Former Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld says in the current edition of GQ magazine that the war in Afghanistan has been "a big success," with people living in freedom and life "improved on the streets."
To anyone working in the country, there is only one possible, informed response: What Afghanistan is the man talking about?
In reality, Afghanistan -- former Taliban stronghold, Al Qaeda haven and warlord-cum-heroin-smuggler finishing school -- feels more and more like Sept. 10, 2001, than a victory in the U.S. war on terrorism.
The country is, plain and simple, a mess. Al Qaeda and its Taliban allies have quietly regained territory, rendering wide swaths of the country off-limits to U.S. and Afghan forces, international aid workers and even journalists. Violent attacks against Western interests are routine. Even Kabul, which the White House has held up as a postcard for what is possible in Afghanistan, has become so dangerous that foreign embassies are in states of lockdown, diplomats do not leave their offices, and venturing beyond security perimeters requires daylight-only travel, armored vehicles, Kevlar and armed escorts.
Fear reigns among average Afghans in Kabul. Street crime, virtually unheard of in Afghan culture, has increased dramatically over the last three years as angry, unemployed and often radicalized young men settle scores with members of other tribes and clans, steal and rob to feed their families and vent their frustration with a government that appears powerless to help them. Taking a chance by eating in one of Kabul's handful of restaurants or going shopping in one of the few markets left is a new version of Russian roulette.
For U.S. officials and diplomats, Kabul is simply a prison. Embassies are completely closed to vehicular and even foot traffic. Indeed, at the American Embassy, the consular section issues visas only to Afghan government officials. If an average Afghan wants a visa to the U.S., he or she must travel to Islamabad, Pakistan, to apply. To allow Afghans to stand in line for visas at the embassy in Kabul would invite terrorist attacks or attract suicide bombers.
Consider that an American Embassy staffer going to the U.S. Agency for International Development office across the street is required to use an underground tunnel that links the two compounds. Even though the street is closed to all traffic other than official U.S. or U.N. vehicles and is patrolled and guarded by armored personnel carriers, tanks and Kalashnikov-carrying security personnel with a safety perimeter of several blocks, the risk from snipers, mortars or grenades is ever present.
Working in Supermax Afghanistan makes the USAID's performance all the more heroic. Since 2003, the agency has overseen the investment of more than $4 billion in Afghanistan, has built more than 500 schools and an equal number of clinics and has paved more than 1,000 miles of roads, all while suffering about 130 casualties at the hands of the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
By some measures, Afghanistan should be a feel-good story by now -- the Taliban is, officially at least, out of power, Al Qaeda has been chased to the wilds of the Afghan-Pakistani border and U.S. forces are on hand to consolidate and solidify a peaceful new order.
But the truth is very different. By any measure, this remains a "hot" war with a well-armed, motivated and organized enemy. Village by village, tribe by tribe and province by province, Al Qaeda is coming back, enforcing a form of Islamic life and faith rooted in the 12th century, intimidating reformers, exacting revenge and funding itself with dollars from massive poppy cultivation and heroin smuggling. As Al Qaeda reestablishes itself, Osama bin Laden remains free to send video messages and serve as an ideological beacon to jihadis worldwide. The country's president, Hamid Karzai, meanwhile, is in effect little more than the mayor of Kabul.
The war in Afghanistan is a political and military one-step-forward-two-steps-back exercise. The work there isn't just unfinished, it is more dangerous and less certain than policymakers in Washington and talking heads in New York studios can imagine. Those suggesting otherwise are either naive or flacking a political agenda.