The suspense is unbearable. Will it come in just a few paragraphs? Will it come in hundreds, perhaps thousands of pages? In English? Or in Arabic? Delivered where, and by whom? The fate of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq – as well as the future of the Middle East itself – depends on Iraq’s full declaration of weapons of mass destruction, to be handed over this Sunday at the United Nations compound in Baghdad. The declaration then travels in the hands of a UN official to New York by plane, so the UN Security Council will not have the original document before Monday. Unlike previous declarations, all the contents of this one will be made public, according to the current president of the Security Council, Colombian ambassador Alfonso Valdivieso.

Iraq’s last declaration of biological weapons, in 1997, had 600 pages. And the last declaration of missiles, almost 3,000 pages. The main text was in English, the notes in Arabic. In Saturday’s declaration, everything has to be listed: substances, materials, every relevant office and every relevant corner of any building, along with their official purpose. Diplomatic sources comment that it will take at least a few days to fully examine the document and draw the necessary conclusions.

The Bush administration is maintaining maximum pressure on Iraq and will be looking for anything that could be characterized as “material breach.” North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) approval for an attack against Iraq is practically assured, according to Paul Wolfowitz, the Pentagon’s number two. European diplomats are saying off the record that NATO’s role might be justified “as an effort to defend Turkey, a NATO ally.” But, says one diplomat, “this is nonsense, because planes based in Turkey are attacking Iraq, and not the other way round.”

Roughly one year ago, Osama bin Laden was escaping from the B-52s pounding the mountains at Tora Bora, in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province, while in Petersberg, near Bonn, a wild bunch emerging from Taliban-free Afghanistan was trying to find themselves a leader. After a lot of hardcore resentment was expressed and a lot of US pressure was applied, the chosen leader turned out to be a minor Pashtun notable, Hamid Karzai, whom the US had rescued from certain death in Kandahar province at the hands of the Taliban only a few weeks before.

Hamid Karzai’s new government was supposed to enjoy the fruits of massive international economic aid to try to manage three complex tasks: revive a country totally devastated by 23 years of uninterrupted war; round up the thousands of Taliban and al-Qaeda who managed to escape US bombs; and start the painful reconstruction of what one day would be a unified Afghanistan. This week, representatives of all those countries which promised well-publicized billions of dollars to Karzai’s new government came back to Bonn. But there was nothing spectacular to announce. The billions of dollars are not flowing into Afghanistan. Only now, the first big project is being launched – in road construction.

It will take a long time to build an Afghan national army. The so-called coalition and stabilization forces represent no more than a cantonment in Kabul, just about the only place in the country where there is a semblance of authority by the central government. Warlords rule the provinces, where the favorite joke is that Karzai is not capable of ruling even his own chair. General Fahim, the powerful Minister of Defense, actually decides everything that matters, to the benefit of his close coterie of Panjshiris from the Northern Alliance.

Afghan sources tell Asia Times Online practically every week about attacks against US forces in the Pashtun belt. The attacks are part of the jihad to kick out “foreign invaders,” formally launched in August in southeastern Afghanistan. At the start of this week, Radio Tehran, Pakistani Urdu newspapers and Islamic news agencies widely reported that 50 International Security Assistance Force soldiers, predominantly Americans, travelling on the three-hour journey between Logar province and Gardez, in Paktia, were kidnapped by mujahideen. Their Afghan guides were apparently involved in the kidnapping, all of them associated with the Northern Alliance, which means they acted under the orders of General Fahim, who wants the Americans out of his turf.

Meanwhile, in Bonn, the West once again demanded from Karzai all kinds of efforts – political, economic, institutional. But anyone who has been to Afghanistan knows that what the country really needs is all kinds of practical help, and not bags of promises that cannot be kept. There’s no way the Afghan economy will pick up speed without a lot of urgent investment in infrastructure. Opium poppy cultivation will not disappear if peasants are not offered other means of subsistence: Karzai-era heroin sales are booming again in Antwerp and Amsterdam.

The Taliban simply won’t go away: on the contrary, they have blended in everywhere. US journalist Bob Woodward has recently revealed how George W Bush bought Afghan warlords to the tune of US$70 million, so US forces would not need to stage a dangerous, massive land invasion of Afghanistan. This saved many US lives, but the practical results are in fact a disaster.

There’s no peace to speak of in Afghanistan. George W Bush wanted to “smoke out” Osama bin Laden and capture him “dead or alive.” Osama is alive and kicking, firing up his war through the global media, and betting more than ever on a clash of civilizations. The most tangible effect of the war against terrorism is the ressurgence of Talibanization in Pakistan. In the latest Pakistani elections, the Islamist front Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) – an alliance of six religious parties – captured most of the seats in parliament and won a majority in the ultra-sensitive provinces neighboring Afghanistan – Baluchistan and the North West Frontier Province (NWFP).

The MMA wants to prohibit further operations in the search for al-Qaeda members in the NWFP, any operations in which the CIA participates, and the use of Pakistani airbases for “foreigners” to launch military operations in Afghanistan.

In the NWFP, the mullahs are back in full force, enforcing the burqa, prohibiting mixed classes, and vowing to apply a key tenet of the MMA program – “to finish off with vulgarity and obscenity” on TV. The elites in urban Pakistan are terrified that sooner or later the mullahs may also be applying an array of punishments related to moral questions – cutting off hands, piercing eyes, stoning adulteresses.

Meanwhile, in Iraq, it’s already raining bombs and pamphlets – just like in Afghanistan a little more than a year ago. US and British planes – many of them based in Turkey – keep bombing Iraqi air defenses, the last time on Wednesday, 25 kilometers northeast of Mosul. In the exclusion zone north of the 36th parallel, the US and Britain operate 45 combat planes, serviced by 1400 men. In the exclusion zone south of the 33th parallel, they operate 150 combat planes, serviced by 6,000 men.

This year, there have been 406 incidents, including 149 since September 16, the day Baghdad accepted the return of inspectors from the UN and the International Atomic Energy Agency. Since the voting of UN Resolution 1441, there have been 7 incidents in the north and 17 in the south, according to General Richard Myers, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff. Last Sunday,13 coalition planes dropped 23 precision-guided bombs over Iraqi air defense installations, including an advanced vehicle-mounted detection radar, according to the US. According to the Iraqi version, the bombed site was the headquarters of an oil company .

In a measure of the decrepit state of Saddam’s army, the Iraqis are now using Roland surface-to-air batteries sold by France way back in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq War, as well as Russian SAM-3 missiles. The US, along with its bombs, is also dropping containers, each one with up to 60,000 sheets of paper of 18cm by 7.5cm. The pamphlets, in English and Arabic, target the general population and most of all policemen, militiamen and the army. They “advise” Iraqi soldiers not to repair the installations destroyed by the bombing, and tell Kurds in the north and Shi’ites in the south that these bombings are a means to protect them from the Iraqi army.

So the war is in fact well under way. As the Bush administration remains obsessed about Iraq, Afghanistan once again has slipped to the status of a mere sideshow. In the US administration’s global strategy, allies are considered an annoying sideshow anyway, some of them barely redeemed by their deep pockets. There’s no real interest in even trying to help nation-building. A real victory in Afghanistan is very hard to consolidate – and not at all spectacular in media terms. To smash Saddam Hussein’s crippled forces in prime time with high technology is a lot sexier. Bush senior had a “vision thing.” His son’s vision as applied to Afghanistan may be a roadmap for what will be America’s strategy in Iraq.

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