With the presidential election in Afghanistan less than a week away, the international community should take a hard look at where we have come since a U.S.-$ led coalition began a military campaign to rid that country of the Taliban and its terrorist allies. The picture is deeply disturbing.

Instead of the stability promised three years ago, Afghanistan continues to stumble along, barely one level above that of a failed state. Armed warlords reign throughout the countryside; booming opium production is helping to finance terrorists; the Taliban is resurgent and remains a “real threat” according to a recent United Nations report. A pervasive lack of security is undermining efforts by the Karzai government to extend its authority, hindering the ability of the Afghan people to lead normal lives and causing fearful humanitarian aid workers to leave the country.

This unacceptable state of affairs is sure to jeopardize the credibility of the election, and it threatens not only Afghanistan’s stability and recovery but also the security of Europe and the United States.

The turmoil may be traced to two realities. First, the world community has never given Afghanistan the priority it deserved. Second, tactics used in Afghanistan have been inconsistent with our long-term objectives of stability and democracy.

That Afghanistan is still too low a priority is evident in the numbers. For example, there are about seven times more U.S. troops in Iraq than in Afghanistan, despite the threat posed by Al Qaeda and the Taliban. After much talk of expansion, the additional security forces pledged for Afghanistan at NATO’s summit in June amount to less than 0.1 percent of total NATO land forces. And this year’s Berlin donor conference for Afghanistan generated pledges for less than half of the $27.6 billion requested by the Karzai government for the next seven years.

There have also been positive numbers, certainly, like the more than four million children enrolled in school this year and the millions of Afghans who have registered to vote. But the gains will be fleeting if our strategy and supporting tactics for the country’s recovery are unsound.

The world should have given the warlords a choice: reform or retire. Instead, we put them on the payroll. U.S. forces rely on local militias for assistance against the Taliban and Al Qaeda. This enhances the power of militia leaders, undermining the government’s efforts to rein in organized military groups. And it validates the tradition of regional groups competing for money and power by “rule of the gun.” It also leaves U.S. security strategy dependent on allies who are neither reliable nor necessarily loyal to the cause of defeating terror.

With the security situation already so poor, the Taliban have vowed to increase attacks for the elections, a claim they have begun to make good. Yet NATO allocated only 3,500 added troops to provide election security in the face of these challenges.

What’s more, the international community seems to have fallen into the trap of believing that elections equal democracy. But real democracy will take root only after the rule of law is established and the president is able to extend his authority across the country. That time has not yet come, and international disarmament efforts have lagged. Nearly three years after the Taliban’s defeat, 70 percent of the estimated 50,000 illegal militiamen in the country retain their arms.

The U.S.-led coalition and the international community need to do what we failed to do after the overthrow of the Taliban government. We must formulate and implement an integrated strategy for recovery, one that does not skimp on manpower, resources or focus; one that takes into account the full gamut of threats rather than addressing some challenges at the expense of others.

This will mean making up for inadequate commitments and resolving inconsistencies within current operations. To this end, more appropriate troop numbers are required. NATO must step up in this regard with a dramatic increase in its security presence. A U.S. reassessment of its relationships with warlords is required. And a more effective approach to combating narcotics is essential.

A stable, democratic and secure Afghanistan is critical to defeat Al Qaeda and prevent the resurgence of extremism in Central Asia and around the world. The U.S. and international troops who have been risking their lives every day on our behalf in Afghanistan deserve help. And the Afghan people deserve at long last a commitment that can be measured in real accomplishments, not just more promises. The challenge is one that the U.S., Britain, NATO and the rest of the international community can and must take on – with renewed vigor, and with the full force of our military, political and economic might.

Madeleine K. Albright was U.S. secretary of state from 1997 to 2001; Robin Cook was Britain’s foreign secretary from 1997 to 2001.

This story originally appeared in the International Herald Tribune on October 5, 2004.

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