Shoring up a fragile Afghanistan

Latest setbacks in the country lead to calls for more US aid and military support.

The United States has won the battle in Afghanistan – but does it yet risk losing the war?

After nine months of an American military campaign, the central Asian country is no longer a staging ground for international terrorists. But the country has seen foreign interventions founder before, and once again, Afghanistan is proving to be a difficult case – with prospects for keeping terrorists out and reconstructing a stable national government looking shakier than once thought.

A string of bad news has many observers seizing the moment to call for stepped-up action from the US and the international community – both in the security area and in reconstruction – to reverse what some fear could be the beginning of a downward spiral.

Afghanistan's dominant Pashtun ethnic group shows signs of turning its back on both the US presence and transitional President Hamid Karzai, himself a Pashtun. This follows a recent US bombing error and the assassination of the interim government's vice president. In addition, regional warlords are reasserting power, raising concerns that the door could be opened once again to Al Qaeda.

These events raise questions about everything from the depth of US involvement to whether the UN-organized security force in Kabul is too little and too geographically limited to do much good.

"It's not clear that we're losing, but we haven't conclusively won, either," says retired Gen. Wesley Clark, who as NATO supreme commander from 1997 to 2000 oversaw allied forces in Bosnia and Kosovo. He notes that the Taliban are gone and Osama bin Laden is "in hiding," but that the country has "no economy, no local government, and the warlords run the regions."

Some experts say the setbacks – such as the bombing of what turned out to be a wedding party in a remote village – serve notice that the US is trying to accomplish security and stability in Afghanistan without committing the necessary resources. "Lack of information on the ground leads to errors like the Afghan wedding bombing," says Jack Goldstone, a specialist in revolutions and nation-building at the University of California at Davis.

But others say the US is unlikely to do more to fill what is being called a "security gap" because of the Bush administration's sharpening focus on Iraq and concerns of stretching forces and resources too thin. Critics warn, however, that a failure to follow through on pledges to stabilize Afghanistan is likely to fuel international doubts about the wisdom of moving against Iraq.

Even more pessimistic observers say that the US recognizes it is in a "no-win" situation, where Afghanistan is likely to break up regardless of more aid or military presence.

The Bush administration stands by its view that the Afghan campaign is going well – and that any war will have its setbacks. "It's going to take time, and bad things will happen," says Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke. The State Department adds that despite the assassination of Abdul Qadir in Kabul, the country is "generally calm."

But other officials and analysts say the events should serve as a wake-up call for rededication and greater resources to the Afghan campaign. The relatively small international security force operating in Kabul must be expanded and extended to other cities, key roads, and border posts, some security experts have concluded. And with surveys in hand indicating public support, some international groups say now is the time for the US to show greater compassion for Afghan civilians.

While criticism of how the US effort in Afghanisan is going is picking up among Democrats, the questioning is surfacing in President Bush's own party, too. "If we lose [in the US goal to build a stable Afghanistan], if this goes backward, this will be a huge defeat for us symbolically in that region, in the world, for our word, [for] confidence in Americans all over the world," said Sen. Chuck Hagel (R) of Nebraska in a recent television interview. "We cannot allow this to go down."

Calls to expand the 5,000-strong International Security Assistance Force – which operates with US support but without its direct participation – are building steam. The ISAF operates only in Kabul, which some experts say leaves the bulk of the country wide open to banditry, factionalism – and perhaps a revived Taliban and Al Qaeda presence.

"A larger force looks necessary if we don't want to lose the progress we've made or to see a power vacuum filled by sources of future trouble," says Victoria Holt, an expert in security issues at the Stimson Center, a Washington think tank.

Concerns about a too-small security force are also reflected in alarms over a faltering reconstruction effort. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher says the US has actually surpassed the funding it pledged at an international donors' conference in January. But Ms. Holt says the Bush administration asked for only $40 million in the March supplemental budget – considerably less than either the House or Senate wants.

International groups lobbying for greater US financial commitment are citing polls that indicate strong public support for doing more to help the Afghan people. One poll commissioned by Global Exchange, a San Francisco-based human rights organization, found that more than two-thirds of Americans support humanitarian assistance for civilian victims of the US war.

Such assistance "would be a goodwill gesture responding to an immediate human crisis," says Jason Mark of Global Exchange. "But what this really supports is our belief that the fight against terrorism is a battle for hearts and minds, and that in the long run, we aren't going to defeat terrorism through arms alone."

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