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    A Times Editorial

    Rebuilding in Afghanistan

    © St. Petersburg Times
    published January 5, 2003

    The focus of the U.S. war against terrorism has moved well beyond Afghanistan, but our work in Afghanistan has not ended. For practical as well as moral reasons, our government should continue to take the lead in the long-term process of building a stable society from the rubble left behind by the Taliban and al-Qaida.

    The biggest immediate threat to Afghanistan's stability comes not from political extremists but from the deadly extremes of winter weather. Hundreds of thousands of Afghans have been left homeless by years of war and chaos, and U.S.-led relief efforts have not even begun the task of rebuilding housing to head off the disaster that a typically harsh winter could bring.

    President Hamid Karzai's government has been reasonably successful in establishing itself in and around the capital of Kabul, but the influx of an estimated 650,000 refugees is overwhelming the new government and its international benefactors. While U.S.-led international assistance has rebuilt roads, bridges and other essential infrastructure, not a single residential home has been built with international help. Aid workers estimate that 78,000 houses were destroyed in Kabul alone during Afghanistan's war. In much of the Afghan countryside, conditions are even more dire.

    Little can be done in the short term to head off the winter crisis in most of Afghanistan outside of Kabul. The population is too sparse for crash housing programs to have much impact, and the regional warlords who still control most of the countryside are dubious partners for international aid workers. However, much more could be done in Kabul, a city of 3-million situated more than a mile above sea level, where those attempting to brave the elements are already risking their lives. Below-freezing temperatures will be common for months to come.

    United Nations Habitat, the organization leading food and shelter programs in Afghanistan's cities, has done its best to house the refugees in tents, abandoned public buildings and other makeshift locations. But the health of hundreds of thousands of people -- and perhaps the survival of the Karzai government -- depends on an infusion of money to provide a more secure housing base.

    Millions of Americans need help to make it through the winter in our own cities, and Washington's attention has turned to more obvious global threats. But the job of uprooting terrorism in Afghanistan is not finished. Hopelessness and suffering can be breeding grounds for terrorism. If the United States and the new Afghan government are seen as failing to fulfill the expectations they created after the Taliban's fall, the political and military achievements of the past year could be lost. By redoubling efforts to provide Afghans with the foundations of a new life, we can bolster the foundations of our own security.

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