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The Other War

Iraq gets most of the headlines, but the war in Afghanistan may prove to be more important in the fight against terrorism. And while it has made great strides in the last six years, Afghanistan is again struggling with a resurgent Taliban.

By Barry Bearak and David Rohde in Kabul

Much of the news from Afghanistan in recent months has been grim: Suicide attacks and roadside bombings are up dramatically, and farmers are growing record crops of poppies that will be processed into opium and heroin. Young girls have been shot leaving school as part of a brutal campaign of intimidation that has shut down almost 100 schools, and 107 American troops have been killed so far in 2007.

While the war in Iraq gets most of America's attention, the situation in Afghanistan—where 26,000 U.S. troops are fighting what many say is the real epicenter of the war on terrorism—is deteriorating.

It's been six years since a U.S.-led coalition toppled the Taliban, the radical Muslim regime that controlled Afghanistan. The Taliban had given sanctuary to Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, and its refusal to hand him over after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on America prompted the U.S. and its allies to invade in November 2001. Bin Laden has still not been captured, but within a month the Taliban was defeated, and U.S. troops have remained to help stabilize the country. There are now also 35,000 NATO troops there.

Crossroads of Asia

Led by the country's first democratically elected President, Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan has seen significant improvements in health care, education, and the economy, as well as in the quality of life in cities. It has also adopted a new constitution and elected a parliament.

But in the last year, there have been a number of signs that Afghanistan is losing ground. When President Karzai, on a recent trip to the U.S., said that security in Afghanistan had "definitely deteriorated," a former national security official called it "a very diplomatic understatement."

Located in a strategic spot between Pakistan, Iran, and the remnants of the former Soviet Union, Afghanistan has been invaded and fought over, but never really conquered, for centuries. Its recent decades of turmoil began in 1979, when the Soviet Union occupied the country for 10 years, sparking a fierce resistance movement of Islamic fighters known as the mujahedeen. The U.S. helped fund the mujahedeen because the Soviet Union was an adversary of the U.S.

Virtual Police State

When the Soviets gave up and withdrew in 1989, the country descended into civil war. The Taliban took control in 1996, and began a brutal five-year reign in which they ruled Afghanistan as a virtual police state in accordance with their radically rigid interpretation of Islam.

Women were forbidden to work—a particularly devastting prohibition in a country where decades of war had left vast numbers of widows. Girls were forbidden to attend school. Music and TV were banned.

The Taliban also let Bin Laden, who is from Saudi Arabia, set up terrorist training camps in the mountains along the rugged border with Pakistan. From there, he planned the 9/11 attacks.

After the fall of the Taliban in December 2001, the prospects for Afghanistan were promising. U.S. and allied forces remained to provide security for a massive international reconstruction effort. President Bush promised Afghanistan its own "Marshall Plan," referring to the massive U.S. aid program that rebuilt Western Europe after World War II.

But soon, the U.S. began to turn its attention to Iraq. Believing that the Taliban was so decimated that they no longer posed a threat, elite military units and other specialists were moved to Iraq, where war began in March 2003.

As the U.S. became increasingly distracted by Iraq, the Taliban who had found refuge across the border in Pakistan began to regroup. In the spring of 2006, hundreds of Taliban swarmed into the south, setting up checkpoints, assassinating officials, and burning schools. Suicide bombings quintupled. Roadside bombings doubled.

'A Duct-Tape Approach'

In 2006, 191 American and NATO troops died, a 20 percent increase over 2005. For the first time, it became nearly as dangerous, statistically, to serve as an American in Afghanistan as in Iraq. This year, Taliban fighters have increasingly forced U.S. and NATO troops back into battles.

Meanwhile, the reconstruction of Afghanistan has stalled. In the last six years, the U.S. has spent an average of $3.4 billion a year reconstructing Afghanistan, less than half of what it has spent in Iraq, according to the Congressional Research Service.

"It was state-building on the cheap, it was a duct-tape approach," says Said T. Jawad, Afghanistan's current ambassador to the U.S.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice disagrees: "I don't buy the argument that Afghanistan was starved of resources."

Karzai's government has little control over the country beyond the capital, Kabul. And the growing instability is now threatening the social and economic progress made in the first years after the Taliban's defeat. That early progress was significant considering how backward and oppressive life in Afghanistan had been under Taliban rule.

In their current campaign of intimidation, the Taliban have been using shootings, beheadings, bombings, and burnings aimed at the country's schools.

The Afghan Ministry of Education says there have been more than 400 attacks on schools since August 2006. In one particularly gruesome incident, six girls were shot—two fatally—as they left school in Logar province one afternoon in June.

The Ministry says 6.2 million children are now in school, or about half the school-age population. A third of these students are girls—up from zero under the Taliban. But in parts of the southern provinces where the Taliban are most aggressively combating American and NATO troops, education has virtually come to a halt.

Also worrisome is the soaring production of opium poppies. According to the United Nations, Afghanistan produced record levels of opium in 2007 for the second straight year. Last year it produced 6,700 tons of opium poppies㭘 percent of the world's supply.

Opium is a major source of financing for the Taliban, who gain public support by protecting farmers' fields from eradication, according to American officials, and get a cut of the trade from the drug traffickers they protect.

Despite these setbacks, there is good news in Afghanistan as well. Roads are being built, land mines are being cleared, and four million Afghan refugees have returned home. Entrepreneurs are starting new carpet-weaving businesses, wheat production is surging, new schools are being built, and some mud-brick homes are sporting solar panels.

In a mundane but telling sign that a semblance of normalcy is returning to some parts of the country, many Afghans have become avid TV fans, tuning in to everything from talk shows to soap operas, and even an Afghan version of American Idol.

$9 Billion This Year

This year, the U.S. plans to provide $9 billion in aid to Afghanistan—twice the amount of any year since 2001. Whether that renewed attention on Afghanistan is enough to get the nation back on track remains to be seen.

General James L. Jones, a retired American officer and a former NATO supreme commander, says Iraq caused the U.S. to "take its eye off the ball" in Afghanistan. He warns that the consequences of failure "are just as serious in Afghanistan as they are in Iraq."

"Symbolically, it's more the epicenter of terrorism than Iraq," he says. "If we don't succeed in Afghanistan, you're sending a very clear message to the terrorist organizations that the U.S., the U.N., and the 37 countries with troops on the ground can be defeated."

(The New York Times Upfront, Vol. 140, December 10, 2007)