Thursday, August 24, 2006

Losing Afghanistan

NYT Editorial

Reclaiming Afghanistan from the Taliban remains a crucial element in America’s global struggle against terrorism. So it should be setting off alarm bells in Washington that Afghans are becoming disenchanted with the performance of the country’s pro-American president, Hamid Karzai.

The democratically elected Karzai government is a big improvement over any of its recent predecessors. But it has not brought security, economic revival or effective governance to most of the country. That has left it vulnerable to complaints about blatant corruption, the pervasive power of warlords and drug lords, and escalating military pressure from a revived and resupplied Taliban.

Nearly five years after American military forces help topple a Taliban government that provided sanctuary and training camps to Osama bin Laden, there is no victory in the war for Afghanistan, due in significant measure to the Bush administration’s reckless haste to move on to Iraq and shortsighted stinting on economic reconstruction.

The Taliban, operating from cross-border sanctuaries in Pakistan, has exploited Washington’s strategic blunders and Mr. Karzai’s disappointing performance to rebuild its political and military strength, particularly in the southern region where it first began its drive to power more than a decade ago. Daily battles now rage across five southern provinces. Civilian and military casualties are rising sharply, including those among the NATO forces that have recently moved into these areas.

Mr. Karzai cannot deliver security and redevelopment without sustained and effective international help. But he should be doing a lot more to curb the corruption of his political allies and appointees.

Their ostentatious greed has widened the gap, and sharpened political antagonisms, between the favored few and the desperately poor majority in one of the world’s least developed countries. Such venality is a gift to austere Taliban recruiters.

So is the notorious corruption of the police and judges, which makes it impossible for people to win redress of simple grievances. Frustration with the courts is again driving people to look to the swift and brutal punishments that have always been a Taliban specialty. Mr. Karzai did himself no favors by appointing a warlord and organized-crime figure as Kabul’s police chief earlier this year.

Americans are coming to see the war in Iraq as something apart from the war against 9/11-style terrorism — and a distraction from it. The war in Afghanistan has always been an essential part of that larger struggle. That makes it a war that America simply cannot afford to lose.

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