The news coming out of Afghanistan is endlessly fascinating! Grimly fascinating, some of it, like watching the proverbial slo-mo train wreck, but there are also the stories that make us shake our heads, roll our eyes and cry, "WTF??" and "OMFG!!" and "What were they thinking?"
Agence France Presse (AFP) reports that some leaked diplomatic cables reveal that American diplomats suggested trucking in Bollywood movie stars to Afghanistan to "bring attention to social issues there." The thinking -- if it can be called that -- was that the Afghans are bonkers for Bollywood films, and appearances by India's voluptuous leading ladies and their smoldering on-screen loverboys would somehow, ah...would somehow...(here's where the concept gets fuzzy)...lead to peace in Afghanistan? Of course if the Bollywood beauties did come to Afghanistan and perform in a sort of USO show, a la Ann-Margret and Bob Hope in Vietnam (that sure helped!), they would be unrecognizable under the burqas which they would no doubt be forced to don, since it would be impossible to pixillate their cleavages and bare bellies as is done on TV. Then the punch line: the diplomats touted this scheme as part of India's "soft power" assistance in Afghanistan. "Soft" seems the wrong adjective for the hordes of sex-starved young Afghan men who watch Bollywood films.
Then we learn from the AP, in a story carried in numerous publications including Forbes, about "ratlines." We should have learned about ratlines long ago, from hard experience -- the Ho Chi Minh Trail was the biggest ratline of them all, a bustling ant trail through the jungles of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia swarming with men and women on foot, on bicycles, in battered Chinese-made trucks, delivering fresh troops and war supplies to the south. We had another opportunity to learn about ratlines in the 1980s, when our great good friends the mujaheddin used them to cross the mountains from Pakistan into Afghanistan. Their little caravans of donkeys, pack-horses and camels carried rifles, mortars and the "secret" weapon, Stinger missiles, to the fight against the occupying Red Army. And those same ratlines are being employed today by the Taliban to cross from their safe havens in Pakistan into Afghanistan using Toyota trucks and motorbikes and beasts of burden laden with rifles, mortars, and bomb components stamped "Made in Pakistan."
Now comes the White House's long-awaited assessment of the war, which finds that yes, there has been progress -- a little -- but those military gains are "frail" and tend to evaporate as soon as U.S./NATO troop strength is diminished in any given area. So too, the political gains, which seem even more ephemeral. The government in Kabul remains spectacularly corrupt, and many provincial leaders appointed by President Hamid Karzai are at best ineffective political hacks or, at worst, virtual warlords with control over every form of illicit commerce in their provinces. In a New York Times article, Alissa Rubin recounts the story told in WikiLeak-ed cables of the diplomatic battle to retain an effective provincial governor, Gulab Mangal in Helmand, whom Karzai wanted to replace with a "tribal power broker with unsavory connections." Mangal stayed in office, no thanks to Kabul.
So, have we made progress in Afghanistan? Ask the Red Cross. While President Obama was claiming that the war strategy of the U.S. and its NATO allies was "on track to achieve our goals," the International Committee of the Red Cross held its own news conference in Kabul. The Red Cross's assessment is not as rosy as Obama's; they claim security is at an all-time low and they are no longer able to operate in some areas where they have been functioning for years. The very fact that the Red Cross held a news conference rings a loud warning bell -- the organization shuns the spotlight and tries to remain apolitical, treating casualties regardless of their affiliation. Now the Red Cross caregivers and other aid organizations are finding it impossible to work in some areas because security worse now than at any time since the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001.
"Frail" gains, indeed.