This article on Afghanistan, from the New York Review of Books, is so important that I thought it worth condensing and presenting on my web page. I’ve removed a lot of important details, but kept what I thought were the most important points. I had to do this because NY Review articles only remain freely available online for a limited time period. Because one third of the article is, itself, a summary of Human Rights Watch reports, I’ve simply linked to the relevant HRW web page.

In Kabul the US backs the Karzai government; in the countryside the US has failed to forcefully challenge warlords like Fahim and their gross abuses of human rights, their heroin smuggling, their defiance of the central government, their desire to maintain their fiefdoms, and their resistance to democracy. The US continues to provide money for aid projects and for building a new army and police force; but it has not been using its power as effectively as it should to bring the country closer to democratic self-government.

… The US is now determined that elections go ahead by June, as stipulated in the Bonn agreement of December 2001. But almost all other key forces—the UN, most European and NATO countries, Western and Afghan NGOs, as well as many Afghans—have pleaded with the US to postpone them for at least a year. That much time is needed, they say, to increase security, build more infrastructure, strengthen the central government, and complete important building projects.

… The drug mafia is flourishing and providing money to the Taliban and to al-Qaeda, and both the warlords and the Taliban are obtaining huge revenues by imposing taxes on goods smuggled between Pakistan, Iran, and Central Asia. In 2003, Afghanistan produced 3,600 tons of opium, or 76 percent of total world production. Opium is now produced in twenty-eight of Afghanistan’s thirty-two provinces, as compared to just eighteen provinces in 1999.

… For Afghan civilians the lack of security remains the main issue. The 5,300-strong International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) has not moved much beyond Kabul since it was established at Bonn. In August NATO took command of the ISAF force—the first time it has moved outside Europe. NATO has pledged to expand the ISAF incrementally outside Kabul, first to Kunduz in the northeast. Some Afghans scoff at this because Kunduz is one of the most peaceful places in the country.

The Pentagon has resisted expanding the ISAF, because it has not wanted any interference in the US-led coalition’s attempts to capture bin Laden. In a belated half-measure the US and its allies established Provincial Reconstruction Teams, or PRTs, in Bamiyan, Kunduz, Gardez, and Mazar-e-Sharif, each consisting of between sixty and one hundred soldiers and technicians to administer aid projects in rural areas where security was poor and to help establish the writ of the central government. But the PRTs were too small, too poorly funded, and they had no mandate to provide security to the local population or to help resolve local conflicts. The warlords and drug smugglers continued to thrive under this arrangement because they knew the Americans would not interfere with their illegal businesses. On December 21, the US military announced plans to increase the number of PRTs from five to twelve, and to give them additional powers to provide security. They are expected to be working in the field by March.

… Beside the problem of security, the Afghans’ other major concern is the lack of international funds for reconstruction. We are trapped in a vicious circle,” Governor Pashtun of Kandahar told me. If there is no money for reconstruction there can be no peace, and without peace and a stable law-and-order situation, there can be no reconstruction.” Barnett Rubin of the Center for International Cooperation in New York has estimated that as of November 2003 only $110 million worth of reconstruction projects were completed in the country, out of a total UN aid disbursement of $2.9 billion between December 2001 and November 2003. (Of that total, the US contributed $1.1 billion.) Meanwhile, the US-led coalition forces spend $1 billion a month to maintain over 11,000 men and women in the field.

… In Washington there continues to be infighting between the Pentagon, which wants to maintain control of Afghan policy, and the State Department and the US Agency for International Development, which have been pushed to the sidelines. A significant difference between Iraq and Afghanistan is that most Afghans still welcome NATO peacekeeping troops and the American presence—even if their frustration with both forces is now increasing.

…In this situation, the reports of the New York–based Human Rights Watch (HRW) have become extremely important. On a shoestring budget and with no permanent Western experts or large office in Kabul, frequently harassed and criticized by the US, the UN, and the warlords, HRW has documented practically every aspect of the growing crisis in a series of detailed reports which have offered sensible recommendations. Cogent and eminently practical, these reports have gone far beyond an account of human rights abuses in the country.

…That the Taliban are returning in force two years after their defeat is testimony enough that the West’s support and strategy for rebuilding Af-ghanistan have so far been a failure. The war against terrorism is still to be won in the Afghan mountains and deserts and among the Afghan people as well. Their nation, the largest and most tragic victim of terrorism, is not being rebuilt. Until that happens there is little incentive for al-Qaeda or extremists elsewhere to lose heart.

The urgency of the Afghan situation was emphasized by Kofi Annan in a UN report issued on December 3. Unchecked criminality, outbreaks of factional fighting and activities surrounding the illegal narcotics trade,” he said, have all had a negative impact.” He warned that the international community must decide whether to increase its level of involvement in Afghanistan or risk failure.”

(Emphasis added.)

UPDATE: Fixed HRW link.