RIGA, Latvia—The most poignant moment during the NATO meetings here last week came when Afghanistan's national security adviser spoke of the debt the West owed his country. "You wouldn't be here if it weren't for us," Zalmai Rassoul told a room full of old and new Europeans. They knew what he meant. If Afghan freedom fighters hadn't upended their Red Army occupiers, who withdrew in disgrace in early 1989, the chain of events that led to the Berlin Wall's fall, Baltic liberation, and Soviet collapse may not have followed.
His appeal went further. "You abandoned us after we defeated the Soviets," he told me. "We warned you about the dangers of the Taliban, but you ignored us. You paid for that on 9/11. If you abandon Afghanistan again, you will pay again."
His warning is timely. On its current trajectory, NATO, the 37 countries whose troops are under its command, and the Afghan government that has asked for its help will lose to extremists over time. And in some respects, that outcome would be more harmful than failure in Iraq. The United States hasn't only spread the responsibility in Afghanistan but also the potential damage.
So, while the world scrutinizes the much-anticipated report of the Iraq Study Group—and the extent to which President Bush embraces its findings—it should at the same time launch a similar and equally urgent initiative for Afghanistan.
It might already be too late to save Iraq from civil war or worse, but there's still time to save the moderate, pro-Western regime in Afghanistan. If the West doesn't address its failings soon, though, its military victories will be overshadowed by extremist attacks from a resurgent Taliban that is funded by a growing narco-economy and abetted by ostensible allies in Pakistan. The likely outcome would be Western fatigue and ultimate defeat as NATO suffers a death by a thousand improvised explosive devices.
Here is an initial agenda for an Afghan Study Group:
Transform Afghanistan's drug economy and devote more resources to winning hearts and minds. Perhaps the most important lesson of Iraq is that the military alone can take and hold ground, but it cannot win today's wars, which involve complex stabilization and reconstruction efforts.
Nothing will be more important to success in Afghanistan than reversing the estimated 60 percent growth in its narco-economy last year, which now provides some 90 percent of the world's opium crop.
The West can't train police, judges, and civil servants as quickly as the Taliban and its allies can corrupt them. What's needed is an all-out, coordinated international effort that will take a decade at least to help the Afghan government not only eradicate the poppy fields but, more important, provide subsidies and programs for crop substitutions while protecting farmers from the drug lords who buy their harvest.
Clean up Afghan government corruption and expand central authority. U.S. officials complain that President Hamid Karzai is a good man but a bad manager and leader. He has the power to name provincial governors, but he hasn't shown that he can get them to do what he wants. Afghanistan won't work until he extends his authority, until he begins to prosecute corrupt politicians, and indict, convict, or extradite drug kingpins—most of whom are known to him.