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Afghanistan's President Now Yesterday's News

by Jim Lobe

As U.S. Attention Turns to Iraq, Afghanistan Slides Toward Chaos (Sept 2002)
(IPS) WASHINGTON -- It must have been a frustrating time for Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai, who concluded teb days' of lobbying for more U.S. attention and assistance here Tuesday before flying to New Delhi.

One year ago, the dapper, green-caped crusader for his country was the toast of Washington, and U.S. leaders and politicians were falling all over themselves with assurances that, this time, the United States would not turn its back on Afghanistan as it did after the Soviets quit the country in the late 1980s.

President George W. Bush even proposed a "Marshall Plan" for the war-devastated country to ensure that Afghanistan would not only recover, but prosper as well.

But a year later, Karzai found U.S. attention focused firmly, grimly and virtually exclusively on Iraq. Worse, despite his passionate appeals for more financial support, the Afghan leader had to settle for an increase in the line of credit for Afghanistan extended by the government's Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), from $50 million to $100 million.

The perfect guest, Karzai did not complain -- even when the press ignored him entirely during a brief, five-question photo-op with Bush at the White House. And he was suitably grateful for the larger line of credit, telling a television interviewer that the $35 million OPIC pledged to finance and insure a proposed five-star luxury hotel in Kabul offered "a vote of confidence in the stability of the government".

"We have received assurances that the United States will continue to support Afghanistan and that the attention there will be focused and continuous, and that Iraq will not reduce attention for Afghanistan or the amount of help given to Afghanistan," Karzai insisted after a brief White House visit with Bush last week.

But others outside the administration who met the president indicated considerable apprehension.

"As the eyes of the world focus elsewhere," said World Bank President James Wolfensohn, who met Karzai on Monday, "we should not forget that the experience of Afghanistan is a proving ground for whether the international community can stay the course beside a fragile country as it builds itself up from the aftermath of conflict".

The same message was delivered by Democratic lawmakers at a hearing of the Senate foreign relations committee at which Karzai testified last week.

"The facts make one thing clear," said the ranking committee Democrat, Sen. Joseph Biden. "There is a great deal of work to do in Afghanistan and an obligation to do so."

Biden has been one of the most outspoken proponents of following through on Bush's Marshall Plan for the country, as well as for expanding the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) beyond the capital Kabul and into the countryside to enhance the central government's authority.

Indeed, Karzai's visit comes amid mixed reports regarding both the reconstruction and security situation in Afghanistan, particularly outside Kabul to which ISAF so far has been confined.

While some two million Afghan refugees have returned from neighboring countries since the Taliban's ouster in late 2001 - a statistic touted by Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld during a meeting with Karzai as proof that people are "voting with their feet" - many are not receiving adequate assistance, according to relief agencies.

Particularly worrisome is the security situation in northern and southern parts of the country, which a Kabul-based UN spokesman last week described as precarious due to continuing fighting between rival factions and, along the border with Pakistan, the re-emergence of Taliban forces now allied with those of Pashtun nationalist and former U.S.-backed mujahadeen leader, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

The concern is so great that last month the German government, which with the Netherlands is in charge of ISAF, warned in an internal report that its troops might have to be withdrawn if a U.S.-led military invasion of Iraq sparks coordinated attacks against Western forces in Kabul itself.

In many parts of the country outside Kabul, aid agencies have been forced to stop work due to harassment, threats, and even violence by tribal or dissident forces. "There's a general destabilization," an official with Mercy Corps told The Philadelphia Inquirer on Monday. "It feels like the period after the Russians left in 1989. A lot of crime and civil unrest."

The Bush administration, which originally opposed the expansion of ISAF because of fears that the international force would get in the way of the Pentagon's efforts to track down surviving Taliban and al-Qaeda forces, has tried to stabilize the countryside primarily by dispatching Special Forces teams backed up by the threat of aerial attacks to key warlords and regional leaders to persuade them to cooperate more with central government officials and policies.

But analysts here say that the tactic has so far been largely ineffective and, in some cases, may have actually bolstered the power of local warlords who have received guns and money from the U.S.

Washington has also focused on building a national army that can gradually extend the central government's reach beyond the capital, but this too appears to be making little progress. A recent report by CARE International found that only 3,000 recruits had been trained, of whom about one-half have already deserted due to ethnic conflict within the army, poor pay, and poor housing.

U.S. women's and human rights groups are also expressing growing concern about a general return, particularly in predominantly Pashtun areas, of extremely conservative, Taliban-like practices, including harassment and even beatings of women and girls whose dress, escorts, transport, and other behavior is deemed un-Islamic by local authorities.

"Women are facing harsh restrictions from local leaders," said Sen. Barbara Boxer during last week's hearing. "That is why we need an expansion of ISAF."

Karzai insisted that the overall situation was not as dire as reports by U.S. media and relief groups depicted. "It is not like that," he said. "The government has much more authority and charge in the country than you can presume."

But at the same time, he admitted that the government faced huge challenges and needed much more support from the international community.

The United States and other donor nations pledged $4.5 billion in aid for Afghanistan over five years at a conference in Tokyo in January, 2002, but the money has been slow to arrive, adding to the government's inability to assert its authority.

"Afghanistan is not yet out of the woods," Karzai said. "Don't forget us if Iraq happens."

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Albion Monitor March 5, 2003 (

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