HERAT, Afghanistan - Peace reigns, finally, in this province bordering Iran, which is no small accomplishment given the number of wars here over the past decades, and given the violence that continues elsewhere in Afghanistan.
There is a show of orderliness in Herat's refurbished government buildings, on streets that have been paved and widened, in schools newly built, at the hospital set amid gardens, an institution that is working as well as it has in living memory.
The discipline and quiet, though, cannot be attributed to the postwar efforts of the United States and its allies. And peace does not reign in Afghanistan as a whole. In many ways, Herat serves as a warning that the country is slipping back toward its centuries-old history of division, the type that gave birth to the Taliban and provided al-Qaida the opportunity to carry out the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Herat also testifies to the not always selfless influence of outsiders - Iran, in this part of Afghanistan.
This was the country the United States pledged to reform, in what was to be a decisive step toward eliminating the brand of terrorism promoted by al-Qaida and the Islamic fundamentalism of the Taliban. Afghanistan had served as the base of Osama bin Laden. This was to be the proving ground of American military resolve and American generosity, devoted to helping the country rebuild itself in a new, more tolerant, democratic form. It would serve as a warning against hostile forces everywhere in the world.
In the past year, though, the world's attention shifted to Iraq. While the United States toppled the government in Baghdad and assumed the powers of an occupier, warlords began thriving again in Afghanistan. Gunmen - whether Taliban, al-Qaida or simply thugs - are regaining sway even in the provinces bordering Kabul and along the border with Pakistan.
While the United States spends more than $1 billion a week to support its troops in Iraq, less than $2 billion has been spent in Afghanistan in the nearly two years since the Taliban fell.
And despite President Bush's request Sept. 7 for $87 billion for the two countries, relatively little help is earmarked for Afghanistan. Of the $87 billion, only $800 million would go to reconstruction here. About $20 billion would be spent on reconstruction in Iraq - and nearly all the rest on equipment and other needs of American troops.
Herat shows how things could be with a strong leader and relatively well-organized government. In this case, the government may as well be independent from the central authority in Kabul, led by President Hamid Karzai.
Herat province has its own green-uniformed soldiers who swarm nearly every main road through the region and every building at its center, a city of the same name. They clutch Kalashnikov rifles as they stand on street corners and hold them in their laps as they drive around in pickup trucks. Russian-built tanks perched on the mountainsides serve to encourage order.
The tanks, most of the soldiers and nearly all of the power belong to Ismail Khan, Afghanistan's most powerful warlord, who, with support from Iran, has been pushing a brand of Islam nearly as conservative as that of the Taliban. The troops in Herat have been armed in part from stolen tax money.
Most of the rest of the country remains treacherous because of gunmen and grudges, the Taliban and dueling warlords, and because of commitments made by the United States and its allies that so far have been unmet. Outside the larger cities are millions of people still waiting for the promised peace, still waiting for schools and clinics to be built, and roads to be paved or at least made passable.
Nobody expected the country to be rebuilt in two years. But the situation here has become so bad - or in some areas, has improved so little - that some Afghans are pining for the old days of Taliban repression. While brutal, it kept robbers off the roads, bandits away from villagers who want little more than to farm their onions without having to duck for cover, to pick their melons in peace.
"At the Taliban time, we had security and we could go about our farming," said Samaiullah Rahmani, a 28-year-old police officer in the province of Maydan-Wardak, which borders Kabul to the west and to the south. He is beefy, bearded and with no car, no radio, no support to speak of from the government of Karzai, the U.S.-backed Afghan president. He has not been paid in months.
"Now we have me," he said, almost with apology. "And I am so useless I sit by and watch boys be killed."