President Bush describes Afghanistan, the first front on the war on terrorism, as a success. In comparison to Iraq, perhaps it is. But if you look at Afghanistan on its own merits, the lack of progress is disheartening. In 2002, President Bush promised a "Marshall Plan" for the country, with the goal of turning Afghanistan into a stable, democratic state. On Tuesday, before the United Nations General Assembly, the president said that "the Afghan people are on the path to democracy and freedom." Yet in nearly three years we have failed to create security, stability, prosperity or the rule of law in Afghanistan.
These failings are not just a reflection of the great difficulties of nation-building in places like Afghanistan, they are also the direct result of the Bush administration's policy decisions. Our efforts in Afghanistan are underfinanced and undermanned, and our attention is waning.
The root of the problem is that we invaded Afghanistan to destroy something - the Taliban and Al Qaeda - but we didn't think much about what would grow in its place. While we focused on fighting the terrorists (and even there our effectiveness has been questionable), Afghanistan has become a collection of warlord-run fiefs fueled by a multibillion-dollar opium economy. We armed and financed warlord armies with records of drug-running and human rights abuses stretching back two decades. Then we blocked the expansion of an international security force meant to rein in the militias. These decisions were made for short-term battlefield gain - with disregard for the long-term implications for the mission there.
Our Army continues to hunt insurgents in the mountains, but we have refused to take the steps necessary to secure the rest of the country, and it shows. More coalition and Afghan government soldiers and aid workers have died this year than in each of the previous two. This summer, Doctors Without Borders, which has worked in the most desperate and dangerous conditions around the world, pulled out of Afghanistan after 24 years. In other words, the group felt safer in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation and the civil war that followed than it did three years after the United States-led coalition toppled the Taliban.
Last month, after a United Nations-backed voter registration office was bombed, the vice president of the United Nations Staff Union urged Secretary General Kofi Annan to pull employees out of Afghanistan. The opium trade is also out of control, fueling lawlessness and financing terrorists. Last year, the trade brought in $2.3 billion; this year, opium production is expected to increase 50 to 100 percent.
Amid terrorist attacks and fighting among regional warlords, the country is preparing for presidential elections on Oct. 9. A recent United Nations report warned that warlords were intimidating voters and candidates. This month, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which has monitored post-conflict elections in trouble spots like Bosnia and Kosovo, declared that Afghanistan was too dangerous for its election monitors (it is sending a small "election support team'' instead). President Hamid Karzai narrowly escaped assassination last week on his first campaign trip outside Kabul, and eight other presidential candidates have called for elections to be delayed, saying it's been too dangerous for them to campaign.
Many of these problems flow from early mistakes. Rather than moving quickly to establish security and then gradually turning over control to a legitimate domestic authority, we have done the opposite. As fighting among warlord militias in the countryside intensifies, we are slowly expanding our presence and being dragged into conflicts. The American "advisers" in Afghan Army units, the ubiquitous heavily armed "private" security forces and the fortress-like American Embassy are garnering comparisons to the day of the Soviets.
In Kabul, the effort to build a stable, capable government has also lagged dangerously. President Karzai has begun to show great fortitude in challenging warlords. But his factious cabinet, born of political compromise, has collapsed under the pressure of the country's hurried presidential elections. Outside Kabul, his control remains tenuous in some places, nonexistent in others. Kabul's Supreme Court, the only other branch of government, is controlled by Islamic fundamentalists unconcerned with the dictates of Afghanistan's new Constitution. On Sept. 1, without any case before the court, the chief justice ordered that Latif Pedram, a presidential candidate, be barred from the elections and investigated for blasphemy. His crime? Mr. Pedram had suggested that polygamy was unfair to women. These clerics are trying to establish a system like that in Iran, using Islam as a bludgeon against democracy.
It's true that there have been several important accomplishments in these three years: the Taliban and Al Qaeda no longer sit in Kabul's Presidential Palace; girls are back in school in many parts of the country; some roads and buildings have been rebuilt; and more than 10 million Afghans have registered to vote for the presidential elections. Thousands of international aid workers have been working with the Afghans, often at great risk, to make things better. Despite the slow progress, most Afghans are more hopeful about their future than they have been in years.
But many people working there are left with the nagging feeling that much more could have been done both to help Afghanistan and fight terrorism over the last three years. Our experience demonstrates that you can't fight wars, or do nation-building, on the cheap. Afghanistan should be a critical election issue this year, but Iraq looms much larger in the public mind. Unless the next administration steps up to the plate, it may well be an issue in four years, when we start asking, "Who lost Afghanistan?"
J Alexander Thier, a fellow at the Hoover Institution and the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law at Stanford University, was a legal adviser to Afghanistan's constitutional and judicial reform commissions.