WASHINGTON — Winter approaches, and as many as 400,000 Afghans face starvation. The trouble is not an insufficient supply of food. There is no way to get food to those who need it.

Attacks on aid workers and the hijacking of food convoys — the United Nations’ main feeding program says it has lost about 100,000 tons of food to attacks by insurgents and criminals so far this year — have made it all but impossible to transport supplies along the main road connecting vast stretches of the country between Kandahar in the south and Herat in the west.

Nothing exposes a hollow promise like the prospect of mass starvation.

By now, six years after the United States and its Western allies launched military operations to avenge the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and free Afghanistan from the grip of the Taliban, humanitarian workers surely should not be forced to give up on feeding the desperate. But this is only one measure of our catastrophic failure.

While the Bush administration crows about the apparent pacification of some neighborhoods in Iraq as proof that its surge of military forces there is working, Afghanistan hurtles toward chaos. You might call what is now unfolding there the Iraqification of Afghanistan.

The Taliban is resurgent, and has extended its presence through more than half of Afghan territory, according to new research by the Senlis Council, an independent, international think tank with field offices in Afghanistan. This is no longer a regional or tribal threat, but a full-blown insurgency aimed at U.S., NATO and other allied troops, as well as the government of Hamid Karzai, portrayed in Taliban propaganda as an illegitimate puppet of Western powers.

Foreign militants are joining up with this reconstituted Taliban, just as they once were lured to Afghanistan by Osama bin Laden and the holy warriors of al-Qaida — just as they have been drawn to Iraq. “Foreign fighters from, amongst others, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Chechnya and China are once again using Afghanistan as a battleground for their interpretation of global jihad,” says the Senlis Council’s latest report, released last week. In sanctuaries just over the border in Pakistan, the militants have developed “quite openly” a terrorist infrastructure that includes recruiters, safe houses and suicide bombers who prepare to infiltrate Afghanistan.

There is the “import of tactics perfected in Iraq.” These include suicide bombs and roadside bombs aimed at civilians as well as national and international forces. Senlis offers a cold tally: From 2001 through 2004, Afghanistan suffered five suicide attacks. In 2005, there were 17. By 2006, the number had climbed to 123. Already this year, there have been 131 suicide bombings.

In a worst-case scenario for the future, the research group envisions “a wholesale import of terrorist tactics and methodologies from Iraq. Seemingly inexhaustible supplies of martyrs permeate the country, indiscriminately attacking public spaces, military forces and the institutions of state.”

In our own political discussion, the problem of Afghanistan is often reduced to two claims against the Bush administration. One involves the failure to capture bin Laden when he was cornered at Tora Bora. The other centers on the distraction of Iraq, and the diversion of resources to that conflict. Both complaints are legitimate. Both are now sadly beside the point.

We are failing in Afghanistan — the very country where failure was not supposed to be an option. Besides the military’s inability to pacify the country and subdue the Taliban, Western development and reconstruction money has been scarce. The opium poppy crop is again a mainstay of the Afghan economy, and there is deep disagreement among allies over what to do about it.

Yet, as the U.S. presidential campaign careens toward an early winnowing with a front-loaded schedule of primaries, barely a word is uttered about the approaching disaster in Afghanistan. Democrats squabble over the five-year-old vote to authorize military action in Iraq, and about which of them will draw down the most troops. Republicans attempt to best one another with their bellicose posturing about Iran, falling into line with this latest Bush administration fixation. The prospect of war consuming the entire Middle East seems not to trouble them.

Our government stood accused in the years leading to 9/11 of ignoring or at least failing to respond adequately to the gathering danger in the remote mountains of Afghanistan. That history could repeat itself so soon is a chilling indictment.

Marie Cocco’s e-mail address is mariecocco(at)washpost.com.

© 2007, Washington Post Writers Group


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