With international attention focused on Iraq, it is easy to forget the other front in the fight against terrorism. A coalition of forces, acting under United Nations authorization, has waged war against Islamic extremists in Afghanistan for nearly four years. That battle has been overshadowed by the controversy and difficulties surrounding the invasion of Iraq. Yet, in the past few months, the situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated and the Taliban, once driven from power, appear to have regained strength. The world must not forget Afghanistan: Efforts to restore peace there must be redoubled.
Weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, the international community mounted an invasion of Afghanistan, a nation whose government had provided sanctuary for Osama bin Laden and the al-Qaida terrorist network. It did not take long for the international coalition to drive the Taliban, radical Islamists who ruled the country, from power. After considerable negotiation among the various factions within Afghanistan, and considerable prodding by the governments that fought the war, a new government was installed in Kabul.
There was little to unite the factions of the new government other than a desire to be rid of the Taliban and to reclaim the power they had lost. Mr. Hamid Karzai was named president, but his government’s power did not extend much beyond Kabul, the capital. Elsewhere in the country, warlords reasserted the authority they once enjoyed.
The weakness of Mr. Karzai’s government was overlooked as the world shifted its attention to Iraq. The redeployment of U.S. forces from Afghanistan to the new battlefield also impeded efforts to defeat Taliban remnants. In the years since the invasion, the Taliban have slowly regained strength. Divisions among the country’s warlords and their attempts to grab power at the expense of Mr. Karzai have aided the Islamists, too.
Traditionally, spring signals a new offensive in Afghanistan and this year the Taliban have been especially aggressive. More than 900 people have been killed this year, 400 in May alone. Thousands of people have fled their homes. The Taliban continue to target schools — 200 have been burned thus far — as well as foreign aid groups in an attempt to instill fear and destabilize the country. One sign of their new strength is the estimated increase in the size of their fighting units from 100 to 400 men.
Some argue that the Taliban have gone on the offensive because they recognize the trend against them. It is more likely, though, that the Taliban sense weakness in Kabul and are pressing to exploit their advantage, especially in the south of the country where the U.S. plans to withdraw some 3,000 troops and turn the area over to NATO forces. NATO officials assert that the Taliban are testing the will of Western nations before the handover. New tactics, such as using civilians for cover and forcing coalition units to inflict civilian casualties when they battle the Islamists, makes the fight even more difficult. The West is increasingly being put on the defensive.
Even more disturbing is the growing frequency of Taliban attacks in the western and northern parts of the country, outside the group’s traditional stronghold in the south. Equally troubling is the Afghan government’s response: Mr. Karzai is discussing whether to arm local militias to fill the security vacuum. True, local soldiers know a region best and are most capable of working with the local population, but this policy makes no sense when the international community has been working for years to disarm those same forces. Giving them weapons only empowers leaders whose ambitions conflict with those of Kabul.
Of course, the Taliban must be defeated militarily. The past is proof that the world cannot tolerate a sanctuary for the forces of extremism. But the military is only part of the struggle. Just as important — if not more so — is the need to create an economy and a society that betters the lives of ordinary Afghans and enables them to resist the Taliban.
Many supporters of the former regime were not Islamists, but they recognized that the group brought stability to a country ravaged by war and divided by warlords.
For a while, the Taliban ended the corruption and violence endemic to Afghanistan. That must be the objective of the new government. That will require military force, not only to defeat the Taliban but also to help unite the country under a central government, as well as the means to finance the stabilization of communities and other necessities — health care, water, education — of a functioning society.
Governments must meet the billions of dollars in pledges made to support Afghanistan. Failure to commit to the creation of a new Afghanistan and to keep that promise will guarantee that Afghanistan overtakes Iraq as the world’s top concern.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.