The universal spirit of press freedom was well on display in the new Afghanistan Wednesday as local reporters respectfully but pointedly asked President Bush why Osama bin Laden was still on the loose, years after the president had said he should be brought in dead or alive. Bush had no problem with the question–”I am confident he will be brought to justice,” he said, along with those who plot and plan with him. But an AP analysis lead claimed that because of issues such as bin Laden’s continued freedom, Bush’s brief visit “served as a vivid reminder of setbacks in his war against terrorism.”
Setbacks? He was on their turf. Here was our leader in the middle of a country that was once the private playground of the terrorist elite. He was on television, speaking to the Afghan people and the world, next to Hamid Karzai, the legally elected and well-regarded (68-percent approval rating) leader of a democratic Afghanistan. The terrorists are deep underground, perhaps literally, and can’t show their faces anywhere in public without fear of being identified, captured, or killed. It strikes me that this is a fairly definitive and objective metric of success in the war effort. We can come and go as we please in their former domain. They cannot stand out in the open for very long without wondering whether they are about to be visited by a Hellfire missile.
Plus the president was in a country where people know and appreciate what the United States has done for them. An opinion poll taken in Afghanistan a few months ago showed that 83 percent of Afghans say their country is moving in the right direction (this despite reporters insisting that the situation was “increasingly deteriorating”). Eighty-one percent of Afghans view the U.S. favorably, with 83 percent approving of U.S. troop presence there. Meanwhile 88 percent have an unfavorable view of the Taliban, 82 percent think overthrowing them was a good thing, and 90 percent view Osama bin Laden unfavorably, with 75 percent of that total being “very unfavorable.”
I asked an Afghan citizen visiting the United States what he thought of the poll. Was it a realistic reflection of the way Afghans felt about the U.S., and the future? Oh yes, he said. He was certain of it. And the negative view of the Taliban? Absolutely correct. Why? “We were tired of being beaten,” he said. Makes sense. Five years ago the Afghan people suffered under incredible hardship, in conditions hateful to their free spirit. Paradoxically, Osama bin Laden changed all that. The Taliban’s guest actively sought to bring war to Afghanistan. “We want to bring the Americans to fight us on Muslim land,” he said ten years ago. “If we can fight them on our own territory we will beat them, because the battle will be on our terms in a land they neither know nor understand.”
But the fight was not on al Qaeda’s terms, but ours. We showed that we understood modern irregular warfare more so even than the former guerillas who tormented the Soviet Union for a decade. The Taliban regime went down in a matter of months, and since then the Afghan people have worked effectively to bring democracy to their long-suffering land. The fact that bin Laden and Mullah Omar remain at liberty is unfortunate, but one can hardly consider the effort in Afghanistan a failure.
Stories have routinely been written over the past few years stating that the situation in Afghanistan is growing dire, that the Taliban are making significant gains in the countryside, and that Afghanistan is on the brink of collapse. Yet, somehow the worst has yet to come to pass. Afghanistan remains free. Provincial Reconstruction Teams continue their good work in the countryside, and the Afghan Army is building respect among the populace. The International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF) is expanding its presence into previous Taliban strongholds in the southern and eastern parts of the country.
Most importantly the Afghan people are very confident about their future. For 30 years they had to endure war, revolution, foreign occupation, and various forms of dictatorial rule. Now the Afghans have a fighting chance for enduring peace and freedom, and the international community is solidly behind them. The reflexive pessimism in reporting about the country is mystifying. Would that conditions in Iraq were as “bad” as in Afghanistan.
–James S. Robbins is author of the forthcoming Last in Their Class: Custer, Picket and the Goats of West Point and an NRO Contributor.