Losing the Peace?

Losing the Peace?

As Afghanistan struggles to recover, the United States prepares to move on.


To the many problems that afflict Kabul–leveled neighborhoods, broken water systems, mined fields, power outages–a new one must be added: traffic jams. During the morning rush hour, the narrow streets of the Afghan capital clog with vehicles–the white Land Cruisers favored by international donors, the black SUVs preferred by military commanders, the Soviet-era buses crammed with commuters, the yellow-and-white Toyota Corollas that serve as taxis. On some days, the traffic grinds to a complete halt, the idling vehicles belching out black diesel fumes while their drivers angrily pound their horns. Adding to the chaos are the hordes of bicyclists who recklessly thread their way through the lanes, miraculously avoiding collisions at the last moment.

While endlessly annoying to those who must navigate them, Kabul’s bustling streets actually seem a cause for optimism–a sign of revival after twenty-three years of war, upheaval and isolation. There are other encouraging signs. The city’s bazaars–winding clusters of ramshackle wooden stalls–brim with raisins and walnuts, tomatoes and bananas, scallions and spinach. Every day, open-backed trucks enter the city packed with families and their possessions–refugees returning home from years spent idling in Pakistan and Iran. Young boys on the street hawk issues of Kabul Weekly, an independent newspaper that offers news, gossip and gentle criticism of the government. And every night families gather to watch Afghan TV, back on the air after years of Taliban blackout. The newscast even features a woman announcer–a bold declaration that a new era has begun in Afghanistan.

Yet just beneath the surface are many causes for concern. Outside the gates of the hundreds of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in Kabul stand clusters of disheveled, dispirited men desperately seeking work. While some women have boldly doffed their burqas, the vast majority remain fully cloaked, and Westerners are frequently accosted by formless blobs in blue insistently seeking handouts to feed their children. The city’s poorest neighborhoods, on the southern outskirts, have been hit by a crime wave perpetrated by armed gangs believed to be linked to Islamic extremists. Awash in Kalashnikov rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, the country has recently been rocked by a series of violent attacks, including an assassination attempt on the defense minister, the murder of a United Nations aid worker and revolts by poppy growers against the government’s eradication efforts. Such acts seem particularly ominous as Afghans prepare to convene a loya jirga, or grand council, in June to select a transitional government and write a new Constitution.

The one thing standing between Afghanistan and total chaos, it seems, is the presence of the international community. Long ignored by the outside world, Afghanistan is now being invaded by it. Daily, two filled-to-capacity UN planes fly in development experts and humanitarian workers from Islamabad, Pakistan. In an effort to combat rampant malnutrition, the World Food Program (WFP) is providing food to more than 6 million Afghans. The Danes are helping to de-mine the country, the Germans to rebuild its water and sanitation systems, and the Japanese to reconstruct its housing. In the Marco Polo restaurant, a modest but well-lit establishment that serves the usual Afghan fare–lamb kebabs, fried chicken, sautéed spinach–NGO officials squawk into their global-reach telephones, directing relief efforts. Most visible of all is the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), whose green armored vehicles periodically roll through the city, their rifle-at-the-ready troops scouring the streets for any hint of trouble.

Visible, too, is the United States. At its sprawling embassy compound, reopened after thirteen years, modular housing units are being installed to accommodate its growing staff. Zalmay Khalilzad, George W. Bush’s special envoy to Afghanistan, is an Afghan-American who speaks Dari and who periodically flies in to size up matters for the White House. The United States is financing an estimated 80 percent of all the food aid being distributed by the WFP in Afghanistan. The US Embassy was so involved in helping plan a recent back-to-school event in Kabul that when I asked for some background material, I was inadvertently handed a detailed script specifying each official’s every move.

All this sounds suspiciously like nation-building, the process of reconstructing a broken state that Bush has so emphatically rejected in the past. Yet over the course of my two-and-a-half-week stay, I came to see US actions in this area as largely illusory. America’s political staff in the country is dwarfed by its military and intelligence presence. Embassy officials do not generally circulate in the capital, making it hard for them to monitor, much less shape, events on the ground. Symbolizing the sense of removal is the forbidding eight-foot steel fence going up around the embassy perimeter. While the barrier reflects genuine security concerns, it seems to embody America’s disengagement from the messy business of creating a stable Afghan state.

