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A long, winding road


Once upon a time, in a newsroom not so far away, an editor unimpressed with editorial writers who waxed philosophical about issues in remote corners of the globe rather than focusing on local controversies coined the term Afghanistanism.

The year was 1948, the editor was Jenkin Lloyd Jones, and the paper was the Tulsa Tribune.

Would that more American journalists had kept their focus on Afghanistan in the years after the U.S. invasion to oust the Taliban regime.

On this eve of the 9-11 commemorations, the word Afghanistan is again peppering congressional floor speeches and political monologues. Unfortunately, the talk of a "democratic success story" won't change the reality that Afghanistan is a long way from being a fully functioning democracy, and it won't get there without changing the way that international assistance is delivered.

NATO forces are taking on -- and, in many cases, taking out -- large numbers of Taliban and al Qaeda militants after assuming responsibility for the country's southern portion. Still, Gen. James L. Jones, NATO's top commander, urged allied nations on Thursday to send reinforcements to the south, where resurgent Taliban are inflicting heavy casualties and have captured the Helmand provincial town of Garmser for the second time in two months.

The militants, for the most part, are entering Afghanistan at will across the Pakistani border.

Said Tayeb Jawad, Afghan ambassador to the United States, never said as much in his Sept. 5 talk at the World Affairs Council of Dallas and Fort Worth, but it wasn't difficult to suss out whom he meant when referencing where Osama bin Laden is most likely hiding: "He needs connectivity for communications; he needs dialysis, which is not available in a cave in Afghanistan. He is where we find his friend, in major cities, not tribal areas, in a country neighboring ours."

Jawad might be guessing, but it's an educated one reinforced by events last week. In Kabul on Thursday, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf acknowledged that al Qaeda and Taliban militants cross from Pakistan to launch attacks inside Afghanistan, but he denied his government sponsored them, reported The Associated Press.

Last week's "truce" between Islamabad and the Pakistani Taliban in the western region of Waziristan is supposed to put a stop to this kind of activity, but skepticism isn't out of place. Apparently Musharaff sees a difference between his home-grown Taliban and those in Afghanistan -- and the White House is going along with it.

Press secretary Tony Snow performed his best spin dance last week, saying the cease-fire means that "local tribal Taliban -- not al Qaeda or Taliban operating in Afghanistan -- have agreed not to shelter foreigners ... and also have agreed not to allow cross-border incursions into Afghanistan or to attack the military," said a State Department report of Snow's Sept. 6 briefing.

The Bush administration keeps proclaiming Pakistan as a regional leader in the war on terror, even as Musharaff plays footsie with the Taliban. Musharaff has assured Washington and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization that he will not hinder foreign troops based in Afghanistan from crossing the border into a limited area of his country in pursuit of militants -- but that's a far cry from directing his army to root out the insurgents before they cross into Afghanistan.

It's important not to confuse Afghanistan with Iraq. Kabul is not Baghdad. The situations, histories and cultures are decidedly different.

The foundation for a fully functioning Afghan democracy exists in the form of the most liberal constitution in the region. As Jawad pointed out, "Women lining up to vote is not shared as progress in other Arab and Muslim nations."

But a piece of paper doesn't mean much when the government lacks the resources and training needed not only to defend its population but also to extend the services that a democratic society expects: courts and schools, healthcare and electricity, clean water and functioning transportation systems.

The U.S. war on terror is focused on eliminating individual terrorists rather than combating terrorism as a phenomenon, Jawad said.

The ambassador is right. The "long war" may be the term that the U.S. military and the administration have adopted as defining the global battle against terrorism, but it must apply to more than bullets and bombs. If systems aren't in place to allow the Afghan people to run their own army, police force, judicial system, law enforcement, banking, schools, healthcare -- all of the institutions needed for a functioning democracy -- then the phrase "long war" is going to be an understatement.

The Afghan people are eager for international engagement. There remains no sympathy for terrorism. But disillusionment and frustration over the lack of change almost five years after the U.S. invasion has Afghans wondering when the promises that democracy was supposed to herald will become realities.

"If democracy means the opportunity to send your daughters to school, to sleep through the night without fearing the secret police ... if democracy means building consensus, that is what is occurring in Afghanistan," Jawad said.

Yet NATO troops can do only so much. Once an area is cleared of the bad guys, it must be held by trained Afghan good guys. The international aid money earmarked for Afghanistan must not only be sent but must get to the Afghan people and not stay in the hands of private contractors who, for the most part, are not Afghans.

Ann Jones, author of Kabul in Winter, detailed in the Sept. 3 San Francisco Chronicle the reconstruction fraud that is "phantom aid." Using a June 2005 report by Action Aid (a nongovernmental organization headquartered in Johannesburg, South Africa, that studies development aid by all countries worldwide), Jones says that only 40 percent of the amount reported is real.

"Some of it doesn't even exist except as an accounting item, as when countries count debt relief or the construction costs of a fancy new embassy in the aid column," Jones wrote. "A lot of it never leaves home; paychecks for American 'experts' under contract to USAID go directly to their U.S. banks. Much of the money is thrown away on 'overpriced and ineffective technical assistance,' such as those hot-shot American experts, the report said."

The Afghan people are the ones who pay for this smoke-and-mirrors money game. Only 29 percent of the schools have roofs. Only 23 percent of the country has safe water; only 6 percent has access to electricity.

Afghanistan still holds the promise of succeeding as a democracy, but the international community -- and particularly the United States -- must stop playing games with the billions of dollars in financial assistance that can make that happen.

"Development has faltered because funding has followed donor priorities and bureaucratic processes, and in doing so has failed to strengthen Afghan government capacity," concludes an August 2006 report by the Center for Global Development.

As Jones said, Afghans shouldn't be the only ones who keep asking where the money went. U.S. taxpayers should be asking the same question.

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