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Afghanistan's Perilous Slide

September 14, 2003

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell a year ago told nations willing to donate to rebuild Afghanistan that, without sustained assistance, the Afghans "will surely fail" to build a better future. Several months ago, a distinguished panel concluded that the Afghan situation was getting worse -- despite support from nations like France and Germany, which opposed the U.S. war in Iraq, and despite United Nations control of the political and economic process. Washington's lackadaisical approach threatens to transform Afghanistan again, at best, into a battleground for warlords backed by outside nations and, at worst, into a base for terrorists.

The transitional government of President Hamid Karzai holds sway only in Kabul, the capital. Warlords rule elsewhere. Bandits attack aid workers in remote areas; ethnic Pushtuns grumble at the Tajik influence in Kabul; the Taliban regroups in Pakistan and crosses the border to attack U.S. soldiers; the poppy crop flourishes and gets transformed into opium and heroin.

U.S. aid officials say Karzai's government is unequipped to receive and funnel large amounts of aid; the government, though, needs to be the dispenser of aid to increase its authority. Surely, Washington, the World Bank and other institutions can offer the expertise to ensure that aid to Afghanistan is spent wisely. Granted, that supposes that the projects are worthy, like building schools and providing farm irrigation, not a $30-million commitment to a five-star Hyatt hotel in Kabul. Meanwhile, Karzai's government lacks money to pay teachers, so some schools have closed -- after the U.S. paid $60 million for schools, books and teacher training. That disconnect is appalling.

A Council on Foreign Relations task force reported in June that rebuilding the Afghan army and the country had been "painfully slow." Despite the U.N. role -- so notably absent in Iraq -- "the world thinks of Afghanistan as America's war," it said. That's reasonable in light of the big and justifiable U.S. military incursion in Afghanistan, triggered by the Taliban's sheltering of Al Qaeda terrorists linked to the 9/11 attacks.

President Bush asked Congress last week to boost spending for Iraq and Afghanistan by $87 billion in the next year. Though details were sketchy, the administration proposed $11 billion for Afghan anti-terrorism and military efforts, with $1.2 billion more for reconstruction. That would help -- if the money was spent wisely. The Pentagon needs to about-face and prod NATO to send peacekeepers outside Kabul and offer intelligence and aircraft to get them there. The United States also should immediately double to eight the reconstruction teams that have put up buildings and provided security in the provinces.

The international goals for Afghanistan remain admirable -- an elected government, secure borders, suffrage for women, eradication of opium poppies and a better economy. But Washington must provide more leadership to fulfill these aspirations. International support should have made it easier to show greater success in rebuilding Afghanistan. The dismal results so far raise ominous warnings for the reconstruction of Iraq.

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