Afghanistan at the Brink – Column by Roger Cohen

Written by  //  November 2, 2007  //  Geopolitics, Middle East & Arab World  //  No comments

November 1, 2007

Op-Ed Columnist
By ROGER COHEN

KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghanistan is not Iraq. That’s the good news. Decades of war are devastating, but not as crippling as decades of Saddam Hussein’s totalitarian hell. The glint of initiative outweighs fear’s residue in Afghan eyes.
Across this dirt-poor country — think sub-Saharan Africa — small signs of initiative and awakening abound: new carpet-weaving businesses, surging wheat production, just-opened schools, solar panels on mud-brick homes. Growth is more than 8 percent.
Since the Taliban’s fall in 2001, four million Afghan refugees have come home in one of the biggest post-1945 returns of people. About 38 percent of school students are girls, up from zero. Roads, clinics, mine-clearing and several million cellphones are changing Afghan lives.
All this may seem a decent return on about $22 billion of American investment since 2002. A further $5.6 billion is under review for 2008. The strategic aim is a stable Afghanistan that is no longer for rent by terrorists from one-eyed mullahs.
But if Afghanistan is not Iraq, it’s not delivered from war either. Lebanon looks stable by comparison. Like Poland, Afghanistan has suffered the fate of a weak state between powerful neighbors. Unlike Poland, it grows poppy and inhabits a region of explosive volatility.
… I heard many assessments of how long Afghanistan will depend on Western military assistance, but Abdul Jabbar Sabit, the attorney general, was bluntest: “The Afghan Army will not be able to defend the country for 10 years, so the international force has to be here for at least a decade.”
… An intense U.S. effort is going into producing a credible 72,000-man Afghan Army by 2009. The number may be met, but the force’s ability to sustain itself and mount large operations will lag. Capt. Sylvain Caron, a Canadian “mentoring” a nascent battalion, said “the cultural change will take 20 years.”
The police are way behind the army. Training has been a disaster. Low salaries, belatedly rising to $100 from $50 a month, have made corruption endemic, particularly in narco-territory. Work on a credible police force has scarcely begun. More

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