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U.S. Must Quell the Chaos

May 18, 2003

Forget the 2000 presidential campaign and candidate George W. Bush's denunciation of opponent Al Gore as someone who "believes in nation-building." Now that the United States, under President Bush, has gone to war in Afghanistan and Iraq, nation-building is just what is needed; the two countries need to become stable, not threats to regional peace or breeding grounds for terrorists. So far Washington is doing a terrible job.

More than five weeks after the capture of Baghdad, carjackings, robberies and shootings make large stretches of the Iraqi capital a no man's land. The Bush administration understands the problem, but it has been slow to provide a solution. Last week former diplomat L. Paul Bremer III arrived in Iraq to replace a retired general in directing political and reconstruction efforts. Bremer denied that anarchy ruled in Iraq but admitted that the country had a "serious law-and- order problem." As he spoke, looted buildings burned and gunmen roamed the streets.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and other administration officials insist that Iraqis are far better off now than they were under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. At one level, that is true. The climate of fear in Iraq was pervasive for all but those with tight connections to the Hussein regime; there was no knowing when an offhand remark, a neighbor's lies to the police, even a poor performance by the national soccer team, would mean torture or death. But the average Iraqi had a job, electricity and food on the table. These days even those basics have been stripped from too many people because of the chaos. U.S. officials have to do a better job of imposing order on the country, using infantry and military police as needed to track down saboteurs and patrol neighborhoods so that men and women can go out on the streets and children can go back to school.

Under no circumstances can the United States look to Afghanistan for its model. The mistakes there were too few troops in too few cities, even when the allies of old -- France and Germany prominent among them -- offered to provide peacekeeping forces that could have been dispatched to cities other than Kabul, the capital. Now much of Afghanistan is ruled by warlords, depriving the government of President Hamid Karzai of tax and customs money it needs and limiting its authority to Kabul.

When the United States invaded Afghanistan because it was headquarters for the Al Qaeda terrorist organization that attacked New York and Washington, D.C., on Sept. 11, 2001, it used whatever allies it could find, including warlords who had fought Al Qaeda and its allied Taliban soldiers. But Washington has stayed in bed with the thugs too long. If more U.S. troops are needed to help Karzai extend his writ into the countryside, provide them. It is likely to take at least two more years to develop an Afghan army big enough to take over; until then the United States remains the occupying power and has to do the job.

The United States also should seek help from its allies. Many nations provided troops to keep the peace in Kosovo and Bosnia after wars there. Although the debate over war with Iraq clearly poisoned relations with some countries, as a candidate Bush promised "humility" in foreign affairs. There's no harm in asking friends for help. But there could be much harm resulting from U.S. hubris.

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