Vice versa

July 27, 2006

Symptoms of failure are becoming harder to deny in Afghanistan. The Taliban is resurgent in the south, probably in part because of support from within Pakistan. Hundreds of civilians have died in fighting this year, including some killed in NATO bombing raids. President Hamid Karzai has told two governors to re-arm their private militias, which is a big step backward but indicative of the weakness of the Afghan police. Drought is once again afflicting the north, pushing farmers either to move or to concentrate on the one crop that doesn't need much irrigation - the opium poppy.

But how's this for bad news? Mr. Karzai has reportedly given his blessing to the reincarnation of a Department for the Promotion of Virtue and Suppression of Vice. When the Taliban was in charge, this was the agency (called a ministry back then) that sent teams of zealous puritans roaming the streets, whipping men whose beards were too short and women whose modesty was found lacking, silencing music-makers, and stoning adulterers. This version won't be so punitive, a proponent argues; its only function will be to help Afghans get closer to God - by, well, promoting virtue and, not to put too fine a point on it, suppressing vice.

The Western nations, distracted by Iraq and now Lebanon, have stumbled badly in Afghanistan. For almost five years the United States has supposedly been leading an effort to bring peace and prosperity to Afghans. Many Afghans resent a foreign presence that has brought them little benefit, and that resentment has opened up room for the Taliban again. The Western presence has not significantly improved schools, roads, order and prosperity - but it has encouraged prostitution and alcohol consumption. After a half-decade of friendly occupation, what does Mr. Karzai have to show for it? Too much vice and insufficient virtue.

Re-arming militias and pandering to religious feeling are signs of weakness, as is turning a blind eye to opium. If the United States had not bungled the material and political reconstruction of Afghanistan so badly, it would not now be facing what may become an essentially military problem. Afghans would be great friends to have, living as they do between Iran and Pakistan. But it seems Washington can't be bothered to pay attention long enough to try to win their friendship. Yesterday found Mr. Karzai in neighboring Tajikistan, attending a three-way summit that includes Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran. The U.S. could still lose in Afghanistan - and that would be a moral failing of the first order.

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