Western aid is not reaching Afghanistan at the same pace that President Hamid Karzai is setting in his efforts to build a legitimate, ethnically balanced national army. Afghans are growing increasingly dissatisfied with the United States and the Karzai government, whose budget is running alarmingly short. With refugees desperate for aid and no foreign donors willing to underwrite major reconstruction efforts until spring 2003, Karzai’s aggressive initiatives to reduce regional warlords’ power face a severe test.

Washington has pledged repeatedly to promote stability in Afghanistan, where American armed forces led a coalition that removed the Taliban militia from power in late 2001. Today, according to United Nations agencies, the country has received 1.3 million returning refugees and is experiencing famine in some regions. Karzai has taken steps to depose regional strongmen. Yet after a crucial meeting of the 15-nation Afghanistan Support Group in Geneva on July 11, senior Western diplomats doubted that funding for road building, irrigation, or electricity plants would reach the country until April 2003. The reasons the diplomats cited involve Afghanistan’s ravaged infrastructure and donors’ inefficiencies. “At one level there is a kind of donor fatigue, at another there are concerns about security in the country, and at another level government bureaucracies are very slow,” said one diplomat.

Afghan cabinet ministers, including western-educated Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani, urged governments to hurry their reconstruction efforts, emphasizing that their government cannot extend its writ into areas that warlords control unless it can build roads, banks, and other economic staples. Karzai said he needed aid “to start road building on an urgent basis in order to unite the country, enhance trade, and link isolated regions.” Afghanistan has been at war to varying degrees since 1980. Warlords in its provinces have built armies and stores of wealth over the years; some of them, including Herat governor Ismail Khan and ethnic Uzbek leader Abdul Rashid Dostum, enjoy United States support.

Western diplomats in Kabul admit that delaying reconstruction for another winter could lead to greater instability. Since July 1, Karzai–who became president at a council called a Loya Jirga in June–has shown greater assertiveness in order to regain public support. Support faltered after the July 6 assassination of Vice President Haji Qadir and the July 1 bombing by American planes of several villages in Uruzgan province, which killed at least 40 civilians. Karzai had previously failed to respond to criticism from warlords’ delegates seeking to promote their patrons. After a long and heated cabinet meeting on July 15, Karzai has announced a special commission to demobilize the warlord armies and hasten the arrival of a new national army. Several ministers pressed for such a commission, including strongman and Minister of Agriculture and Livestock Sayed Hussain Anwari. “Many warlords are jeopardizing the country’s future,” Anwari says. “The new army must be an ethnically diverse and representative body.”

Senior aides to Karzai said warlords would no longer be allowed to govern provinces, and promised to oust regional military commanders and police chiefs who swear loyalty to warlords rather than the government. Karzai has again asked the two most powerful warlords, Khan and Dostum, to leave their fiefdoms and return to Kabul as “elder statesmen”–a demand they rejected during the Loya Jirga. Now, Vice President Hedayat Arsala warns: “it has been decided in the cabinet and there will be discussions with each warlord and now it will be difficult for them to say no.” Most significantly, Defense Minister Mohammed Fahim–an ethnic Tajik leader of the old Northern Alliance–has received orders to appoint an ethnically balanced and representative slate of officers. Fahim heads the army that resisted the Taliban, and some 90 of his 100 generals hail from the heavily Tajik Panjshir valley.

If Fahim carries out this demand, Karzai’s authority would receive a huge boost. Since December 2001, Panjshiris have dominated the army, police, and intelligence services. Their power has caused widespread resentment, especially among ethnic Pashtuns who comprise a drastically larger share of the population. At the Loya Jirga, delegates repeatedly criticized Karzai, himself a Pashtun who fought the Taliban, of being held a virtual hostage of the Panjshiris. Whatever their attitude about funding schedules, foreign governments would probably cheer evidence of a representative army. Western diplomats said that Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, who visited Kabul on July 15 and then flew to Mazar-e-Sharif to meet with General Dostum, has strongly supported all these initiatives. “This is a make or break time for the government,” says one diplomat. “With or without money Karzai appears determined to become assertive.”

But money will be necessary to train, house, and employ the 100,000 armed men who serve warlords around the country. If Karzai attempts to depose the warlords without providing anything else for these men to do, violence could become more intense and unpredictable. Nonetheless, funding will probably arrive slowly.

Senior United Nations officials say that Karzai’s government has received 52% of the roughly $1.8 billion that donors pledged to it in January. Most of this money has funded relief for starving and homeless people rather than reconstruction. UN officials say even priority programs need an extra $398 million to get through August and September. The government reportedly cannot pay salaries, though $90 million in fresh credit from the World Bank should help it meet day-to-day costs. U.S. Afghanistan Coordinator David Johnson said the Bush administration has asked Congress to appropriate $250 million dollars in new funding this year, for army-related expenses. “I don’t think we have an infinite window of opportunity and we are taking steps to shorten the amount of time,” Johnson told reporters after the conference.

As Karzai asserts his authority, some positive change has occurred in Afghanistan. Western funding has allowed 3 million children to go back to school, although there are still too few funds, buildings, and teachers for an additional 1.5 million students. Amazingly, a recent UN survey found that 30% of the students are girls and 30% of the teachers are women. Since the Taliban had forbidden girls from studying and women from working, this is a remarkable change.

Karzai has also set up an Education Foundation and rounded up donations from warlords. Khan, Dostum, and Fahim have reportedly donated $250,000 of their own money. “It’s a first step in the getting the warlords to associate themselves with nation-building rather than fighting,” said an aide to Karzai. But unless Karzai can offer sustenance to warlords’ loyalists, that step may founder.