cover up the embarassing bits of the native women there.

    How do we really KNOW that western pluralistc democracy can actually take root in places like Afghanistan (or Pakistan or Iraq, for that matter)? For all we know the only thing that works in that culture might be primitive tribalism and oppression of women, or brutal strong-man dictatiorships. Or some other system of government that we can’t even conceive of because we are incapable of thinking outside the box.

    And yet here we are relying on a peripatetic Scotsman and a former NPR reporter, much as the British relied on Richard Burton (the explorer, not the actor) and Rudyard Kipling (as a reporter) in the 19th century! But with international terrorism and drug trade the stakes today are WAY higher!

    There is a fundamental epistemological problem here – our intellectual tools for thinking that we “know” anything about the countries that affect us are as primitive, faith-based, and anecdotal as they were over a century ago, but we THINK we’re smarter than we were then. That’s called hubris.

  • One thing Stewart points out is that two Afghan villages 15 miles apart could be living under completly different organizational systems. I think his viewpoint is valuable both because of his background as a historian and his experiences walking from village to village. He doesn’t pretend to have the answers but he reveals glimpses of complexity regarding the situation that most of us don’t even have the tiniest clue about.

  • “I think his viewpoint is valuable both because of his background as a historian and his experiences walking from village to village. He doesn’t pretend to have the answers but he reveals glimpses of complexity regarding the situation that most of us don’t even have the tiniest clue about.”

    I’m sure that’s true in terms of having an interesting blog or dinner-party discussion.

    My point is that there is not the slightest evidence that actual POLICY is based on anything more substantial than a collection of personal, anecdotal reports coupled with a kind of faith-based reasoning that depends on the ideology of the viewer. We “know” what’s good for, or what will work for, the Afghans based only on a mishmash of subjective reports by travelers like Stewart and Chayse combined with whatever ideological preconceptions we have about human nature and good government. This is VERY flimsy material to stand between us and terrorists armed with 767’s or dirty bombs.

    In other words, the depth and sophistication of our reasoning and the intellectual tools with which we describe social structures are really no more sophisticated than they were 150 years ago. We have no greater power to predict what solcial or political institutions will “take” or “work” in Afghanistan than we did then. But the CONSEQUENCES of our failure to do so are much greater today than back in the days of Alexander Burnes and William Brydon.

  • plnelson,

    Because the consquenses are so dire it wouldn’t hurt if our policy makers did pay attention to someone who at least has some background and understanding of the situation. That is, if basing policy on the thoughts of Stewart is your concern. Unfortunatly our policies are being made by far less thoughtful and informed people.

  • “it wouldn’t hurt if our policy makers did pay attention to someone who at least has some background and understanding of the situation.”

    But we don’t actually know that because we don’t know who they get information from. They have people on the ground there too. For all we know they might even be talking to/listening to Stewart.

    What we CAN say with confidence is that the basic PROCESS hasn’t changed since the days of the Great Game, and that didn’t work out very well for the British and Russians. There were plenty of analogues to Stewart and Chayse wandering in the foothills around the Hindu Kush in the 19th century.

    We have to solve the basic epistemological problem or we’ll get NOWHERE on this: What constitiutes “knowledge” of a culture or region or nation, and how do you know when or whether you “understand” a place well enough to have confidence in ANY plan or policy?

    The really scary thing is that fundamentally this is a problem in epistemology and I’ve mentioned this several times here with no engagement by what I ASSUMED was a mainly academic crowd here at O.S. So the great irony here is that, by FAR, the most insightful comments on the topic of epistemology WRT Iraq and Afghanistan were made by none other than Rumsfeld in his famous “known knowns…known unknowns” speech.

  • Shaman

    I found the program enlightening and deeply upsetting.

    It is simply extraordinary that we Americans are at the mercy of an administration which has been so consistently and so roundly incompetent.

  • “we Americans are at the mercy of an administration which has been so consistently and so roundly incompetent. ”

    Good grief!

    The Americans are not “at their mercy” – the Americans PUT this administration in power! Not only did George Bush receive more votes in the last election than any other presidential candidate in history, but every major poll at the start of the Iraq War showed that the US public supported the invasion of Iraq by a HUGE majority (~75% according to most polls).

