The Afghan cost

March 02, 2003

COULD A friendly government in Afghanistan be one of the casualties of an American war against Iraq?

President Hamid Karzai was in Washington last week walking a fine line between cheery optimism and darker reality. He told a Senate committee that wonderful progress was being made in Afghanistan, at the same time pleading with U.S. officials not to forget his country in the midst of the whirlwind gathering over Iraq.

In truth the Karzai government, with American and international backing, has taken a number of positive steps to improve life for Afghans and to extend its writ outside the capital city of Kabul. But at the same time, the United Nations has suspended its aid programs in northern and southern sections of the country because of a lack of security, and a revival of extreme interpretations of Islam - think stonings and amputations - is gathering strength.

American troops have continued in action against suspected Taliban and al-Qaida formations, inevitably stirring up anger and resentment along the way.

How focused is the Bush administration on Afghanistan? It reportedly neglected to include any aid money in this year's budget, scrambling to stick $300 million in last month when the oversight was pointed out. The administration's man in charge of Afghan policy, Zalmay Khalilzad, also happens to have the same job in regard to Iraq, and it's not difficult to guess which country is occupying most of his time these days.

Here's the point: Right now, a combination of poverty and anger, in a country rife with drug lords, warlords and Islamic fundamentalists, poses a significant, though by no means unbeatable, threat to a stable Afghanistan. The current lack of American attention, diverted as it is by Iraq, doesn't help.

But now imagine a unilateral U.S. military assault on Iraq.

It would inflame anti-American passions throughout the Islamic world, but nowhere might this be more dangerous than in Afghanistan and, perhaps, neighboring Pakistan. Tensions and unrest in the tribal areas of both countries could burgeon. The Pakistani government could probably handle it; Mr. Karzai's would have a tougher time.

Does it matter?

Let's pose the question another way. What would happen if the Pashtun areas of southern and eastern Afghanistan were swept up in a tide of religious fervor and energized by hatred for the infidel?

Even if the Karzai government were to hang on in Kabul, large swaths of Afghanistan would again present themselves as a haven to virulent anti-Americanism and to those who would act upon it. In the country where this whole chapter began, history would be given a chance to repeat itself. The war against Afghan-based terrorism will have been for nothing.

Should Afghanistan weigh more than Iraq in the scale of American priorities? That is debatable. But let's be clear: The loss of Afghanistan may be one of the prices America has to pay for its obsession with Iraq.

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