Four years on, not fixed yet

September 14, 2005

SOME PEOPLE are calling them the neo-Taliban. They are young men who took up arms for the first time after the American-led defeat of Afghanistan's strict religious regime in late 2001. Inspired, they say, by Allah - but more specifically by a desire to expel the Americans and other foreigners and overthrow the current government - they have been stepping up their hit-and-run attacks and ambushes all summer long. A test of their will - and of the government's survivability - comes Sunday with nationwide elections for the lower house of parliament and for provincial councils.

This year, already, more U.S. soldiers have died in Afghanistan than in any previous year. But these are outnumbered by civilian casualties; mullahs have been attacked, and in some cases beheaded, and at least five political candidates have been assassinated. The young Taliban fighters roam the eastern provinces at night and lie low by day, much as guerrillas have since the era of the Viet Cong and before. It is evident that they are using northwestern Pakistan as a staging area.

In several disturbing ways, Afghanistan is starting to resemble Iraq. One important difference is that President Hamid Karzai is more of a national figure than any Iraqi politician, but he can hardly be said to wield national authority. He has been carefully and slowly trying to defuse the power of the regional warlords - and 21 candidates reported to be linked to warlords have just been ruled ineligible to run, though their names are still on the ballot. But it's abundantly clear that if Mr. Karzai pushes too hard they'll find common cause with the Taliban. Opium production, which is primarily under the warlords' control, is at an all-time high, and a question not just for Mr. Karzai but for his Western supporters is whether opium suppression is consistent with national reconstruction, at least in the short term. The answer to that is not simple. The choices are unsavory.

Sunday's elections will not be flawless, but they'll give Afghans their first chance to vote for local candidates, who will be expected to tackle local issues and concerns. If the violence is kept in check, the balloting could be an essential milestone on the road to recovery. But the real test has to do with what follows: Can Mr. Karzai's government, with international backing, provide the security that the local councils, in particular, must have if they are to succeed? The United States went to war in Afghanistan following the attacks of 9/11, and it had a mission to accomplish. That job is still not done. The Bush administration has paid only fitful attention to Afghanistan since the Taliban fled to the mountains nearly four years ago, and has looked the other way while Pakistan continues to provide the jihadists with unofficial sanctuary. But failure in Afghanistan would be catastrophic. And it's not out of the question.

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