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Veteran Foreign Correspondents Speak on Afghanistan

(Photo: Jeff Watts)

The window of opportunity is closing in Afghanistan as lawlessness escalates and once-welcome troops are viewed with increasing distrust, said two top journalists speaking at AU.

Pamela Constable, foreign correspondent for the Washington Post, has lived and traveled in South Asia for nearly a decade. A few days before returning to Afghanistan she came to the Kay Spiritual Life Center to speak on Afghanistan along with Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter Roy Gutman.

“The fall of the Taliban created an opportunity for a country that had been living through hell,” Constable said. The influx of troops was accompanied by foreign aid, economic progress and elections, while optimistic and welcoming Afghans often asked her “to tell foreigners not to leave,” Constable said.

But Western attention soon veered sharply from Afghanistan to Iraq, which “really slowed the momentum.” As progress lagged and the West looked elsewhere, the opium cultivation that had been suppressed by the Taliban “came roaring back.” No longer the “mom and pop crop” of earlier years, it became a highly criminalized and corrupting influence that has poisoned the fledgling democracy, she said.

There are now many areas without a visible government presence, and crime stalks the land. She gave as an example the Kabul-to-Kandahar highway. On her first visit, during the Taliban, it was a rutted wreck of a road that took 22 hours to drive. After a massive rebuilding effort a few years ago, the trip took under seven hours.

Now, it’s too dangerous to use.

Can the West improve the situation? That prospect is fading as support for Western troops erodes in face of the high number of civilian deaths in recent months. Unlike in Iraq, Constable said, the troops were not initially viewed as an occupying force. While troops aren’t yet viewed as “an occupation,” she said, they’ve become “a feared and disliked presence” because of the mounting civilian death toll.

If the tragedies aren’t controlled, the beneficiaries will be the Taliban. Already Afghans have begun to think more favorably of the Taliban years, when oppression was extreme but warlords and criminals were kept in check. The elections of a few years ago would be unthinkable now, she said.

“As security shrinks, so does democratic space.”

The United States cannot afford to treat Afghanistan as a political platform or as an object for its purposes, said Roy Gutman, who won a Pulitzer Prize for reporting on Bosnia and recently authored How We Missed the Story: Osama bin Laden, the Taliban, and the Hijacking of Afghanistan. He is the director of AU’s Crimes of War Project.

“Frankly, if there’s an area we’ve gotten wrong in the last 18 years, and had better start getting right, it’s South Asia,” he said.

President Bill Clinton mishandled Afghanistan by largely ignoring it, preferring to govern by responding to polls and constituencies, Gutman said. But his mistakes have been eclipsed by George W. Bush’s “catastrophic” foreign policy, so “everyone’s beating up on Bush,” he said and Clinton’s failures have been overlooked.

“It’s not a football. It’s a country,” he said. “It’s a country we had better master.”

The talk was part of the Kay Spiritual Life Center’s Table Talk series.