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Afghanistan's biggest problem - poverty - can be solved

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President Bush has said that the US role in Afghanistan will not end when our immediate military goals are achieved. What remains to be done there?

First, Afghanistan will need a government. To be acceptable, a new regime in Kabul must meet four conditions: First, it must represent the entire country and not just one or a couple of its many ethnic groups. Second, it must be out of the terrorism business. Third, it must be committed to wiping out the opium poppy crop. And fourth, it must meet some minimal international standard of human rights.

Only Afghans themselves can create such a government. The United States and other countries must stay out of the kitchen. Over the centuries, Afghans have proved to be masters at manipulating foreign powers attempting to shape their government from the outside. Besides, US (or other foreign) fingerprints on the new government could doom it. But the US must be prepared to recognize any government that meets these conditions. And it must even now provide firm assurances that it will organize and help fund major international assistance.

Such aid is not mere philanthropy. Without economic and social development, even the best Afghan government will surely fail. It is common in the West to trace the region's woes to religious and ethnic conflicts, which by definition are almost intractable. But these are effects, not causes. The root problem is poverty, the essential seed ground from which religious and ethnic strife sprout. This is true not only of Afghanistan, but of impoverished and conflict-torn mountain regions worldwide, including the Balkans, Chechnya, Chiapas in Mexico, Colombia, Kashmir, Nepal, Peru, and Tajikistan.

Can mountain poverty really be alleviated? Or is economic and social development under such onerous conditions a quixotic dream? A 20-year project in Pakistan's northern Karakorum Mountains adjoining Afghanistan provides living proof that sustainable development is possible, even under the most daunting physical circumstances. There, the Aga Khan Development Network has worked at the most local level to enable people to feed themselves, set up their own small businesses, establish communal institutions, and build schools. What was once a hotbed of drug trafficking and conflict is now a peaceful and developing region.

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