President George W. Bush on 28 January welcomed interim Afghan leader Hamid Karzai to Washington, just over a month after the U.S. military helped sweep the Taliban militia from power. Bush announced further financial aid to Afghanistan, but perhaps more importantly he said Washington will help develop Kabul's new national military. Our correspondent Jeffrey Donovan reports on a development that could have wide-ranging implications for the country and region.
Washington, 29 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Heralding what he called a major U.S. policy change, President George W. Bush announced that the United States will help build and train a new national military for Afghanistan.
Bush made his remarks during a news conference at the White House, where he welcomed Afghan's interim head of government Hamid Karzai -- the first Afghan leader to visit Washington since King Zahir Shah in 1963. Bush called Karzai "a man who stands for freedom in the face of tyranny."
Karzai, thanking Bush for U.S. military help in overthrowing the Taliban militia and rooting out Al-Qaeda terrorists, said their countries would be great future partners.
Bush said that in addition to the nearly $300 million it recently pledged to Afghan reconstruction, Washington will give a further $50 million in development loans to Afghan firms as well as provide logistical and intelligence help to international peacekeepers in Afghanistan.
But the president said the joint decision to help develop Kabul's new military is a "significant" change in U.S. foreign policy. The Bush team took office a year ago vowing to undo the policy of former President Bill Clinton and keep America out of costly and at times counter-productive nation-building commitments. But analysts say Bush has clearly reversed course on the issue -- at least in Afghanistan.
Bush said at the White House: "I have just made in my remarks here a significant change of policy -- and that is, that we're going to help Afghanistan develop her own military. That is the most important part of this visit, it seems like to me."
And that is perhaps the most important aspect in terms of U.S. policy, according to Michael O'Hanlon. A senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. O'Hanlon says it is only logical that the U.S. help Kabul to build a viable military to protect its new democratic government as well as to secure Western interests in a country that borders Pakistan and Iran.
"Certainly, it's a troubled region where you could invite trouble-making from people and countries that you have some concerns about if Afghanistan remains weak -- not to mention that Al-Qaeda could even theoretically survive, or pockets of it could, or even the Taliban likewise could have some future prospect of coming back to power. So I think for all those reasons it's the right decision," O'Hanlon said.
But O'Hanlon said Bush's announcement on Afghan military development appears to amount to a major change in his original policy of shunning nation-building.
"The logic of what he has done is to totally acknowledge that distant, remote countries with apparently trivial national security implications for the United States can turn out to be very important, and what happens inside of their borders can be very important. And we should not be indifferent -- even in a security sense -- should not be indifferent to what goes on," O'Hanlon said.
For his part, Karzai said Afghanistan will never permit terrorists to return. He said the joint struggle against terrorism should go to the "absolute end of it," getting terrorists in their caves and other hideouts.
Earlier in the day, Karzai attended a flag-raising ceremony at the Afghan embassy, which recently reopened after its closure in 1996 when the Taliban took power.
"This flag, in the ceremony today, is raised not without costs, without the costs of having struggled for so many years, without the cost of having lost so many lives in order to have a free, sovereign and good Afghanistan," Karzai said.
The Afghan leader took office on 22 December for a six-month term following United Nations-brokered talks in Germany on forming an interim government. Karzai is due to lead the country to a loya jirga, or grand council, to choose another government to rule for 18 months followed by elections.
In December, Karzai expressed interest in having American forces remain in his country as part of a multinational peacekeeping force. Bush said on 28 January that the U.S. would prefer to stand by and provide assistance to the international security force if the peacekeepers "get in trouble." Under that plan, the U.S. will also provide logistical and intelligence backup to the peacekeepers.
As for developing the Afghan military, Bush suggested it would be an even more important for the U.S. than participation in the peacekeeping force.
He said General Tommy Franks, head of U.S. forces in the region, "fully understands this and is fully committed" to the idea of developing an Afghan military. The U.S. and Afghan opposition Northern Alliance have already worked closely together to drive the Taliban from power.
In Kandahar early on 28 January, Afghan forces, backed by U.S. support units, raided suspected Al-Qaeda fighters hiding at a hospital, killing six gunmen.
The U.S. military spokesman in that southern Afghan city, Major A. C. Roper, described the incident: "U.S. military forces assisted local Afghan soldiers in a predawn raid on suspected Al-Qaeda terrorists in an area hospital here. The operation, which was led by Afghan troops, further demonstrated the close coordination and interoperability of anti-Taliban forces in southern Afghanistan against terrorism. U.S. military participation was at the request of Afghan forces."
Karzai said in a speech on 27 January at Georgetown University that the future of Aghanistan will be productive and urged the thousands of exiled Afghans in America to return to help rebuild the war-torn nation.
Karzai will be the guest of honor at Bush's state-of-the-union address tonight before both houses of the U.S. Congress. Tomorrow, the Afghan leader is scheduled to address a public meeting of the 15-nation UN Security Council in New York.
(RFE/RL's Washington correspondent Frank T. Csongos contributed to this report.)