As the anniversary of Sept. 11 approaches, all is not well on the front lines of the war on terrorism in Afghanistan.
A string of mysterious bombings in Kabul since mid-August culminated with a deadly double blast Thursday even as President Hamid Karzai was narrowly escaping assassination in the southern city of Kandahar.
Unknown assassins were more successful in early July, gunning down Vice President Haji Abdul Qadir in Kabul, prompting Karzai to put his personal security in the hands of the U.S. Special Forces soldiers who saved his life on Thursday. This follows the disappointing loya jirga (grand council), which in June elected Karzai to an 18-month tenure as president, but gave the rest of the Kabul government to northern minorities and sidelined the powerful Pashtun ethnic group.
The military defeat of the Taliban and al-Qaida forces by the U.S.-led coalition was never in doubt, but some of the choices the United States made in conducting the campaign, as well as in the political process of constructing the Afghan government, have proved problematic for shaping a stable future for Afghanistan.
For example, the U.S. decision to construct a war strategy around reluctance to commit significant ground forces last fall allowed a mixed bag of warlords to regain power. Reliance on air attacks has led to many civilian deaths, harming the American image in the Islamic world. Creating an artificial interim government elevated little-known Karzai to national leadership, but gave him neither a national army nor national unity.
So what should the United States be doing?
Three elements are essential to success, and on each the United States has made the wrong choice thus far.
First was compounding the initial error in war strategy by a reluctance to engage in peacekeeping. The United States should have joined and led the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) of nearly 5,000 U.N. peacekeepers and expanded its mission outside of Kabul, using rules of engagement to force warlords into line.
But this has been firmly opposed by the Pentagon, which prefers to emphasize building an Afghan national army and police force. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul D. Wolfowitz softened that position slightly in remarks at the Brooking Institution on Thursday when he said expanding the ISAF beyond Kabul is acceptable, but other countries would "have to provide the leadership and resources necessary to make it happen."
Subsequent U.S. combat operations should minimize the use of bombs and emphasize small-unit and special operations that target top leaders of the Taliban and al-Qaida. The risk is increased U.S. casualties, but failure to maintain a U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan will lead to a resurrection of the anarchy and civil war that has plagued that country since 1978. What is needed is a full commitment to peacekeeping - not disengagement.
Second, Afghanistan needs federalism, not centralism. The United States insisted on creating an interim Afghan government and allowing an underfunded, understaffed United Nations to lead the outside push for political reconstruction of the country. This approach has pitted ethnic groups against each other as a centralized governance model is at odds with Afghanistan's inherent localism.
Although the United States cannot abandon the Karzai government, it should not force all government-capacity building and economic aid through Kabul. The disempowered southern and eastern Pashtuns perceive the government as dominated by northern minorities, and are growing resentful of and resistant to central authority.
The United States should work with regional warlords, and help them develop good local government and regional economies rather than adopting policies that put them into conflict with Kabul. That would resolve the issue of trying to establish a broad-based government in Kabul acceptable to every ethnic group for the time being and get economic reconstruction going where it is most needed - in the countryside.
Finally, it is time to fully embrace the concept of nation-building for Afghanistan. In an April speech at the Virginia Military Institute, President Bush promised a Marshall Plan to rebuild Afghanistan, and many leading Western nations and institutions pledged billions of dollars in economic aid for Afghanistan's reconstruction, but little of that aid has appeared.
Wolfowitz noted this as well Thursday, pointing out that only about one-third of the $1.8 billion pledged for Afghan reconstruction by the world community at the Tokyo Conference in January had been delivered. Afghan government officials have further complained that nearly 80 percent of that aid was for humanitarian relief, not long-term reconstruction.
Nothing will stabilize Afghanistan as much as rebuilding its roads, hospitals and schools, and providing work to its unemployed. But little has been done to make good on those pledges. Building bridges, not dropping bombs, is key to a stable and peaceful Afghanistan.
On this issue, there can be no substitute. Either the world helps Afghanistan to rebuild its shattered physical infrastructure, or it will continue to be characterized by instability and lawlessness, and be a haven for terrorists and criminals. The United States must not, yet again, win another war only to bungle the peace.
Larry P. Goodson, director of Middle East Studies at the U.S. Army War College, served as a monitor of the loya jirga. The opinions are solely those of the author.