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Published: Friday, 2/10/2006

Afghan progress

A HIGH-LEVEL 60-nation meeting was held in London recently to consider the state of Afghanistan four years after the Taliban were ousted. Participants judged that the country was doing reasonably well, and pledged an additional $10.5 billion over five years to help it further along.

What is manifestly true is that Afghanistan is better off four years after American military intervention there than Iraq is three years after the U.S. invasion and occupation of that country.

That assessment is not to underplay the problems of Afghanistan. They are numerous and difficult. The London conferees looked at them quite honestly. The principal dilemma is, perhaps, the great pervasiveness of narcotics production and marketing in the nation's economy and external trade. As much as 90 percent of the world's heroin and opium comes from Afghanistan at present. The Taliban government had pretty much wiped the drug trade out during its years of Draconian rule prior to 2001.

The second major problem, also examined closely at the conference, is the only loose control that the central government of President Hamid Karzai has over the extent of the territory of Afghanistan, a country the size of Texas. That is a function of the diverse ethnic character of the Afghan population, the significant presence of warlords among the country's leadership, with those phenomena both helped along by weak transportation and communication infrastructure, which retards the development of national unity.

As a short-term bandage to the security problem, and to continue to pursue the Taliban and probably al-Qaeda as well, the international force presence in the country will be increased, with additional NATO troops arriving.

On the economic aid side, critical to enhancing the credibility of the Karzai government, the United States will provide $1.1 billion in 2006 and seek the same amount from Congress for 2007.

The United States plans to draw down its military presence in Afghanistan from about 19,000, currently costing about $800 million a month. It has also found its promises of economic reconstruction aid to Afghanistan hard to keep, given the difficult security climate there.

At the same time it is critical that the United States not walk away from the problems of this South Asian country, particularly given the stake America has in its capable president, Mr. Karzai.

The main problems are drugs and security. The United States can help with both, and should.

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