Sunday, April 16, 2006

Afghanistan is “on life support” with woefully inadequate funding to make a dent on the world’s largest crop of opium poppies, insufficient troops to counter a resurgent Taliban, and a potential for disaster. So spoke the Council on Foreign Relations.

Time and again, official spokespeople have claimed the Taliban was in its last throes, much the way the Iraqi insurgency was inaccurately described as terminal. NATO is doubling its 10,000-strong force by November. But Taliban’s spring offensive has already killed 14 U.S. soldiers. And coalition forces responded with 2,500-strong Operation Mountain Lion in Kunar Province, whose mountain peaks soar to 15,000 feet. Heavy air support was supplied by B-52 bombers, F-15 fighter-bombers, A-10 Thunderbolts and British GR-7 Harriers. Taliban was anything but a spent force. Suicide bombings are now commonplace in widely scattered parts of Afghanistan.

Far removed from the Pakistani border, in the northern Afghan provinces, NATO-led forces uncovered huge Taliban arms caches — e.g., 15,000 anti-personnel mines, 10,000 anti-tank mines, and 80 tons of TNT, all “Soviet”-made. The fact some 2 million pounds of supplies were air-dropped last year to U.S. troops chasing Taliban guerrillas up and down mountains indicates (1) a gradual increase of infiltration from Pakistan’s tribal areas and (2) the new Afghan army is not ready to take over. In fact, the Afghan military are still an estimated four years away from being able to fight on their own. Meanwhile, donor fatigue borders on donor exhaustion.

In nearby Kyrgyzstan, mafia chief Rysbek Akmatbayev, who is linked to Afghanistan’s multibillion-dollar heroin trade, and is protected by top government officials, sauntered into parliament with 79 percent of the votes on April 9. His close connections with the judiciary paid off handsomely; he was acquitted on triple homicide charges in January. Next, in one of the new democracies nurtured by the U.S., Mr. Akmatbayev is expected to become chairman of the parliamentary committee on security, rule of law and information policy.

A law enforcement delegation from Tajikistan now touring the U.S. under State Department auspices made clear to this writer that the Bush administration cannot expect democracy to take root in tribal societies that lived under Soviet rule for 70 years. Nor should the U.S. assume, they added, the communist legacy was all bad. As if to prove the point, Russia and Tajikistan are expanding their security cooperation by conducting an antiterrorist exercise on the border with Afghanistan.

While Russian tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, gunships and fighter-bombers strutted their stuff, three Tajik border guards were wounded in a firefight with Afghan drug dealers on the Tajik-Afghan border. The nexus between transnational terrorism and transnational crime is increasingly evident on all Afghan borders — Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Pakistan and Iran.

The U.S. democratic crusade has lost its head of steam from the “Stans” to the Middle East. With gold at $600 an ounce and oil at almost $70 a barrel, fears of worse to come in Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and on the Israeli-Palestinian front are now widespread. Iran says it has crossed one of President Bush’s red lines and started to enrich uranium — clinging to the peaceful research canard. And the Bush administration juggles military options as it runs out of self-imposed limitations on its diplomatic options. America’s European allies believe this is a propitious time to send a prominent personality on a secret mission to Iran to explore with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme religious leader, the outlines of a geopolitical modus vivendi. For Mr. Bush, this is heresy; there can be no compromise with the “axis of evil.”

A prominent, U.S.-educated Gulf personality, who keeps a home in Washington, confided, not for attribution, “those Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia, that have benefited from U.S. protection now fear that same protection endangers their regimes.” In Kuwait, he said, the government is “deeply concerned” that when the U.S. pulls out of Iraq it will leave a residual, standby force in Kuwait that will then become the target of a terrorist campaign.

Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, in the same vein, has been multiplying the kingdom’s relations with the world’s new giants — India and China. His travels are designed to show Saudis the country no longer depends on U.S. protection. In Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak maneuvers to pre-empt the fundamentalist, anti-American Muslim Brotherhood’s recent election gains by moving up the timetable for his son Gamal to replace him.

The perennial Israeli-Palestinian crisis is now heading into Intifada III. Israel severed security ties to the Palestinian government, which Hamas called a “declaration of war.” Israeli artillery barrages and air strikes against Palestinian “Qassam” rocket squads operating from populated areas of the Gaza Strip quickly became routine.

More than 1,000 Israeli artillery shells and 16 air strikes were the response to 32 rockets. Innocent civilians, like an 8-year-old Palestinian girl, are getting killed — on both sides. Hamas — a militant group for the Arab world and a terrorist group for Israel and the U.S. — has now taken over the reins of government. But its leaders are flat broke. And 78,000 armed Palestinian security personnel and 62,000 civilian government employees are without paychecks to feed their families. And Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert warns he is not ruling out a ground assault into Gaza: “done it before and can do it again.”

Israel says the solution is relatively simple. Hamas must recognize Israel, abandon any idea of eradicating the Jewish state, and then a two-state solution might become possible. Unfortunately, a “viable, contiguous” Palestinian state, as pledged by former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and President Bush, has been pre-empted by the “creation of new facts” on the ground.

Israel’s permanent borders are now quite clear. Some smaller Jewish settlements in the West Bank are to be resettled, not in Israel, but by enlarging the larger settlements, now all protected by the 420-mile, $2.2 billion ditch-cum-wall. East Jerusalem is off the negotiating table; entirely cut off from the West Bank, it can never be a Palestinian capital, administrative or otherwise.

Israel is also carving out a security zone along the Jordan River border with Jordan. Down this road, even moderate Palestinians say this would reduce them to “Bantustans” on the West Bank, the black settlements once envisaged by apartheid South Africa. Hamas, meanwhile, is seeking funds from Iran and Venezuela. Other Arab governments are pledging but so far not giving. Demonstrations are planned in Arab and other Muslim capitals to pressure governments to give Hamas the wherewithal for survival.

Hurricane force geopolitical winds are in the forecast for the rest of the year — and beyond.

Arnaud de Borchgrave is editor at large of The Washington Times and of United Press International.

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