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THE OTHER WAR: AFGHANISTAN NEARS THE BREAKING POINT

Editorial for The Bennington Banner, July 3, 2007

Not to discount the importance of the thankfully inept terrorist activity in Great Britain over the weekend, but Saturday's headlines included two far more significant stories. In the first, President Bush continued in his breathtaking state of denial over the situation in Iraq, specifically in regard to his ill-considered and failing policy of escalation.

"We're still at the beginning of this offensive, but we're seeing some hopeful signs," the president said.

Never mind that it has been seven months since he dismissed the Baker-Hamilton Report urging a gradual de-escalation of the American presence, a full six months since the surge policy was announced and almost as long since it began to be implemented.

Never mind that Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Indiania, highly regarded in foreign policy matters, jumped ship last week on the surge, likely to be followed soon by Sen. John Warner, R-Virginia, an even more respected voice on foreign policy in the president's party.

The administration seems intent on running out the clock of this presidency with an indefinite escalation, a policy ever "at the beginning" and continually showing "some hopeful signs." The unstated goal is for President Bush to hand off the Iraq catastrophe to the next president and avoid responsibility for the inevitable withdrawal of U.S. troops.

But running out the clock in Iraq may not be an option for long. Our national attention needs to turn to Afghanistan, where the security situation is steadily deteriorating and the reforms needed to take the war-ravaged nation to a new level of stability and development have not been implemented.

Indeed, the other story on Saturday was that 100 or more civilians had been killed in a NATO and U.S. led attack aimed at the Taliban. The surging violence of the last few months in Afghanistan has usually been glossed over as being part of an expected Taliban "spring offensive." But it goes well beyond that. The overall security situation in much of the country is steadily deteriorating.

For one thing, civilian causalities inflicted by both sides have been escalating, with the Associated Press estimating that slightly more have been killed by NATO and U.S. strikes than by the Taliban. This situation led a coalition of Afghan and international charitable agencies to state last month that such casualities were undermining good will toward the international military presence.

In another sign of deteriorating security, Taliban violence led the United Nations to suspended shipments of food aid last month to seven volatile provinces after 85 of its trucks were attacked, set on fire or looted in the last year by insurgents and thieves.

The tactics of the growing Taliban insurgency ominously mirror those used by insurgents in Iraq, including suicide and roadside bombs and assassinations. For example, two female Afghan journalists were murdered in June, and according to The New York Times there have been at least 193 suicide attacks reported in Afghanistan in the last 18 months.

It may well be more than most Americans can bear to hear as the carnage continues daily in Iraq, but a second catastrophe may be in the offing. A March report on Afghanistan by the bipartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies, came to three major findings:

* Afghans are losing trust in their government because of an escalation of violence.

* Public expectations are neither being met nor managed.

* Conditions in Afghanistan have deteriorated in all key areas targeted for development, except for the economy and women's rights.

Specifically, the report found that Afghans are more insecure today than they were found to be in a 2005 study by the CSIS.

"Restoring progress in Afghanistan requires dramatic changes," the report states. "If a critical mass of Afghans experience positive change, the negative trends are reversible. The year 2007 is the breaking point."

As hard experience has shown, however, expecting the Bush administration even to acknowledge the deteriorating circumstances in Afghanistan, never mind take any innovative or effective action to remedy them, would be foolish.

The rest of us, however, can and should turn our attention to that ravaged country where we have been at war for nearly six years. Redirecting personnel, resources and expertise in time might keep us from presiding over yet another failed state.

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