The Test of Afghanistan

The Test of Afghanistan

The Test of Afghanistan
An email conversation about the news of the day.
Jan. 9 2002 12:54 PM


Dear Stuart,


I look forward to our linking arms at the barricades. What a prospect! Well, I agree that Bush and Ashcroft are probably not planning a jihad against pro-Osama soapbox orators. But Bush's threatening statement had a different significance for me. It showed how little he knows or cares about one of our basic constitutional premises. That same indifference characterized his order directing that non-citizens connected with terrorism be tried by military tribunals. It was careless not only of constitutional concerns but of common decency. For example, it said a tribunal could act if a majority of its members was present, and two-thirds of those present could sentence a defendant to death. So three members of a five-member tribunal could act, and two (less than half the full panel) could have someone executed. And the order said flatly that there could be no appeal to any court. These provisions were so offensive that, after they were criticized, the administration seemed to back away from them. Leaks from the Defense Department, which is preparing detailed regulations, say a tribunal will have to be unanimous to impose the death penalty, and there will be some kind of right of appeal—as you remarked. But how could White House and Justice Department lawyers prepare an executive order on such a grave matter so carelessly? Because they do not care.

One other nudge at your letter last evening. You said you could not comment on the environmental matters because you had not studied the facts. That is a good rule, and you are right to follow it as rigorously as you do. But "the facts" are not so obscure on some of those environmental issues. Should national parks be places of beauty and repose from the strains of modern life? If so, then there is no place in them for snowmobiles and their racket. Or think of the order forbidding roads in parts of the national forests. The Clinton administration issued that order after lengthy public hearings, where it had overwhelming public support, and extended consideration. Surely it was wrong for the Bush administration to sweep it away peremptorily. That made it clear that what was involved was not some factual dispute but the grip of logging companies on the Bush people.

This morning I want to focus on a foreign issue, a profound one. The Boston Globe reports today that the Bush administration is trying to cut back on the amount the United States will contribute to the rebuilding of Afghanistan after the horrors of the Taliban and the destructive effects of bombing. Various studies have called for the spending of $9 billion over the next five years. Usually the United States contributes a quarter of such large relief efforts, which is approximately the U.S. share of the world economy. This time, the Globe says, we are pressing our allies, especially the European Union, Japan, and Saudi Arabia, to provide more so our share will be less. Bush officials have been telling them that we have paid most of the cost of the war, so they should do more for reconstruction. That sounds logical, but the reality is that the world will not act on international needs unless the lone superpower, economic as well as military, shows the way. We should have learned that in Bosnia, where Europe let the slaughter go on until America finally intervened.

Rebuilding Afghanistan is not just a matter of human sympathy. (But that is involved: See today's New York Times story by C.J. Chivers about the monstrous Taliban treatment of the mentally ill; to call it medieval would be too high praise.) We have a profound self-interest in seeing to it that Afghanistan is economically and socially stable. After all, we walked away from the Afghan problem once before, after Soviet forces were expelled, and the consequences were disastrous—for them and us. Chaos ensued, and that led to the Taliban and the harboring of Osama Bin Laden. That is why President Bush said last month: "We learned our lessons from the past. We will not leave until the mission is complete. We will work with international institutions on the long-term development of Afghanistan." Kenneth Bacon, who was the Pentagon spokesman and now heads Refugees International, told the Globe that cutting back on the U.S. contribution to reconstruction "would send a disastrous signal. It would say, 'We bomb them, but let somebody else rebuild them.' That's certainly not the message that the president has sent or the country wants to send." I hope Mr. Bacon is right about the president and the country.

The Afghan reconstruction issue raises a more profound concern for the future. The world is becoming more and more unequal, the poor countries and their people ever more desperate as the rich get richer. Many experts now see in that growing inequality the potential for conflict on a large scale, including waves of emigration, millions of refugees and menaces to the comfort of the rich countries. I think, as many of them do, that America has a powerful self-interest in a new effort to raise up the poor societies. "Marshall Plan" has become a cliché. But we need something like a global Marshall Plan to deal with the threat of poverty and desperation. In that sense, Afghanistan is a test of our willingness to commit our resources for programs that help others but in the long run will also help us.


Anthony Lewis was a New York Times columnist for 32 years.