Molly Ivins

Good News, Bad News

Good news, bad news; bad news, good news. Plane crash: bad news. “Just” a plane crash: good news. Our side takes Kabul. Ooops, our side could be a problem.

My favorite guy on our side is Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, the Uzbek warlord who took Mazar-i-Sharif.

According to The New York Times, at age 23, Dostum led a militia of Uzbeks who sided with the Soviets when they invaded in ’79. He rose to command an armored division and helped the Soviets kill about a million Afghans and drive more into exile. He sided with the Soviet puppet regime after the Soviets left in ’89, but switched sides in ’92 and helped overthrow them, instead.

In 1996, he joined the Taliban, and since then he has switched sides again–first fighting then joining the late leader of the Northern Alliance, Ahmed Shah Massoud. Dostum ruled Mazar-i-Sharif and six northern provinces, according to Pakistan intelligence. He seems to have favored corruption, nepotism and an un-Islamic lifestyle. In other words, this one is a doozy.

The best news is that the supply roads are now open to the south in Afghanistan, which means we can get humanitarian aid in. Almost the only way we could have lost this war was if millions of Afghans starved while the world watched on television. Whew.

Now the big concern is that the Pashtuns will break and run into Pak-istan, creating a province seething with discontent, if not actually provoking civil war. Pakistan is estimated to have between 30 and 40 nuclear weapons. No shortage of worries, eh mate?

It’s rather touching that so many Americans seem to feel that what we need is better public relations. America has a genius for marketing, they love to say, and we ought to use it–make “the Arab street” love us with an ad campaign, better propaganda, jazzy graphics.

Actually, it’s quite difficult to persuade people that you are bombing them for their own good. It’s not a circumstance propaganda can do much to popularize. Getting it over with is more helpful. Historically, bombing has served to cement tyrants in power, at least while it lasts.

Since I’ve always been persuaded that Americans are unusually nice people myself, I’d like to convince the rest of the world, too. However, mass starvation is a hell of a public relations problem–I don’t think a marketing campaign works there.

But we are now in the best of all possible public relations positions, in that we are able to help bring in massive amounts of humanitarian aid. And that is not only a great marketing ploy, but also, as Martha Stewart would say, that’s a good thing.

It’s hard to say what bombing a fragile country will do to it. The Soviets left Afghanistan such a shambles, a period of warlord rule was followed by the Taliban, who were initially welcomed simply because they brought order. We have a responsibility to see that history does not repeat itself.

As Tom Friedman of The New York Times observed, part of the resentment from the Muhjahedeen stems from the fact that we dropped them like a used hanky after the Soviets had been defeated.

Many of you are old enough to remember what happened in Cambodia when it got sucked into a larger war: The Khmer Rouge, a bizarre communist sect with a strong resemblance to the Taliban, came down out of the hills and slaughtered millions. Sterling Gray called them “rednecks,” for lack of any better way to describe their ideology, but that same resentment of modernity that one finds in the Taliban also marked the Khmer Rouge.

Afghanistan is not the only country impacted by the current war. Pakistan is also so poor that it has been dividing essentially all its available resources between military expenditures and debt service. One consequence is the crumbling of its civil society. Because the state school system is in desuetude, the religious schools have emerged as incubators of jihad.

The good news is that just as it takes a very little in the way of destruction to unbalance a fragile country, a little constructive effort goes a long way, too. America has been notably penurious with foreign aid–most developed countries manage 3 percent of GDP or better. We’ve been at 1 percent for several years, courtesy of politicians like Sen. Jesse Helms, who made careers out of attacking foreign aid, as though it had ever been a great burden on taxpayers.

As we all know, Helms also waged an effective campaign to keep the United States from paying its United Nations dues. At the beginning of this conflict, we quietly ponied up the full amount owed. Pace, Sen. Helms.

Molly Ivins is a nationally syndicated columnist. Her book with Louis Dubose, Shrub: The Short But Happy Political Life of George W. Bush, is out in paperback.

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Published at 12:00 am CST