THE BLOG
01/09/2006 08:46 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Will A Stable Afghanistan Be Yet Another Casualty of the War in Iraq?

For all the disastrous consequences of the Iraq invasion -- including another 28 Americans killed over the last five days -- one of the most devastating has been the way it caused us to take our eye off the ball in Afghanistan. You do remember Afghanistan, don't you?

Four years after we toppled the Taliban, the first front on the global war on terror is facing a very uncertain future.

At a Pentagon briefing last week, President Bush slipped on his rose-colored glasses while touting the "amazing" progress being made "on the road to democracy" in Afghanistan. And while positive steps have certainly been taken, with the first elected parliament in 30 years being sworn in late last month, the new government is facing an aggressive insurgency, widespread corruption, a tattered infrastructure, severe electrical shortages, a lack of trained police and army forces, and a sputtering economy still dominated by drug traffickers.

Sen. Chuck Hagel, so courageous in his critique of the Bush administration's handling of Iraq, is equally clear-eyed about the problems plaguing Afghanistan -- drawing the unmistakable connection between the two countries: "You can't carry the same intensity in two global invasions," he said. "Iraq is sucking the oxygen out of everything." Including our efforts to stabilize Afghanistan.

During his Pentagon comments, President Bush took a page from his Iraq PR strategy and tossed around a slew of numbers meant to counteract reports that the "training of Afghan police and army forces is proceeding at a snail's pace": "The Afghan national army," he said, "is now nearly 27,000 soldiers who are trained and equipped. General Abizaid tells us these soldiers are tough in battle... There are some 55,000 Afghan police officers on the beat. They're taking the fight to the enemy." How long before Gen. Abizaid has to follow in the footsteps of Gen. Casey and clarify exactly how few of these soldiers and police officers are actually ready to, as the president put it, "step in" so we can "step back"?

And there were a few stats the president left out of his numerical cavalcade, including the fact that the Taliban-led insurgency, still going strong, claimed some 1,500 lives last year, including nearly 100 U.S. soldiers -- more than double the number who lost their lives there in 2004. What's more, the Afghan insurgents are starting to emulate the all-too-successful tactics of their counterparts in Iraq. The country has seen a surge in roadside bombings and suicide attacks.

Efforts to reconstruct the war-torn nation are also proceeding very slowly. With the reconstruction of Iraq sucking up some $30 billion, the rebuilding of Afghanistan has had to make do with the leftovers -- $1.3 billion since 2002. But, despite the need for more roads, schools, clinics, and reliable electricity (even Kabul only gets a few hours of power a day), the Bush administration has slashed reconstruction aid to Afghanistan from $1 billion in 2005 to $623 million in 2006 -- an amount that Ronald Neumann, Bush's new ambassador to the country, says falls far short of what's needed. He told Congress that it would take some $5.2 billion over the next four years to get the job done.

"This is too critical to just say we want victory but we want it on the cheap," said Neumann. But that is exactly how Bush hopes to get it.

Perhaps the most destabilizing factor plaguing Afghanistan is the illicit drug trade. The country produces over 80% of the world's opium -- and drug trafficking accounts for more than half of its GDP. But the impact is far more than economic. As a Kabul-based Western diplomat told Newsweek: "Afghanistan's main problems are all linked to drug trafficking: rampant corruption, repressive militia groups, human-rights abuses and bad governance."

Indeed, Newsweek reports that many of the country's leaders are among the biggest drug lords. According to "Diplomats and well-informed Afghans," "up to a quarter of the new Parliament's 249 elected members are linked to narcotics production and trafficking." One source claims that 70 percent of the drug traffic can be linked to Afghan government officials. The Afghan president's own brother has been accused of being a major player in the heroin trade (a charge he vehemently denies).

Despite all this, the U.S. has done little more than give lip service to the crisis, taking a surprisingly hands-off approach.

When it comes to discussing America's withdrawal from Iraq, the president's default talking point is that America won't cut and run. But when it comes to Afghanistan, he's cutting troops (by 13 percent) and funding -- and running the risk of allowing the country to fall into chaos.

What about his commitment to staying the course? Or does that only apply to Iraq?