Tuesday, October 11, 2005

# Posted 11:36 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

MEANWHILE IN AFGHANISTAN: From correspondent Peter Baker's column in WaPo Outlook:
The last time I saw Hakim Taniwal, I thought he was a dead man walking.

A slight, aging sociology professor with gentle manners, Taniwal returned to his homeland from exile in Australia after the fall of the Taliban to help build a new Afghanistan. When I ran across him in the spring of 2002, he had been dispatched by Hamid Karzai, the new Afghan president, to the untamed frontier to take over as governor and dislodge a brutal local warlord who ruled over these parts. Taniwal had no guns, no army and seemingly no chance. It seemed like a suicide mission.

When I saw him again here two weeks ago, he was sitting in the provincial governor's office and the warlord was somewhere in the countryside, out of power, his militia largely disbanded. I reminded Taniwal of our first meeting, when he could not even get into the governor's house because it was occupied by the warlord's family and dozens of his thuggish guerrillas, bristling with Kalashnikovs and grenade launchers.

Taniwal looked at me and smiled. "Things have changed," he said with satisfaction.
Wow. Again: Wow. And don't forget to read the rest of Baker's article, which includes a half-dozen other success stories that are almost as stunning.

Sometimes, I think of Afghanistan as what Iraq would be without powerful insurgents. For all of its persistent maladies, Afghanistan as it now stands is living proof that American armed forces often are the heralds of true liberation.

Nonetheless, it would be impossible not to temper with caution this sort of optimisim. Baker himself fills the remainder of his article with a multitude of caveats:
Even the most optimistic Americans here acknowledge that the job of stabilizing Afghanistan is nowhere near finished, and they worry that it might come unraveled again if a distracted Washington averts its attention too soon...

Most Afghans still grind out the same subsistence lives they did under the Taliban, living in mud houses, growing their own food, maybe selling soap or shoes in the bazaar. Poppy harvesting and the drug trafficking it spawns still account for roughly half of the Afghan economy. Corruption is endemic...

In fact, beyond the hotel and mall, most of Kabul looks no different than it did under the Taliban, a sometimes apocalyptic streetscape. The crumbled sections of town laid waste by fratricidal shelling between warlords in the 1990s are still little more than rubble.
What is most amazing about Afghanistan in a certain way is that no one can attribute its success to the genius of American planning. American officials such as Zalmay Khalilzad may have done quite a lot for the occupation, but Washington certainly never prepared for the task of nation-building.

In spite of its negative sound, that statement doesn't carry much in the way of partisan connotations because no one could have expect the Bush Administration to do much planning in the two months between September 11 and the fall of the Taliban.

But how, then, could Afghanistan have succeeded? After all, isn't Bush & Rumsfeld's total lack of planning the principal cause of the ongoing chaos in Iraq?

Yes and no. I think the relative success of Afghanistan demonstrates just how much influence unexpected circumstances have had on both occupation efforts. If you had asked the experts before 9/11 whether it would be harder to occupy and democratize either Iraq or Afghanistan, the experts would have declared both to be impossible, with one, perhaps, being more impossible than the other.
But the importance of luck hardly exonerates the White House for what's going on in Iraq (even if I am more optimistic about the situation there than most). What the relative success of Afghanistan demonstrates, I think, is that serious planning might, just might, have made a major difference in Iraq. Or not.

But given the potential for success, the failure to plan is profoundly regrettable.

UPDATE: In contrast, Josh Marshall agrees with Matt Yglesias that there was probably never any chance of things going right in Iraq at all.
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