Sunday marked the first anniversary of the establishment of an interim government in Afghanistan following the collapse of the Islamic fundamentalist Taliban regime. Earlier this month, Mr. Hamid Karzai, head of the transitional government that took over from an interim administration in June, noted that security remains the country’s biggest concern. Fighting among local warlords continues, as does terrorism attributed to remnants of the Taliban. The attempted assassination of President Karzai in September, in the southwest town of Kandahar, is still fresh in memory.

Osama bin Laden, the elusive leader of the al-Qaeda terrorist network, is still at large (if he is alive), and so, too, is Mullah Mohammad Omar, who was the Taliban’s supreme leader. U.S. special forces are continuing the hunt for terrorists in and around Afghanistan. In the event of a war in Iraq, however, some American troops will probably be redeployed to the Iraqi front, causing a slackening in the antiterror campaign.

Meanwhile, Afghan refugees are returning home in droves. So far 1.7 million people — half of the estimated 3.5 million who had fled their devastated homeland — are said to have come back from Pakistan and other neighboring countries. But in an economy ravaged by two decades of war, jobs are scarce. Rebuilding essential infrastructure is, therefore, just as pressing a priority for Afghanistan as restoring peace and order.

In order to rebuild, the country urgently needs international assistance. Billions of dollars have already been pledged by aid agencies and donor nations, including Japan, but the disbursement of aid money is being delayed due to the lack of internal security. Post-Taliban Afghanistan “started from nothing,” as President Karzai puts it. Reportedly his administration has had difficulty even paying civil servants. Stepped-up international assistance is indispensable for an orderly transition to democracy.

The transitional government, installed in June by the loya jirga, a grand council of tribal chieftains and elders, maintains a precarious balance of power. Democratic elections will likely be held in 2004 to create a permanent government. For that to happen, however, internal order must be established.

The international community promised to provide Afghanistan with $4.5 billion over five years at a 60-nation meeting on Afghan recovery held in Tokyo in January. That is almost equal to the $4.9 billion in recovery funding the World Bank had earlier estimated would be required over the two and a half years prior to the establishment of a permanent Afghan government.

The Japanese government promised to contribute $500 million of this amount, $5 million of which has already been provided to cover administrative expenses. An additional $280 million has been disbursed to support a variety of projects, such as the removal of land mines, the construction of a highway between Kabul and Kandahar, the building of schools and the resettlement of returnees.

But these and other recovery programs are threatened by lingering ethnic and tribal strife, as well as recurring terrorist incidents. As things stand, Kabul is said to be about the only safe place in the country. The 4,800-member International Security Assistance Force, organized under a U.N. Security Council resolution, is not deployed in dangerous provinces. Germany and the Netherlands, which are expected to take over command of the ISAF from Turkey next February, say deployment should be limited to Kabul and neighboring regions.

The U.S. special forces, which have devoted themselves to ferreting out Taliban and al-Qaeda remnants, have not paid as much attention to restoring order in Afghanistan. Information from Washington indicates, however, that the U.S. is beginning to prioritize economic cooperation as well. That is welcome. The plan currently in the works calls for sending mixed teams of engineers, aid workers and military escorts to eight cities other than Kabul.

Also worthy of note is President Karzai’s program to create a 70,000-strong national army. The U.S. is due to provide training at a cost of $350 million. Another important security task for the transitional government is to disarm an estimated 750,000 former Afghan soldiers, who present an ongoing security risk. In this, Japan, together with the U.N., is to play a central role.

Local warlords who continue to defy the central government are also a major roadblock to internal security. Tangible progress in economic reconstruction, supported by solid international cooperation, is needed to convince them of the futility of continued hostilities.

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