How to Help Afghanistan

By Ahmed Rashid
Monday, July 3, 2006

KABUL, Afghanistan -- The current political and military meltdown in Afghanistan was entirely predictable and avoidable. For the past three years Afghans, their president, Hamid Karzai, and foreign experts have been warning that the failure of the United States and the international community to provide sufficient economic, military and reconstruction resources to the fledgling Afghan government would lead to a Taliban resurgence and disillusionment among the Afghan people. That is exactly what has happened.

But there is still a way out of the mess if the international community and the Afghans pull together, rather than being at odds with one another. Karzai set the ball rolling late last month by calling for a joint strategy in a critical meeting with the most important foreign players in Kabul.

The situation is dire. The Taliban offensive in the south and the counteroffensive by British, Canadian and U.S. troops under NATO has escalated into a full-scale war, with a dozen attacks every day and 700 lives lost since mid-May. Most Afghans are angry with the United States and the West for ignoring the alleged sanctuary provided to the Taliban by Pakistan, and with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf for apparently supporting Karzai and the Taliban at the same time.

Papering over the cracks between Pakistan and Afghanistan, as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice tried to do in her recent visit to the region, is clearly not enough. The charges and suspicions on both sides have to be addressed. Ordinary Afghans say the Taliban virus is spreading. The Taliban have been reported just 25 miles from Kabul, and they have attacked in the north and the west -- hundreds of miles from their main bases in the south. According to the United Nations, every single day somewhere in Afghanistan a girls' school is burned down or a female teacher killed by the Taliban.

The riots in Kabul in late May that left 20 people dead were also indicative of how angry Afghans are at their own government. While Karzai has lashed out at the West for not providing adequate resources, Afghans and foreigners have been scathing in their criticism of his inability to govern effectively or to punish those in his administration who are corrupt or dealing in drugs.

Karzai has failed to put together an effective administrative team. The cabinet is dysfunctional, and his growing dependence on former warlords, whose militias have only recently been disarmed, is seen by many as a betrayal of the reform agenda set out in the Bonn agreement of 2001.

Karzai is right when he says that Afghanistan has received less aid than has been dispensed in any recent conflict including nation building, whether in the former Yugoslavia or East Timor. Building a new security apparatus run by Afghans is going too slowly. According to American officials, the U.S.-sponsored police training program is three years behind schedule, although Washington will provide $1.2 billion this year to equip 60,000 police officers nationwide.

A U.S. commitment to build a new Afghan army has been stymied by the irresponsible decision of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld mandating an Afghan army that will be smaller than originally planned, with fewer weapons and with the cash-strapped Afghan government, rather than the Americans, having to pay the troops' salaries. (What a great morale booster for Afghan army recruits facing a full-blown insurgency!)

But saving Afghanistan from itself is the world's responsibility, not just that of the United States. The Europeans and the Americans differ on military and economic priorities and on the advice being given to Karzai. As NATO, with its large European troop contingents, replaces U.S. troops in the south and the east, the United States has to learn to share decision-making responsibilities in Afghanistan with NATO, the European Union and the United Nations, rather than cut its own secret deals in Kabul.

The United Nations has had the unenviable task of fulfilling the political mandate chalked out at Bonn, but today Afghanistan does have an elected president, parliament and provincial councils, and a constitution. Now the Security Council needs to give the U.N. officials in Kabul the responsibility for coordinating the international response to the crisis and economic and political strategies with the Afghan government.

Karzai addressed some of these issues in a recent meeting with the major players -- the United States, United Nations, European Union, NATO, Britain and Canada. He is determined that his government and the international community will coordinate better to devise a joint strategy looking at both the insurgency and at how reconstruction can be speeded up. He also needs to think long and hard about what constitutes good governance and set an example that his countrymen can admire rather than protest.

Despite all the dire predictions made in 2001, the Afghans have given the international community, its aid workers and soldiers a large window of opportunity to repair the damage done by 25 years of war. That window, which has stayed open for nearly five years, with amazing good will from the Afghans, is threatening to close unless the world wakes up and deals with the crisis.

Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani journalist, is the author of "Taliban" and "Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company