WASHINGTON, DC — I had six dollars when I walked out the door of my apartment this morning. After taking a bus ($1.10), buying a newspaper (35 cents), and stopping at Starbucks for a venti coffee ($1.87) and a piece of crumb cake ($1.95), I was left with 73 cents. However piddling that sum, the change jangling in my pocket was more than the amount requested by the Bush administration in its 2004 budget for reconstruction projects in Afghanistan.
White House officials apparently forgot to request funds to rebuild the country they bombed to such hoopla shortly after the September 11 attacks. Congressional staffers who caught the slip eventually requested $300 million for reconstructing Afghanistan. It’s a lot more than 73 cents, but less than a scratch on the bumper of the president’s $75 billion initial request to fund a new war in Iraq.
In a rare twist for Washington fiscal politics, the money itself mattered less than this truly bizarre anecdote, which illustrates just how little thought the Bush administration has given to a nation we so recently bombed — and made solemn vows to rebuild. The episode casts serious doubt on White House expressions of resolve to rebuild Iraq. After all, if what’s happening in Afghanistan today merely hints at what might happen in Iraq tomorrow, we can expect nothing more than bold promises and bogus follow-through.
On January 28, 2002, about a year before the Bush administration sent Congress its budget with $0 allocated for Afghanistan reconstruction, President Bush stood in the White House Rose Garden with newly minted Afghan interim leader (and later president) Hamid Karzai. At that brief photo-op, the president made a bold promise to Karzai, underscored by a grave nod to history: " Two days ago, for the first time since 1979, an American flag was raised over the US Agency for International Development’s mission in Kabul. That flag will not be lowered. It will wave long into the future, a symbol of America’s enduring commitment to Afghanistan’s future. "
At present, however, the only things that seem to be enduring in Afghanistan are the chaos and violence that have afflicted that country over the last 34 years, which have seen an invasion by the Soviet Union, bitter internecine warfare, brutal unification under the repressive Islamic fundamentalism of the Taliban, and a US military campaign to oust that regime. To wit:
• Far from achieving a stable environment for reconstruction and democratization, US troops and international peacekeepers have come under increasing attack by remnants of Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and disgruntled warlords. Tribal unrest and power struggles between warlords who have not declared outright opposition to the US or the Afghan central government have undermined the formation of even a loose central governmental structure.
• Due to the continuing instability and violence, much of Afghanistan is considered " unsafe " for the United Nations (UN), the International Commission of the Red Cross (ICRC), and other non-governmental aid agencies. On March 29, the ICRC shut down all its field operations after the execution-style killing of one of its employees by Taliban fighters who ambushed an ICRC convoy.
• If instability is leading to the possible reformation of terrorist cells, it’s also aiding in the resurgence of Afghanistan’s drug trade. In March, Afghanistan’s finance minister warned a donor conference in March that a lack of " predictable finance " would lead the country to backslide into a " narco-mafia state. "
• Because of the resources required by the war in Iraq, the effort to raise international monies to fund Afghan reconstruction — which did get off to a solid start — has now flagged. In March, Canada’s National Post reported that many crucial projects — ranging from revamping the Afghan judicial system to highway construction to disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) of Afghan troops — had stalled due to lack of funds from the US and other donor countries.
• The much-vaunted goals of democratization, particularly enhancing the role of women in Afghan society, are also suffering as a result of continued instability in areas outside the Afghan capital of Kabul — the only city with a strong international presence. As a March report by the International Crisis Group on " Women and Reconstruction " bluntly noted: " A renewed and expanded international commitment to security is urgently needed if the limited gains women have made in Kabul are to be institutionalized and emulated in other Afghan cities. "
• The White House no longer has a " special presidential envoy " dedicated solely to the stabilization and reconstruction of Afghanistan. Back in December, its current Afghan envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, was given an additional post closer to the Bush administration’s top priority — " special envoy and ambassador at large for free Iraqis. " Incredibly, Khalilzad wasn’t asked to relinquish his Afghan brief to someone else; his Iraq-related responsibilities were simply added to his already demanding Afghan ones. As a result, in 2003 Khalilzad has spent precious little time on Afghanistan. Instead, he has engaged in laborious attempts to broker deals with Iraqi opposition forces and to keep Turkey out of Northern Iraq.