A debate is underway over what level of security assistance the international community should extend to Afghanistan. The question is crucial as a political process begins that will determine that battered country's political future.

President Bush has pledged to rebuild Afghanistan with a massive aid program reminiscent of the Marshall Plan that rebuilt Europe after World War II. But some analysts say such grand plans will be rendered useless without more widespread security assistance in Afghanistan.

Although security is now vastly better for Afghans than it was during 23 years of war and unrest, Afghanistan still remains a dangerous place where the rule of the warlord prevails and ethnic and political disputes are often settled at the barrel of a gun.

The central interim government can do little, as it is only beginning to train a national army and police force. There are U.S. forces in Afghanistan, but they are preoccupied with the hunt for Taleban and al-Qaida fighters. There are also international peacekeepers, primarily European troops backed by U.S. intelligence and logistical support, but they do not work outside of Kabul.

Edmund McWilliams, a retired senior diplomat who served as the U.S. Special Envoy on Afghanistan, says the broader issue of countrywide security must be addressed by the international community in general and the United States in particular. Mr. McWilliams said, "I think it's encouraging that he's - that the administration and the president specifically - are beginning to think in terms of ensuring a survivable Afghan regime in Kabul. But it's difficult to understand how that commitment could be carried out, though, unless the problem of security outside of Kabul is addressed."

Interim government chairman Hamid Karzai has pleaded for the deployment of foreign forces in the countryside, to ensure stability and protect ordinary Afghans from intimidation. He has emphasized the need particularly in the lead-up to June's Loya Jirga, or grand council, that will choose the next interim government. The call has been echoed by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Otherwise, both say, Afghanistan's fledgling democracy is at grave risk.

But the plea has not been answered. Mr. Karzai failed to win U.S. support for such a move, during his meeting with President Bush earlier this year.

In a meeting with reporters earlier this week, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said he backs the idea of an expanded security presence in Afghanistan but not United States involvement. "If someone came up and said, 'We'd like to expand it, and here are the forces and here's the money to pay those forces, and we think that they belong in cities A, B, C in Afghanistan,' and the government of Afghanistan decided they wanted to do that, it would happen in a flash."

But Secretary Rumsfeld bristled at the suggestion that the United States needs to do even more in Afghanistan, saying that other countries can contribute as well. "It seems to me," he said, "that any characterization that the United States has not stepped up to the plate with respect to Afghanistan is a misunderstanding of what has happened and what is currently happening. We are not the only country on the face of the earth. There are other nations that have resources, that have troops."

Mr. McWilliams and other like-minded analysts contend that the U.S. policy in Afghanistan is being driven primarily by military concerns. And as far as the United States is concerned, he says, that is focussed on the terrorist threat. He continued, "I think that essentially that was the problem from the very beginning. I think we went in with a very clear military strategy, but we did not have in place a very clear political strategy."

Mr. McWilliams expresses concern that without a stable and viable central government, Afghanistan will again become a breeding ground for international terrorism.