America kicked the Taliban out of Afghanistan but …

Feb 14th 2003 From The Economist Global Agenda

America kicked the Taliban out of Afghanistan but stands accused of failing
to follow through on promises to make the country more stable and
democratic: many areas remain lawless, and Afghanistan?s neighbours are
trying to exert influence over regional warlords. Lessons here for the
looming war with Iraq?

ANOTHER week, another wave of skirmishes. On February 12th, American combat
jets dropped bombs on hostile militants in Afghanistan?s Baghran Valley,
reportedly killing several fighters and at least 17 civilians. The air
assault came in response to an increase in attacks in southern Afghanistan
by groups linked to the ousted Taliban regime and al-Qaeda. This is a stark
reminder that, though the Taliban no longer rule in Kabul, the Afghan
capital, they still hold sway in outlying parts of the country, despite the
presence of around 10,000 American-led troops who continue to hunt them
down.

Afghanistan has been fought over by foreigners for centuries, and many
Afghans have an understandable resentment of foreign influence. However, the
government of President Hamid Karzai, installed after American-led forces
kicked the Taliban out of Kabul at the end of 2001, knows that it needs all
the foreign help it can get if it is to turn its country into a stable,
coherent entity. In particular, Mr Karzai is keen that America fulfil its
promise to help spread democracy and prosperity across a land that has been
riven by war for more than two decades.

But if the world is watching America?s commitment to post-Taliban
Afghanistan as a sign of what might happen in post-Saddam Iraq, it is likely
to be disappointed. The consensus is that, having changed the Afghan regime,
America has lost interest before finishing the job. At a hearing on February
12th, American senators queued up to berate the Bush administration for
?sugarcoating? the situation in Afghanistan. It has, said one, allowed
Afghanistan?s neighbours to exert influence over the warlords who still
control much of the country. It has, added another, lowered its goal from
nation-building to merely stemming violence. In reply, Peter Rodman, deputy
secretary of defence, said that violence had now been confined to only about
20% of the country, and that the administration had a commitment to ?stay as
long as it takes to do the job?.

That progress has been made since the fall of the Taliban is indisputable.
Under that harsh, Islamist regime, music was banned and girls could not be
educated. Food was in short supply, a plight made worse by a terrible
drought. The regime?s international isolation severely limited the amount of
aid it received. Now, girls go to school: some 3m Afghan children are back
in school, double the number the United Nations predicted. Some 2m refugees
returned home last year?the biggest population movement since the formation
of Bangladesh from what was East Pakistan. The 5,000-strong International
Security Assistance Force (ISAF) manages to keep the peace pretty well in
Kabul: the murder rate is now half that of Washington, DC. Roads and tunnels
are being rebuilt. Several cities even have working mobile-phone systems. A
new currency, the new afghani, has been introduced. New elections will be
held next year.

But there have been disappointments too. The Taliban were defeated with
breathtaking speed, but it is now clear that many of the most dangerous
members of the Taliban and of al-Qaeda, which the Taliban had sheltered,
escaped death or capture. Indeed, Colin Powell, the American secretary of
state, this week openly acknowledged that Osama bin Laden, the leader of
al-Qaeda, was still alive. And George Tenet, the director of America?s
Central Intelligence Agency, admitted that officers were picking up
intelligence similar to that which preceded the September 11th attacks.

Those involved in nation-building in Afghanistan believe that the way in
which the Americans go about their business is not helpful. The Bush
administration, as well as European governments, is accused of offering
insufficient support to the ISAF. (No Americans serve in the lightly armed
force, because America feared that its men would be sitting ducks.)
Moreover, America?s own forces collaborate with some local warlords, much as
they relied on the rather vicious Northern Alliance to help defeat the
Taliban. They do so despite knowing that the central government of Hamid
Karzai is desperately trying to establish its authority and has been
hamstrung by the defiance of the local warlords. A case in point is Ismail
Khan, who holds sway in the western province of Herat, near Iran: he is
believed to keep most of the customs duties collected locally, passing only
a fraction on to the central government. Mr Karzai barely escaped an attempt
on his life in the former Taliban stronghold of Kandahar last year. It is
not surprising that he has not yet declared his candidacy in next year?s
elections.

American officials like to point to their spending in Afghanistan: $840m
since October 2001, with plans to spend at a similar rate this year. That
might sound like a lot, but it is little more than Iran, an impoverished
country, has promised to its neighbour. In one astonishing oversight, the
Bush administration failed to request funds for humanitarian aid and
reconstruction in Afghanistan in the latest budget, prompting Congress to
step in and allocate $300m on February 13th. Much of America?s spending has
gone on achieving its military objectives, rather than on aid or
construction programmes. And America, like other donors, likes to specify
which projects it wishes to fund, to the annoyance of Mr Karzai?s central
government.

Despite the rhetoric to the contrary, America?s attention has undoubtedly
switched to Iraq over the past year, and Afghanistan is largely presented to
the American public as a problem that has been solved. Ironically, Zalmay
Khalilzad, the American special envoy to Afghanistan, recently lectured the
Afghan government on the poor progress it was making on
institution-building, on security, and even on the ?quality of service you
still get from government departments?. Mr Karzai is due to visit George
Bush in Washington at the end of the month. Perhaps by then he will have
drawn up a reciprocal list of complaints.