When the United States invaded Afghanistan shortly after September 11, 2001 in pursuit of Osama bin Laden, al-Qaida and the terrorist organization's Taliban protectors, the world cheered practically as one. Those cheers died quickly. In a speech in December of that year, Robert Gates, who will soon replace Donald Rumsfeld, as secretary defense, told his DePauw University audience that the eventual end of the effort in Afghanistan "will bring a very tough issue to the fore for the administration: whether to turn its attention to other countries harboring terrorist groups, above all, Iraq." That effort has not ended, of course, because the U.S. turned its attention prematurely to Iraq, a country that, Mr. Gates' assertion to the contrary, didn't harbor terrorist groups until destabilized by the U.S. invasion.
Mr. Gates is only one of many public officials who wrongly thought that Iraq harbored terrorists under Saddam Hussein and would now like to forget he harbored those beliefs. The Senate Armed Services Committee, focused on Iraq and eager to approve anyone not named Donald Rumsfeld, didn't challenge Mr. Gates on Afghanistan, and Mr. Gates was impressively candid in his testimony. He may not be the man to help Afghanistan, however.
Mr. Gates spoke before his university audience as the former director of the CIA, and in his bush "From the Shadows,'' published a decade ago, he wrote proudly of his agency's role in funneling billions of dollars in supplies and weapons to the mujahideen, who successfully resisted the Soviet army. That Cold War era effort, however, effectively destabilized Afghanistan and paved the way for the Taliban to assume dominance. Some of those 10-year-old weapons are still being used by America's enemies today. In focusing on America's struggle with his collapsing enemy, the CIA helped upset the dynamic in Afghanistan, fatefully so.
Today, Afghan President Hamid Karzai effectively rules the capital city of Kabul, much as Iraq's leadership enjoys hegemony over Baghdad's green zone. The Afghan government's failure to protect its citizens from various tribal warlords has caused them to seek protection from the Taliban, much as the failure of the Iraqi government to protect its citizens has prompted them to seek protection from various militia groups.
The New York Times reported last week that a joint assessment by the Pentagon and the State Department of the American-trained police force in Afghanistan cannot perform even routine duties and that the managers of the $1.1 billion training program do not know the whereabouts of many of their officers or the trucks and equipment given to police departments. As bad as the waste of money is, even worse is the likelihood that American-financed weaponry is being used against civilians by "police officers" whose first allegiance is to one anti-government faction or another. This is the case in Iraq, where press reports carefully note that armed men wearing police uniforms have committed a massacre of civilians when Iraqis know that the armed men are wearing police uniforms not as disguises as implied but because they actually are policemen.
It has been five years since the Bush administration turned away from Afghanistan to Iraq, to the detriment of both nations and to the credibility of the United States as a moral force for good on the world stage. In addressing Iraq, Mr. Gates should also attempt to right old wrongs in Afghanistan, to whatever limited extent is possible.