Watch out for Afghanistan

MAX BOOT is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

NOT LONG AGO, Afghanistan appeared to be doing much better than Iraq in spite of getting much less American help. But in the last year, a surge in Taliban activity has endangered the hard-won achievements of the 2001-2004 period. Roadside bombings and suicide attacks are up. Parts of the countryside are in the Taliban’s grip. Opium production is hitting record levels. Already this year coalition forces have suffered more fatalities in Afghanistan (163) than they did in all of 2005 (130) to say nothing of 2004 (58).

The situation is still not as dire as in Iraq, as anyone who has recently been to both countries can attest. But the trends are ominous.

A large part of the fault lies with Pakistan. After making some efforts to curb Taliban activity, President Pervez Musharraf seems to have thrown in the towel. He has agreed to withdraw troops from Waziristan, turning over a frontier area the size of New Jersey to Taliban supporters. He also released from prison about 2,500 foreign fighters linked to the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Since those actions, U.S. officials report that Taliban attacks in the eastern provinces of Afghanistan have tripled.


Pakistan isn’t just turning a blind eye to Taliban activity. Its Inter-Services Intelligence agency seems to be increasing the amount of training and logistical support it provides to Islamist militants -- and not just in Afghanistan. While Musharraf was promoting his book in the U.S. last week, Indian police announced that they hold Pakistani intelligence responsible for the Mumbai train bombings that killed 186 people in July.

Musharraf claims, like Sgt. Schultz on “Hogan’s Heroes,” to know nothing about what’s going on under his nose, but his denials aren’t terribly credible. More likely, he has made a cynical calculation that his own interests will be better served by a truce -- or perhaps even an alliance -- with the extremists.

The fault isn’t all Musharraf’s. Afghan President Hamid Karzai deserves some blame for not doing more to spread good governance to the southern and eastern provinces, where many people are so fed up with corrupt, incompetent administrators that they are not doing much to resist Taliban incursions.

What should the U.S. do? Sending more troops isn’t in the cards. The coalition troop presence in Afghanistan -- 20,000 U.S. troops and 20,000 NATO soldiers -- is already at an all-time high, and no one has soldiers to spare. Instead of sending more GIs, we should send more greenbacks. U.S. financial assistance to Afghanistan has never been adequate. We’ve spent more than twice as much per capita in Iraq. U.S. aid briefly soared to $4.3 billion in fiscal year 2005, then dropped to $3 billion in fiscal year 2006. The fiscal year 2007 request is for just $1.1 billion, although there will undoubtedly be a supplemental appropriation. Our allies also haven’t coughed up all the aid they’ve promised.

This anemic level of support makes it impossible to address Afghanistan’s drug problem, which would require subsidizing farmers to plant alternative crops. It also makes it difficult to build up indigenous security forces to stop the Taliban. Earlier this year, the Pentagon suggested that the goal for the Afghan National Army would be downsized from 70,000 troops to 50,000. (The figure at the moment is under 40,000.) But even 70,000 troops wouldn’t be enough to protect a nation of 31 million. The Bush administration should announce that it will dramatically increase assistance with the goal of creating an Afghan army of, say, 150,000 troops. More money and more American advisors also should go to the Afghan police force, which is larger but considerably less capable than the army.

To help ensure that its assistance is used wisely, Washington needs more active representation in Kabul. When native son Zalmay Khalilzad was U.S. ambassador from 2003 to 2005, he pushed Karzai to curb the power of the warlords and to make other difficult reforms. The current ambassador, Ronald E. Neumann, is a capable diplomat, but he doesn’t exercise as much influence in either Washington or Kabul as Khalilzad did. We need an ambassador who will be a more hands-on nation builder.

Afghanistan’s troubles also require changes in Pakistan. President Bush needs to play hardball with Musharraf, telling him that American support for a free Afghanistan will never waver but that support for Musharraf’s regime will be jeopardized if he doesn’t do more to curb the Taliban. Musharraf needs to get the message -- as he did after 9/11 -- that it’s more important to placate Uncle Sam than the radical Islamic parties.

We’re already losing one war, in Iraq. If we don’t step up our game, we could lose Afghanistan too.