WILTON, CONN. -- As a gung-ho administration moves toward major commitment to war and peace in Iraq, it should study the cautionary tales of previous experience. None is more pointed than Afghanistan. Today, nearly a year and a half and billions of dollars after military victory, Afghanistan is on the razor's edge. Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN's extraordinary chief political construction engineer, says that improvements made so far are "not irreversible."
At first, progress came easily. The war was won quickly and at small cost. A respected figure, Hamid Karzai was an authentic rallying point for transforming a torn, weary people, a mosaic of tribal entities, into a democratic state.
The world community was of one mind, applauding the process and rushing to help, guilt-ridden at having abandoned Afghanistan when the Soviet invader withdrew. A loya jirga, grand council, resurrected from Afghanistan's past, gave legitimacy to a blueprint of democratic government.
But lawlessness and insecurity are on the rise again. Local warlords and their militias fight it out. One of the biggest, Ismail Khan of Herat, simply doesn't recognize the national government. An old extremist mujahideen, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, has declared war on Kabul. The vanished Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, calls for holy war against "America, the crusaders, and their allies." Afghanistan's border with the strongly Islamist tribal areas of western Pakistan is porous to Al Qaeda.
In February, the UN suspended its aid operation in the north because of factional skirmishes. Roads are unsafe in much of the country. The voluntary program to disarm militias has not even begun. Only a small step has been taken to create a national army. Police, such as they are, can't handle the upsurge in crime. A penal and judiciary system doesn't exist. Kabul is the one area under central control, thanks to an international military force of 5,000. Covering the rest of the country is out of the question because contributing governments will not risk soldiers. As for aid money, donor fatigue grows as this commitment wears on and others tug at the sleeve of a world in economic straits.
The effort bravely continues to aim at a national election next year. A constitution is being written. But heroic work will be needed to cope with the expected return of more than a million refugees this year. And, although Mr. Karzai banned the opium trade more than a year ago, it remains enormous, linked to warlords and provincial governors as protectors and profiteers.
The place of the US in this troubled scenario is uncertain. Washington has donated food and mainly security- oriented funds. Overcoming its original phobia of nation-building, the administration has assigned soldiers to help with reconstruction. But most of the 8,000 troops in Afghanistan have their separate agenda, pursuing what remnants of Taliban and Al Qaeda they can track. Inevitably, they work with warlords who have little use for Kabul.
The ghosts of other campaigns hold their own messages. Vietnam saw irresolute use of power in the service of confused policy end in tragic failure. While World War II had titanic battles and bright victories, its aftermath persisted for half a century. Now the world faces a new great war - asymmetrical, the experts call it - where shadowy groups and suicide bombers attack large nations.
Today, as the US pushes toward Iraq and invasion, the US Army's chief of staff, Gen. Eric Shinseki, estimates that several hundred thousand soldiers must stay in Iraq even if the war goes extremely well. Pentagon hawks call this a wild exaggeration. Afghanistan suggests it is not. Resolve is needed, certainly, but also a goal bigger than "defeating the enemy." Ideals, such as those that animated the grand coalition in the 1940s, must lead, championing human values in a better world and summoning global help to build it.
* Richard C. Hottelet was a correspondent for CBS.