Originally published in the Boston Globe, April 20, 2003

IF THE EXAMPLE of Afghanistan is anything to go by, the path to postwar stability in Iraq will be a very difficult one. Almost a year and a half after the United States and its allies overthrew the rule of the Taliban and Al Qaeda, Afghanistan is poised on a knife edge. The transition to full democratic government next year, as laid down in the US-backed United Nations plan, looks hopelessly optimistic.

Virtually the whole of Afghanistan is under the control of local warlords or ethnic militias. The interim government under Prime Minister Hamid Karzai does not really even control Kabul. Nor, for that matter, is it really a government. Instead, it remains a coalition of mutually hostile leaders cobbled together by the West at the Bonn Conference of 2001; not an administration, but a sort of supreme national negotiating committee.

Afghanistan's ``National Army'' and police force are controlled by one ethnic sub-group, the Tajiks of the Panjshiri Valley. Through a mixture of their courage, discipline, and unity, their geographical position, and US air support, they were able to capture Kabul from the Taliban. As a result, they gained a dominant position in the provisional government created by the West after the war. Karzai remains little more than a figurehead. Partly as a consequence, other ethnic groups are determined not to allow these ``national'' security forces to establish themselves on their territory.

The ethnic Pashtuns, from whom the Taliban were drawn, are unhappy with their loss of power, and with numerous atrocities committed against Pashtuns in the north by America's local allies - the Uzbeks and Tajiks. Some Pashtuns have rallied to the banner of former anti-Soviet leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a Pashtun religious extremist and bitter enemy of the West.

International humanitarian aid has done a great deal to help ordinary Afghans, but large-scale economic development and reconstruction of infrastructure is gravely hampered. Urban women have been freed of the pathological restrictions imposed by the Taliban and are once again free to study and work in government. But their position remains immensely restricted by tradition, and many are now in greater danger from banditry and lawlessness. The international peacekeeping force remains restricted to Kabul. Elsewhere, US forces are contributing in small ways to reconstruction, but they avoid clashes with local warlords, whose help they need in hunting the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

The latter have been greatly reduced, but small groups are still active across much of the country, as demonstrated by recent deadly attacks on US troops and international aid workers. The top leaders of both groups are still at large, whether in Afghanistan or in neighboring Pakistan. There, the anger of Pakistani Pashtuns has contributed to a surge of support for radical Islamist parties, which now form the government in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province, which borders Afghanistan.

The Pakistani government has cooperated with the United States in tracking down several top Al Qaeda leaders. However, serious doubts remain concerning the extent of that cooperation and the loyalty of some Pakistani policemen and intelligence officers. Numerous extremist groups remain openly active in Pakistan and are closely linked to the Taliban.

When the Taliban was overthrown, there was much talk in the West of turning Afghanistan into a ``beach-head of democracy and progress in the Muslim world,'' as one US senator put it. In part, this reflected a consciousness of the way the United States had abandoned Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989 and the way in which this contributed to the rise of the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

So what has gone wrong? The basic answer is threefold: Afghan reality; unrealistic hopes on the part of the West; and the way in which the United States won the 2001 war.

Given its history, Afghanistan never held much promise for western-style democracy. Suggestions that, before the communist takeover, Afghanistan had been a successful, strong, secular, and democratic state simply had no basis in reality. In fact, this was always a desperately poor and intensely conservative society. True modernization touched only the wealthy urban elites. Ethnic tensions always simmered below the surface.

However, the postwar situation has also been hampered by the way in which the war itself was won. Rather than using its own troops on the ground, the United States relied on two different kinds of forces: in northern and central Afghanistan - a region dominated by ethnic groups hostile to the Taliban - the United States backed the Northern Alliance, a loose ethnic coalition of which the Panjshiris were the strongest element.

In the south and east - dominated by Afghanistan's previous ruling people, the Pashtuns - the United States armed and funded local warlords. It continues to rely on these forces today in its continuing attempts to hunt down Taliban diehards. As a consequence, much of actual American military policy has gone dead against the political goals set out by the Bush administration.

None of this means that Afghanistan is doomed to collapse back into ethno-religious civil war, or that the lives of ordinary Afghans will not gradually improve. But it certainly does suggest that for even these minimal goals to be achieved, the United States will have to maintain a strong presence in Afghanistan for a great many years to come.

Anatol Lieven is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C.