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President Bush Makes Surprise Visit to Afghanistan

March 1, 2006 at 12:00 AM EDT


SPENCER MICHELS: Amid heavy secrecy and security, President Bush was warmly greeted on his arrival in Afghanistan, four years after he dispatched U.S. forces to oust the Taliban. Afghan President Hamid Karzai hosted him at the presidential palace.

HAMID KARZAI: A wonderful moment for us in Afghanistan today to have our great friend, our great supporter, a man that helped us liberate, a man that helped us rebuild, a man that helped us move towards the future, President Bush, today with us.

SPENCER MICHELS: Mr. Bush reiterated the U.S. commitment to Afghan democracy and said it was symbolized by the new U.S. Embassy building that he helped dedicate today.

PRESIDENT BUSH: It’s a big, solid, permanent structure which should represent the commitment of the United States of America to your liberty.

SPENCER MICHELS: Mr. Bush also paid a visit to about 500 U.S. troops at Bagram Air Base before leaving and praised their role in the war on terror.

PRESIDENT BUSH: We will never be intimidated by thugs and assassins; we will defeat the enemy and win the war on terror.

SPENCER MICHELS: The president’s visit came less than 24 hours after a U.S. general in Washington warned of a worsening Afghan scenario.

LT. GEN. MICHAEL MAPLES, U.S. ARMY: The Taliban-dominated insurgency remains capable and resilient. In 2005, Taliban and other anti-coalition movement groups increased attacks by 20 percent. Insurgents also increased suicide attacks and more than doubled improvised explosive device attacks. We judge that the insurgency appears emboldened by perceived tactical successes and will be active this spring.

SPENCER MICHELS: At the same hearing, John Negroponte, the national intelligence director, insisted the Taliban have not achieved their goal of stopping democracy in Afghanistan.

There are about 19,000 American troops in Afghanistan, but that number will drop to 16,000 within months as the U.S. hands over more of the peacekeeping duties to 15,000 troops from other NATO nations.

U.S. and Afghan officials blame the increased violence on Taliban insurgents entering through the porous border with Pakistan. Since the beginning of 2005, more than 1,400 Afghans have been killed in insurgent attacks that also have taken the lives of 117 U.S. Troops Since 2001, 277 American troops have died and 685 have been wounded.

One soldier was killed in fighting yesterday in central Afghanistan; two more were wounded. The NATO troops now patrol about 50 percent of the country’s northern and central territory, and eventually have plans to expand to southern areas.

MARGARET WARNER: For more on the president’s visit to Afghanistan and the security situation there, we turn to Barnett Rubin, professor and director of studies at the Center on International Cooperation at New York University. He has been a U.N. consultant in Afghanistan.

And Nazif Shahrani, an Afghan-American and professor of anthropology at Indiana University, he is a trustee of the new American University of Afghanistan and was in the country late last year.

Welcome, gentlemen.

Professor Rubin, the message from President Bush today was: We’re committed to seeing this new Afghanistan become a success and to helping it be a success. How solid and effective does the U.S. Commitment appear to you?

BARNETT RUBIN: It appears solid to me, partly because it is not solely a U.S. Commitment and it is not just a commitment of President Bush or the administration.

In the United States, the Congress has shown in some cases more commitment than the administration. And we’ve just had a meeting in London of 60 countries and international organizations who all affirmed their commitment to Afghanistan for at least five more years and have a concrete plan for what they’re going to do. So I think it’s not just a U.S. Commitment, it’s a broad, international commitment.

MARGARET WARNER: And Professor Shahrani, yet at — it’s a time of increasing violence. The U.S. is drawing down its troop levels there. How does that jive for you with the president’s comments today about commitment?

NAZIF SHAHRANI: I think it certainly is going to concern the people of Afghanistan, particularly at this juncture, that the violence, as we have heard, has increased in the last year. And we’re going to be withdrawing our troops by 3,000 and handing over, basically, some of the job to the NATO forces or the ISAF forces.

Whether they’re going to be able to engage the insurgents perhaps as well as U.S. Forces have done — although, unfortunately, that has been also questionable, that is they have not been able to deliver the promise of defeating the Taliban, capturing their leaders and also al-Qaida leaders. So it will be, I think, a major concern that we are winding down our forces in the country at this time.

MARGARET WARNER: Professor Rubin, let’s talk a little bit more about the threat, because General Maples, whom we just heard in the set-up piece, did say that the Taliban-dominated insurgency represented the greatest threat to the Afghan government since, essentially, the end of the war. One, is he right? And two, if so, why is this the case?

BARNETT RUBIN: Certainly, he’s correct. And I think that the reason for this is pretty clear. It’s that the Taliban and al-Qaida were not destroyed, though their infrastructure in Afghanistan was destroyed, but they went across the border into Pakistan.

And while there are innumerable political, economic and social problems in Afghanistan that could form the basis of protest, political violence and so on, none of them would add up to the kind of insurgency we’re seeing, except for the fact that the insurgents enjoy logistical and support bases in Pakistan across the border. And nothing that you do only inside Afghanistan will adequately address the insurgency until you address the problem of their bases in Pakistan.

MARGARET WARNER: Professor Shahrani, how do you assess the threat of this insurgency? And what do you attribute it to?

