Barnett R. Rubin is Director of Studies and a
Senior Fellow at New York University's Center on International Cooperation and the
author of The Fragmentation of Afghanistan. He served as an adviser to the Special
Representative of the Secretary-General at the UN Talks on Afghanistan in Bonn in
Afghanistan has stepped back from a tipping point. At the cost of taking and inflicting more casualties than in any year since the start of Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001 (and four times as many as in 2005), NATO troops turned back a frontal offensive by the Taliban last summer. The insurgents aimed to capture a district west of Kandahar, hoping to take that key city and precipitate a crisis in Kabul, the capital. Despite this setback, however, the Taliban-led insurgency is still active on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistani border, and the frontier region has once again become a refuge for what President George W. Bush once called the main threat to the United States -- "terrorist groups of global reach." Insurgents in both Afghanistan and Pakistan have imported suicide bombing, improvised explosive technology, and global communications strategies from Iraq; in the south, attacks have closed 35 percent of the schools. Even with opium production at record levels, slowing economic growth is failing to satisfy the population's most basic needs, and many community leaders accuse the government itself of being the main source of abuse and insecurity. Unless the shaky Afghan government receives both the resources and the leadership required to deliver tangible benefits in areas cleared of insurgents, the international presence in Afghanistan will come to resemble a foreign occupation -- an occupation that Afghans will ultimately reject.
For decades -- not only since 2001 -- U.S. policymakers have underestimated the stakes in Afghanistan. They continue to do so today. A mere course correction will not be enough to prevent the country from sliding into chaos. Washington and its international partners must rethink their strategy and significantly increase both the resources they devote to Afghanistan and the effectiveness of those resources' use. Only dramatic action can reverse the perception, common among both Afghans and their neighbors, that Afghanistan is not a high priority for the United States -- and that the Taliban are winning as a result. Washington's appeasement of Pakistan, diversion of resources to Iraq, and perpetual underinvestment in Afghanistan -- which gets less aid per capita than any other state with a recent postconflict rebuilding effort -- have fueled that suspicion.