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Analysis: Afghanistan Still Faces Difficult Road Ahead

On October 7th, 2001, the United States launched an aerial bombing campaign in Afghanistan to topple the Taleban from power. Since then, Afghanistan has held presidential and legislative elections to set up a democratic government.

In a new report, the nonpartisan Center for American Progress says Afghanistan has made great strides toward building a stable nation. But, as Robert Boorstin, the center's vice-president for National Security, pointed out at a recent center-sponsored forum, the outcome of Afghanistan's struggle is still in doubt.

"It assesses the progress but it paints a picture, ultimately, I think of a country with an uncertain and fragile future that poses significant challenges not only for Afghans themselves but also for the United States and the international community," said Mr. Borrstin.

Afghanistan has been the recipient of billions of dollars in international aid for reconstruction, but the report says the economy is stagnant and heavily dependent on the drug trade, which is flourishing now as never before. According to U.N. statistics, Afghanistan provided 12 percent of the world's opium in 2001. That has mushroomed to 87 percent in 2005.

Barnett Rubin is considered one of the foremost American experts on Afghanistan. Mr. Rubin, of New York University's Center on International Cooperation, says although the rural poor are not seeing much tangible improvement in their lives, they have remained calm.

"A lot of what is keeping the people in the rural areas calm is hope, some political participation, and narcotics income, or opium poppy income," said Mr. Rubin.

Mr. Rubin says the drug trade accounts for one-third to 40 percent of the entire economy.

Under an accord reached in Bonn, Germany in December, 2001, a presidential election was held in which Hamid Karzai was chosen president. Legislative elections were just completed, but the overall outcome is unclear because they were conducted on a non-party basis.

Analysts say Mr. Karzai has had mixed success in building a central government. Distrust between ethnic groups has hampered national unity, and government corruption remains rampant. In many areas outside Kabul, power still resides with regional warlords, some of whom are involved in the drug trade, and who may end up in the new parliament.

The United States continues to bear the brunt of operations against the Taleban remnants, while a multinational force known as ISAF deals with peacekeeping. The center's report points out that the Taleban, which harbored al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden, has resurfaced with deadly effect. Mr. Boorstin says 25 per cent of the 199 U.S. combat deaths in Afghanistan since the 2001 invasion came in July and August of this year.

Steve Coll, a staff writer for the New Yorker Magazine with long experience in Afghanistan, says Afghans tell him that government incompetence is fuelling the insurgency.

"One thing that strikes me in particular is their belief that in the insurgency's ability to recruit across the board in all regions has been linked to rising frustration with the government's performance and with the pattern of corruption," said Mr. Coll.

The United States and coalition partners are training Afghan police and security forces, which has helped ease some of the burden on coalition and ISAF peacekeepers. Nevertheless, Barnett Rubin notes, the high level of U.S. assistance cannot last forever, and that will present a serious dilemma for Afghanistan.

"There is a real danger that in coming years, and I'm told by U.S. officials we can only count on this level of aid for maybe three more years, that when that aid is withdrawn, Afghanistan will still be in poverty. It will have a clergy that does not think the government is legitimate, government institutions that don't reach into the countryside, and it will have a large, well-armed army that it will not be able to pay, plus neighbors who think that the government has become too aligned with the United States, which is threatening them," he noted.

A follow-up conference to the 2001 Bonn Conference is scheduled to be held in London early next year. It will focus not only on Afghanistan's needs, but also on the international community's commitment to Afghanistan.