In short, now might be a good time for the Bush administration to rethink its reflexive opposition to "nationbuilding." Not merely for reasons of altruism or regret, and not to make our European allies happy. No, the Bush team needs to show that it can bring peace, security, and territorial integrity to Afghanistan because, if it doesn't, it will have a much harder time convincing anyone to support its effort to overthrow and reconstruct the government of another very dangerous country: Iraq.

President George W. Bush seemed to understand that concept two weeks ago when he evoked the spirit of George Marshall and pledged to help secure Afghanistan's future. But actions speak louder than words, and thus far the administration's actions have been less than encouraging. Only a few hours after Bush's Marshall Plan speech, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld once again dismissed the idea that U.S. forces might play a role in keeping Afghanistan's peace. Instead, the administration relegated the task to Great Britain and Turkey--while simultaneously undermining their ability to accomplish it. Despite pleas from the United Nations and from Karzai himself, the United States--which has the final say in a country it still deems a war zone--has steadfastly opposed the deployment of foreign peace-keepers, regardless of nationality, beyond the confines of Kabul. Not only won't we provide the Afghans security; we won't let anyone else do it either.

The opposition comes primarily from the Pentagon, which worries that the presence of foreign peacekeepers would impede our ability to destroy Afghanistan's remaining Taliban and Al Qaeda forces. And for months that fear was justified. But with the war against Al Qaeda reduced to isolated pockets along the Pakistani border, and with the rest of Afghanistan descending into anarchy, it no longer is. Indeed, with Iran filling the vacuum in Western Afghanistan, Russia fomenting mischief in the North, and warlords wreaking havoc everywhere in between, a Central Intelligence Agency report released in February warned that the country may become engulfed in civil war. True, the Bush administration has offered to train a new national army. But the proposed force is too modest to gain control of a countryside beset by ethnic rivalries; and even under the best circumstances, it would take months to field. The administration has also boosted its humanitarian aid to Afghanistan. But of the $150 million requested by the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Bush team has approved less than one-third--claiming, ironically, that Afghanistan isn't secure enough for the aid to be properly distributed.

This sort of circular reasoning, needless to say, hardly upholds the spirit of the Marshall Plan. More important, it hardly serves America's strategic interests. After all, when the United States begins its push for "regime change" in Iraq, crucial allies like neighboring Turkey will recall how the United States overthrew a regime in Afghanistan without bothering to guarantee a stable replacement. But it may not even come to that. If it continues to lose the peace, the Bush team may be too busy pursuing another regime change in Afghanistan.

By The Editors