Afghanistan Imperiled: Extremist Forces Are Making a Comeback as American Attention Turns to Iraq

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There are mounting fears in Afghanistan that President George W. Bush's war against Iraq will seriously compromise further attempts by the US-led Western alliance to stabilize Afghanistan--even as the US Defense Department appears to be finally acknowledging its failures in helping to rebuild the country.

Almost a year after the defeat of the Taliban, President Hamid Karzai's government is weaker than it was a few months ago, ethnic and political rivalries plague the country, the military power of the warlords has increased and there is a new wave of anti-Americanism from the Pashtun tribes in the east and south, who feel alienated and victimized both by the Kabul government and US forces.

The fragile security situation was highlighted by the September 5 assassination attempt against Karzai in Kandahar, a car bomb in Kabul that killed twenty-six people and stepped-up rocket attacks against US forces. On September 14 Afghan police intercepted an explosives-laden tanker truck headed for the US air base outside Kabul, and two days later rockets were fired at a US garrison at Khost, in the largest artillery barrage by Al Qaeda forces since their defeat last November.

The success of the US-led Afghan war depends less on catching the remnants of Al Qaeda than on insuring that the escalating political crisis does not cause the demise of the Karzai government. Since last December the Bush Administration has primarily focused on its military and intelligence war against Al Qaeda rather than on a political and economic strategy, which would help stabilize the fragile government and kick-start reconstruction.

Karzai has been unable to extend the writ of Kabul's authority across the country or find a political formula to rein in the warlords. He has been stymied not just because of continuing ethnic and tribal tensions but by the stark failure of the international community to deliver on two key pledges made last December. The first was to mobilize an International Security Assistance Force to stabilize Kabul and five other cities. The ISAF still has only 5,000 troops, and only in the capital. Even more dangerous has been the world's failure to deliver on reconstruction funds.

Essentially, Washington has frozen the status quo following the December Bonn conference, which nominated the Karzai-led interim government. And even though Karzai was elected to a two-year term in June at the Loya Jirga, or grand tribal council, the United States has done little to strengthen the central government.

Washington has begun to help build a new national army, but this will take years to achieve. And this policy is directly undermined by continued US funding of the warlords. Even though the majority of the 1,500 delegates to the Loya Jirga harshly criticized the warlords, the Pentagon has renamed them "regional leaders," giving them a legitimacy that Afghans themselves are unwilling to bestow.

At the end of August the Pentagon finally appeared to be getting the message. "I do think increasingly our focus is shifting to training the Afghan national army, supporting ISAF, supporting reconstruction efforts--those kinds of things that contribute to long-term stability," Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz told me in an interview at the Pentagon.

Also, for the first time US officials appeared to be seriously concerned about lack of funds. "My single biggest concern is that the economic aid that was promised at the Tokyo conference, which I think is crucial not just for economic purposes but for political and security purposes, is just not coming through at the levels that were pledged," Wolfowitz said. The January Tokyo conference pledged $4.5 billion for reconstruction, of which donor nations promised to give $1.8 billion this year. "Barely 30 percent of what was promised for this year has been delivered," Wolfowitz added. …