Most Afghans, I found, feel deep gratitude for America’s role in ousting the Taliban and banishing Al Qaeda. But they also worry that Washington is losing interest in their country. Over and over, Bush has said that the United States, having abandoned Afghanistan once, will not do so again. On April 17 the President recommitted America to helping rebuild Afghanistan. Invoking the Marshall Plan, he vowed to stay engaged “until the mission is done.” It’s a welcome statement. But the President pledged no new resources for the job. What’s more, during my stay I found little evidence that the United States has the necessary will, or skill, to address Afghanistan’s profound political and economic problems.

The convening of the loya jirga is the pivotal event in the forging of a new Afghanistan. It presents a unique opportunity to form a government that is broad-based and a state that is ruled by laws rather than arms. But as the process gets under way, there are serious doubts about its chances for success. Nationwide, an estimated 700,000 men remain armed, and efforts to demobilize them have barely begun. Most of the weapons are held by one group–the Northern Alliance and its political arm, Jamiat-i-Islami. They are in power largely because of the help they provided to the United States in fighting the Taliban. And they are now attempting to use their dominance to promote their political interests throughout the country.

I got a firsthand look at this during a visit to Logar province, located about an hour and a half south of Kabul. With a population roughly divided between Tajiks and Pashtuns, Logar offers a good sense of the tensions welling in the Afghan countryside. Driving there with my translator, we passed through ripening wheat fields, their bright green sprouts contrasting sharply with the dull brown hills that define so much of the Afghan landscape. Along the way, we came upon occasional monuments to the destruction of the past twenty-three years, including a hospital that had been leveled by the mujahedeen. Pulling into Pol-i-Alam, the small, dusty provincial capital, we made our way to the plain, weather-beaten building that serves as the office of the governor. A hulking bear of a man with a bushy beard, Dr. Fazelullah Mjadedi motioned to us to take a seat while he tended to the dozen or so petitioners sitting on cushions around the room. On the wall was a garish weaving showing Ahmed Shah Massoud, the legendary Northern Alliance commander who was assassinated last September, praying. We watched as the governor briefly considered each case, hearing out the petitioner and examining his documents before setting down his decision in writing. After twenty minutes, he was ready to talk.

“For the last twenty-three years, I was the chief of the mujahedeen in Logar,” Dr. Mjadedi said, his tone authoritative but not arrogant. Observing that he belonged to Jamiat, he assured me that the security situation in the province was “quite satisfactory.” Those men who had guns had been persuaded to give them up, and the weapons had been stored in a warehouse. With the Taliban gone, girls had returned to school–a situation Dr. Mjadedi said he fully endorsed. Unfortunately, he added, many children went to school hungry; 50 percent of those in the province, he said, faced malnutrition. The region, he suggested, desperately needed more food aid.

Such aid, however, was a major flashpoint in the province, as I learned after we took leave of the governor and headed deeper into the countryside. A short way out of Pol-i-Alam, the paved road turned to dirt, and the landscape turned biblical: Everywhere were stolid one-story compounds made of mud and straw; farm animals lazily supped from troughs and shoeless kids scampered about. At one point, I saw one of the ubiquitous blue signs that announce the presence of an NGO. Funded by the UN and the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan, it provided medical and vocational services to the physically and mentally disabled. Inside were five men holding a staff meeting, and true to the Afghan tradition of hospitality, they invited us to stay for tea.

After some preliminaries, I asked about the state of security in the province. “Not good,” one of the men said. “There are very bad people with guns, and they’re now in power.” The governor, he added, was not a bad man, but his party, Jamiat, had a monopoly on power and was using it to “intimidate” other groups. What’s more, another said, Jamiat was using the province’s resources for its own benefit. He recounted an incident in which food contributed by international donors had been placed in a storehouse near the governor’s office. Rather than being distributed to those most in need, he said, it was going to people associated with Jamiat. In this way, he explained, Jamiat was building a base of support it could use to affect the outcome of the loya jirga.

What, I asked, did they think of Hamid Karzai, the chairman of the interim administration? “A good man,” said the oldest member of the group, who wore a turban and had a long beard. “But Jamiat is in power and has all the resources. Mr. Karzai has been traveling to many different places, but inside the country he hasn’t done much. And he’s under the influence of the people around him. The ministers of defense, interior and foreign affairs are all from the same area. It’s not good to have one minority party in power.” I then asked their opinion of the United States. “People are very happy with America,” one man said. “It saved us from big atrocities and crimes.” However, he went on, “it’s America that has imposed Jamiat on us. America didn’t have any alternative but to support the Northern Alliance, because it was in the forefront of the movement against the Taliban, but these people, a small party in jihad times, are now holding all the key positions.”

