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Afghanistan is halfway down a new road: The progress that's been made could be lost if the world's support falters
Editorial
The Oregonian
07/21/2006

When Taliban fighters are reported to have "taken" a town in southern Afghanistan, it is, practically speaking, an illusion. U.S., NATO and Afghan fighters have found that it's relatively easy to drive them away again, sometimes without a fight.

Nevertheless, each time it happens, the Taliban score a victory of perception, noted Said Tayeb Jawad, Afghanistan's ambassador to the United States, during his visit to Portland on Thursday. The Taliban's actions remind Afghan villagers that they remain close by, a force capable of taking territory and asserting control, even if only briefly.

And each time, a little of the central government's credibility is lost.

That credibility is a precious commodity in Afghanistan's struggle to become a stable, functional nation-state. It is under threat not just from terrorists, but also by well-intended efforts to assist the Karzai government, if those efforts are incomplete or poorly executed, Jawad said.

For example, the United States may pay a contractor to build a school in an Afghan village. But if the money moves through multiple subcontractors, each skimming a slice of the contract, the last subcontractor does a slipshod job. Then the villagers begin to believe the central government can't deliver what it promises and that the United States doesn't know how to build a school.

Afghanistan's goal of building a stable, democratic society is clear and progress has been steady, but it is happening on a shoestring, the ambassador said, though more politely. The world is paying less, on a per capita basis, to build and stabilize Afghanistan than it has for most other post-conflict regions, he said, citing the examples of East Timor and Bosnia.

CARE International, the Afghan foreign minister, the RAND Corp. and others cite figures that show the world's nations poured up to $250 a year, per person, in aid into Rwanda, Bosnia, Kosovo and East Timor after wars in those regions. But the figure for Afghanistan, they say, was about $67 a person in 2002 and 2003.

The result on the ground, the ambassador said, is large districts served by just a handful of poorly paid policemen. Villages are without health clinics, meaning that women give birth in perilous conditions. Roads are inadequate, making it difficult for Afghanis to travel safely within the country.

And over and over, when Afghan villagers are asked what they need the most, Jawad said, they say "a school."

Schools, health clinics, roads and better-paid police would help revive and sustain Afghanistan in many critical ways, from providing short-term public-works jobs to creating a belief in a stable future. In such a future, Jawad said, a desperate farmer will be less inclined to harvest opium poppies for a quick payoff. He'll be more inclined to plant legal crops in vineyards or orchards, knowing that, five years later, he'll be supported by roads and storage and distribution systems he can rely on.

The United States and the other countries in the coalition still have an opportunity to create the kind of free and open society they say they want in central Asia: a place that tolerates diversity and rejects terrorism. But the opportunity isn't permanent. If the world starves Afghanistan of the resources it needs to govern itself effectively, the vacuum will be filled by the Taliban, al-Qaida or someone else.

It's happened before.

 

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