Could America Still Lose in Afghanistan?

Declining media attention. Lagging aid payments. Possibly diverted U.S. military resources.

Although American officials insist the United States is in Afghanistan for the long haul, there are signals that anxiety over Iraq is distracting Washington from its promised obligations to Afghanstan.

Analysts caution the war in Afghanistan is far from finished, and that "the peace" has still not been won.

"It would be very premature to declare victory in Afghanistan and move on," says Paul O'Brien, a relief worker who has lived in Kabul for most of the past year. "If they don't get [more aid], there is no doubt that … the situation could implode. They could return to warlordism and factionalism and all those things that made Afghanistan an almost impossible place to live over the last 25 years."

Karzai Stakes and More

A year after Hamid Karzai emerged as Afghanistan's leader, the situation in the country, and Karzai's own situation, remain precarious.

Karzai's power is limited outside Kabul, some government ministers have been killed, and he himself was the target of an assassination attempt in September. Although a loya jirga — a traditional assembly of regional elders — endorsed Karzai's government earlier this year, Afghan political intrigue remains so perilous that Karzai is protected by American bodyguards, rather than Afghans.

"We've pinned so many of our hopes on one man," said G. Whitney Azoy, who has written a book and newspaper columns on Afghanistan history and culture. "Let's say, God forbid, that Karzai is shot. Then what? And not just then what for Afghanistan, but then what for American prestige?"

After a near-constant state of war since 1979, planned repairs and construction on key arterial roads between cities remain on the drawing board, Afghanistan's much-ballyhooed national army is years from full deployment, and regional warlords have more control in the Afghan countryside than Karzai does.

Even worse, the United States is alleged to have paid many of the warlords for their allegiance against the Taliban, and trying to get them to yield to a U.S.-backed central authority now might require a "bloody divorce," says Rick Barton, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.

"Once we got into bed with these warlords, we sort of lost our virginity," Barton says. "You're going to have to shoot up some people probably who a day or two ago were your friends."

Even in and around the capital city of Kabul, an area patrolled by a force of about 5,000 international peacekeepers known by the acronym ISAF, there have been sporadic violent incidents, explosions and attacks directed at peacekeepers or the government.

The Afghan government also needs money, as donations from some countries other than the United States appear to be lagging behind promises. But even if Karzai gets what Afghanistan's been promised, the international aid group CARE says foreign Afghan aid will amount to far less per capita than recent efforts in Bosnia, Kosovo and Rwanda.

‘Optimism on the Streets of Kabul’

Despite it all, "There is a sense of optimism on the streets of Kabul these days, and of hope as well," says O'Brien, CARE's advocacy coordinator for Afghanistan.

"The overriding impression that we get is … Afghans are very positive about what the international community is doing there … and very positive about U.S. intervention as well," he adds.

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