Welcome to Kabul

by Nicholas D. Kristof

Nicholas D. Kristof is a columnist for the New York Times.

This Op-Ed article appeared in The New York Times, Dec. 7, 2001, page A-29.


What is needed more than anything is for Americans to show leadership not just in destroying, but also in rebuilding.


The only foreigners not sweeping into Kabul so far are those from the American government. Diplomats from other key countries are in town to set up embassies, but American diplomats are conspicuously absent.

The tardiness of the American diplomats is one of several signs that Washington risks repeating its mistake of a decade ago, when it won the war against the Soviet invaders of Afghanistan and then betrayed the Afghans by walking away from them. We point fingers at other countries for allowing Afghanistan to become a terrorist haven, but we were the ones who abandoned the Afghans to the feuding factions whom we had armed and whose fundamentalist Islamic passions we had ignited in the, campaign against the Soviet Union. This terrorist "swamp," as we like to call it, was partly made in America.

"We dumped them when we should have helped them reconstruct," said Thomas E. Gouttierre, one of America’s foremost (and few) experts on Afghanistan, in a view that is almost, universal among Afghan-watchers -- "We’re paying the price now. One week of war would have easily paid the price of reconstructing all of Afghanistan."

Evidently, we have not learned much. President Bush sees his job as defeating the Taliban and Al Qaeda; and then bringing the troops quickly home. He has often expressed revulsion for "nation building," but that is precisely what is needed now. Afghanistan is so fragile that it will need vigorous American leadership to ensure vast aid, a major security presence and brutal diplomacy to force the factions to cooperate.

The United States operates a forward military base in Afghanistan for Marines trying to destroy the Taliban and Al Qaeda, but we don’t have a forward diplomatic base to try to rebuild the country. Our diplomats grapple with Afghanistan, but. long distance from Bonn.

Talk to Afghans, and they inevitably say their greatest need is security. Yet, incredibly, the Bush administration initially not only refused to provide security itself in Kabul but also blocked the Europeans from sending in their own troops. Fortunately, European diplomats out-, maneuvered the Americans at the negotiations in Bonn, and Washington is being forced to acquiesce in a modest number of foreign troops in the Kabul area.

In the north of the country, Afghans are starving because Uzbekistan will not open a bridge for relief supplies to cross, since it is worried about security in the area. Secretary of State Colin Powell will visit Uzbekistan in the next couple of days and ask it to open the bridge, but the United States refuses to provide the needed security. One can’t help thinking that if the Pentagon was asked to bomb the bridge, instead of protect it, there would be no hesitation.

So it’s past time for the Americans to deploy diplomats in Afghanistan as well as troops. In this strange, World of Kabul, what is needed more than anything is for Americans to show leadership not just in destroying, but also in rebuilding.