NAZIF SHAHRANI: Well, there are two things. I think the first thing is, of course, what Barney just suggested, that as long as Pakistan government or these elements within the government and outside the government are willing to provide safety for the insurgents within Pakistani territory, to use that territory in large attacks inside Afghanistan, that the problem will continue.

The other side of it is that United States has spent huge amounts of money. By Congressional Research Service’s account, $76 billion have been spent in the last four years in keeping these 18,000 or 19,000 American soldiers there.

And the amount of money spent for reconstruction has been extremely small, by the same account, about $5.7 billion. And that has not been really making much of an impact in providing jobs for people, in improving livelihood. And there are reports now that some people are joining the Taliban forces because they cannot make a living, they cannot find, essentially, work to do, and that Taliban are offering them the money and perhaps also the possibility of making a living off of war.

And so that is very disturbing, that we have not done enough on the reconstruction side in provision of work and alternative ways of making living for people after all these years of war.

MARGARET WARNER: Professor Rubin, where do you come down on where the balance lies here, in terms of at least failures on the Afghan-U.S. side? Is it more that the U.S. hasn’t done enough, either militarily or in terms of reconstruction, or is it that the Afghan government is not able to deliver for its own internal reasons?

BARNETT RUBIN: Well, of course, the Afghan government can’t deliver. After 25 years of war and one of the country’s most impoverished countries, it’s a fact. I wouldn’t call it a criticism to say that the Afghan government can’t deliver.

The question is: What are others doing to help it become able to deliver? And here I think that Professor Shahrani is quite right. And this is a problem not just in Afghanistan, but in our foreign policy generally, that it is much too militarized, focusing on militarily defeating the enemy.

I think that this problem of the insurgency is not primarily a military problem, and that’s why I’m not quite so worried, as some Afghans are, about withdrawal of U.S. Troops The question is: Will we come in there with the kind of assistance that is really needed to provide jobs and security for people?

And that money that we were spending on our soldiers over there could be spent much more effectively, just a fraction of that, in building up Afghan institutions and the economy.

MARGARET WARNER: Professor Shahrani, explain to us this surge — it’s not a resurgence — in suicide bombings. This is something that wasn’t really known in Afghanistan until the past year. Who’s responsible for that? Where does that come from?

NAZIF SHAHRANI: You’re absolutely right. We are sort of baffled. During the resistance against the Soviet Union for the 10, 12 years and against communists, we never witnessed a suicide attack against the enemy. So this is — and also the end of civil war, this was not common.

So it’s very new. And it has happened only within the last six months to a year. And I think it has to be taken as Iraq effect, that what we have been witnessing in Iraq, and there has to be a connection between what’s going on in Iraq and what’s been happening in Afghanistan.

So it’s possible, and there have been, I think, government suggestion, that some of these suicide attackers may be foreigners, may be Arabs, may be Pakistanis, maybe others. But I suspect that there may be also Afghans involved in this, as well.

And I don’t think there is any religious basis, or justification, or motivation for this act; it has to be political. And we have to search or understand that in the political sense and why it’s happening now against Americans, both in Iraq and, I think, in Afghanistan. So it’s not a religious act by any means; it’s a political one.

MARGARET WARNER: And so, Professor Rubin, what is the — first of all, is this the same old Taliban sort of regrouped, and what is their objective here? Do they think they can return to power?

BARNETT RUBIN: Well, there are several groups involved in the insurgency, both Taliban, some other Afghan groups, and also a significant number of al-Qaida people.

The Taliban are taking a long view. They are of the view, which is true, of course, that eventually the United States will leave. They actually have said — actually not them, but al-Qaida, in the person of Ayman al-Zawahiri, the No. 2 person in al-Qaida, has said in one of his statements that the withdrawal of these 3,000 troops is a sign of the American defeat in Afghanistan, which I don’t think it’s accurate, but that is how they are portraying it.

So they see that they are in for a long resistance. But they believe that, just as the Soviet Union withdrew, so the United States and the rest of the Western countries will eventually withdraw and that they will return to power. They are not trying to, and they don’t believe that they can, stop the political process or stop democracy in its tracks in the next couple of months or next few years, as Director of Intelligence John Negroponte was implying.

So they don’t feel that they have failed; they feel they’re succeeding by increasing their tactics and their violence and surviving.

MARGARET WARNER: So, if I can ask you both very briefly, because we have a very little bit of time left, beginning with you, Professor Shahrani, if you could give the Bush administration one piece of advice about what it needs to do to help reverse this momentum, at least on the security side, work side, what would it be?

NAZIF SHAHRANI: I think we have to rethink the notion of security, as it was suggested earlier, not as a military problem but as a problem of trust. In Afghanistan what’s lacking the most is lack of trust: trust between government in people; trust between groups; trust even between individuals.

And certainly we had a lot of credibility when we went into Afghanistan, and I think we have squandered that credibility. We need to work on re-establishing trust, that Afghans should continue to trust, in fact, improve their trust that America will be there and America will continue to truly work towards democracy, and not simply be there for war.

MARGARET WARNER: And let me get to Professor Rubin. Briefly, your one piece of advice?

BARNETT RUBIN: Well, I would have two, but what Nazif said is one of them. The other one is that we have to put much more pressure on Pakistan to assure that their safe havens don’t exist any more. And we should also support democratization and an increase in trust in Pakistan, because the military regime there is the problem, not the solution.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Professors Rubin and Shahrani, thank you both.

SHAHRANI: Thank you very much.