Flying back home on the day the NATO summit opened in Istanbul, I came across an article by a British journalist, Charles Clover, in the venerable Financial Times. In it, the author blasted the American military in astonishingly vitriolic language. He described our troops as “socially maladjusted” and “natural-born killers” that have become "socially maladjusted" and "natural-born killers" that have become "America’s main international liability.” My first reaction was that, had Mr. Clover’s screed been published earlier, he might have secured a feature role as a talking head in Michael Moore’s new anti-Bush demagoguementary.
My second reaction was to contrast Clover’s image of servicemen and women with a very different one confirmed by a just-concluded trip to Afghanistan led by NATO’s supreme allied commander, Gen. Jim Jones. In Herat, a bustling city of two million, we visited a tiny American military outpost and a brand new girls’ school they had just finished building, while one of Mr. Clover’s “natural killers” -- a reservist mother of four, who had not seen her young children for months -- told our traveling party of the difficulties encountered in providing shelter and vocational training to abused Afghan women.
The day before, at a barbeque in honor of Gen. Jones at the headquarters of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), some two hundred soldiers from just about every NATO member country mingled freely as brothers-in-arms in a common cause. Earlier in the day, Gen. Jones -- a soldier’s soldier and the first Marine Corps officer to command NATO -- inspected ISAF units at Kabul airport. We saw Dutch and Turkish Blackhawk helicopter pilots standing shoulder-to-shoulder. And a French unit deployed in Kabul put on an impressive show of skill and equipment, as Jones chatted with the troops in fluent French. It would have been easy to leave with the impression of a formidable military alliance of free nations committed to and succeeding in bringing freedom and security to the long-suffering people of Afghanistan.
Except, that is, for the fact that there is another and much more troubling reality just under the surface, one that is hard to avoid even in a very short visit. And that reality is that, to this day, the only thing that stands between the Afghan people and a return to the murderous Taliban past are twenty thousand of the sort of American fighting men and women who Clover so blithely demeans. These troops have relatively little to do with ISAF.
This is not to deny the huge progress that has been made. What we saw in Kabul and Herat is real enough. The Afghan transitional government is functioning as a free press watches it carefully, kids go to school, nobody appears to be starving and the country is preparing for its first democratic elections in October -- perhaps the best testimony of a return to normalcy. This may not seem like much, but for a country that has suffered 30 years of uninterrupted war and devastation, it is remarkable progress. Even so, trouble is never far away, with security being the most acute problem.
The U.S. has succeeded in training and equipping a 10,000-strong Afghan National Army (ANA) and a similar number of police. Yet, a country the size of Texas with a population of 28 million -- where lawlessness has been the norm for decades -- needs many times that number. In Herat, for instance, security is provided by just one ANA company, a few police and the even smaller American contingent. In several neighboring provinces there is but one company of soldiers for the entire province.
With American forces mostly on combat duty against Taliban remnants, the effort to provide law and order in much of the country leaves a lot to be desired. In these circumstances, war lords, private militias, criminal gangs, drug trafficking and a reinvigorated Taliban that continues to enjoy sanctuaries in Pakistan (a country recently declared a “major U.S. non-NATO ally” by the State Department) are posing a serious challenge to the new democratic order.
This is particularly the case with the Taliban, which is again rearing the ugly head of Islamic extremism in the countryside. A terror campaign of bombing and burning down schools, especially those for girls, aims to intimidate students and parents and paralyze the educational system. According to UN sources, there have been 26 confirmed attacks against girls’ schools, while other reports claim that in the province of Zabul alone at least 20 schools have been burnt down and many more seriously damaged and closed.
A new and more ominous campaign of murder and mayhem is being waged by Taliban thugs against the people’s right to vote. Like Islamist fascists elsewhere, the Taliban consider democracy the main threat to their troglodyte ideology and have begun murdering and terrorizing people registered to vote. Here again, women are singled out by their campaign of terror. The thugs have reason to worry. Nearly half of the eligible 10 million voters have already registered and a remarkable 36% of those are women. This is an act of unprecedented defiance against illiterate zealots who believe that women are chattel to be disposed of as their men-folk see fit.
Considered against this background of a likely deterioration of the security situation before the elections, our allies’ contribution to security in Afghanistan is grossly inadequate. To begin with, virtually all allied troops are stationed in Kabul and rarely venture outside of its relative safety, while Americans are tasked with most combat and dangerous security tasks. Moreover, the Europeans have dragged their feet on our requests for increasing the ISAF policing contingent of 6,500, even as the Pentagon has nearly doubled the size of our combat troops from 11,000 to 20,000. While, at the summit in Istanbul, they finally committed to augmenting troop strength to 10,000, it is virtually certain that these reinforcements will not be in place before the election. Nor is it likely that Kabul’s urgent pleas to extend NATO’s security presence to five other cities in the relatively stable northern provinces and to safeguard the vital voter registration process will become a reality in time to do any good.
Finally, in a real blow to the democratic prospects of Afghanistan and to the Atlantic alliance, French president Chirac has vetoed Washington’s request to deploy NATO’s new rapid deployment force in Afghanistan – a step that alone could have made a real difference in helping make sure that the elections are carried out in a secure environment. This has made a mockery of efforts by people like General Jones to maintain alliance cohesion and to carry out NATO’s crucial Afghan mission. And this time, Chirac cannot cite the pretext he gave for his past obstructionism in Iraq: the UN Security Council has authorized NATO involvement in Afghanistan.
This makes it difficult to escape the impression that the French president would be happy to see democracy fail in both Afghanistan and Iraq, just to satisfy his virulent anti-Americanism. Such a Gaullist attitude augurs ill for the future of the NATO Alliance, as well.
There is, of course, nothing Washington can say to people like Chirac and the above-cited British journalist that would make any difference, but for Americans and people of good will anywhere it should be clear that what we are facing in Afghanistan and Iraq alike is the same plague of Islamist fascism that must be faced head-on -- with or without France, and with or without NATO. The choice is no longer whether you are with America or against it, but simply whether you are for civilization or against it. Tertium non datur.