The hopes of peace and freedom in Afghanistan cannot be sacrificed

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President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan has shown himself to be a leader of unusual dignity and forbearance. Yesterday, after voicing yet another urgent plea for more foreign troops to help with security before September's elections, he was asked whether the 5,000 promised would be enough. It would, he said, appear "ungrateful" if he complained.

President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan has shown himself to be a leader of unusual dignity and forbearance. Yesterday, after voicing yet another urgent plea for more foreign troops to help with security before September's elections, he was asked whether the 5,000 promised would be enough. It would, he said, appear "ungrateful" if he complained.

Yet Mr Karzai has good reason to complain loud and long over the treatment he and his country have received at the hands of the grandly styled "international community". The military intervention in Afghanistan had the full support of the United Nations and a well-defined purpose: destroying the bases of al-Qa'ida after the terrorist attacks of the previous September. Not only was the intervention largely successful, it also created the conditions for Afghans to drive the Taliban from power. Mr Karzai emerged from a brief military stand-off, an international conference and a national loya jirga as the acknowledged leader. He has a claim to legitimacy that Iraq's newly installed interim government can only envy, and he has the backing of a small, but truly multinational, force provided by Nato.

The longer-term support for Afghanistan pledged by the US, Britain and others, however, has fallen lamentably short of what was required. Poor security slowed the registration of voters, forcing postponement of Afghanistan's first free elections. It is imperative that these elections take place, as rescheduled, in September. A second postponement would jeopardise the advance to representative government. Once again, the West would be seen to have let Afghanistan down, the undertakings given by Mr Blair and other leaders exposed as worthless.

The West's continuing obligation to Afghanistan is just one of many reasons why the war in Iraq was so misguided. As we now know, billions of dollars approved by the US Congress for Afghanistan were diverted by the White House to Iraq. Further requests to Congress have combined funds for the two countries, and it is already clear where the bulk of the money will go. Britain, to its credit, has stood by its original aid commitment, but its troop deployments in Iraq leave little capacity spare to help Mr Karzai.

Afghanistan can hardly be blamed for the reality that its fortunes are now bound so closely with those of Iraq. These are two quite different countries that have suffered two quite different, if equally cruel, fates. On no account, however, can we allow the prospect of peace and freedom in Afghanistan to be sacrificed to the perpetual emergency in Iraq.

Western neglect over the past year has already set Afghanistan back. Local fiefdoms have been established, here and there the Taliban again rears its head, and the opium crop flourishes. Outside Kabul many roads are dangerous and the borderlands with Pakistan have never been fully pacified. It seems doubtful now that they will be. Afghanistan needs much more concentrated help, military and civilian, than it is receiving. In short, just as much is at stake in Afghanistan as there is in Iraq, perhaps in the short term even more.

The West cannot fail in Afghanistan, first, because its already compromised credibility would be utterly shattered. It cannot fail, second, because the future of the Western alliance is predicated to a great extent on whether it can fulfil its mission in Afghanistan. This is Nato's first significant mission outside its traditional area of operation. Such assignments are intended to give Nato a new purpose now that the Cold War has ended. Failure here would raise doubts about whether Nato can survive.

Finally, the West must succeed in Afghanistan because of Iraq. If Afghanistan can make the transition to representative government in relative peace and security there will be an example for the West and for Iraq to follow. And the converse is also true: failure in Afghanistan would make catastrophe in Iraq all the more likely.

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