WASHINGTON — The first and most unfortunate orphan of the Iraq war is Afghanistan.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi calls Afghanistan “a war that is unfinished and nearly forgotten.” For all the political drama that is unfolding over the Democrats’ decision to use the upcoming debate over war spending to challenge President Bush’s policies in Iraq, the Democratic congressional caucus is also using the spending measure for a purpose equally crucial. It is redirecting funds toward Afghanistan in a last-ditch effort to rescue the country that was the original “central front” in the war on terror.

“It’s not lost,” says Mark Schneider, senior vice president of the International Crisis Group, a nonpartisan research organization that studies conflicts around the globe. “There’s still a much greater opportunity than in Iraq to strengthen the beginnings of institutions in Afghanistan.”

Afghanistan is being sucked back into civic chaos by extremist violence, factional warfare, rampant government corruption and unchecked opium production that helps finance the Taliban and other militants. The country is assaulted from across the Pakistan border by Taliban forces and an emboldened al-Qaida.

The terrorists operate with impunity, despite the Bush administration’s long-standing alliance with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, a strongman to whom the White House gives aid and often praise, although he has persistently failed to clean out and control the border area. Only two weeks ago, as Vice President Dick Cheney was ensconced for meetings at a heavily fortified U.S. air base in Afghanistan, a suicide bomber detonated explosives outside the gates, killing 23 people and providing a newsreel, of sorts, that advertised the terrorists’ growing strength.

Osama bin Laden has long since disappeared from the wanted poster of America’s collective conscience. The man who masterminded the 9/11 assaults on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon may or may not be in Pakistan, but most terrorism experts say he no longer really matters. The resurgent al-Qaida is less centrally organized, its adherents linked by ideology and dispersed around the globe. For example, Iraqi militants now holding a German woman and her son hostage demanded over the weekend that Germany withdraw its troops from Afghanistan, where a small German contingent is part of NATO’s force.

Afghanistan continues to be a dusty and demoralized terrorist proving ground. And why not? The United States and its allies never fully stepped up to the task they began immediately after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Security outside the capital of Kabul never was restored — whole regions drifted back under the control of regional warlords and drug kingpins. From the start, Schneider says, the United States underfunded the civic rebuilding effort. Per capita aid to Bosnia and Kosovo in the two years following the end of armed hostilities in the Balkans was $1,400 per person, Schneider says. In Afghanistan, it’s been $52 per capita.

The number of peacekeepers in Bosnia was 18.6 per 1,000 people and in Kosovo 20 per 1,000. In Afghanistan, he says, the international force amounts to 0.2 peacekeepers per 1,000. “Remember ‘light footprint, no nation-building?'” Schneider says, referring to the Bush administration’s early theory that the United States should not be heavily involved in rebuilding societies.

The result of ineptitude, underfunding and, of course, the calamitous distraction of Iraq, is an Afghanistan that teeters on the brink of becoming what it was before 9/11 — a failed state and terrorist sanctuary. Last month, a Canadian parliamentary committee on national security issued a grim report on the situation, concluding that “it is in our view doubtful” the Western mission can be accomplished, “given the limited resources that NATO is currently investing in Afghanistan.”

House Democrats intend to add $1.2 billion for Afghanistan in their version of the war spending bill, with $226 million of it dedicated to reconstruction and countering the drug trade. Bush, in announcing on Saturday that he wants still more American troops — beyond his previously announced escalation — sent to Iraq, says he also wants more military personnel in Afghanistan to quell an expected Taliban spring offensive.

The good intentions come late. And in any case, a presidential veto of the spending measure — which the White House has promised because of the Democrats’ insistence that Iraq money be tied to clear progress and an eventual withdrawal there — would leave Afghanistan wanting for an unforeseeable number of months.

Spring will come and go. The Taliban and al-Qaida will count on American inertia as their ally. And once again, the toxic politics of Iraq will be a root cause of Afghanistan’s catastrophe.

Marie Cocco’s e-mail address is [email protected].

© 2007, Washington Post Writers Group


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