RECENT FIGHTING in the mountains of southeastern Afghanistan has been so muddled, ambiguous and treacherous that it makes the guerrilla war in Iraq look by comparison like one of those set-piece battles that the monarchs of Europe used to fight against one another.
Afghan and Pakistani armed forces recently launched separate operations designed to roust the Taliban from its hideaways along the border, and wound up shooting at each other. Afghanistan claimed that the Pakistanis had invaded Afghan territory, and this news so inflamed a mob in Kabul that it sacked the Pakistani embassy. Pakistan denied the charge and added for good measure that maybe its militia did cross the border, but if so the Afghan government was properly notified in advance.
Afghanistan eventually apologized for the incident at the embassy, and it reopened this week. But hard feelings and accusations of betrayal persist between two governments that are ostensibly allied with the United States in the war against al-Qaida and the Taliban. The Afghans, in particular, believe that portions of the Pakistani government and army are sympathetic to the Taliban and are providing aid and sanctuary. Last Saturday, a joint U.S.-Afghan convoy came under attack in Spinboldak, near the border, by forces believed to have come across from Pakistan.
In truth, the Pashtun tribal regions in Pakistan are so tenuously under government control that even if Islamabad were inclined to crack down on the smugglers and gunmen and religious fanatics there, it would probably make things worse, not better. Similarly, U.S. Army units operating south of the city of Jalalabad have come to the realization that they can rarely be sure who is on whose side.
This whole mess is a recipe for (a) disaster, (b) a return of the Taliban and (c) a resurgence of al-Qaida. Time to avoid (a), (b) and (c) is quickly running out. There is a solution, though, and it's this: a revamped U.S. and international commitment to the Afghan government of Hamid Karzai.
With enough international troops providing security, with sufficient action on the promises of aid, the world still has a chance to turn Afghanistan, step by step, into a success. Ordinary Afghans don't like the warlords who rule the countryside; if they could see concrete improvements arising from the actions of the central government, they would flock to its side. Right now they don't. The government is feeble, and aid groups are unwilling to venture outside the capital.
But security, once it took root, would build upon itself. And with a stable Afghanistan, the discontent and trouble-making across the border would become infinitely more manageable.
There is no other way. The alternative is an eventual American withdrawal with nothing solved - a major defeat, in other words, in the war on terrorism.