Afghanistan was the first battleground in America's "war on terror." Now it has become the unlikely proving ground for a different struggle: nation building.
When US President George W. Bush ordered US forces to attack al-Qaeda and topple the Taliban regime after Sept. 11, his aim was revenge, not reformation.
He was opposed to nation building in principle and had criticized the Clinton admin-istration's efforts in the Balkans and Haiti. In his view it was a bad idea, best left to the UN and EU.
Three years on, what was a military operation backed by Britain has evolved into the sort of nation building Bush scorned. And to its surprise, the US is part of a collaborative, multinational, UN-backed effort to transform one of the world's most backward countries.
An important stage in the process was reached when the result of the country's first democratic presidential election was confirmed.
The poll, won by Hamid Karzai, the pro-Western interim president, was declared an outstanding success by the US and Britain.
But critics of the current policy say any move to declare mission accomplished would be grossly premature. The problems of interim Karzai's limited authority beyond Kabul, heroin trafficking, renegade militia chiefs and grinding rural poverty must be overcome if nation building is to have a lasting im-pact, they say. And Bush's long-term commitment is in doubt.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair believes Afghanistan is a success story. The polls "demonstrate the scale of the transformation that has taken place," he said last week.
UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, addressing the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, said this "remarkable progress" would bolster planned parliamentary elections next year.
Official bullishness is not confined to political ranks.
Speaking to the Royal United Services Institute in London last week, General James Jones, NATO's supreme allied commander in Europe, said threats to disrupt the elections had not materialized:
"There is no national insurgency in Afghanistan nor is there likely to be," Jones said.
He said US combat troops and the international stabilization force would soon merge under joint NATO command.
But the author Edward Girardet was less optimistic. He said as the terrorist threat diminished, US resources would move elsewhere.
"The US is responding to its own immediate interests, channelling billions into combating terrorism rather than promoting stability and the rule of law," he wrote in the Financial Times.
Basic health care, education and agricultural development were being neglected. Former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright said nation building had hardly begun.
"Instead of the stability promised three years ago, Afghanistan continues to stumble along, barely one level above that of a failed state," she said in a signed article with Robin Cook, the former UK foreign secretary.
Particularly disappointing were this year's Berlin donor conference pledges, amounting to less than half the US$27.6 billion in reconstruction aid Karzai had requested through 2011, Albright said.
While the Bush administration's staying power is uncertain, Straw's speech was more reassuring. There had been tangible successes, he said. More than 3 million refugees and 500,000 displaced people had returned home and there were now 30,000 women teachers and more than 2 million girls in school.