Taliban fighters in Afghanistan staged a massive jailbreak at Sarposa Prison in the southern city of Kandahar last Friday, breaching the gates with twin suicide car bombs and following on with a concerted rocket-and-machine gun assault that killed at least fifteen prison guards. By the time Canadian NATO forces arrived from their nearby base to bolster the Afghan police and army personnel, the facility was empty and the attackers had fled: as many as 1,200 prisoners, including between 350 and 400 Taliban fighters, are believed to have escaped. Thus far coalition and Afghan forces have been able to recapture only 20 former inmates, including seven Taliban, and another fifteen insurgents have been killed in the manhunt. Yesterday, freed militants and other Taliban forces reformed and took control of at least seven villages in the district of Arghandab, just 15 kilometers north of Kandahar, laying mines and preparing for a major confrontation with NATO and Afghan forces.
While the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal attempted to spin this incident into a harangue against the Supreme Court for its recent ruling closing off the quasi-legal black hole at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, concerned observers would do better to look elsewhere for an explanation of this event. The fact is that international efforts in Afghanistan are under-resourced, the Afghan government is under-funded and lacks capacity, and its institutions like the Afghan police, who were responsible for security at the prison in Kandahar, are frequently corrupt and poorly trained. Furthermore, the United States has pursued a flawed policy in Pakistan since 2001, which has contributed to a growing safehaven in Pakistan for anti-Afghan insurgents.
Top American military officials, including General Dan McNeill (until recently, commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan) have become increasingly public in their attempts to reverse the strategic neglect afforded to Afghanistan by the Bush administration since shortly after the 2001 invasion and toppling of the Taliban regime. On Friday, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates once again expressed his frustration with NATO allies’ reluctance to commit more forces to the fight in Afghanistan, securing only modest commitments at a two-day conference in Brussels. “I told them that my expectations are simple,” Secretary Gates said of his European counterparts. “I expect government decisions and actions to match government rhetoric.”
But the Bush administration’s own commitments to Afghanistan have frequently been half-hearted. The effort there receives only a fraction of the money (pdf) spent in Iraq –- some $140 billion in seven years of operations, compared to the $526 billion spent in our five-year presence in Iraq. The overwhelming majority of this money (92 percent) has gone to military operations, circumventing the needs of the Afghan government and leaving programs to strengthen the delivery of social services short of resources. Meanwhile, violent incidents in Afghanistan have increased to their highest levels since the start of the war, American casualties there have now overtaken those in Iraq, and Al Qaeda and the Taliban have reconstituted themselves along the border with Pakistan.
The United States and the international community must support the development of a strong, stable government in Afghanistan capable of standing up against anti-Afghan insurgents. Conservatives’ continued failure to craft a serious strategy for the region has undermined U.S. security worldwide.