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Remember Afghanistan?

September 01, 2004

Chapter one of President Bush's war on terror, before Iraq, was the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, where the governing Taliban was in cahoots with Al Qaeda. In June, Bush called Afghanistan "the first victory in the war on terror." And during the Republican convention this week, Bush supporters are playing up Afghanistan to draw attention away from the mess in Iraq. But last weekend's bombing in Kabul, the Afghan capital, provided the latest reminder that the victory is nowhere near complete.

The death toll -- at least six -- was bad enough. More stunning was the bomb's target: a building used by the company that provides security for Afghan President Hamid Karzai and is training a national police force. Somehow the remotely detonated bomb escaped the notice of security guards.

There has been progress in Afghanistan since the post-Sept. 11 ouster of the Taliban. Many schools have opened, and millions of Afghans have registered to vote in the presidential elections scheduled for October. Kabul has been largely peaceful, a tribute to the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force stationed there.

But the country's setbacks are many. The Taliban is far from destroyed, and its leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, is still at large. So is Osama bin Laden, and Al Qaeda remnants still fight U.S. troops.

Foreigners and international organizations have been special targets in the last year. Two United Nations workers registering voters in southeast Afghanistan were among six killed in a bomb blast in July. That month, the Nobel Prize-winning group Doctors Without Borders announced it was withdrawing from the country. Officials with the nonprofit group said the security situation was so bad, and the investigation of the June killing of five of its staffers so poor, that it could no longer put its members at risk. At least two dozen additional Afghan and foreign workers for international aid groups have been killed this year.

Karzai has had trouble extending his writ much beyond Kabul. Too much of the country remains the fiefdom of warlords. Some of these men helped U.S. forces in the months after the invasion, but they must be disarmed now before the country can collect taxes, build more schools or stamp out the opium poppy crop -- which is estimated to have increased 36-fold since the days of Taliban rule.

Washington shortchanged Afghanistan to launch the Iraq war and seems to remember the early battleground of the war on terror only when political advantage accrues. If the U.S. clears the cobwebs and remembers Kabul again, it will have to stay focused to produce long-term progress. That must include pushing European nations to supply more troops and speed up the timetable for reconstructing the country.

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