Pondering Afghanistan and Iraq

Below the murmurs of disaffection, September 18, 2005, marked the day Afghani's went to the voting polls. It was a fitting end to a process begun a few years back. The process satisfied international observers and no doubt it will take possibly a few weeks to count all the votes. Though it would be a surprise if Karzai does not win since a recent survey revealed that 78% of Afghani's would vote for him.

With the election come and gone now is an appropriate time to dedicate some space to both Afghanistan and Iraq. Let's begin with Afghanistan. Once upon a time a stable society ravaged by tribal warfare worsened by Cold War politics. It was a forbidden place that no army could conquer. Liberals most certainly believed this as they were convinced that the the United States would suffer the same fate of the Soviet Union just a couple of decades earlier. They were wrong.

The memory of a once functional and stable country as recent as the 1950s and 1960s can't easily be forgotten can it?

Afghanistan is an example of how the U.S. can learn how to nation build. The Americans have been enlightened in their approach on how to deal with this country. They skillfully positioned themselves as allies, by working with the international community, and liberators by engaging Afghani's on all levels. Afghani's were starved for stability and were receptive to democracy and this has been proven to be true. The premise that the rule of law and civil rights are universal themes seems to have struck a natural chord.

On this front, Bush was accurate in his assessment of the region. Now, Afghanistan is in a rebuilding phase and there is much work to be done. The U.S. must continue to lay the groundwork for a viable and functional civil society in a democratic construct. It is absolutely essential America stays the course and provides the necessary resources and funding to ensure Afghanistan succeeds. If it doesn't expect it to all be for naught. The price will have been American and Western blood.

In the case of Iraq, the conditions and reasoning for the toppling Saddam Hussein were unpopular and highly divisive not only internationally but among Americans as well.

Here too, Liberals are fond of asserting that Iraq is just another Vietnam. As we move forward, this assertion becomes more and more implausible just as was the comparison to 1979 Afghanistan. In any case, the comparison were dubious from the onset. In both cases, a whole government and social apparatus was uprooted. It is of little surprise that it would create a state of confusion. This is need not be permanent nor insurmountable to improve. Calling for the withdrawal of Americans remains premature if not somewhat irresponsible. Both countries remain far from being stabilized.

How does one measure success? There are several key indicators to measure and consider before one can form an informed opinion or comment on both countries.

-Let's focus on Afghanistan. The military and trained officers stood at about 390 in 2002. The numbers was 28 000 in August 2005. The police force increased from 22 300 in 2004 to 55 000 in 2005. In both cases desertion rates continue to fall. Taliban forces on the other hand remain, by any best estimate, between 2 000 and 10 000 since 2004. U.S. military and foreign reconstruction and aid workers fatalities remain low.

-At present, 35 nations (including several NATO allies) are involved in operations in Afghanistan. The largest forces being Germany with 2 072, Canada 1 572, France 565, Italy 491 and the UK 315. 35 countries have pledged dollars for reconstruction. The largest Arab donors are Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates followed by Kuwait, Qatar and Pakistan. No figures were available for how much the Organization of Islamic Congress and Islamic Development Bank donated. Though they in all probability were below what the United States, Asian Development Bank, EC and World Bank pledged.

-Economic indicators show GDP (both real and nominal and on a per capita basis) to be increasing on a steady if not healthy pace. Afghanistan remains a predominantly agricultural economy.

-Primary school enrollments continue to rise. However, infrastructure for primary and secondary schools have been slow. Other areas that have yet to meet set targets are various government buildings, bridges, wells and electric transmissions. Areas that have met targets or surpassed them include canal rehab, irrigation systems, farm to market roads, loan offices and market centers. Livestock vaccinations have been on par and the training of loan officers have also increased. Thus suggesting that there is progress on all levels of the economy.

-If there is an area that needs to improve it's with health care where infant/child mortality rates, number of doctors, hospital beds, malnutrition and adequate access to safe water remain below the average found in the Middle East and low income societies.

