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.

But, he says, "A lot has been invested to get Afghanistan to where it is now, and we're concerned that attention is going to move elsewhere."

"Look at it right now," says Larry P. Goodson, author of Afghanistan's Endless War: State Failure, Regional Politics and the Rise of the Taliban, who last was in Afghanistan to observe the loya jirga in June. "You don't have Americans sitting there going, 'I wonder how those Afghan children are doing.' It's not on anybody's radar recently."

Worry Over Signals

In April, President Bush vowed America would lead a "moral victory" in Afghanistan by rebuilding the country in the tradition of the post-World War II Marshall Plan that rebuilt Europe.

But Azoy, last in Afghanistan in April, worries President Bush's appointment this month of Zalmay Khalilzad, his special envoy for Afghanistan, to the new title of special envoy and ambassador at large for free Iraqis, may be a "perfect symbol" of U.S. officials' changing focus.

For the White House's part, it said Khalilzad would remain the Afghanistan envoy, shed another title and set of duties, and continue to "ensure that the United States' commitment to working in partnership with the Afghan government remains firm and resolute."

And Karzai told The Associated Press recently, "The indications I have so far from the United States and from countries in Europe suggest that Afghanistan will not be receiving less help, less attention."

However, Goodson, director of Middle East studies at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pa., fears some military support resources already may be getting diverted, though it is a fluid situation and difficult to prove.

The media's interest also seems to have shifted. Last week, as reporters clamored to hear Secretary of State Colin Powell call omissions from Iraq's weapons report a "material breach" of United Nations resolutions, only about a dozen people attended the Defense Department's year-end briefing on Afghan reconstruction.

‘Good News’

But Joe Collins, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for stability operations, told reporters at the briefing that America's commitment to Afghanistan is not flagging.

Afghanistan's story over the past year, he said, is full of "a lot of good news" that has brought hope to a country ranked as one of the world's least livable by a United Nations index in 1996 — even before it endured years of drought and Taliban rule.

The United States has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on Afghanistan's recovery, Collins said, and expects to have spent $900 million by the end of 2003.

He said American economic and hands-on efforts already have helped build hundreds of schools and water wells, and dozens of medical clinics. America also has coordinated with the ISAF force in Kabul, trained and deployed the first soldiers in a multi-ethnic Afghan national army, continued to battle handfuls of remaining Taliban and al Qaeda fighters, and helped make safer large swatches of the country, he said.

"We now believe that about 26 provinces of the 33 in Afghanistan have moderate to good security," he added.

The United States soon plans to deploy 10 to 12 "joint regional teams" — whose 60-or-so members will include special forces soldiers, diplomats, technical experts, American governmental aid workers and foreign representatives — to help further stabilize outlying regions.

"The war is certainly not over," Collins added. "If anything, the shift to these JRTs reflects a changing threat, not the end of the threat."

The units could have the occasional backing of armed Afghan, American or allied military units, Collins said, adding, "They're not there to sort of combat the warlords — most of the important ones of whom are now government officials, working with the central government, some more closely than others."

Warlord Strategies

But some believe besides confronting Taliban and al Qaeda stragglers in Afghanistan, the U.S. must shift control of the provinces from warlords to Karzai's central Afghan government to ensure the government can survive.

Collins appeared to hint the United States may get to that problem soon.

"Right now, a lot of people are sort of hanging around with the local leaders, you know, keeping their Kalashnikovs well oiled, because, well, that's what they've done for the last 20 years," Collins said.

"And [they may say,] 'Oh, by the way, these guys don't pay much, but they pay something.' Or maybe, 'They don't pay at all, but they feed me.' And that situation is going to begin to be redressed in 2003."

Azoy won't "second guess American military policy [of allegedly paying warlords] during the early parts of the war," but believes the world now can displace the warlords. To do so, Azoy favors broadening the mandate of the international ISAF peacekeepers beyond Kabul — something the United States has appeared politically hesitant to approve.

"Let's say they put 500 or maybe even 1,000 troops in places like Herat, Kandahar, Jalalabad, Mazar-e-Sharif, Kunduz," says Azoy, a 1970s-era U.S. diplomat in Afghanistan who now lives in Spain and writes a weekly Afghanistan column for the Bangor Daily News in Maine. "I think what you'd have there would be a force the local population could interact with and identify with, as opposed to the local warlords."

He adds that such a plan could shift not just power, but revenue to Karzai's government — because the government, not the warlords, would be able to control lucrative collection of customs duties in border regions.

Goodson agrees that, "At some point, you're going to have to ease the warlords out," and that contrary to American plans, "You can't do that with an Afghan army that doesn't exist."

He calls the JRTs, "a good idea. … [but] unfortunately, I think it would have been much better done earlier in the game," before the warlords "re-established."

Still, Barton, who specializes in post-conflict reconstruction, believes the U.S. shift to the JRTs is better than doing nothing.

"It's obviously not as good as the other [option of larger ISAF deployments] would be," he says. "But I think it will have an influence because these [JRT] people tend to deal in a freewheeling and straightforward fashion, which is what is needed. … These places need a good sheriff."