Crossroads in Afghanistan

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld may have spoken too soon when he declared last month that the combat phase in Afghanistan, which began in October 2001, is now over and the reconstruction phase has started.

The suicide-bomb attack on German troops last Saturday in Kabul, which killed four soldiers, was but the latest in a series of attacks. The danger is that the victory in Afghanistan will unravel in the face of attacks from Al Qaeda, Taliban remnants, and recalcitrant warlords. To prevent that, the US and the rest of the world must act quickly to deploy a larger international security force outside the capital and to increase reconstruction aid to the impoverished country.

The government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai faces huge challenges. The new Afghan Army numbers only about 4,000 to 5,000 troops stationed mostly around Kabul - far short of the 70,000 or more needed. President Karzai depends on local warlords to keep order, but many enforce their own policies, ignoring the central government, and most refuse to forward tax revenues to the central government, depriving it of funding.

Karzai visited Britain last week and asked for another $15 billion in development aid. The world can't afford to withhold appropriate assistance. To do so would abandon Afghanistan to chaos, leaving the country wide open for the Taliban and Osama bin Laden to move back in and resume the export of terror.

But aid will be meaningless unless there is security in the provinces for aid and construction workers on projects that benefit local people.

The US has been oddly hesitant to expand the international security force outside the capital. The administration was originally reluctant to do too much nation-building in Afghanistan. The US wants to have a free hand and avoid the expense involved in larger deployments. Even if European or other troops are involved, the US still must provide logistical support.

But there is little choice. President Bush and German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, who quarreled over Iraq, have rightly reaffirmed their commitment to fight terrorism together. When NATO takes over peacekeeping operations in August, the US, Europeans, and others must increase their forces and security coordination.

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