- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 31, 2003

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld recently visited Afghanistan to send a strong message to the Karzai government and international community in this critical time. The message was very simple, but at the same time crucial for stability in the long-suffering country. Mr. Rumsfeld’s tour tried to demonstrate that Afghanistan is being kept a focus of attention by the United States. The recent biggest military operation against remaining units of the Taliban and al Qaeda also strengthened that message.

In reality, the situation is rather different. Despite the last flurry of activity by Pentagon officials, the fact is the United States has been trying to hand the larger part of responsibility and obligation to allies such as NATO. The United States would prefer to reduce its presence in Afghanistan, reflecting consequences of an unstable and complicated situation in Iraq.

However,anunstable Afghanistan is no less a threat than Iraq. Leaving Afghanistan to face its problems alone would be a huge gift to terrorists who thrive on conflict and lawlessness.

The reduction of attention to Afghanistan could soon manifest itself in an extended military conflict that will be felt across the world.

After the counter-terrorist operation by the United States and its allies in Afghanistan, a false impression was created that the problems there were behind us. The fall of the Taliban led many to hope that after decades of ruinous war, bloody interethnic and intertribal clashes and horrendous religious radicalism, Afghanistan was again ready to rejoin the community of nations.

The long-awaited peace did not set in. Stabilization of the country is still awaited. The situation in Afghanistan, like that in Iraq, turned out to be much more complicated than expected. Today, we are seeing a new phase of tension and conflict in Afghanistan. The forcible removal of the Taliban was a victory for democracy, but the transformation of the political system which brought this ultra-radical group to political control of Afghanistan in the 1990s did not take place. The Taliban were the result of unanswered social, political, ethnic, economic and geopolitical problems which were present there for decades. Today, the problems remain unresolved.

We can see several challenges to American policy in Afghanistan. They are being expressed mainly militarily. However, the problems of the Afghan economy have been left behind.

It is difficult to compare Iraq with itshugeoilreservesand Afghanistan, one of the world’s poorest countries. Yet, huge resources and billions of dollars, provided by the United States and other donors, are going primarily into Iraq, while Afghanistan stands on the corner, tin cup in hand, yearning for democracy and a better life.

The next major challenge is ensuring the survival of the peace process that began with the fall of the Taliban. Warlords hold real power in many provinces, and attempts by the central government to control them are met with fierce resistance. Afghanistan continues to be fragmented along ethnic lines with all the problems that brings. Experts estimate the central government controls the situation in no more than 10 out of 32 provinces.

The Taliban, and its ally al Qaeda, still have military units and infrastructure in Afghanistan. Recent attacks have taken place in several provinces. The targets included military patrols and installations, and units of the fledgling Afghan army and police. Civilian targets also have been attacked. News reports about military clashes in the provinces of Konar, Nangarhar, Paktia, Khost, Zabol, Oruzgan and Kandahar come almost daily. Sizable casualties are being inflicted on both coalition and Afghan government forces.

Against this backdrop, it is important to search for new ways to influence the situation and provide help to build a stable Afghanistan. Key countries and international organizations must hold a summit on the revival of the Afghan economy, drawing attention to the social and economic problems in Afghanistan.

A key to the revival of the Afghan economy would be the very important help from its Central Asian neighbors. The countries of Central Asia — Kazakhstan, the Kyrghyz Republic, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan — can provide support in different areas.

Central Asia’s assistance to Afghanistan must be on a systematic basis. A special program of multilateral cooperation by the Central Asian nations with Afghanistan could be created, covering economic, social, political, humanitarian and military spheres. The support of the United States would be critical in developing this program.

The problem of Afghanistan is one for the long haul. We all need to get ready for a long-term commitment to rebuilding Afghanistan using all available resources to meet that end.

Maulen Ashimbayev, director of the Kazakhstan Institute of Strategic Studies, is currently a Fulbright scholar at the School of Advanced and International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.

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