While most Americans have focused their attention on Iraq this year, the Bush administration has had its hands full in Afghanistan.
Reconstructing this fractious and fractured country is proving harder than many thought. Yet failure in Afghanistan would be a disastrous setback in the war on terror. It would open the door for the Islamist Taliban to return to power. Al Qaeda could reclaim its bases and plot more attacks on the US and other countries. And it would hinder Pakistan in reining in its own Islamist terrorists.
On the military front, the hunt for Osama bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Omar continues along the Afghan-Pakistani border. Local ethnic warlords continue to operate independently of President Hamid Karzai's government in Kabul. Reports say Taliban fighters are living openly in Pakistan.
In these conditions, the increasingly confident Taliban are trying to stage a comeback. The US military estimates that a small but potent force of up to 2,000 Taliban fighters has reorganized and is operating in the south and east. Taliban guerrillas based in the ethnic Pushtun region bordering Pakistan attack government officials and offices with increasing boldness. They rocket US bases almost daily. But US and Afghan forces scored several successes last month, killing up to 300 insurgents and three top Taliban commanders.
On the political front, a commission has completed the first draft of a new constitution. But the loya jirga, or grand council, meant to approve it has been postponed from this month to December. At issue: a decision whether the nation should have a presidential or parliamentary system, or a constitutional monarchy; the role and interpretation of Islamic law; and rights for women and minorities. The current draft calls for two houses of parliament, with a strong president and a prime minister. Such a system ought to be well suited to the Afghans' dealmaking culture.
Meanwhile, it's all President Karzai can do to hold his fragile coalition together. The predominance and behavior of the mostly Tajik and Uzbek Northern Alliance, especially at the defense ministry, offend the country's Pushtun majority, from which the Taliban drew their strength. Karzai's recent moves to rein in Northern Alliance figures have led to threats they will run a candidate against him.
But many observers doubt the Karzai government can exert enough control over the countryside to hold elections, given the current security situation.
So it's welcome news that NATO, now in charge of the international peacekeeping force in Afghanistan, has finally recommended deploying peacekeepers outside Kabul. Assuming the UN Security Council approves, plans call for stationing NATO troops in several provincial capitals, starting with 250-plus German soldiers in Kunduz. They'll relieve a US military provincial reconstruction team.
That's a good start, but to do the job NATO needs at least 10,000 more troops in addition to the 5,500 already in country. Those troops must be authorized and equipped for more than mere guard duty. Like the separate 10,000-soldier US-led force, they must be able to move rapidly against Taliban, Al Qaeda, or militia formations, something not currently envisaged. Furthermore, if NATO is to help police the elections now scheduled for summer 2004, it must speed up deployments.
The Bush administration, slow to come to grips with the anarchy that is Afghanistan, is belatedly shoring up the faltering reconstruction process. It is upgrading special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad to ambassador, placing US advisers in key ministries, and asking Congress for another $1.2 billion in aid on top of $800 million already committed for 2003 - a request Congress should quickly approve. [Editor's note: The original version misstated how much aid the US has committed to Afghanistan for 2003.]
The administration has also reorganized its management of events in Afghanistan and Iraq. Reportedly fed up with bureaucratic infighting that has slowed US reconstruction efforts, President Bush has created the Iraq Stabilization Group under National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice to oversee US efforts in both countries.
It is to be hoped that the president's action will streamline decisionmaking rather than slow it. He must exercise decisive leadership to ensure the former. His reelection, as well as the security of all Americans, may depend on it.