The Eastern Front

May 30, 2004

IF AMERICA loses sight of Afghanistan because of the mess in Iraq, it would be one of the most unfortunate casualties of that unfortunate war. Afghanistan -- starved of attention and of funds because of President Bush's determination to unseat Saddam Hussein -- teeters today on the brink.

The country where al-Qaida once found a haven could still be lost to the dark forces of fanaticism.

This year began on a brighter note. After two years of shocking neglect, the United States and other Western countries finally began to make good on their pledges of assistance. Aid money began to flow, and the realization took hold in Washington that making progress in Afghanistan means more than hunting down terrorists. Provincial Reconstruction Teams fanned out; the country began preparing for this year's elections. But profound problems remained -- and then came uprisings in Fallujah and Najaf, and photos from Abu Ghraib. Once again, the Eastern Front in the war against militant Islamists is in danger of disappearing from view.

Here's what's going on:

More land is under cultivation for opium-producing poppies than ever -- 300,000 acres, according to a State Department estimate. This year's crop may be up to 100 percent larger than last year's, which was a record. Virtually all of it flows north toward Europe, through Tajikistan and, probably, Turkmenistan. Farmers need credit to buy seeds for planting; they can get it for poppies, but not tomatoes. Eradication programs have been a total failure.

President Hamid Karzai's government has an ambitious plan to double economic output by 2011. That would raise per capita annual income all the way to $500.

Warlords still control most of the country outside the capital, Kabul, but they have refrained from insurrection. The fledgling Afghan National Army now has 3,000 soldiers deployed in the provinces; it is, at least, a start. The United States says it is serious about demobilizing the far larger private militias and reintegrating them into society (even as it hedges in Iraq). This would be a tremendous step forward.

Elections are scheduled for September. Only about a quarter of the eligible voters have been registered so far. Providing security during the voting at 4,600 polling places, and for 4,600 ballot boxes afterward, will be a daunting challenge; the legitimacy of the election will hinge on it.

The U.S. reconstruction effort is being directed by the Pentagon, and the emphasis is on wells dug and schools built rather than on creating councils, courts and other structures of a functioning society.

Afghans still think of themselves as Pashtuns or Tajiks first, as Muslims second, and as Afghans hardly at all. India and Pakistan are engaged in a quiet but furious campaign to cement alliances with various ethnic groups, as part of their larger regional strategies. This is very unhelpful, and it's happening under the noses of American officials in Kabul.

At June's NATO summit in Istanbul, there will be proposals to increase the alliance's troop commitment to Afghanistan. There are no good reasons to resist them. Afghans are notoriously adept at playing along with outsiders when it seems prudent to do so, and have had centuries of practice at it. That won't change. But the country desperately needs better security; more NATO soldiers would make it seem more prudent to more Afghans to try to get along.

The Taliban enjoy considerable support in parts of the country. If they were to return to power, it would be an unmitigated disaster. Americans would then rightly ask: Who lost Afghanistan?

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