- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 6, 2003

As the United States sharpens its focus on Afghanistan, a Bush administration strategy which reflects the “Washington consensus” is emerging. This could prove unfortunate. The conventional logic of policy wonks and other professional opinion-makers could well undermine U.S. interests there.

For the United States, there is much at stake in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda terrorists involved in the September 11 attacks could be there — harbored by Pashtuns, the dominant ethnic group in Afghanistan, on the Pakistani side of the border. To some degree, American success in both Afghanistan and Iraq is linked, since attacks on troops in Afghanistan, for example, could embolden coalition enemies in Iraq. And, conditions in Afghanistan, particularly in the Pashtun area, reverberate inside its nuclear-armed next-door neighbor, Pakistan. And conditions in Afghanistan reflect on U.S. credibility.

The Bush administration recently unveiled a $1 billion increase in aid to Afghanistan, apparently destined in large part for the federal government in Kabul. Washington also announced it is sending U.S. experts to Kabul as advisers to the government’s cabinet agencies. According to some reports, U.S. troops and representatives will sever ties with tribal chieftains.

The administration made these announcements shortly before NATO takes over peacekeeping in Afghanistan next week. The announcements were almost simultaneous with a grim report by Human Rights Watch, which documented widespread abuses in areas controlled by Northern Alliance factions. The United Nations recently reported that opium cultivation is up considerably since the ouster of the Taliban nearly two years ago. Assassinations of pro-U.S. clerics are also on the upswing.

So, with NATO’s new role, the United States is presented an opportunity for new strategies. And it is also learning that policy reform is necessary. But it remains to be seen whether the new strategy adopted by Washington will work. Hostile factions will surely try to portray U.S. advisers as a shadow government, and will seek to call attention to their presence in an effort to undermine the credibility of President Hamid Karzai’s leadership.

The United States should spend most aid money itself or distribute it through non-governmental organizations it trusts. This will prevent warlords from fighting each other and inflaming ethnic rivalries that could stoke civil war. The United States could encourage tribal chiefs to guarantee the safety of their people by financially favoring the most stable regions.

More positively, NATO is considering cooperating closely with U.S.-created Provincial Reconstruction Teams when it takes over peacekeeping next week, the Financial Times reported Tuesday. The United States is planning to increase the number of these teams from six to 16. The teams of 30 to 50 members, which already include Canadian and European troops, give military cover to reconstruction and aid workers and go on al Qaeda-hunting missions. This is precisely the kind of grass-roots approach that is needed in Afghanistan.

The United States and the international community hope to hold democratic elections next year in Afghanistan. This is a laudable goal. But for now, America’s primary focus must be on Afghans’ security — and then on reconstruction efforts. Important as the right to vote is, the top priorities must continue to be improved living conditions and ensuring the personal security of the Afghan people.

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