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A Tenacious Taliban Cancer

June 17, 2004

Afghan President Hamid Karzai and President Bush put a high gloss this week on Afghanistan's progress toward peace and democracy. Karzai's visit to Washington was meant to emphasize how far his country had come since 9/11.

But his presence also was a sharp reminder that the nation that spawned the U.S. war on terror remains a battleground in that war.

Last week, 11 Chinese workers building a road in northern Afghanistan were killed in an attack thought to be the work of the Taliban. Two weeks ago, three foreigners and two Afghans working for Doctors Without Borders were slain.

The violence argues for NATO to reverse course and add to its 6,200 peacekeepers. Troops should be stationed in more areas than the capital, Kabul, and Kunduz province. The United States has increased its troops to nearly 20,000, but they are not peacekeepers; the soldiers are battling the Taliban and hunting for its leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, as well as Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and his top aides.

Karzai's authority does not extend much outside Kabul despite his recent installation of new governors in 25 of the 32 provinces. Especially ominous is Taliban control over large enclaves not far from the border with Pakistan. The Islamabad government has not done enough to stop border crossings and deny shelter to the men fighting U.S. troops and Afghan forces. Also of great concern is the Afghan opium crop, expected to produce a record amount of heroin this year.

The danger of a resurgent Taliban taking control of greater swaths of the country is real. So is the threat that the Taliban will again let terrorists establish training camps. About 5,000 police officers and 10,000 Afghan soldiers have been trained, and the U.S. has set up a dozen reconstruction teams of up to 100 people each in various parts of the country. These are needed steps in rebuilding a country shattered by decades of war.

But there has been too little progress in getting guns out of the hands of the warlords and their militias. After the ouster of the Soviets, the warlords battled each other and terrorized the country, so the people were initially happy to see the Taliban impose law and order.

As Iraq demonstrates, chaos invites demands for security, often without regard for who provides it.

The U.S. and allied nations, including those that opposed the Iraq invasion, should be able to agree that Afghanistan cannot be allowed to become home to Al Qaeda again. Ensuring that the $4.4 billion that Western nations and Japan pledged in March for rebuilding the country actually gets there on schedule is important. So is reassuring Afghanistan that there is a commitment to its success. Washington invaded Iraq before making much of a start in rebuilding Afghanistan; it needs to avoid new distractions and help Karzai build a stable nation.

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