Vice President Dick Cheney came to Afghanistan on an unannounced visit Tuesday to remind Americans of the importance of the first, and often forgotten, front in the war on terror. A Taliban suicide bomber who failed in an attempt to assassinate Mr. Cheney here helped to make a compelling case for him.
Since last summer, when the Taliban seized entire districts in the southernmost provinces and attempted to encircle Kabul, the United States has refocused its attention on Afghanistan.
Recently, the Bush administration proposed $10.6 billion in aid, announced the overhaul of its diplomatic mission here, and increased the number of American troops to 27,000 – the highest level since the 2001 invasion.
It is, in part, an attempt to save what has been promoted as the administration's great overseas achievement, even as Iraq slips further into chaos. But Tuesday's events are indicative of the Taliban's eagerness to escalate the fight, and analysts question whether America's increased commitment to Afghanistan will be sufficient to make the country's democratic experiment successful.
"For so long, Afghanistan was held up as the success story," says Paul Fishstein, director of the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, an independent analysis organization. "Now it seems that much of what has been touted as building a pluralistic, open democracy is at risk."
Tuesday's attack comes at a time of relative peace around Kabul, which has not seen a suicide attack for months.
Mr. Cheney was staying at Bagram Air Base, about 40 miles north of the capital. When the bomber was unable to get beyond the front gate because of security, he blew himself up, according to coalition officials. At press time, casualty figures were uncertain, but at least 23 were killed. NATO reported that at least one US soldier, an American contractor, and a South Korean solder were among the dead. President Hamid Karzai's office said that some 20 Afghan workers at the base lost their lives.
Cheney said that the attackers were trying "to find ways to question the authority of the central government." The Taliban, who have claimed responsibility for the attack through a spokesman, say that Cheney was the intended target.
It is not yet clear whether this attack heralds an expansion of the Taliban offensive into the relatively stable north. The Taliban are strongest in Afghanistan's southern provinces, where they are widely believed to receive haven and support in neighboring Pakistan.
Their offensive in the region last year created lawless enclaves – with much of the area still controlled by neither the government nor the insurgents. The situation has jolted the West – and the US in particular – into action. "Last year seemed to wake the international community to the fact that this war was not a complete success," says a Western diplomat, who would discuss the issue only on condition of anonymity. "In fact, it was a potential failure."
The US has responded with the $10.6 billion aid package, with some $8 billion of that earmarked for the Afghan Army and police. The White House and Congress alike have increased pressure on Pakistan to control its borders. And a month ago, the US gave the Afghan Army 800 military vehicles and 12,000 guns, in hopes of gradually making it more self-sufficient.
In some respects, Afghanistan might benefit from America's mounting weariness with the Iraq war. Just after becoming Speaker of the House, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D) of California traveled to Afghanistan and commented that the country needs "much more of an effort" from the US and NATO – in contrast to her position that the US should withdraw from Iraq.
While Mr. Bush has not shown any signs of lessening his commitment to Iraq, he has clearly made more room for Afghanistan on his foreign-policy platform. When the issue of the Iraq troop surge was recently before Congress, Bush took the opportunity to deliver a speech solely about Afghanistan.
It was more than just a diversion. Frustrated by most NATO nations' unwillingness to commit troops to the volatile south, the US this month decided to send a brigade to Afghanistan that was scheduled to go to Iraq. Britain has increased its troop levels in Afghanistan by 1,400 to 7,700 – meaning it will soon have more troops in Afghanistan than Iraq.
But in Italy, Prime Minister Romano Prodi resigned after dissension over Italy's involvement in Afghanistan, something he continued to defend as he opened a Senate debate ahead of a confidence vote on his government scheduled for Wednesday. Italy has about 1,800 troops in the country.
And in Canada, which has some 2,500 soldiers in Afghanistan, a fourth probe was opened Tuesday into whether soldiers knew about possible torture of detainees after they were handed over to Afghan authorities.
Most government officials and nongovernmental organizations welcome US help. But some analysts worry that the US will continue to throw money and manpower at effects, while ignoring the causes of Afghanistan's problems.
Top among those they say, is reforming the Afghan government, which is increasingly controlled by warlords and drug money from the illegal poppy trade.
As in Iraq, the United States rushed to install a democratic government in a place not prepared for it, they add, ignoring what were, perhaps, larger problems.
After the Taliban, "Afghans were not jumping up and down, saying, 'We want to vote for a president,' " says an aid expert who has worked in the region for decades but requested anonymity because he was not cleared to speak with the media. "They wanted jobs. They wanted services."
In the end, many say, it not only let in criminals and warlords but created unrealistic expectations, as both Afghans and the international community believed Afghanistan was further along than it was.
"The excessive focus on the elections as an indictor for success was misleading," says Mr. Fishstein.
Even now, the notion of giving $10.6 billion to a government with neither the means nor the expertise to spend it strikes some as well-intentioned, but fruitless.
Regarding the Afghan government's ability to act, the aid expert says, "You're navigating glaciers here because they are so slow."