Earlier this month, it was announced that the elections in Afghanistan were to be delayed for a second time, with the country now supposedly choosing a president in October and a new parliament next spring. The announcement made few waves. Afghanistan is the day before yesterday's story. Nearly three years after Operation Enduring Freedom was launched to remove the Taliban regime and bring liberty and prosperity to one of the world's most impoverished countries, not much of the operation endures and many basic freedoms -- from insecurity, from fear, from poverty -- remain elusive.
The timing of the election, one month before George Bush goes to the polls himself, has as much to do with American as Afghan politics. With Iraq in turmoil, a newly elected Afghan president will be offered as proof that at least some of the administration's foreign policy objectives have been met.
Many Afghans, particularly in Kabul, clearly welcomed the removal of the Taliban. But the one thing that the Taliban did provide was security, so that people could travel in the countryside without fear of ambush and so that the plunder, rape and corruption of the warlord era that preceded them became largely contained.
Last week, President Hamid Karzai told the New York Times that the threat from the Taliban was "exaggerated" and that the real danger to the future of Afghanistan lay with the warlords and their militias. Part of the reconstruction process after the war was meant to be a disarmament of the militias, but so far only around 10,000 out of 60,000 have responded to the incentive of new jobs and handed in their weapons.
Not a few Afghans surveying the chaotic aftermath of war have ruefully, if not seriously, suggested that the Taliban should be invited back in a limited capacity to run security. Every day come reports of fresh attacks on anyone associated with the election process or the west, along with a steady drizzle of ambushes, assassinations, rocket attacks and explosions. Only yesterday there was a fatal clash between US forces and the Taliban in Zabul.
As it happens, the announcement of the election date comes as an independent research body has published a report on what it sees as the failure of the security policy in Afghanistan, accusing the international community of serious neglect. The report, by the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU), points out that, compared with countries where the international community has intervened militarily, Afghanistan has been badly let down.
Nato has just decided to increase its forces there from 6,500 to 8,700, which the report claims will be inadequate. "Shamefully, Afghanistan has the lowest international troop to population ratio of any recent intervention," asserts Col Philip Wilkinson, who co-authored the paper with Michael Bhatia and Kevin Lanigan. The report says that Afghanistan now has one member of the military to 1,115 members of the population, compared to one per 50 at an equivalent period in Kosovo, one per 111 in East Timor, one per 161 in Iraq and one per 375 in Haiti.
"Nato's continued inability to provide significant forces will only further embolden President Karzai's opponents -- whether warlords, poppy-growers or terrorists," the report concludes, arguing that "the Taliban are far from defeated, poppy production has soared, and regional warlords are still brazen in their abuse of citizens and in their dealings with the central government." Andrew Wilder, director of AREU, which is based in Kabul and receives funding from the EU, the UN, Sweden and Switzerland, reckons that as the situation stands it is still not possible to hold fair and safe elections.
Aid agencies have also expressed their concerns. "Afghanistan continues to be sidelined as international attention and resources remain focused on Iraq," says Barbara Stapleton, spokeswoman for the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief in Kabul. She says that many NGOs have called for an increase in security to help the country stabilise itself. Many others in the aid community have expressed concern that the election is being hurried through without enough attention paid to the safety of voters and registration teams.
In his novel about the Taliban period, The Swallows of Kabul, Mohammed Moulessehoul, under his nom de plume of Yasmina Khadra, writes: "The Afghan countryside is nothing but battlefields, expanses of sand and cemeteries ... everything appears charred, fossilised, blasted by some unspeakable spell."
For a moment, in the wake of the war, it looked as if the spell might be broken and the country would be associated with something other than battlefields and cemeteries. Then the caravan moved on to Iraq and the warlords returned to their old pursuits. Afghanistan deserves the world's full attention -- and its help -- once more.