    And the excuse by the Democrats that they were “misled” by Bush holds no water whatsoever. No one held a gun to anyone’s head and forced them to believe anything the Administration said. On BBC’s Talking Point website I sent a message on the eve of the invasion saying that “if we invade Iraq we had better learn what the Arabic word for ‘quagmire’ is.” The incompetetnce of the Bush administration was plainly evident to anyone who was paying any attention.

    I’m sorry, but America asked for this and they’re getting it, good and hard.

  • plnelson, As far as epistemology goes I think you should read Stewart’s books before making assumptions about what he knows he knows and what he knows he doesn’t know. He isn’t just observing Afghans. His observations of Americans and British are also quite telling. What his books do for me is open a window of knowledge into a very complex situation.

  • “What his books do for me is open a window of knowledge into a very complex situation.”

    It’s a KIND of knowledge, but as I said before, this kind of knowledge has been available for centuries. I suggest you read the writings of Francis Younghusband, who traveled in and explored the area in the 1800’s. Or Sir Richard Francis Burton who spoke Afghan well enough to pass himself off as a native, and used that guise to secretly enter the Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Explorers on foot have been drawn to the Hindu Kush and central Asia for centuries and their accounts are colorful, interesting, and often quite arresting, but . . .

    The problem with ths sort of knowledge is that it does not provide the kind of robust, rigorous basis we need to make hard, concrete policy decisions. Both the 19th century British explorers and their modern-day descendent Stewart serve to remind us what a complex, exotic, and utterly alien and unwestern place Afghanistan is. Fine. We got that. Now where do we go with it?

    What I’m saying is that these personal accounts FEEL LIKE knowledge; but they are not knowledge in a robust sense because they don’t illuminate what policy we should adopt, i.e., what will work.

  • plnelson,

    Isn’t SOME knowledge better than NO knowledge? It seems to me we’ve (meaning our government) blundered into Afghanistan with extreamly limited knowledge and questionable motives. Where do you find your “robust” knowledge of Afghanistan? And when or if you do find it what makes you think it will have any effect on our government’s policies?

    And yes, I can see how you would take Stewart (even without reading his books) to be very much like a latter day Burton. They do have much in common. But Stewart was not in Afghanistan in the 19th century. He was there right after the fall of the Taliban January 2002 so his experience and observations relate to that specific time. I personally find his observations to be of value but if you think I have any effect on our current government’s policies… my friend… you have nothing to worry about. Those ignorant bastards never do what I want them to.

  • “And when or if you do find it what makes you think it will have any effect on our government’s policies? ”

    But as I asked before, how do you know that Bush&Co DON’T read Stewart? How do you know they aren’t availing themselves of all the other feet-on-the-ground sources? Keep in mind the CIA has been forging contacts with Afghans since the Russians were there.

    But that illustrates my point – subjective reports by explorers like Stewart and Younghusband have a soft, anecdotal quality that easily lends itself to different conclusions. You read it and draw one conclusion, Condi Rice reads it and draws a different one, yet you both feel like you understand of the subject.

    Rigorous, robust knowledge is knowledge that does not admit to wildly different conclusions. I’m an engineer so I’ll use an engineering analogy. I can describe a power supply design and any two engineers will draw the SAME conclusion about its output envelope (how much current it can deliver at what volltage, % of regulation, etc, for how long at what temperature). That’s knowledge you can use to confidently design something. We don’t have knowledge about Afghanistan we can confidently use to design a policy there.

  • plnelson,

    Unless I am mistaken you are still talking about a book (Stewart’s) that you have not read. You are correct in that I do not know if Bush&Co have read Stewart. Somehow I doubt it just brcause Stewart is an intelligent, thoughtful observer and I do not associate that sort of thing with our administration. And yes I know the CIA has been in Afghanistan through the times of the Russians and if I were CIA I would be interested in Stewart.

    It may not be engineering but I think Condi Rice and I could read the directions on the back of a Betty Crocker Cake mix and come away with vastly different conclusions.

