Where it began

March 28, 2004

IS HISTORY REPEATING itself in Afghanistan? If it is, the whole world's in trouble.

Twice now, Americans have been involved in Afghanistan in a virtuous struggle, and twice that struggle was followed by American neglect. The first time it happened, Afghanistan descended into pestilential lawlessness, and what came of it was Sept. 11, 2001. Now the cycle is recurring - but where will it lead?

To recap: In the late 1980s, Afghan freedom fighters who had received substantial backing in arms and money from the United States beat the Soviet army. The Evil Empire was ousted, and there was glee in Washington. Then, as the freedom fighters transformed into warlords and embarked on bloody campaigns against one another, America was distracted by Iraq - and with the Persian Gulf war of 1991 lost interest in Afghanistan altogether.

As a result, Afghanistan became host to revengeful extremists and fanatics, motivated primarily by the newly muscular American presence in the Middle East.

The al-Qaida attacks on New York and Washington put Afghanistan back into view, and in short order the Taliban regime was sent packing. This time, Evil itself had been ousted, and the glee in official American circles was tempered only by this: It appears that no one in the Bush administration had ever really cared that much about Afghanistan. The White House and the Pentagon wanted a war in Iraq, again, and soon got it. The warlords, who had regained power throughout broad swaths of Afghanistan with American help, went about consolidating their gains, undisturbed.

This month has seen a troubling battle in the west that left a Cabinet minister - who was also the son of the local warlord - dead, and the regional military chief in custody. In the east, a sweep by the Pakistani army on its side of the border is intended to rout terrorist and Taliban remnants who have been mounting attacks into Afghanistan, though by some accounts the Taliban now hold sway in up to one-third of Afghan territory. A conference this week at which international donors are to be pressed to make good on their aid pledges of two years ago is expected to be a disappointment. Elections scheduled for June will probably be held in September, or later.

To be sure, Washington hasn't abandoned Afghanistan as thoroughly as it did a decade ago. A road from Kabul to Kandahar has been paved, NATO troops provide security in the capital, and 12,000 American soldiers are in place, with 2,000 more Marines on the way in. That's about a 10th of the U.S. deployment in and around Iraq, which is costing U.S. taxpayers $1 billion a week - the amount Afghanistan receives from Washington in a year.

With American assistance, the government of President Hamid Karzai has built an Afghan army of 9,000 men - which is now expected to disarm the 100,000 fighters who serve in various private militias.

In truth, the warlords are Afghanistan's thorniest problem. They were indisputably central to the fight against the Taliban in 2001; President Karzai decided in 2002 to try to work with them rather than oppose them outright, hoping gradually to rein them in. American military commanders, too, have worked alongside - and sometimes been misled by - the warlords. They're an unsavory bunch. The United States held them at arm's length before 9/11 because of their history of raping and pillaging, as Richard Armitage, assistant secretary of state, pointed out last week. The question now is, how do you detach them from power without pushing them and their militias into the embrace of the Taliban? The answer is not simple, but it surely involves a more robust American involvement in Afghanistan than exists at the moment.

U.S. policy in Afghanistan is intricately bound up with the politics of two of its neighbors - Pakistan and Uzbekistan. This month, Pakistan was declared to be a principal ally of the United States, an interesting development for a country with such virulent anti-Americanism. In their sweep along the Afghan border, President Pervez Musharraf's troops have clashed with local tribes. At Washington's behest, the search is on for Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaida leaders. In fact, though, once bin Laden is captured, the United States could stop pretending that Pakistan is such a reliable ally; chances are, in the view of perceptive Pakistanis, General Musharraf would then be casually left to his fate. Bin Laden, by this way of thinking, is more valuable to the Pakistani government if he's on the loose.

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