By Paul Sussman for CNN
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(CNN) -- "We have now left a hard and dark past behind us," declared Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai in his inauguration address of December 7, 2004. "Today we are opening a new chapter in our history."
It was a sentiment echoed at the time by U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney, one of some 150 foreign dignitaries gathered in Kabul to witness Karzai's swearing-in.
"The tyranny has gone, the terrorist enemy is scattered," he proclaimed. "The people of Afghanistan are free."
Two years on, and five years after a U.S. lead coalition launched Operation Enduring Freedom to drive the Taliban out of Afghanistan and end the country's role as a safe-haven and training ground for al Qaeda, Karzai has arrived in Washington for a summit with Presidents Bush and Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan.
It is a crucial meeting, coming as it does at a time when the optimism of Karzai's inaugural speech is looking ever more forlorn and misplaced.
Crisis and instability
Touted as a showcase of the success Washington's "War on Terror," Afghanistan has become increasingly unstable and crisis-ridden over the last 12 months, with Karzai's power, never broad-based at the best of times, now effectively limited to the capital Kabul and its immediate surroundings (detractors have long dismissed him as "The Mayor of Kabul.")
Elsewhere in the country, and despite the presence of some 41,000 NATO and U.S. troops, the picture is one of spiraling instability and lawlessness. Especially in the south, in provinces such as Helmand and Kandahar, a resurgent Taliban have been inflicting significant casualties on both coalition troops and on a demoralized, underpaid Afghan army.
Civilian casualties have likewise been mounting at an alarming rate -- a suicide bomb attack in Helmand on Tuesday left nine civilians and nine Afghan soldiers dead.
"The Taliban's tenacity in the face of massive losses has been a surprise," admitted Britain's Defense Secretary Des Browne in a recent speech to the Royal United Services Institute in London, "Absorbing more of our effort than predicted and consequently slowing progress on reconstruction."
"At this stage the insurgency isn't a direct threat to Karzai's administration," says Joanna Nathan of the International Crisis Group's Kabul office. "It is, however, getting ever closer to Kabul and deflecting a huge amount of energy, time and resources during what should be a period of hope and rebuilding.
"The fighting has got noticeably worse over the last twelve months, both qualitatively and quantitatively. Violence is unquestionably on an upward trend.
"This is definitely the lowest point in the last five years."
Warlords and opium
The Taliban, however, are just one of a series of hurdles facing President Karzai in his attempts to stabilize and rebuild his country.
Much of Afghanistan is effectively controlled by warlords and private militias; crime and corruption are rife; and the cultivation of opium has rocketed (a recent United Nations survey reported a 59 percent increase on 2005 in the Afghan opium crop).
"The insurgency is just one of the issues," says Ayesha Khan, an Afghan expert and associate fellow at the London-based Royal Institute of International Affairs.
"Poppy cultivation is also a major problem, as is the power of regional warlords which is sustained by the opium economy, and which undermines Karzai's writ across the country.
"The warlords and the drug economy have a profoundly destabilizing effect."
Widespread human rights abuses, healthcare deficiencies, discrimination and violence against women and chronic food shortages -- according to the U.N. World Food Program almost half the population suffers from malnutrition -- further darken an already bleak picture.
Against this backdrop, today's Washington meeting looks less an informal gathering of allies and more like an out-and-out crisis summit.
What can the meeting hope to achieve?
Building diplomatic bridges
In terms of the worsening Afghan security situation, the presence of President Musharraf is crucial.
"You are never going to do anything but contain the violence in Afghanistan without tackling the staging posts and sanctuaries for the Taliban leadership across the border in Pakistan," says Joanna Nathan.
"There are deep rooted historical problems between the nations that need to be resolved. This is a regional problem, and the solutions are regional."
Ayesha Khan agrees.
"As we stand today the narrative of the war on terror is being played out in the border area between Afghanistan and Pakistan," she says.
"Historically there has been a lot of tension between the two countries in this area, and both the U.S. and NATO have come to realize that co-operation is essential.
"Unfortunately there has been a lot of verbal animosity between the two countries of late, some very public media spats between Musharraf and Karzai that are undermining the war on terror.
"I think with this meeting the U.S. is trying to encourage greater co-operation between the two countries.
"Afghanistan and Pakistan need to work together to handle these problems. They need to strengthen their diplomatic ties."
If the Washington summit will attempt to smooth over diplomatic difficulties between Karzai and Musharraf, and build bridges between the two, it must also address the corrosive problems of opium cultivation and the destabilizing power of regional warlords.
Here, according to experts, the outlook for the summit is limited at best.
Failure of law enforcement
"The problems of poppy cultivation and warlords are to a large extent President Karzai's own fault," says Dr. Antonio Giustozzi, an Afghanistan specialist at the London School of Economics.
"In order to cement his power Karzai has allied himself with a number of regional strongmen who are involved in the narcotics trade and other activities that are not compatible with the strengthening of the Afghan state.
"What we have in Afghanistan is a widespread failure of law enforcement. Reform is urgently needed, but because he is tied up in this complex web of interests Karzai only pays lip service to that reform. He has made a lot of mistakes."
The problem for President Bush is that there is no viable alternative to Karzai, who is a key ally in the war on terror, and has from the outset been promoted as the savior of Afghanistan. As a result, Washington is limited in the amount of pressure it can put on the Afghan president to cut links with warlords and robustly tackle the widespread corruption that blights much of the country's administration.
"My feeling is that the Bush administration is not yet ready to put serious pressure on Karzai," says Dr. Giustozzi. "They simply cannot afford to get rid of him or fall out with him, and as a result he is able to continue with his policies without really reforming."
Hope, although not much
All is certainly not lost for Afghanistan, and despite a bleak outlook the situation there is certainly not unsalvageable.
"It was never going to be quick or sweet," says Joanna Nathan, "Part of the problem were the huge expectations that were built up early on.
"There is nothing inevitable about failure here, and it is extremely important to emphasize that there is hope. It is for the Afghan government and its international backers to lose rather than for the Taliban to win."
At the same time, however, even the small amount of optimism surrounding today's summit is tempered with caution and doubt.
"It is an important conference," says Ayesha Khan, "But I suspect it will only be one of many.
"They might come up with some solutions, but they are certainly not going to solve all the region's problems today."
Dr. Giustozzi is even more cautious.
"I personally think the summit will have little or no impact. As things are now, Afghanistan is actually moving backwards.
"I don't think the situation is hopeless, but if things continue as they are it soon will be."
Afghan President Hamid Karzai is met by U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on Monday.
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