Leading article: Neglect, lost opportunities and the return of the Taliban

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Despite President Bush's optimistic speech in Kabul yesterday, no amount of rhetoric can disguise the fact that Afghanistan is slipping backwards at an alarming rate. That the country now has an elected president and parliament may suggest progress. But few Afghans have seen any benefit from this. In rural areas, health and educational facilities are still among the worst in the world. The security situation has deteriorated.

Most ominous of all is the return of the Taliban, five years after they were driven from power. This time the religious fanatics, who are operating from the south and east of country, seem to be even more ruthless than before. The tactic of launching suicide bomb attacks on civilian targets has been imported from Iraq. Schools are being targeted too. Some 165 schools and colleges have been burnt down or forced to close by the Taliban. Last year around 30 aid workers were killed too, in alarming confirmation that everyone is a potential target.

At the root of Afghanistan's problems is the government's lack of resources. The costs of President Hamid Karzai's administration are met entirely from international donors. The Afghan police and military are still weak and underpaid. Too much of the country's revenue is funnelled through aid agencies and the United Nations rather than government departments.

The international community now finds itself between a rock and hard place. Regional warlords - some as repressive as the Taliban - have consolidated their fiefdoms in the past five years. President Karzai's power does not extend far beyond Kabul. The Afghan government believes international troops in the country ought to act as the President's enforcer in the provinces. But a number of warlords won seats in elections and have democratic legitimacy now. Clamping down on them risks destabilising the country further.

The demand of the US and British governments that Afghanistan's heroin-producing poppy fields be destroyed also raises problems. Drug profits undoubtedly support the Taliban in Helmand province, where 25 per cent of the Afghan crop is cultivated. But if Western troops insist on the destruction of the crop they will deprive desperately poor farmers of their livelihood. This will increase animosity to the West and, in turn, boost support for the Taliban.

It is increasingly obvious that, in Afghanistan, a tremendous opportunity has been squandered. In 2001, foreign troops were welcomed as liberators. But the aftermath has been almost as badly managed as in Iraq. International aid pledges have not been honoured, leaving the central government to flight a hopeless battle to assert its authority. President Karzai estimates that his administration needs $4bn a year to rebuild the country over the next seven years. Yet he has received nothing like this. Meanwhile the US has lavished tens of billions of dollars on post-war Iraq.

The 20,000 US troops in Afghanistan have been more concerned with hunting for Osama bin Laden than stabilising the country and improving life for the long-suffering Afghans. Militants have poured over the border from Pakistan. There has been no effort to encourage Afghan poppy farmers to diversify into other crops or to compensate them for the destruction. New roads, irrigation canals and jobs promised by the West have not materialised. It is no wonder so many Afghans are starting to resent the presence of foreign troops.

Shortly after the fall of the Taliban, Tony Blair pledged that "this time we will not walk away". The world may not yet have walked away from Afghanistan. But it has allowed its attention to wander. And the Afghan people have, once more, been shamefully betrayed.

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