ISLAMABAD — A bus driving along a quiet road in central Afghanistan earlier this month suddenly drove over the country’s worst killer. A loud explosion could be heard across the surrounding neighborhoods as the bus was ripped apart, leaving 13 people dead and another six badly injured.
The cause of the tragedy, once again, was just one of the estimated 10 million land mines planted across the war-ravaged country. Land mines already have left several thousand people dead, injured or maimed. Agencies have spent millions of dollars to detect and clear them, but amid a very poor profile of their scattered locations, the problem lingers.
Land mines are perhaps the most powerful reminder of the devastation caused to the country’s body fabric, first during the invasion by the former Soviet Union and subsequently by the infighting between competing warlords. Now Afghanistan is at the center of an international hunt for terrorists following last September’s attacks in the United States. Its future is as much at risk from the activism of militant groups as from economic uncertainty.
The U.S.-led antiterror coalition seems primarily concerned with pursuing remnants of the former Taliban regime and the al-Qaeda group. The hope is that once the ground is cleared of such forces, the time may come for durable peace to prevail across Afghanistan.
The international community followed up last year’s Afghan peace conference at Bonn with promises of economic aid made at donors’ conferences such as the one in Tokyo early this year. Refugees from neighboring countries like Pakistan and Iran, meanwhile, have begun returning home to Afghanistan at an increasing pace. Moreover, the extension of the Kabul interim government for the next 18 months and the arrival of the Turkish-led international security assistance force have improved the political prospects.
However, tragedies such as those caused by land mines demonstrate that promises of international assistance need to be vigorously pursued with actual deliveries of large-scale aid over a short period of time, spanning months rather than years. This may contrast with the conventional view that aid should trickle in simultaneously as peace prospects begin to improve. There can be no disagreement that success in delivering aid may be the most significant contributor toward a lasting peace.
International assistance is needed for land-mine removal, reconstruction of public and private properties left devastated by the war and inputs to revive the Afghan economy. Afghanistan has traditionally been heavily dependent on agricultural resources with no industrial alternatives. Unless the economy is quickly revived, chances are that the so-called window of opportunity created by the war on terror may quickly begin to close.
The international community led by the U.S. continues to take the view that assistance in the form of a security force should be confined to Kabul, the Afghan capital. While Kabul indeed suffers from a serious security problem, best illustrated recently by the assassination of Afghan Vice President Haji Abdul Qadir, a security problem continues in other parts of the country as well.
In time, the best hope for tackling this problem will lie in the creation of a national Afghan army and police force. But over the next several months and, perhaps, the next few years, Afghanistan’s security interests can best be served by expanding the presence of an international force outside Kabul. That would be the first step necessary to support new initiatives related to postwar reconstruction and development.
Afghanistan has been at the center of a tragedy for more than two decades. There are no short-term miracle cures. At best, Afghanistan can make a new beginning powered by the will of its people and, more importantly, by the support of the international community, which is eager to prevent it from returning to its bitter past.
A robust effort toward removing the 10 million mines scattered across this country needs to be launched sooner rather than later, for international security concerns are driven as much by concern over Afghanistan’s internal turmoil as they are by fear of another attack on the Western world from elements operating within its borders.
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