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Afghanistan, the poor stepsister to Iraq

AFGHANISTAN is slightly bigger than Iraq, with roughly the same population. Both had horrible, repressive governments. Both have held elections. Both lack basic security against crime and insurgency. Both are basically wards of the United States, and for both the future remains in doubt. But there the similarities end.

Few could doubt that Afghanistan was a just war. Al Qaeda had the run of the country under the hyper-religious Taliban, and from what we know from hastily abandoned Al Qaeda documents and computers, Afghanistan had become even more of a dangerous haven for international terrorism than we had thought.

Iraq, on the other hand, may be a haven for terrorists now, but it wasn't before we invaded. The war was sold on the basis of nonexistent weapons. On balance the war in Iraq has harmed us in the struggle against Islamic extremists and has ''created momentum" for terrorists, as Israel's Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies concluded recently.

Spreading democracy and human rights has now become the Bush administration's reason for invading Iraq. But the reasons for invading Afghanistan were always more practical. Expanding democracy was secondary to the war on terror. It will be remembered that President Bush offered to call off the invasion if the Taliban would expel Al Qaeda.

The good news for Afghanistan is that it continues to enjoy wide international support, while in Iraq the ''coalition of the willing" continues to fade. But the bad news is that Afghanistan has always been the poor stepsister to Iraq in terms of American attention and resources. Time and time again, assets have been pulled away from Afghanistan to fuel the US effort in Iraq. And even though much of Iraq has been smashed in the last two years of fighting, the damaged fabric of Iraq cannot compare with broken Afghanistan after a couple of decades of war.

As if to add insult as well as injury, America's man in Kabul, the savvy, Afghan-born Zalmay Khalilzad, will now be pulled away to become ambassador to Baghdad.

According to a United Nations report, Afghan living standards are the sixth worst in the world, ahead of only five basket cases in sub-Saharan Africa. Almost every statistic is bad. Average life expectancy is 44.5 years compared with 60.8 in neighboring Pakistan and 70.1 in Iran. Gross domestic product per capita is $190 compared with $408 in Pakistan and $1,652 in Iran. Infant mortality is also higher than the toll in any of Afghanistan's neighbors, and the literacy rate is only 28.7 percent. One in four Afghans is unemployed. Corruption is rife. Discredited warlords remain in control of vast regions. The government's writ runs very thin outside of the capital, and a low-level insurgency grinds on. Perhaps most serious of all for Afghanistan's long-term prospects, the country is now the world's largest producer of opium.

''The fragile nation could easily tumble back into chaos," said the authors of the UN report, and in provincial towns there is a growing nostalgia for the Taliban, who at least provided a modicum of law and order.

While it is true that there are more countries involved with reconstructing Afghanistan than Iraq, the big fear is that donors will lose interest. The United States is paying the lion's share, but those involved with Afghanistan's fate are ever fearful of international donor fatigue and cuts in American reconstruction aid.

Perhaps because Afghanistan has always been the semi-neglected relative to Iraq, there has been less demand for instant results. ''We call it salutary neglect," Colonel David Lamm, chief of staff to the US military mission, told The Wall Street Journal. ''It's been quite helpful."

Although the warlords of the Northern Alliance whom the United States brought back into power have behaved badly and resisted Kabul's central authority, the United States has been more patient than Paul Bremmer was in Iraq. Slowly the warlords are being coopted by the central government and relinquishing power. Likewise, amnesty for Taliban fighters, if not for top leaders, is showing promise and has received Ambassador Kalilzad's unBremmer-like support.

What Afghanistan needs from the West is 20 years of steady, unrelenting aid and support. But given the industrialized world's attention span and America's all-absorbing distraction in Iraq, it is unlikely to get it.

H.D.S. Greenway's column appears regularly in the Globe.

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