WASHINGTON -- Four years ago, the Bush administration took its eye off Afghanistan to prepare for the war in Iraq. Critical time, attention and resources were diverted from the fight against Taliban and al-Qaida forces. At Tora Bora, Osama bin Laden escaped and thousands of militants lived to fight another day.
Today, the Bush administration is repeating that mistake with its preoccupation with Iran, suspected Iranian nuclear weapons ambitions and the possibility that this looming confrontation could spiral into military action. Again, Afghanistan will be the loser.
This could not come at a worse time for Afghanistan. The Taliban and their extremist allies have made a powerful comeback. In the last month, nearly 400 people have been killed and hundreds more wounded in fierce fighting. Tactics used by Iraqi insurgents, including suicide bombers and roadside bombs, have found their way to Afghanistan, increasing the lethality of the attacks.
Four provinces in southern Afghanistan have borne the brunt of this upsurge of violence. The Taliban promised a major offensive to stop the deployment in the region of about 6,000 NATO troops. They are keeping their word.
U.S.-Afghan relations also are beginning to fray. This week's riots in Kabul - following a fatal traffic accident involving a U.S. military truck - underscore how disillusioned many Afghans feel about the failure of the international community to show real progress in rebuilding their country. This follows the deaths last week of a reported 16 Afghan villagers in a U.S. airstrike.
To rectify this deteriorating security situation, the Bush administration should immediately pursue the following:
First, refocus on securing Afghanistan's border with Pakistan.
The porous frontier, which stretches nearly 1,500 miles, is the principal gateway for Taliban and al-Qaida insurgents launching attacks inside Afghanistan.
Securing the border will require well-trained, well-armed border guards with sophisticated technical surveillance and communications capabilities, none of which the Afghans have. They are trying to raise a border force of 7,000, but it will take time. In the interim, the United States should strengthen its presence along the Afghan side of the border.
Most important, securing the border will require Pakistan's full cooperation. Taliban leaders are operating out of havens in Pakistan, raising money, recruiting and training fighters. The United States must use its considerable influence with Pakistan's leadership to persuade it to move as aggressively against Taliban militants as Pakistan has acted against foreign al-Qaida elements.
Cooperation between the two neighbors also would improve if they could agree to a permanent international boundary. Their border has been in contention since Pakistan became independent in 1947.
Second, re-engage with world leaders at July's Group of Eight summit in Russia.
The last high-level international meeting on Afghanistan was held in January in London at the ministerial level. The chief focus of that conference was a five-year national development plan for Afghanistan.
The G-8 meeting of industrialized countries will be an opportunity for President Bush to re-engage world leaders on the situation in Afghanistan and what they can do about it.
One focus should be Afghanistan's immediate security requirements, starting with assistance to the Afghan national police, who are trying to respond to the recent outbreak of violence. There are about 55,000 Afghan police, far too few to adequately cover the country.
Moreover, they are in desperate need of better communications equipment, more mobility in the form of vehicles, helicopters and small fixed-wing aircraft, and even ammunition.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai should be invited to attend this G-8 summit. So should Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, to reinforce a G-8 call for greater cooperation and coordination between the two countries.
Third, rethink the plan to begin withdrawing U.S. military forces in August.
The decision to reduce the U.S. presence by 3,000 troops to about 16,000 was taken before the security circumstances in Afghanistan radically changed. It should be placed on hold. An announcement that the United States is not drawing down its forces also would help to assuage the widespread view in Afghanistan that this step is the beginning of a planned full U.S. military withdrawal from there.
The Bush administration often has portrayed the U.S.-led military campaign in Afghanistan as its first win in the global war on terrorism. Unfortunately, the expanding climate of insecurity in that country - from the insurgency, drug trafficking and a weak central government - makes Afghanistan too close to call.
Karl F. Inderfurth, assistant secretary of state for South Asian affairs from 1997 to 2001, is a professor at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University. His e-mail is email@example.com.