On the drive back from Logar to Kabul, we gave a lift to a middle-aged man who was heading up the road to a military training facility; he was providing instruction to members of the Northern Alliance–part of the effort to mold them into a new Afghan army. About ten minutes after we picked him up, we reached a military checkpoint. There, two men in green uniforms excitedly informed us that a truck carrying firewood to Kabul had passed through the checkpoint without paying the necessary toll. Demanding that we help them pursue the vehicle, they piled in; one of them carried a Kalashnikov. We dutifully took off after the truck, but the military trainer immediately grew suspicious. “Your men have been taking money from people on the highway,” he admonished them. “You’re giving the army a bad name.” The men seemed chastened, and seeing a military vehicle heading in the opposite direction, they told us to stop, then got out.

“I think they were trying to get money from you,” the trainer told us. Curious, we quickly caught up with the truck that had supposedly run the checkpoint. We flagged it down, and the driver told us that in fact the soldiers at the checkpoint had extorted a payment out of them (30,000 Afghanis–about $1–plus some firewood). They were furious. As the incident shows, the lawlessness that prevailed on the country’s roads before the rise of Taliban seems to be returning.

Today Kabul teems with Northern Alliance soldiers carrying rifles and wearing pakols, the distinctive round Tajik cap. Photos of Massoud adorn ministry offices, car windows and traffic intersections. The largest picture of Massoud that I saw was at the Ariana Hotel, a squat yellow building located on a traffic roundabout near the presidential palace. (The roundabout is famous as the site where Najibullah, who ruled Afghanistan from 1986 to 1992, was strung up by the Taliban when it took power in 1996.) The single most heavily fortified building in Kabul, the Ariana is surrounded by giant concrete cylinders filled with sand; dozens of Northern Alliance soldiers zealously guard access to the compound. The Ariana, I was told by both Afghan and US sources, is the headquarters for the CIA and US Special Forces in Kabul. One day I watched as a convoy of ten vehicles filled with US troops formed outside the hotel; they were joined by two pickup trucks filled with Afghan men holding rocket-propelled grenades. Wondering about their destination, I returned the next morning and spoke with a group of Afghan men who were hanging out by one of the hotel’s entrances, hoping to be hired as menial laborers. The convoy, they told me, had gone to Paktia province near the border with Pakistan to hunt the remnants of Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

The bond between the US military and the Northern Alliance is one of the most problematic–and overlooked–features of current Afghan politics. The alliance, of course, was instrumental in helping the United States depose the Taliban last fall. While appreciative of the alliance’s support, the Bush Administration was wary of the group because of how it behaved the last time it was in power, from 1992 to 1996. During the previous thirteen years of resistance to Soviet-backed rule, tens of thousands of Afghans had died, but the capital itself had suffered little damage. No sooner had Massoud and the other leaders of the mujahedeen taken over, however, than they began fighting among themselves, and large sections of the city were leveled. Even today, thousands of acres of western Kabul lie in rubble, and visitors who tour it are invariably stunned by the scale, and mindlessness, of the destruction.

Massoud’s men wholeheartedly participated in the bloodletting, and few who lived through it share the gushing admiration for him shown by some Western journalists. When the Taliban took over, his forces retreated to the northeastern part of the country, where they formed the Northern Alliance. Last fall, as the Taliban was dissolving, the UN, in a survey of Afghans who had fled to Pakistan to avoid the US bombing, found that more than 90 percent opposed the return of the alliance. Mindful of this, Bush in mid-November urged the alliance not to enter Kabul. After five years of life in the trenches, however, Massoud’s men were not to be denied, and within days they occupied the capital.

By early December, when leading Afghans met in Bonn to form a new government, the Northern Alliance had consolidated its control. In a bow to political realities, it agreed that the top spot in the interim administration should go to a Pashtun. With the Americans pushing for Hamid Karzai, the alliance accepted his selection as chairman. But the alliance won the government’s three key ministries: defense (Mohammed Fahim), interior (Yunus Qanooni) and foreign affairs (Abdullah Abdullah). All three men were senior associates of Massoud. Like him, all are Tajiks, the northern ethnic group that accounts for about 25 percent of the total population. And, like Massoud, they all come from the Panjshir Valley, a scenic gorge that slices through the Hindu Kush, about three hours north of Kabul. In short, the government’s top three ministries are controlled by men who belong to a tiny subgroup of an ethnic minority. This does not sit well with the country’s Pashtuns, who make up 40 percent of the Afghan population. Nor does it please the Hazaras or the Uzbeks, the country’s other main ethnic groups. Even many Tajiks are unsettled by the prominence of the Panjshiris, regarding them as war criminals.

