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The top NATO military commander in Afghanistan, British Gen. David Richards, has warned that Afghanistan is at a crucial juncture. If the lives of ordinary Afghans do not improve soon, there is the very real danger that they will switch their allegiance back to the Taliban. Loss of the support of the Afghan people would fatally undermine Western efforts to build a new, democratic government in Kabul and return the Muslim fundamentalists to government. The setback in the fight against global terror and the attempt to spread democracy would be incalculable.

There was never any real doubt about the outcome when the United Nations authorized an attack on the Afghanistan government in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks in the United States. The crude militia that had consolidated power and defeated rival warlords in the aftermath of the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan was no match for the combined power of the West’s militaries.

But winning the war and winning the peace are two very different battles. Driving the Taliban from Kabul and other major cities was merely the first step in a campaign to pacify the country and hand power over to a functioning government in Kabul. The Afghan people made their preferences known in elections in 2004, but their support was always contingent on some return to normalcy: security, stability, basic services. It is in these basic tasks that the government of President Hamid Karzai has failed so miserably.

The figures tell a grim story. Life expectancy in Afghanistan is less than 45 years. The per capita gross domestic product is under $200. Less than 30 percent of the population is literate, and the infant mortality rate is one of the highest in the world. Afghanistan depends on foreign support for survival; opium-related exports account for about one-third of the economy and the country supplies more than 90 percent of the world’s heroin.

Some of the fault can be laid at the feet of Mr. Karzai. He has made deals with warlords that cede them authority in their home regions. Those deals, which diminish the power and authority of the central government, reflect Kabul’s weakness; Mr. Karzai would not have made them if he had had another option.

His weakness is the result of the reluctance of the West to help shore up the Afghan government and send forces out to stabilize outlying provinces. Some of the blame has to be put on U.S. President George W. Bush, who withdrew U.S. forces to prepare for the invasion of Iraq. But responsibility must also be shouldered by other members of NATO that provided the troops who are fighting the Taliban.

Those governments were reluctant to commit large numbers of forces to Afghanistan or to send them out into the countryside to battle the remnants of the Taliban. As a result, the Taliban maintained support networks throughout the country and waited until the movement regained strength to mount a powerful comeback in the south. The offensive has spread to the east of the country, aided by support from like-minded clans across the border in Pakistan. Although Pakistan denies the charge, most observers believe a truce the Islamabad government recently signed with tribal leaders in North Waziristan has created a sanctuary for Taliban fighters in that country. NATO officials argue there has been a surge in fighting since the agreement was signed.

“Saving Afghanistan” requires two things. The first is a renewed commitment by Western governments to commit forces needed to beat back the Taliban and secure the country. Currently, there are 32,000 NATO soldiers in Afghanistan. Gen. Richards wants to increase the number by 2,500. But those troops must also be used against the Taliban and not “garrisoned” in large cities. The Taliban remnants must be defeated.

Defeating the Taliban is just a first — but critical — step. Once the countryside is secure, much more must be done to bring normalcy to the lives of the Afghan people. Three decades of fighting have left the country a huge pile of rubble. The billions of dollars in reconstruction pledges must be delivered and put to use in reconstruction and development.

Japan has a special role to play in this process. In addition to hosting conferences on reconstruction assistance to Afghanistan, this country has already spent $1 billion from September 2001 to November 2005, covering a wide range of projects. Tokyo pledged an additional $450 million earlier this year as well.

But Afghanistan is depending on Japan — like its other friends and allies — to do more than just promise money: It needs sustained assistance, in both men and material, to build a stable and secure future. It is tempting to say it is time for Afghanistan to stand on its own feet, but it is plainly unable to do so. And the world is well aware of the dangers that would result if Afghanistan is abandoned once again.

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