August 13, 2002

TROUBLE IS BEING stirred up again in Afghanistan's Paktia province, and the chief stirrer is America's good friend Padsha Khan Zadran.

Mr. Zadran, a warlord who joined the fight against the Taliban, is now defying the government of Hamid Karzai and promising to fight if any move is made against him.

Here's what is so distressing: Mr. Zadran is a warlord pure and simple, but he's also the recipient of generous American financial backing. His men have reportedly received direct American military training as well. He grandly sent them into action against al-Qaida remnants in March near Gardez. Remember that battle? That was when hardly anyone of any importance was captured or killed by America's allies. Shortly after, he turned his rockets on Gardez itself -- which was not in enemy hands -- and on two occasions killed several dozen civilians.

Mr. Zadran's treachery at that time should not have come as a huge surprise to American intelligence, because he had apparently been behind the false reports that led U.S. bombers to destroy a convoy of elders who were heading from Khost to Kabul last December to celebrate Mr. Karzai's inauguration. But here he is, once more making things worse in Afghanistan.

Mr. Zadran was briefly named governor of Paktia by Mr. Karzai last winter, then replaced when bloody fighting broke out there. Now he wants the job back, and is sponsoring large demonstrations against "lawlessness" in the region.

Last week, he boasted that American forces would never interfere if fighting broke out between his men and those loyal to Mr. Karzai.

Is Mr. Zadran an American creation? No. He has been a warlord since the anti-Soviet days of the 1980s. But at a critical moment, the United States tapped him as its man in eastern Afghanistan, and now there's no telling who will have to live with the consequences.

The lesson? The United States simply cannot pretend that everything will be fine in Afghanistan. To the contrary, the time has come for increased efforts to re-establish a strong and respected central government. There's a moral responsibility to see the job through, but beyond that, it is in America's own best interests to douse the fire that it helped to light in the first place.

The White House may find it a bracing and invigorating experience to think about new wars, notably in Iraq. But there's still plenty to accomplish in Afghanistan, and plenty that could go wrong there in a hurry. That's where American attention needs to be focused.

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