As the head of state, Karzai seems genuinely popular. A practicing Muslim, he fully believes that Afghanistan should be an Islamic state, but his interpretation of that is relatively lax. Educated in India, he feels equally at ease speaking Dari to tribal elders and English to the Council on Foreign Relations. While living in Pakistan during the Taliban years, he maintained three houses of sanctuary for fellow refugees, funded in part by profits from trendy restaurants run by two of his brothers in Baltimore and Cambridge, Massachusetts. Karzai’s wardrobe–lambskin hat, black and green cape, loose-fitting trousers–seems an Isaac Mizrahi version of traditional Afghan garb.

Despite his broad appeal, however, Karzai has remained a figurehead. While jetting around the world to meet foreign leaders, he has rarely ventured outside Kabul to meet local ones. Real power remains with Jamiat and the Panjshiris. With Abdullah preoccupied with external affairs, his two Tajik colleagues dominate domestic matters. Qanooni, at interior, is known as a smart and sophisticated operative who has used his time in office to set up an extensive and efficient intelligence apparatus. The information gleaned from it, it’s widely believed, is being used to further the Panjshiris’ political interests.

Fahim is even more powerful. Where Qanooni is smooth and worldly, the defense minister is grasping and uneducated. When Maj. Gen. John McColl of Britain, the commanding officer of ISAF, comes calling, Fahim–eager to show who’s boss–invariably keeps him waiting an hour or more. Fahim is officially in charge of creating the new Afghan Army, and while that force is supposed to be multiethnic, there are worries that he is going to give Tajiks preference. The Northern Alliance soldiers who patrol Kabul, while ostensibly part of the government’s new security force, actually serve as a sort of private army for Fahim. Magnifying the sense of Northern Alliance occupation is the cult of personality that has developed around Massoud. As an international official with long experience in Bosnia observed, “Even in Yugoslavia, there were never this many pictures of Tito.”

In my interviews, I found widespread distrust of the Panjshiris. I found, in fact, that their dominance had fostered a climate of fear in the capital. “This is not the kind of government that will tolerate dissenting voices,” a senior Afghan at an international NGO told me in a low, hushed voice. “A couple of times I’ve been advised by colleagues, ‘Be careful–they have zero tolerance for being criticized.'” The Northern Alliance, he added, “is responsible for many of the human rights abuses in this country.” It was “shameful,” he said, that Karzai, on a visit to Mazar-i-Sharif in the north, had praised Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, a notorious warlord, “just to have his support.” (Dostum’s abusive activities are documented in a recent Human Rights Watch report, “Paying for the Taliban’s Crimes: Abuses Against Ethnic Pashtuns in Northern Afghanistan.”) In addition, the aid worker said, the minister of planning, Haji Mohammad Mohaqiq, had “looted humanitarian organizations at least four times in Mazar over the past four years. Now he’s the minister in charge of coordinating humanitarian and development assistance to this country.” All in all, he added, “there’s no security here. People do not feel free to speak their minds. So I need to ask that you not quote me.”

This official went on to say that he had raised the issue of warlord control with American officials. “Many times we’ve talked to key officials about this,” the man said. “Unfortunately, most of them are dismissive right from the beginning. They feel that even if this is true, it’s not the time to raise it–the key is going after Al Qaeda. We sympathize with this, but it shows they’ve failed to learn from the past. It’s exactly the same situation as during the 1980s, when even Osama bin Laden was supported by the CIA. Now, the US military is supporting groups with very bad human rights abuses–the Northern Alliance foremost among them.”

His comments point to a basic tension in US policy in Afghanistan. The United States is providing the country large sums of humanitarian and economic aid. This is helping to strengthen moderates like Karzai. But the US military is using the warlords to help fight Al Qaeda and the Taliban. In many parts of the country, US special forces have provided commanders money, vehicles and weapons. In some cases, they have used Panjshiri commanders to fight in the Pashtun-heavy south. This has not only reinforced the power of the Panjshiris but also bred resentment among the Pashtuns. One former mujahedeen with close ties to the Northern Alliance told me that on a visit to the Panjshir, he saw huge amounts of weapons, which he believed were being stockpiled for possible use in a future war with the Pashtuns.

