With the longest war in American history, and the third longest, now both in sight of ending, US media are scattered ... you might say confused and conflicted ... in assessing what happens next.
With the Bonn conference on Afghanistan's post-war recovery occupying international journalists' attention, extremists chose this week to inject sectarian strife into that benighted country's complex conflicts. Reporters who have only known the largely non-sectarian nature of Afghanistan violence since the American-led invasion toppled the Taliban in 2001 have been quick to point out how anomalous were Tuesday's coordinated Sunni-on-Shia bomb-attacks, which killed over 60 Shiite worshippers.
But the group based in Pakistan that's claiming credit for the atrocities, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, has long been building a working association with Al Qaeda and both the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, and has never lost its supportive connections with Pakistan's infamous Inter-Services Intelligence agency. It was only a matter of time before it extended its vicious attacks on both authorities and minorities into its northern neighbor's territory. And only a matter of support, too, since it's incontestable that the Kabul, Kandahar and Mazar-i-Sharif explosions (two of them suicide bombings) must have required logistic help from the group's operational allies.
The attacks certainly match the current needs of all the parties. The Taliban and Qaeda want to dramatically signal the chaos that lies ahead, and which will worsen -- we know -- once American soldiers finally depart; and the ISI wants to ensure that Pakistan will remain a force to reckon with in Afghanistan's future (hence its all-too-brutal counterpoint to the official Pakistani absence from the Bonn conference).
The future prospects for cataclysm are giving pause to those media moralists who have pushed for international disengagement from Afghanistan.
It's a minority of commentators and policy advisers who express a wish for any robust in-country US military presence to continue well into this decade. But there's a steady drumbeat of media briefings, surfacing in a kind of full-court press on the issue, most sharply represented by a loudly semaphoring New York Times article from Rod Nordland. The message is that in an atmosphere of ratcheting insecurity, disastrous cut-backs are being made in development aid, even as US troops depart. It's evidenced on the ground not least by schools closures leaving thousands of young students, mostly girls, in the lurch.
And it's repeatedly being recalled with a fresh intensity that, inescapably, you can't have development without security, just as you can't have security without development.
The quandary of how to counter sectarian violence -- possibly the biggest enemy to social and economic progress anywhere in the world -- while dutifully handing over security to a host-country's own forces is well-nigh insoluble.
But it needs solving, as Cassandra-like observers not just of Afghanistan but of other strife-torn nations that cause international strategic concern, are having to highlight now.
An effective "D-Day" (- for Departure) is pointedly close for US troops in Iraq, of course. A mere 23 days away. And what's happening there is now out-and-out sectarian violence. On Ashura, the same holy day marred by the Afghanistan killings, over forty Iraqi Shiites were slaughtered in and near Baghdad. But here it is nothing new. It's been a feature of the Iraq mess since 'Al Qaeda in Iraq' first hit on attacking Shiite shrines as a key to confound the Western occupation back in 2006.
In Syria too, where the West wants change but balks at military action, the country's own version of the Arab Spring uprisings is being cynically and viciously channeled into sectarian conflict, most horribly in the city of Homs. There, tit-for-tat killings including beheadings are happening at a rate of more than a dozen every day. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton seems able only to issue statements rhetorically championing the need "to counter the regime's divide-and-conquer approach, which pits ethnic and religious groups against one another." Meanwhile President Bashar Assad affects to have no responsibility for the Sunni-Shiite killings, most lately as he responded blithely to increasingly insistent probes from ABC's Barbara Walters.
It's hard not to project only pessimism. My own reporting of Afghanistan pre-dates the US-led invasion. The Taliban were then quite prepared in the 1990s to employ sectarian tactics to advance their aim of total domination (persecuting the mostly-Shiite Hazara people in particular, who were the main victims again this week).
I worked for the United Nations, often compiling video reports on aid initiatives across rural Afghanistan, and I found myself encountering an early version of today's anxieties about a worsening security climate. I regarded my mandate as providing some UN accountability to world citizens who'd want to know how effectively their tax-dollars (or pounds, or zlotys, or dinars) were being spent, and the work could certainly be seen as valuable - but one piece of video appears somberly prophetic as I recall it.
The population, leaders were saying, was entering a time of inclusiveness and non-sectarian hope. Unease ran deep, though -- a little differently from now but with some clear prefiguring.
Thousands of foreign troops had left, at that time being homeward-bound Russians, of course. The nation's main security threat -- initially low but soon to build -- came from religious extremists, mainly the Taliban, just as again now. Set against a playground of capering children with no sense of religious affiliation at all, a young western re-settlement worker sounded wise beyond his years, saying "It will take generations before people are able to accommodate to each other and come to a new understanding." He anticipated, with undeniable truth for now and for the future: "What they've known as being Afghanistan will never be again."
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