What a Difference a Week Makes

Recent days have brought surprisingly good military, political and humanitarian news from Afghanistan. None of these developments seemed likely even a week ago; in fact, most of them seemed extremely unlikely?even to the Pentagon.

It is true that the rapidity of these events complicates the efforts of the United States and the United Nations to help forge a new Afghan coalition government that would be acceptable to most Afghans and to Pakistan.

It also raises questions about whether resistance forces will avoid reprisal killings in the regions that they seize. But these are good problems to have.

Until a few days ago, we faced the prospect of an outnumbered Northern Alliance fighting without any real help from Afghanistan’s Pushtun tribes against a much larger Taliban force.

Stalemate through the winter seemed possible, complicating the delivery of food relief, allowing Osama bin Laden and other Al Qaeda leaders continued sanctuary in the mountains of the country.

Many throughout the world questioned whether the U.S. strategy for Afghanistan was doing more harm than good.

These problems now have been largely eliminated. The Afghan resistance, the men and women of the U.S. armed forces, the Bush administration and numerous U.S. coalition partners deserve congratulations for their accomplishments.

Moreover, despite reports of some revenge killings, the overall human rights situation has improved in Afghanistan. Northern Alliance leaders, aware of their need for U.S. military support now and for international aid later, have reined in their worst instincts and their meanest fighters. Most of the Taliban forces have been spared in recent days.

Wanting to get in on the action themselves, many Pushtun leaders also have engaged in the struggle against the Taliban, giving these fighters a legitimate claim to future influence in a new Afghan government. With the United States and international community clearly determined to insist on a broad coalition government, the various groups constituting the Afghan resistance should see the need for cooperation.

But of course, major challenges still confront us. The most obvious is military.

Although driving the Taliban from about 80% of Afghanistan is a major accomplishment?good for the people of that country and good for us as the noose tightens around Bin Laden?we have not defeated Al Qaeda.

That is the fundamental goal of this operation, and we must continue to work toward that.

This military mission may prove relatively easy now, if the Taliban accepts its defeat and its fighters try to melt back into their villages or go to Pakistan.

Under those circumstances, our chances of getting our hands on Bin Laden will be good. At minimum, we will keep him on the run and drastically weaken his power.

But the remaining military task may prove difficult if Taliban fighters retreat to the hills to defend themselves and Al Qaeda’s leaders. Under those circumstances, we may need to increase our help to the Afghan opposition.

Several thousand U.S. ground forces, in addition to air and special operations capabilities already in place, may yet be needed. If they are, many dozens of U.S. casualties could be expected in the difficult terrain of a heavily weaponized Afghanistan.

Such a scenario seems unlikely, given the rapidity of the Taliban defeat and the growing strength of the resistance. But it cannot be dismissed.

The second major challenge is political.

How do we help cobble together a stable Afghan government and what international forces should be used in stabilizing the country as part of the effort? Different Afghan factions have different opinions about these questions, so finding acceptable answers will take some work.

As for helping the Afghans form a coalition, the key is to push for a highly decentralized government, perhaps not unlike that in Bosnia.

Pushtuns from the southern and eastern regions should have primary responsibility for security, economics and government in their parts of the country; likewise, highly autonomous regional governments are needed in the north.

Once conditions permit, nations should channel most aid directly to these regions and maintain independent contacts with their leaders.

We should not assume that Afghanistan’s opposition factions will get over their distrust for one another. Neither should we assume that democracy and elections will make possible a strong federal government.

In highly polarized societies?such as Rwanda, Burundi and Angola in recent years?winner-take-all elections can exacerbate differences and cause renewed conflict. To avoid such dangers, autonomy should be the watchword.

As for international forces, a U.N.-approved force can help provide stability and reassurance in the capital city of Kabul and help foster better links as well as cooperation between Afghan militias and forces in various parts of the country.

The Bush administration is right to try to rely on Muslim nations such as Turkey and Indonesia to provide soldiers for such a force. If the force is deployed to help stabilize a loosely confederated Afghanistan, rather than to pursue a more ambitious agenda, it should be up to the job.

We also must continue to work hard on getting relief aid to the beleaguered Afghan people.

There are problems to monitor and challenges to surmount.

But all in all, it has been a very good week on the battlefields of