“It’s obvious that the United States sees its task in Afghanistan as mainly a military one–hunting down these terrorist groups,” I was told by a veteran European aid worker who has taken on a key international monitoring position in Afghanistan. By supporting warlords, he said, America “is contributing to the further fragmentation of Afghanistan rather than promoting the development of a mature and stable state.” The United States, he added, “does not have a comprehensive strategy. It has put military thinking behind the steering wheel; political thinking is in the rear seat.” The US support for the Panjshiris is very dangerous, he went on, because the Panjshiris were trying to use their dominance in the government to extend Tajik influence into the Pashtun south. “Sooner or later,” he added, “the Pashtuns will get someone to unify them again, and you’ll have another civil war. And then the probability is great that terrorists will come again and use Afghanistan as a base.” A better approach, he added, “would be for the Americans to tell the Panjshiris that they have to compromise and share power with other groups. That would create the possibility for a broad-based government with wider popular support.” The United States was doing a lot that could qualify as nation-building, he said, “but if you don’t sort out the politics while giving out the money, you’ll simply spill it all in the ocean.”

A European official advising the interim administration on economic matters said that US policy-makers seem to fall into two categories–diplomats on the one hand, and military men and spooks on the other. Whereas the diplomats dutifully follow the loya jirga process, he said, the military and the spooks regard it as a charade; instead, they prefer simply to pay off warlords. The diplomats themselves, he said, have not been very effective. Unlike the British, who have played a “leadership” role, he explained, the Americans “have not been very involved. They’re prepared to provide money but not to match it with political engagement.”

This dichotomy is mirrored in Afghan attitudes toward the United States. Most are tremendously grateful for America’s role in ousting the Taliban. Indeed, Marla Ruzicka, who came to Afghanistan on behalf of Global Exchange, the activist group, to organize families victimized by the US bombing to demand compensation from Washington, told me that she was encountering a problem: People were so pleased with the results of the bombing that many were reluctant to protest it too vocally. (A report on her activities in the New York Times, headlined Shattered Afghan Families Demand U.S. Compensation, did not mention this.)

Offsetting this gratitude, however, is a gnawing concern that the United States, having won the war against terrorism, is losing the peace. On a warm afternoon in late March, I joined a crowd of Afghans who were visiting a graveyard on a rocky hillside in Kabul to observe the Persian New Year. A shopkeeper I spoke with told me that people were celebrating not only the new year but also the fall of the Taliban. Thus far, however, he said, “People have not seen any positive change in their lives. There’s no sanitation, no power. People are happy with the United States, but they are expecting it to do more about security, about insuring the safety of the Afghan people.”

The issue of security looms over every aspect of Afghan life today. And that, in turn, raises the pressing matter of peacekeeping. Currently, the International Security Assistance Force consists of 4,600 men from eighteen European nations. Their operations are restricted to Kabul. Regularly passing through the streets of the capital in two- and three-vehicle convoys, ISAF has, by its mere presence, provided a deterrent to would-be rabble-rousers. When necessary, however, it can be quite aggressive, as I discovered one night while joining it on patrol. The target was a poor neighborhood in western Kabul called Barjay. In recent weeks the area had been hit by a rash of murders and armed robberies, carried out by what were believed to be armed gangs seeking to destabilize the government. To combat the problem, ISAF was saturating the area with crack British troops who had previously served in Northern Ireland. A handful of other journalists and I joined a platoon of the Brits as they marched through a warren of dirt streets lined with humble mud houses. As darkness settled over the neighborhood, we came upon a broad, dried-up river plain that stretched off into the distance. “The intruders are coming from over there,” said a sergeant, pointing toward a clutch of houses a couple of kilometers away. A few nights earlier, he said, the peacekeepers had drawn fire in the area, but since the ISAF patrols had started “there have been no more robberies.”

Without such patrols, Kabul would probably have been engulfed by turmoil by now. So calming has been the effect of the peacekeepers, in fact, that many Afghans want to see them stationed in other cities as well. Hamid Karzai has repeatedly and emphatically called for an expansion of ISAF. So have UN special representative to Afghanistan Lakhdar Brahimi and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson.

