Afghanistan: the forgotten front

The country is entering a critical phase on the road to democracy.

President George W. Bush rarely misses an opportunity to tell Americans that Iraq is front and center in the war on terrorism. That may help bolster the sagging approval for operations in Iraq, but it ignores Afghanistan’s role in combating terrorism.

Afghanistan is now entering its most critical phase since the United States overthrew the Taliban in 2001. Taliban remnants have intensified violence aimed at derailing the country’s first democratic elections in September. The U.S. and NATO allies’ response to this threat will determine whether democracy takes root.

Troop levels have never been enough to maintain stability in Afghanistan. The United States has 20,000 soldiers there, but those forces are heavily focused on rooting out pockets of Taliban resistance along the Pakistani border. NATO heads the International Security Assistance Force, charged with providing security throughout the country. The ISAF numbers a paltry 6,500 troops, and has only recently begun to expand operations beyond the capital of Kabul.

The result has been predictable: regional warlords have risen to fill the power vacuum, and Taliban fighters havewraught created havoc on reconstruction and aid efforts. A Taliban spokesman quickly claimed credit for last week’s attack in the northwestern province of Badghis that killed five aid workers for Doctors Without Borders. The organization has suspended operations indefinitely, closing a number of medical clinics in Badghis. The lack of security is also hampering efforts to register the roughly 10 million Afghans eligible to vote in September.

Elections will go forward despite the recent violence; the real question is whether the attacks will stop many Afghans from voting, which would seriously undermine the legitimacy of Afghanistan’s first democratically elected government.

Congressman Doug Bereuter, R-Neb., president of NATO’s Parliamentary Assembly, took the unusual step last week of writing to all NATO heads of state to request additional personnel and equipment for the ISAF mission. Bush should echo that appeal at the NATO summit in Istanbul later this month.