In early September 2002, one year after American troops entered Afghanistan, I reported newspaper stories from Kandahar, the main city of the Pashto-speaking southern part of Afghanistan.
I drove in from Quetta, Pakistan, and stayed 10 days at the “best” hotel on Kandahar’s main street.
For one report, I spent a morning walking the street with a Pashto-English interpreter. I talked to the video rental man, poked around the bazaar, and sipped tea with the used car dealer and his brothers. As a Westerner, I was a bit of an attraction. People were curious. Some were reserved. Some were friendly. For most of my stay, I’m sure the Taliban knew where I was.
This was back when the war’s goal was to destroy al-Qaida in Afghanistan. From the ruins I saw of Tarnak Farms, the Al Qaeda training camp near Kandahar airport, it was clear that the American and allied soldiers had done fine job of that.
Then, two Washington syndromes descended on Afghanistan.
With mission creep, getting rid of al-Qaida morphed into democratizing Afghanistan.
Without a sunset clause, the war went on and on and on.
As George Friedman, CEO of the Stratfor analytical group, wrote Monday, Afghanistan has become the longest multi-divisional war fought in American history.
And where is the progress? Ten years after I strolled in the sun down the main street of Kandahar, I now would only cover that stretch of asphalt in an armored car.
After a decade, the American public is realizing that Afghanistan is not working out as hoped. In poll after poll, two thirds of Americans want to bring our soldiers home.
With President Hamid Karzai calling American soldiers “demons” last week, the current pullout date of December 2014 seems awfully far away.
In addition to the human cost, American congressmen and American taxpayers are now focusing on the financial cost. Until recently, the calculation was $1 billion a week. Then last week, Rep. Walter Jones, a Republican of North Carolina, upped the bill, saying: “We are spending $10 billion a month that we can’t even pay for.”
In response, Moscow is saying this week: Not so fast!
A little background.
For the last five years, Russia has enjoyed the luxury of sniping from the sidelines at the NATO mission in Afghanistan. Just last month, Konstantin Dolgov, the Foreign Ministry’s Commissioner on Human Rights, used a new United Nations report to criticize NATO for rising civilian casualties. He neglected to mention that the same U.N. report said the Taliban and other insurgents caused 77 percent of documented civilian deaths.
Russian officials routinely — and correctly — note that the NATO mission has made little progress in reducing poppy crops and opium production in Afghanistan. What they fail to note is that, after decades of war against cocaine and marijuana production in Latin America, the street prices for cocaine and marijuana in North America have not changed much since my time in college (a long time ago). The current bloodbath in Mexico is the latest evidence of a failing drug war in the Americas.
According to the latest figures, the U.S. is spending over $100 million to stop heroin trafficking into Central Asia, and on to Russia. Maybe that money would be more efficiently used in the United States — on education and needle exchange programs to protect our own people?
Moscow has made a big deal about allowing NATO cargo and personnel to fly over or travel through Russia. It does not mention the fine print: Russian transport companies earn about $1 billion a year on these contracts.
But Moscow also wants people to be blind to the BIG PRINT: The United States has been giving Russia enormous help in Afghanistan for the last decade. A chaotic, unstable Afghanistan could destabilize Central Asia, and eventually Russia’s Islamic south.
Facing calls in the U.S. for a faster withdrawal, Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, gave a lengthy interview Sunday to a reporter from ToloNews, the Afghan TV network.
“I don’t think the job has been done,” Lavrov warned in blunt English. Taking a legal tack, he argued that American troops can only leave Afghanistan when they can report to the United Nations that they have met their mandate to provide law and order in Afghanistan.
“It’s clear that trouble continues in Afghanistan, and that terrorist attacks have not subsided,” he continued. “We are especially concerned that terrorist activities have spread to the north of Afghanistan, where three years ago there was a quiet situation. The terrorists have basically pushed into the northern territories of Afghanistan from where they infiltrate to the Central Asian neighbors of the Russian Federation.”
Lavrov went on to unveil the development programs that Russia plans for Afghanistan: rebuilding the old Soviet cultural center in Kabul as a Russian cultural center, and reviving as many as 150 projects from the 1980s, the Soviet’s own decade-long intervention in Afghanistan.
On Friday, Viktor Ivanov, director of Russia’s Drug Control Service, joined the chorus, warning about chaos in Afghanistan after an American pullout in 2014. He told reporters in Moscow: “Apparently, after 2014 there will be an uncontrollable rise in drug production, some sort of heroin, hashish tsunami that will head both to Russia and the E.U countries along the Balkan route.”
But the people to persuade are American taxpayers, a group that is increasingly tired of spending $1-2 billion a week to keep the peace in a landlocked nation of minimal strategic value, on the far side of the globe from the United States.
Here’s an idea: Maybe Russia might want to pick up the Afghan baton again? Maybe Moscow would like to take over policing Afghanistan for the next decade?
Since many Russians today indulge in selective Soviet nostalgia, wouldn’t policing Afghanistan fit perfectly into the national mood? Back to the big power 1980s!
Russia has $505 billion in foreign reserves — good for a decade of Afghan stabilization.
And on spending money, the Kremlin has a huge advantage over the American White House.
Most of Russia’s federal budget comes from taxes paid by 15 large energy and natural resource companies.
In contrast, President Obama has to deal with 100 million tax payers, most of whom plan to vote on Nov. 6. Now that Vladimir Putin has won his reelection, he does not have to worry about playing nice to voters.
I’m sure that all the Russian teachers, doctors, soldiers and pensioners who were promised big pay hikes during last month’s presidential campaign will fully understand that their pay raises will be indefinitely delayed in order to try to stabilize Afghanistan.
So far, Americans have grudgingly agreed to do their bit. But now, having done our decade in Afghanistan, Americans might like to focus on rebuilding the United States.
Since there are 52 weeks in the year and 50 states in the Union, each week, one new state would win the $1 billion lottery! And, at the end of the year, we would have $2 billion left over for Guam, Puerto Rico and American Samoa!
Sound like a plan, Moscow? Start practicing your Pashto!