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Don't Forget Afghanistan

March 31, 2004

Hamid Karzai, the interim Afghan president, correctly postponed his nation's scheduled June elections for president and parliament. His decision realistically reflects Afghanistan's woeful security and its continuing struggle against chaos, this more than two years after the ouster of the Taliban. As with Iraq, the initial U.S.-led military offensive in the nation that provided haven for Al Qaeda was successful. And, as with Iraq, reconstruction has been tougher than Washington thought.

Afghanistan's civil aviation minister was killed last week in circumstances that validated the fears of those who felt Washington has moved too slowly to help restore security, especially outside of the capital, Kabul. Mirwais Sadiq was killed pursuing a warlord feuding with Sadiq's father, who is also a warlord but happens to double as governor of Herat province in western Afghanistan. Karzai recognizes that warlords undercut the central government. They collect taxes needed by his government, but they overlook opium production or take a cut from the proceeds -- now estimated to equal half the country's legal economy.

A "donors' conference" opening today in Berlin is likely to produce high-flown rhetoric and pledges of aid, but nothing matching Karzai's desires. Afghanistan seeks almost $28 billion in the next seven years; few expect more than $5 billion to be pledged. The U.N. said this week that Iraq, with about the same population as Afghanistan, gets 10 times the aid. But Afghanistan's needs are far greater: The 1979 Soviet invasion and subsequent combat destroyed almost all its roads, left 20 million land mines planted across the country and reduced many buildings to rubble. Yet experts estimate Afghanistan receives $67 per person in foreign aid, compared with $248 a head to rebuild Bosnia-Herzegovina and $256 per capita in postwar East Timor.

One hopeful sign is the lessening of the desertion rate for the Afghan army, under training by the U.S. and France. The army has about 9,000 soldiers, 1,000 short of its June target. Another reason for optimism was last week's establishment of a provincial reconstruction team in the province of Khost. These teams, with up to 100 members, include soldiers to provide security and civilians to rebuild roads, schools and clinics in the few months when the weather allows.

Thousands of U.S. troops in Afghanistan have launched a spring offensive along the Pakistan border to hunt Taliban and Al Qaeda members, especially Osama bin Laden and his top aide, Ayman Zawahiri. Unfortunately, Pakistani soldiers botched an anti-terrorist campaign on their side of the border this month, out of ineptness or solidarity with the Taliban. Pakistan's cooperation in the anti-terrorism effort is still woeful. It needs to press harder; the U.S. and other countries need to match money and troops to their rhetoric and stop Afghanistan from backsliding into the depths.

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