    You are not considering motivation. You say your 2 engineers will reach the same conclusion but what if they each are being very well funded by entities with stridently opposing goals and one engineer has a child who will die if he doesn’t get a lot of money right away and the other one has a lot of gambling debts that are about to ruin her? Your power supply design may not be quite as “objective” as you thought it was.

  • oystercatcher

    soviet meddling and its occupation of afghanistan was apparently succeding until the cia started providing high tech weaponry such as stingers to the mujaheddin. Read Under a Sickle Moon for one persons experience of being bombed by russian or perhaps even afghani air force.

    Today we have the usa and its dupes bombing the same subsistence farming villagers that survived the same under soviet occupation

    For another look see Dust of the Saints by radek sikorski who is now the defense minister of poland and may even support the assault on afghanistan. How hypocritical of the west to condem the soviet occupation and turn right around and do the same.

    Aerial bombing is terrorism.

  • rc21

    On the other hand The US gave Afganistan more financial aid than any other country post Russia pullout. And look at all the good that did us.

    I am starting to believe all cultures are not of the same value. The West values freedom, democracy, equal rights, education,and all that other crap that plnelson was talking about earlier. Our mistake is buying into the notion that other cultures that dont play like us would certainly love to,we just have to teach them how.

    Apparently this plan only works in theory. I agree with plnelson,maybe Afganistan can come into the modern world and maybe it cant.It seems as if the outcome can just as easily be predicted by a flip of a coin as it can by any other long thought out policy plan. Right now I’d say the coin is still in the air.

    As I slowly watch Africa with all its freedom and independence turn into a festering sewer of death,corruption,disease,crime,poverty,and just about any other rotten thing you can think of, I wonder if there is anything we can really do for many of these countries that just dont seem to have the desire to prosper.

    plnelson Your point about the dems being every bit as culpable as the gop is spot on Kerry himself was a ranking member of the commitee that oversaw all the intelligence that Bush was getting.To claim ignorance tells me that a person is lying or is just plain lousy at his/her job.

  • jazzman

    The solution to the Afghan opium issue is the same as the solution to the “problem� of drug use in society – eliminate the puritanical socially engineered prohibition of adult possession and personal use of these substances.

    Repercussions of the Volstad Act demonstrated the folly and unintended consequences of alcohol prohibition. The illegality of any commodity only serves to increase the profitability of trading in that commodity. The huge amount of money generated by the illicit trade in all proscribed commodities contributes to the rise of power factions and ancillary violence to maintain the power base and revenue stream. The removal of prohibition takes away the disproportionate (to the cost of production and distribution) revenue. The Afghan opium growers might find their crops wouldn’t fetch high a premium if the illicit market weren’t paying top dollar. If the government controlled and taxed currently illicit substances (and I’m NOT for government control of almost anything), the cost of enforcement and punishment could be directed to education and treatment for those who choose to avail themselves of it.

    This is not likely to occur for many reasons; in particular vested interests capitalizing on illegality and fear and emotional hysteria on the part of the general population who believe that drugs are bad. I can understand why jlmprice and others have an emotional investment in the belief that drugs are bad as her nephew and many others have died of overdoses but drugs are neutral, they killed no one. It’s beliefs about the morality and what constitutes appropriate human behavior that charge the debate. Drugs have been used responsibly and irresponsibly since human beings have existed.

    People need to take responsibility for their actions and whatever arises as a result. The draconian punishments for possession and distribution of substances deemed to be illicit by congressional fiat (some well meaning but misguided and others directly or indirectly vested in the rewards of illegality – e.g., private prisons, enforcement expenditures, pharmaceutical investments etc.) is far more damaging to individuals and society than the putative ill effects of irresponsible substance use and responsible use would have little impact on anything.

    What gives anyone the right to forcibly control another’s personal behavior as long that person is not directly harming others? IMO the only legitimate means of social control of personal behavior is via education and stigmatization – tobacco use has decreased due to social pressure and the stigma of low opinion. And so it could be with any socially undesirable behavior, but violently enforced prohibition is not the answer and will not achieve the desired effect.

    Peace to All,


    BTW: pnelson, I left a squib in the “What Year is it?� thread for you.

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