They call it “the other war” and it has begun to explode again after a winter of relative quiet.
This is the war in Afghanistan that has long been overshadowed by the conflict in Iraq in arms, money and political debate. But it is no less bitter and is equally, if not more, vital to the worldwide war on terror. Now, says an American officer who has fought in that war, it is coming to a “tipping point.”
Two offensives are likely within weeks. The Muslim terrorists known as the Taliban are expected to launch the first as they infiltrate north into Afghanistan from their refuge in the rugged mountains over the border with Pakistan. United States, NATO and Afghan forces will mount a counteroffensive.
The commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan until a few weeks ago, Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry, told the Hawai’i Legislature last week that “there is no set of problems out there that is so daunting that we should not be absolutely confident of success.”
General Eikenberry, visiting the Pacific Command where he had earlier served here, asserted to the legislators who had invited him to speak: “We will prevail in Afghanistan, if we have time, if we have patience, if we have commitment.”
Vice President Dick Cheney seems not quite so sure. After stops in Japan and Australia on a trip last week, the acerbic vice president dropped into Pakistan and Afghanistan for visits that were secret until he had left each country. The heavily guarded stopovers betrayed a deep anxiety.
From the meager press reports coming out of Cheney’s entourage, he demanded that President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan order his armed forces to drive the Taliban terrorists out of their mountain hideouts. That drew an angry response from the foreign ministry in Islamabad, which declared: “Pakistan does not accept dictation from any side or source.”
In Afghanistan, the vice president met with President Hamid Karzai, after which an Afghan official told the Associated Press: “We understand now that the U.S. government realizes that in order to stop terrorism in Afghanistan … there must be a clear fight against terrorism in Pakistan.”
Earlier, the Taliban purportedly punctuated Cheney’s brief stay at the U.S. air base in Bagram by sending a suicide bomber to hurl himself against the gate in an attempt to reach the vice president. The bomber got nowhere close to Cheney but killed a U.S. soldier, an American contractor, a South Korean soldier, and about 20 Afghans.
The U.S. has been engaged in Afghanistan since shortly after the terrorist assaults in New York and Washington on Sept. 11, 2001. The mastermind of those attacks, Osama bin Laden, was quickly identified as the leader of the al-Qaida terrorists who had executed the strikes. They operated from Afghanistan in an uneasy alliance with the Taliban who then ruled there with a heavy hand.
Beginning in October 2001, the U.S. and its allies among the Afghan warlords battered the Taliban and drove al-Qaida underground, but failed to capture bin Laden. By the end of 2002, the Taliban grip on Afghanistan had been broken and they faded away to regroup.
Over the next couple of years, several million Afghans voted with their feet and returned home from refugee camps in Pakistan, Iran and central Asian nations. A national army began to take shape. A national election was held in which a woman, Dr. Massouda Jalal, was a candidate in a nation in which a few months before, women could not hold jobs, teach or practice nursing.
Those bright days, however, didn’t last. President Karzai has been unable to unify a land that has been torn for centuries with ethnic and tribal strife.
The national army has been slow to mature. Corruption is rampant. Unemployment is widespread and law enforcement sporadic.
Economically, Afghanistan’s most lucrative activity is once again growing the poppies from which opium is extracted. The Economist magazine reports that poppy cultivation was up 60 percent last year and Afghanistan now produces 90 percent of the world’s heroin. The proceeds are suspected of helping to finance the Taliban’s resurgence.
“Afghanistan,” the Economist said, “is just one step away from becoming a narco-state.”
Then there’s the question no one likes asked: Why hasn’t Osama bin Laden been captured by the well-trained and equipped U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan? A special operations officer just shook his head: “You must understand the incredible difficulty of doing a manhunt in that terrain.”