U.S. can't keep peace by remote control


KABUL, Afghanistan - I've got good news and bad news from Afghanistan.

The good news is that America doesn't need a lot to satisfy its basic security interest here, which is that this distant land never again be so uncontrolled that a tumor like Osama bin Laden can grow in its midst and then metastasize into the world and threaten us. We really don't need much to get that - just a loose Afghan federal government, some basic police and army units, a functioning economy and a few institutions.

The bad news: It's not clear that we can get even that. It is impossible to exaggerate how broken this place is. You know what ground zero looks like, where the World Trade Center once stood? Well, probably half of Kabul looks the same way, thanks to 22 years of civil war. And the "good" half - with its scant electricity, no phones, no mail, a 10 p.m. curfew and only a bare minimum of food - looks like a caravan ghost town. We might as well be doing nation-building on the moon.

You see sad and bizarre scenes here: a white donkey galloping down the main street right behind our car; a man with one leg peddling a bicycle; people washing a car with water from a portable toilet; refugees crammed into the fetid old Soviet embassy, living in subzero temperatures with nothing but plastic wrap for windows.

The central government is so broke it has less money than most American TV network crews here, so the government can't even pay salaries. (Maybe the Muslim world, which was so worried about Afghan civilians when America was bombing here, could send some cash now that the bombing is over and people need to eat?)

In addition, though, Afghanistan needs a multinational force that can forge a secure environment in its major cities - so refugees will return home, commerce will resume and people will consider investing. Such a force could buy the frail Afghan government time to build up an army and police force of its own. Already, Afghanistan's carnivorous neighbors smell a power vacuum developing here, and some, like Iran, have begun brazenly sending people across Afghanistan's borders to buy influence. No good will come from that.

That brings me to the Bush team. Right now there is a fight within the administration over whether to allow a robust multinational force here and whether to participate in it ourselves. Let me be blunt: If the Bush team thinks our allies are going to send peacekeeping troops here for any length of time without U.S. leadership and participation, they're crazy. And if they think that Afghanistan is going to pull itself together without the aid of such a force - just pour in money and stir - they're equally mistaken.

The United States won the war in Afghanistan by remote control, with air power, pilotless drones, local tribal fighters and a few U.S. Special Forces.

The Bush team now seems to hope that it can win the peace in Afghanistan by remote control as well.

It's not going to happen.

The Pentagon's reluctance to put troops on the ground here to go cave by cave has already resulted in the vanishing of bin Laden and most of his key aides. A reluctance to create some kind of multinational security force here could end up costing us the peace.

Interior Minister Younus Qanooni told visiting U.S. Sen. Joe Biden, "We expect from the U.S. that it won't leave Afghanistan alone."

Interim President Hamid Karzai told me in an interview: "I received delegations from every province after I was elected. I must have received 2,500 people. People from every province asked me to help get a multinational force here. People are desperate for security. One mullah opposed the idea."

I appreciate President Bush's wariness about becoming involved here. We barely know who's who, and the history of this place doesn't offer much hope. I wandered into an English bookstore in Kabul and was struck by how many books had "Afghan wars" in the title. I picked up one called A History of the War in Afghanistan and discovered it was part of a thick two-volume set that covered only the years 1800 to 1842.

Naturally, the Bush team doesn't want to "own" this problem. But unless we at least "rent" it for a while, and make at least a limited commitment to a security force here, for a limited period of time, this country will go right back to what it was: bin Laden's neighborhood.

Thomas L. Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times.

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