Speaker by Various Artists


by David Williams

The Independent newspaper kept us honest last week.

While the world (and US President George W Bush's tongue) came to terms with the Abu Ghraib prison-abuse scandal, the anti-war British daily has reminded us that there's still a job left to do in Afghanistan.

Under the headline: Afghanistan, the war the world forgot, we hear almost three years after the overthrow of the Taliban and George Bush's declaration of victory, the war-ravaged country is on the edge of anarchy.

Eric Ilsley, a Labour member of the Foreign Affairs Committee sent there to assess the situation, said: "Afghanistan is a basket case. It's a forgotten country."

You know, things seemed all so cut and dry a few years back.

There was a terrorist attack on the United States and the bad guy was in Afghanistan. The Taliban may have had a point when they asked the US to show them evidence their guest, Osama bin Laden, was responsible for the atrocities, but the US was sure of its man and we trusted it. The United Nations gathered behind the United States and we all went after bin Laden. Later we saw the video in which a laughing Osama told how he sent his minions to their deaths, not knowing what their mission would be until that fateful morning of September 11, 2001. We nodded sagely. They, the powers-that-be (and wanted Osama not to be) were right.

On the day of the Afghan invasion, October 7, British Prime Minister Tony Blair said the attack was being waged on three fronts: military, diplomatic and humanitarian. A coalition of support was being massed on the border to help deal with an estimated four million displaced Afghans.

"We have to act for humanitarian reasons to alleviate the appalling suffering of the Afghan people and deliver stability so that people from that region stay in that region," he said.

(Echoes of this statement were used to underline the need for a war on Iraq. But I digress)

Blair also said because the al-Qaeda network and the Taliban regime were funded in large part on the drugs trade, with 90 per cent of all the heroin sold on British streets originating from Afghanistan, stopping that trade was, again, directly in their interests.

So the bad guys lost (or ran into their caves) and we were re-assured the world was a better place thanks to President Bush‚s now familiar rhetoric. "Evil is real, but good will prevail against it," he told the United Nations General Assembly. We assumed bin Laden would be caught and his cronies rounded up and breathed a sigh of relief.

Again the international community rallied, this time behind Afghanistan. Ravaged by years of civil war, and then being taken back to the seventh century during six years of oppressive Taliban rule, billions of dollars in aid were pledged to get the broken country back on its feet.

On November 13, with the war almost won, Blair wrapped up a statement on Afghanistan with this:

"And finally I would simply say to the people of Afghanistan today, that this time we will not walk away from you. We have given commitments. We will honour those commitments, both on the humanitarian side and in terms of rebuilding Afghanistan. We are with you for the long term. You, the people, must agree your own government, and your own future, but we the coalition must give you the help and support that you need as you seek to rebuild your troubled country, and that support will be forthcoming."

Keep that statement in mind as we track how the waters have been muddied, how things became not so simple.

Talk of the axis of evil turned into military posturing, like a huge game of Risk. Weapons inspectors came and went, ultimatums were issued to the Hussein family and, then, shock and awe came to Iraq.

More confusion since. In Iraq, the army was disbanded and, months later, re-constituted. Then, when there was trouble in Fallujah with firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, the Americans hand over security to an Iraqi force headed by a former Saddam Hussein general. De-Baathification was followed by attempts to re-Baathify certain cities recently. Oh, and Saddam's most sinister jail was turned into a torture chamber by the Anglo-American force (but it's okay because they're going to knock it down now - like they should have done in the first place).

Elsewhere, Libya's good, Syria's still bad and North Korea and Pakistan have been selling uranium and nuclear weapons to everyone under the sun (and haven‚t been punished - only because they're not an IMMINENT threat, I assume …). And, conveniently, Russia can now pass off operations in Chechnya as the war on terror. Neat!

Bush's popularity is on the decline, terror warnings are issued almost daily and suspected al-Qaeda operatives are rounded up and thrown in jail (sometimes without charge) all over the globe.

So things have moved quite dramatically since we breathed our collective sigh of relief after the ousting of the Taliban.

The latest is, according to a London think-tank the US and British occupation of Iraq has accelerated recruitment to the ranks of Osama bin Laden's terrorist network and made the world a less safe place. And Amnesty International asserts that human rights and international laws have come under the most sustained attack in 50 years from the "war on terror" (waged mainly by, yes, you guessed it, the United States and Britain).

And one of the biggest crimes in all of this confusion? The war that the world forgot in Afghanistan. Even the United States has forgotten. In February last year it even forgot to include funds for humanitarian aid and reconstruction in the country IT INVADED in its annual budget.

People in Afghanistan were hopeful for the future when I was there two years ago. They were happy to see the back of the Taliban, in the main, and they WANTED to believe things would get better. But after a while they admitted being wary of the American commitment to their destroyed country - especially with a looming war with Iraq. They have long memories, Afghans, but even those with short ones recall what happened after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. Their American and British backers (this time in the war against communism) just forgot about them and left them to fight it out amongst themselves, with weapons paid for by those governments.

This time they said they wouldn't walk away. But walking away is exactly what the US and Britain have done, Afghans tell us in The Independent. Much of the humanitarian money has been diverted to military projects and emergency relief from long-term development. That's if the worsening security situation, which has seen dozens of aid workers killed or injured, allows humanitarian efforts to take place at all.

If Afghanistan is the model of how America brings democracy and peace to Asia and the Middle East then Iraq is in big trouble. US-installed President Hamid Karzai's rule extends only to the boundaries of the capital, with the warlords of old (some enlisted and armed in the fight against the Taliban) occupying the provinces. The UN reports that attacks by the Taliban have led to only 1.6 million out of the 10.5 million eligible electors being registered. The elections Karzai promised in June have been postponed and if pressure comes from the Bush administration to have them held before the US presidential election in November, then you have to wonder how legitimate they will be - and if the result will be endorsed by the international community at all.

The drugs trade that Blair wanted stamped out so quickly is thriving again too - poppy cultivation reached an all-time high last year.

What happened to the much-vaunted peace and stability? Why are these people STILL suffering? Were we just fed a story so the ongoing war on terror could fulfil George W Bush's date with destiny in Iraq?

The whole world made a commitment to Afghanistan. To repeat the British PM's words: "We have given commitments. We will honour those commitments." In spite of the war in Iraq, a situation the "Coalition of the Willing" subjected themselves to, the people of Afghanistan deserve the quality of life they were promised. It's time Blair and Co stuck to their word.

(If you feel so-moved then do something about it - write to your local MP, the Prime Minister or President or write a letter to your local paper).

There is an apparent connection between the Abu Ghraib prison-abuse scandal and prisoner deaths in Afghanistan in this New York Times story. I remember cutting out a story more than a year ago about the American government admitting two deaths being treated as homicide at Bagram Air Base, north of Kabul. Because of the slowness of the inquiry into the Afghan deaths, it seems a valuable warning about the treatment of prisoners in Iraq has come too late.