Dangerous turn in Afghanistan

This editorial appeared in The New York Times.

After years of denial and negligence, President Bush and his aides are finally waking up to the desperate mess they've made in Afghanistan. They have little choice, since the alarms are coming from all corners.

In a rare moment of agreement, America's 16 intelligence agencies are warning that Afghanistan is on a dangerous "downward spiral." Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is publicly predicting that next year will be an even "tougher year."

As The New York Times reported last week, a draft intelligence report blames three problems for the breakdown in central authority and the Taliban's rising power: rampant corruption, a booming heroin trade and increasingly sophisticated attacks from militants based across the border in Pakistan. Unless all three are addressed quickly, the war in Afghanistan could be lost.

Under pressure from the United States and other NATO governments, Afghanistan's president, Hamid Karzai, appointed a new interior minister over the weekend who will be charged with cleaning up and strengthening the country's police force.

Karzai now must cut all ties with corrupt officials. He must take a hard and credible look at allegations that his brother may be involved in the heroin trade that is pouring $100 million annually into the Taliban's coffers.

The United States will also have to send more troops into Afghanistan and persuade its allies to send more. It's chilling to watch America's defense secretary, Robert Gates, begging NATO — and the White House — for help.

Germany's commitment of another 1,000 troops is commendable but marred by its refusal to deploy them in southern Afghanistan, where the fighting is heaviest. NATO members that can't or won't send more troops must contribute money to build Afghanistan's national army and finance local development.

NATO's recent decision to authorize its forces to go after drug lords and drug labs is a (much belated) start, but it still has far too many strings attached.

Even optimistic analysts say that things have now gotten so bad that with the best strategy, it could take another five to 10 years to stabilize Afghanistan.

That is one more reason the next president must plot a swift, orderly exit from Iraq and begin a swift and serious buildup of troops and aid in Afghanistan — the real frontline in the war on terror.