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ISLAMABAD — As prospects for a U.S.-led war on Iraq loom larger, Afghanistan faces an increasingly uncertain future — more than a year after the United States intervened in that country. Many analysts believe the fate of Afghanistan may determine whether and when the major powers should intervene in other countries to tackle a security crisis and create a democratic regime.

If Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had implemented democratic reforms following the 1991 Persian Gulf War, perhaps the U.S. would not have a case for charging into what could turn out to be another expensive war.

Although Afghan President Hamid Karzai has U.S. backing, his grip on the country is tenuous and limited to a few large urban centers. Beyond these cities, the rule of regional warlords has once again grown significant as they defy the writs of the central government. Reports of inefficiency and rising corruption in Afghanistan increasingly trickle out, casting doubt on the Central Asian country’s future prospects.

On the eve of a possible war in Iraq, the case of Afghanistan illustrates just how much easier it is to wage war than build peace. A year after the collapse of Afghanistan’s Taliban regime, the country’s economy remains in shambles. The external aid promised thus far is only enough to fund modest developmental work and cover the government’s operating expenditures.

Afghanistan’s future will remain bleak unless there is improvement in three vital areas:

First, the international community’s commitments must be more generous if Afghanistan is to start on the road to a broad and sustained economic recovery. Afghanistan’s financial malaise runs from the pinnacle of government — where administrative structures have broken down — to the country’s ordinary citizens, who must struggle to obtain basic necessities.

A visit to any large Afghan hospital provides a compelling reminder that the country has been in a state of war for more than 20 years. Nothing short of a tremendous outpouring of resources from the international community will resurrect this ravaged society.

Second, Afghanistan must be assured that all outside intervention will end. Thankfully, Iran and Pakistan, which border most of the country, have shown few signs of renewing their interventionist activities and backing rival Afghan factions. However, the continuing presence of U.S. troops is worrisome. While Washington uses the ongoing war on terror to justify its Afghanistan policy, it should nonetheless state a time frame for when it will consider pulling its forces out of the country. Otherwise, the presence of U.S. forces will continue to cause uncertainty, which in turn will undermine prospects for investment and the return of affluent Afghans who have lived outside the country for years.

Finally, while the U.S. should encourage the political rise of more progressive elements within Afghanistan, tinkering too much with the fabric of politics in a country where cultural and religious influences run deep is bound to backfire.

Afghanistan’s best hope for stability lies in implementing political progress in an evolutionary fashion. While this road would be fraught with difficulty, ultimately Afghans will more easily accept a system of government that they see as serving them, rather than one that is widely viewed to have been imposed from the outside.

It is possible, though tragic, that many valuable lessons from the Afghanistan campaign may be forgotten in the event of a U.S.-led war on Iraq, and that victory in this conflict would be defined by attaining a change of regime in Iraq — obviously a key objective of the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush. Afghanistan’s social, political and economic troubles should serve as a warning that there is far more to successful nation-building than simply fighting and winning a war.

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