-Opium production - the lifeline of the Taliban - has increased and taken advantage of the fact that Afghanistan is in a rebuilding process. At present, it is estimated that between 40% and 60% of the Afghan economy is based on poppy cultivation thus earning its reputation as a drug state. A moniker Karzai is seeking to eradicate. The total estimated value of the opium trade is $2.8 billion US for 4 100 metric tons. We should, however, proceed carefully to tag yet another blemish on Bush's foreign policies.

-Now to the polls. In the end, all this matters less if the people themselves don't see it. Perceptions, unfortunately, is what forms the opinion. Overall Afghans feel optimistic about their future. 89% feel the country is headed in the right direction. 92% feel things will further improve over the next year. 84% are better off with the Taliban gone. Human rights continues to be an issue as many still feel the disarmament of war loads still need to be tackled but 76% still feel their rights have been enhanced. 65% think law and order has improved. Living conditions have improved for roughly 80% over the last few years. Lastly, 65% of Afghani's have a favorable view of the United States. In fact, the figures are persistently high in Asia. Ironic, that they are so low in places like Canada and Western Europe.

I focused on different figures for Iraq because of the general perceptions accorded to this specific war. To begin, the type of fighting seen in Iraq is highly fragmented as different groups and gangs join and fight for different reasons. Over the last year 69% of deaths caused were by improvised explosive devices. Fatalities have been dropping in 2005. Total deaths at the time of this writing was 1 896. Of this 1 374 were white soldiers and 199 black. 26% were from the cities and 41% the suburbs while 33% hailed from rural areas. Not all soldiers are poor.

-Total Iraqi civilian deaths vary from 6 different sources and they generally are anywhere from under 10 000 to a maximum of 30 000. Amnesty has the number at below 10 000 in 2004. Iraq Body Count has the number as high has 28 000.

-Total insurgents fighting are estimated to be between 15 000 and 20 000. Foreigners fighting no more than 750-1000. 30 former Bathist leaders remain at large. There were 65 in April. A small fraction of Iraq is causing a distorted view of the actual level of violence. Most of the country has since been stabilized. Baghdad continues to be a volatile place but the North and South of Iraq are secure.

-In total, 27 countries have contributed 7 000 troops to the Iraq effort including the UK, Poland, Ukraine, Italy, Portugal and Australia. The U.S. has 161 000 troops. Countries, such as Japan, that did not offer troops offered cash instead.

-Economically, unemployment remains high between 27% and 40% down from 50%-60%. Slowly a the rate of entrepreneurs opening shops continue to rise showing a return to normalcy. Inflation has dropped to 20% from 36% in 2003. Trained judges stand at 351 up from 0 in 2003. Electricity goals are behind schedules and Iraq's health system lags, very much like Afghanistan, neighboring states in the Middle East. Education indicators are improving.

-As for the polls, the figures are lower than Afghanistan, however, they still show a level of optimism. 48% think things are going in the right direction while 38% don't think so. Between 69% and 89% of Iraqi's want a strong central government. 82% feel their life will improve in one year. The government coalition has support of 71% of the population. 68% do not feel a civil war is imminent. Interestingly, 65% admit life is better since the fall of Hussein but 70% oppose the coalition.

All this is to simply give pause as to what has been happening out there. It is difficult to actually make sense of all this but generally speaking, there have been successes and progress made. This is not to say that severe problems and levels of violence do not exist but musing that 'we should pull the troops out' and 'there's no end in sight' only serves to work against the people of these countries who are working tirelessly - and sometimes with their lives- to succeed. They've seen enough horrors. Our outlook says less about Bush, than our own inability to look past our short sighted views. The figures tell a story that needs to be finished.

Sources: The National Interest "How to Nation Build" Zalmay Khalilzad. Number 80, Summer 2005.

Figures from Michael O'Hanlon, Brookings Institute. September 2005. 'Afghanistan Index' and 'Iraq Index.'

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