The devastating impact AIDS has on people in the prime of their lives is taking a toll on economic and political stability in many countries of Africa. Societies buckling under the strain of the virus are increasingly unsafe. Experts say Africa's experience foretells the future of other regions where the virus is spreading rapidly.

The dilemma AIDS poses for security in Africa was noted by United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan at the Security Council's first debate on the disease nearly four years ago.

"By overwhelming the continent's health services, by creating millions of orphans, and by decimating health workers and teachers, AIDS is causing social and economic crises, which in turn threaten political stability," Mr. Annan said.

Mr. Annan mentioned a central irony of the problem: High infection rates in the police and armed forces leave African states ill-equipped to face security threats.

Take South Africa, for example, where one-fourth of the adult population has HIV. Analyst Martin Schonteich of the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria says AIDS will worsen the nation's already high crime rate, as an increasing number of orphans migrate to cities to fend for themselves.

"There is greater autonomy in a city. There is less supervision by elders or by parents. Juvenile gangs and criminal gangs develop much more easily within a city than in a rural area," he said.

As the need for policing rises, however, an increasing number of South African constables are falling ill to HIV, and dying, although Mr. Schonteich says the country's policymakers are largely unaware of this.

If one accepts that quite a large proportion of police officers will be infected with HIV, the kinds of services that the police will be able to supply to the public in South Africa will invariably decline," he explained.

Mr. Schonteich predicts a further weakening of the country's criminal justice system, as expanding health care demands force authorities to give it less money.

South Africa's advancing plight is an example of what U.S. intelligence planners fear. The National Intelligence Council, a public-private advisory body to the U.S. government, says the AIDS epidemic can cause instability by aggravating social fragmentation and competition for resources in the hardest hit developing countries, with disease-ravaged security forces helpless to do anything.

Zimbabwe is another case study, according to Stephen Morrison of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. He says nowhere else in the world is there such a drastic confluence of misrule, an HIV epidemic, and famine - each aggravating the other and promising to undermine efforts by successors to restore a society and economy disrupted by President Mugabe's tyranny.

"Rural instability will result in the absence of elementary security in much of the area, chronic food insecurity," he said. "The economy itself will be in disarray. It is in disarray. Recovery is likely to be quite slow."

The Center for Strategic and International Studies says the negative spiral seen in Zimbabwe promises to be most intense in many southern African countries, because state and private resources are limited in their ability to break the cycle.

But Mark Schneider of the International Crisis Group, a private organization founded to prevent conflict, says countries outside of Africa are also vulnerable to AIDS-induced instability.

"The same kind of impact on stability and on security that we're seeing in sub-Saharan Africa in the first wave countries is potentially out there as we look at the second wave countries," he explained, "countries like China and Russia, Ukraine, India, Nigeria, Ethiopia, the countries that the National Intelligence Council told us in September would have some 50 million to 75 million people infected with HIV by the year 2010."

Martin Schonteich of Pretoria's Institute for Security Studies says authorities and others must recognize that HIV is more than merely a problem of individual suffering and death, but also a security and governance issue promising to undo national development.