WASHINGTON -- Afghanistan is the first nation-building exercise in which the United States has taken a leadership role since the Cold War. Iraq is the second. If the reconstruction effort fails in either country, blame will fall squarely on Washington.
The United States can point to several important accomplishments since the fall of the Taliban in November 2001. U.S. wheat kept countless Afghans from starving; 2 million refugees went home; U.S. textbooks enabled 4 million Afghan children -- nearly half of them girls -- to return to school. Washington spent $716 million helping Afghanistan between October 2000 and Jan. 29, 2003.
Despite these successes in short-term humanitarian and economic aid, the United States has not yet taken a strong enough role -- politically, economically and symbolically -- in the long-term reconstruction effort promised to Afghans at the Tokyo conference in December 2001.
There are encouraging signs that the United States is determined to improve its effort. President Bush is about to nominate a new ambassador to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, an Afghan-American who is well connected in Washington and Kabul. In addition, the United States is planning a sharp increase in support with a new aid package of about $1 billion. But Washington still faces obstacles.
The first problem is finding skilled personnel. There is a shortage of employees in the State Department and the Agency for International Development (AID) with expertise in Afghanistan, its language and its culture.
With a few outstanding exceptions, the State Department and AID can't seem to recruit skilled employees for long-term service in Afghanistan. The U.S. government can't run a good, long-term economic and political reconstruction program in Afghanistan by relying chiefly on people who reluctantly go to Kabul for the briefest possible time.
Second, the United States has a bunker mentality in Afghanistan. The embassy is a fortress, difficult to enter and leave. The hunkered-down Americans, civilians and military, are isolated.
They rarely attend the numerous coordination and information meetings convened by the United Nations or dozens of other foreign organizations. Information about what the United States is doing is conveyed by hearsay. Misinformation abounds in the gossipy expatriate community.
Yet hundreds of foreigners, including Americans without government ties, travel routinely around large parts of Afghanistan without undue risk. There's even a school in Kabul with about 30 American and European children brought to the country by their parents, who don't find the security risk unacceptable.
Finally, and perhaps most seriously, is the diffuseness of the U.S. effort in Afghanistan.
In June, there were two U.S. ambassadors and semiautonomous representatives of at least three different offices of AID, the State Department and the Army, which has "hearts and minds" projects scattered around the country. Even the U.S. Health and Human Services Department and the Labor Department run aid projects of their own.
The new U.S. ambassador will have to grapple with these and other difficult issues. Challenges include reform of the defense and interior ministries, deteriorating security, the absence of the rule of law, weak government institutions, factionalism and warlords, inadequate donor funding, corruption and the exploding cultivation of the opium poppy. Some of these tasks require political as well as financial responses from the United States.
The administration's new aid package of $1 billion should enable the ambassador to address some of these problems -- if, in fact, the civilian agencies have much say about the use of most of this money.
Some of these new funds will come from the Pentagon budget and will be used to train Afghan soldiers and police. While such training is important, it does not qualify as the large-scale economic development assistance that donors promised to Afghanistan.
The most important decision the United States should make is to support the expansion of the 5,000-person international security force and to try to enhance security in all parts of the country rather than just the capital. It's unlikely that national elections will be successful in June 2004, as scheduled, unless the international community takes quick action to improve security in many regions of Afghanistan. Those elections are important to the credibility and legitimacy of the government of President Hamid Karzai and its backers, the United States and the United Nations.
A course correction is needed by the United States in its approach to nation building in Afghanistan. The U.S. effort needs to be better organized, less reclusive and bolstered by more and better-trained diplomats and developers.
Larry Thompson and Michelle Brown of Refugees International recently returned from Afghanistan.