Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai, for whom I have the greatest respect, is in a real political jam. While the world becomes increasingly preoccupied with America's possible invasion and occupation of Iraq, Karzai is on a whirlwind tour to keep attention focused on the commitment to help transform Afghanistan into a functioning and autonomous modern democracy.
There have been some impressive accomplishments already: Infrastructure is being repaired, 2 million refugees have returned, and a rudimentary government with paid civil servants is up and running. Children once again are in school. Yet without detracting one bit from Karzai's leadership, one nevertheless must not ignore the discouraging reality in Afghanistan today absent immediate and substantial U.S. aid and assistance.
More than a year after we invaded Afghanistan and expelled the Taliban, the vast majority of the country outside the coalition-protected capital, Kabul, remains in the grip of warlords. It is fascinating to hear revisionist historians complain about the "failure" of President George Herbert Walker Bush to pursue and topple Saddam Hussein after the Gulf War when he had no mandate to do any such thing. Yet the silence is deafening over our clear failure to pursue and disarm the Afghani warlords, which unambiguously falls within our mission description there. Not only did we fail to break the back of the warlords early on, we actually provided them financial and military assistance. Today, outside nongovernmental organizations continue to support the warlords, and we must put an end to that support; only the United States can do it.
The Chicago Tribune reported that Karzai gave "an exuberant assessment" to a group of U.S. senators last week of how rapidly the situation in Afghanistan is improving. The president told them that "the government has much more authority in charge of the country than you can presume." But I have been told privately by other Afghanis who are in a position to know that Karzai is sarcastically referred to as the "mayor of Kabul" in recognition of the fact that the national government's writ does not run much beyond the perimeter around the capital city established by the International Security Assistance Force. This is profoundly disappointing.
Consider other disturbing indications that Afghanistan remains essentially in a state of lawlessness. Opium production and drug trafficking are completely out of control. According to recent statistics, Afghanistan produced more opium in 2002 than it ever did under the Taliban and has become the largest opium-producing country in the world and one of the largest drug traffickers.
The Taliban is regrouping in the outer reaches of the country. In a refugee camp just over the border in Pakistan where Taliban and al-Qaeda terrorists were known to have fled, leaflets have been distributed warning Afghanis not to cooperate with "the U.S. and other anti-Islamic forces against this (Islamic) religion or support the Karzai government against the Taliban." Similar fliers have been sighted inside Kabul itself. The terrorists made good on their threat last week when they killed a Karzai supporter living in the refugee camp. Hit-and-run guerrilla attacks inside Afghanistan also have been rising in frequency and intensity.
When asked about progress toward creating a new constitutional legal system in Afghanistan, Karzai also had some worrisome remarks. The vision of a post-Taliban Afghanistan was to replace the Taliban and the Sharia form of strict Islamic law with a secular form of constitutional government and civil courts.
In an interview with the Indian Hindu and Third Eye Television, Karzai emphasized that Afghanistan never was a secular country and will not become one in the future. "Our lives will be Islamic," he said, which appears to mean he does not envision an Afghanistan in which there is a separation between religion and law and politics.
Whatever happens in Iraq, the United States cannot afford to neglect or forget about Afghanistan. That is why former U.N. Ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick and I have joined forces with Mahmood Karzai, the president's brother, and with Hamed Wardak, vice president of the Afghan-American Chamber of Commerce, to form an American support group that will promote the cause of democracy and free enterprise in Afghanistan.
There is an urgent need to promote economic and political reform in Afghanistan and to demonstrate the inextricable linkages between a free-market economy and democracy. President Bush took a major step in the right direction in January when he signed an order allowing 5,700 different imports from Afghanistan to enter the United States duty-free. But we must go further.
That's why we believe a 21st-century Marshall Plan for Afghanistan and the region is required, which would provide not only financial aid but also assistance in setting up the infrastructure of democratic capitalism. And I can think of no one better suited to advise Karzai on bringing empowerment, private property and the rule of law to Afghanistan than Hernando DeSoto, who has helped so many other nations, from his native Peru to Egypt, establish private property rights and leverage them as collateral for capital creation. If we can't get it right in Afghanistan, what hope will we have in Iraq?