ISLAMABAD — A team of Afghan military officers who have just completed their first ever military exercises with Pakistani and U.S. troops in Pakistan represent Washington’s hope for a new future for Afghanistan’s beleaguered security apparatus. But the effort also promises to stir controversy because the architects of Afghanistan’s new post-Taliban era are failing to oversee a transition to more representative politics and to rejuvenate the country’s economy.

As U.S. President George W. Bush loses popularity at home, the mood in Kabul is anything but relaxed. Bush’s downward slide will undoubtedly impact his promise to rebuild Iraq and Afghanistan.

In recent months, members of Afghanistan’s hardline Taliban movement have reorganized themselves and are making a comeback. They have not only launched vicious attacks on U.S. and Afghan soldiers but are also increasingly relying on particularly brutal methods such as beheading their victims, whose numbers include informers and anyone linked to Afghanistan’s government.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s regime attributes the Taliban’s comeback to Islamabad’s support of militant groups based in Pakistan. This criticism is aimed at Pakistan’s security establishment — its military and intelligence networks — which dominated Afghanistan before Pakistan changed its policy under U.S. pressure in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and became an ally in the war on terror.

The United States likely hopes that the tripartite military exercises in northern Pakistan will be a first step to improving ties between the Pakistani and Afghan militaries, with the two eventually becoming partners in the war on terror and providing vital support for the U.S. even after American troops are withdrawn from Afghanistan.

But Bush’s logic of putting most of his eggs in the military basket — typical of his neoconservative foreign policy — clashes with Afghanistan’s internal dynamics and fuels its insecurity. For too long the U.S. has failed to appreciate the Taliban’s political standing in Afghanistan, seeing it as no more than an ideologically charged, ragtag militia.

Washington’s failure to recognize the political significance of the Taliban is a failure to accept reality. The Taliban continues to enjoy support in large parts of Afghanistan. Consequently the Kabul regime will remain far from representative unless it includes members of the Taliban.

Economically Afghanistan remains a country with few rays of hope beyond the prosperity seen in large cities such as Kabul, where, in sharp contrast to the days of the Taliban era, basic needs such as electricity are now being supplied to at least some parts of the capital city. Indeed, some businesses are flourishing and more jobs have been created. Yet this relative prosperity shows few signs of trickling down to the grass roots of society, especially in rural areas.

For the U.S., Afghanistan represents a fundamental irony. If the billions of dollars it spent on an overstretched military operation had been used for economic rehabilitation, the country’s destiny may have been different. It is a fundamental reality that poverty breeds militancy.

In sharp contrast to the international acclaim the Taliban won for its success in halting the flow of narcotics from Afghanistan, the central Asian state has today once again become a leading producer of opiates. Consequently, the failure of Afghanistan’s leaders and the U.S.-led global community to provide political stability and sustainable economic growth undermines the country’s future prospects.

Perhaps the just concluded military exercises ought to be followed up by long overdue political and economic exercises in which the key players around the table not only include the political representatives of currently disenfranchised political groups but also generous Western governments. If this does not happen Afghanistan may become further locked into a vicious circle of violence.

For military men from Pakistan and Afghanistan, teamed up together at Washington’s behest, the obvious logic for a new policy has to be through the barrel of their guns rather than through the significance of ordinary voters.

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