One day, on a visit to the defense ministry in Kabul, I stopped to talk with a group of men milling outside the entrance. They had all lost their jobs at the ministry after the Taliban took power and were trying to get them back. If any group could be expected to oppose the expansion of ISAF, I figured, it would be these defense workers. But to a man, they said they supported sending peacekeepers to Kandahar, Jalalabad and other cities where security remains a problem.

In Washington, State Department officials have endorsed an expansion of ISAF, and the CIA, in a classified report completed earlier this year, warned of the chaos that could result if ethnic conflict and warlord power were not addressed. With the loya jirga process under way, the need for an expanded security presence seems more urgent than ever. Standing in the way, however, is the Pentagon. No US troops currently serve in ISAF, but they would undoubtedly have to if the force were expanded, and that prospect does not please Donald Rumsfeld. The Defense Secretary regards peacekeeping as nation-building in its purest form, and he wants no part of it. US soldiers, he believes, should be used to kill the enemy, not keep the peace. And thus far the White House has gone along. In his April 17 speech pledging US help to rebuild Afghanistan, Bush pointedly omitted any reference to the expansion of ISAF, which seems an essential condition for any reconstruction effort.

Instead, the United States supports building an Afghan army, and it is sending green berets to Kabul to help train it. This seems misguided on several counts. First, as everyone agrees, molding the current patchwork of militias and warlords into an effective force could take years; who’s to insure security in the meantime? Second, building an Afghan army means giving even more power to Mohammed Fahim and, by extension, to the Panjshiris. Finally, forming an army will soak up scarce resources. In its initial budget, the Afghan government proposes spending $100 million of $460 million (a whopping 22 percent) on the new army. At a time when the government can’t even afford to pay salaries, this seems an unwise investment.

The case for expanding ISAF seemed to me so compelling that I had trouble understanding the Bush Administration’s real reasons for opposing it–until I visited the Bagram air base, the operations center for the war on terrorism. A sprawling outpost built by the Soviets, Bagram is still littered with the remains of Soviet tanks and trucks as well as intact (though heavily mined) MIG planes abandoned by the Red Army when it fled the country in 1989. Now the base buzzes with Chinook helicopters, A-10 Warthog reconnaissance planes and lumbering C-17 transports helping to supply the 4,000 coalition troops engaged in pursuing the remnants of Al Qaeda and the Taliban. The big news at the time of my visit was the arrival of the first contingent of 1,700 British Royal Marines, come to help pursue the remaining terrorists.

The main hub of activity of Bagram is a giant open-air hangar, and reporters are free to approach the officers who congregate there. In my conversations, I came away with two distinct impressions. One is that Operation Anaconda, the much ballyhooed campaign against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan’s eastern mountains, had not in fact gone very well; the weather, the altitude and the aggressiveness of the enemy had all combined to stymie the US offensive. “Anaconda was definitely not what we expected,” I was told by a young lieutenant sitting in the mess area, eating beef stew. “We got lulled into the trap of saying, ‘This is what the enemy will do.’ We were prepared for the best, and the worst happened. We’ll never make that mistake again.”

He might not get a chance. For the other impression I got at Bagram was that the new British commandos are replacing part of the American force. Indeed, in early April about 1,000 soldiers from the Army’s 10th Mountain Division returned to their base at Fort Drum, New York. The Brits, having trained in the mountains of Norway, are thought to be far better prepared for the type of high-altitude operations essential in Afghanistan. What’s more, the US forces are likely to be needed elsewhere. “There are other fish for the United States to pursue,” the lieutenant told me, adding, “all we keep hearing about is Iraq.” So, even before the war in Afghanistan is fully won, Washington seems to be gearing up for another.

The results could be tragic. In a country so bristling with arms, lacking in jobs and full of power-hungry commanders, a small spark could ignite a terrible explosion. As important as it is to hunt down Osama bin Laden and snuff out Al Qaeda, building a stable and peaceful Afghanistan seems to offer the best hope for keeping the country free of terrorists. And only one country can make that happen. Virtually everyone I met during my visit agreed that the only chance Afghanistan has to overcome its catastrophic past and develop a hopeful future is for America to remain engaged there. The Bush Administration should approve an immediate expansion of ISAF, insure security for the loya jirga and help the Afghan government disarm–and find jobs for–its legions of fighters. The Administration could make Afghanistan a showcase for nation-building–even if it doesn’t want to call it that.

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