The foreign minister of Afghanistan, Abdullah Abdullah, is in Washington this week discussing his country's promising yet precarious future with U.S. officials. Between meetings, Abdullah gave a public briefing at RFE/RL's offices.
Washington, 19 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah is urging skeptics in the global community to see his country as a shining example of the success of the U.S.-led war on terrorism.
Abdullah, who is in Washington this week for talks with senior U.S. officials, weighed in on issues affecting Afghanistan, the Muslim world and the international community during a public briefing yesterday at RFE/RL's offices in the U.S. capital.
The soft-spoken foreign minister suggested that skeptics of Washington's war on terrorism should take a closer look at the positive changes it has had on his country.
Abdullah said the vanquishing of the Taliban and the routing of Al- Qaeda not only saved Afghan society from destruction and tyranny but helped prevent the spread of Osama bin Laden's brand of fundamentalist terrorism throughout the region and the world.
He recalled Ahmad Shah Massoud, the charismatic leader of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, who was murdered by two Arab-born suicide bombers posing as journalists two days before the attacks of 11 September 2001. The bombers are believed to have had links to Al- Qaeda.
Abdullah called Massoud a hero to the world, not just to Afghans. He said that had the Taliban and Al-Qaeda succeeded after Massoud's death in toppling the Afghan resistance, their power would have been strengthened in Afghanistan and metastasized across Central Asia and the Caucasus. "When it is judged that this campaign against terror is not successful, I think it is once again underestimating the big job which has been done by the people of Afghanistan, as well as by the coalition forces," Abdullah said.
Despite that success, Abdullah said terrorism is still not eradicated in Afghanistan, and he urged the international community not to waver in its support of reconstruction. And he reiterated a call for faster disbursement of aid pledged to Kabul by the international community.
Abdullah said that of the $4.5 billion pledged to Afghanistan, the country has received only about $500 million. Of that, he said, $200 million has gone to humanitarian needs and $100 million to government expenses, leaving only $200 million to pay for reconstruction.
By contrast, he said, those who profit from the opium trade in Afghanistan continue to pocket billions of dollars in illicit profit. Abdullah said Afghanistan and the world community have yet to truly tackle the country's drug problem.
As Abdullah spoke in Washington, his country's plight was being highlighted in New York by Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations special envoy in Afghanistan.
Echoing Abdullah, who said 1.5 million refugees have returned, though Kabul was ready to welcome home only 500,000, Brahimi said Afghanistan continues to face a humanitarian crisis and cannot absorb any more refugees from Iran or Pakistan.
Brahimi also said 500,000 internally displaced people are returning home, further straining the ability of officials to accommodate them. "It's a gigantic humanitarian, social, political, [and] environmental problem that this country is facing, all at the same time," Brahimi said.
Brahimi also said he is deeply concerned that a potential war in Iraq would threaten the shaky Afghan reconstruction effort.
But Abdullah appeared to dismiss concerns that a possible U.S.-led military campaign in Iraq would deflect international attention from Afghanistan. He said U.S. officials have assured him that the antiterrorism campaign in his country will continue at roughly the same level, even if Washington launches a military attack against Iraq.
Like Brahimi, Abdullah stressed that security remains key in Afghanistan.
In recent weeks, the Pentagon has said it may be willing to consider expanding the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) from Kabul, where it is now based, into the unstable Afghan regions.
But that appears to contradict a recent report sent to Congress by the U.S. State Department, which expresses serious misgivings about expanding ISAF, suggesting it is up to Afghan forces to secure areas outside Kabul.
U.S. policy has long been opposed to such expansion, on the grounds that it is too costly and dangerous and that the problem should be solved by training a professional Afghan army.
But the Afghan Army, which is being trained by the U.S. with help from Britain and France, is not set to be fully operation until June 2004.
Abdullah, who discussed the matter on Monday with U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, said he believes the world community is starting to see the need to expand ISAF, even if neither the U.S. nor any other country has offered to bolster the 4,700-strong force.
Abdullah said any expansion is unlikely to happen soon, since a final decision would depend on political decisions in several capitals, as well as the allocation of resources. "While there is a need for expansion of ISAF for stability and security in the country, and that need is better understood now, we are far away from getting there, I think," Abdullah said.
Asked about the State Department report, spokesman Richard Boucher said the State Department believes U.S. forces in the field in Afghanistan are doing an effective job of dealing with security threats and that training the Afghan Army remains the best solution to the country's long-term security needs.
However, Boucher said the State Department remains open to the idea of expanding ISAF. To illustrate that position, he quoted a recent remark by David Johnson, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan. "He said, 'This does not preclude an expansion of the International Security Assistance Force in some targeted form, nor does it preclude other creative ideas outside Kabul that might help achieve an ISAF-type effect,'" Boucher said.
Boucher added that the main priority now is to find a replacement for Turkey, which is due to step down as ISAF leader in December.
The transitional Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai has long urged an expansion of ISAF into provincial areas plagued by crime and civil unrest. In New York last week, Karzai asked that peacekeepers be sent to outlying cities run by prickly warlords.
Any move to extend ISAF's mandate outside of Kabul also would be enthusiastically welcomed by international aid agencies.
Cyril Dupre is the program manager for ACTED, a nongovernmental organization that is providing food and shelter in northern and eastern Afghanistan. He said several major routes outside the capital are still not secure, including a key road between Kabul and the eastern city of Jalalabad. He said any effort by ISAF to secure these highways would be much appreciated. "It would be good if ISAF could see its mandate extended to [key areas outside of Kabul] for the protection issue, for the transportation of commodities such as food and nonfood items to reach returnees and to reach Kabul. Because if, for example, we still have problems on the road from Jalalabad to Kabul, [such as] in the town of Surobi, as everyone knows, there would be breaks in the [aid route], and we could face serious problems," Dupre said.
At his RFE/RL briefing, Abdullah was also asked if the Loya Jirga that elected his transitional government in June had merely produced an alliance among warlords and the new leaders in Kabul. He acknowledged there were problems with the process, but he said the Loya Jirga was still a defining moment in Afghan history, an amazing feat for a country plagued by 23 years of war. "[The Loya Jirga] was the start of a situation where somebody, which you call a warlord, a leader of a [political] party, [was] sitting beside a carpenter, an ordinary man, a schoolmaster, and going out with a feeling that the rules of the game in Afghanistan have changed and have changed forever. That's what happened in the Loya Jirga," Abdullah said.
The challenge now, Abdullah said, is to keep the warlords loyal to Kabul while bringing improvements to living conditions in their poverty-stricken regions. Only that way, he said, will Afghanistan consolidate its recent progress and definitively eradicate terrorism and reduce instability.
(RFE/RL correspondents Robert McMahon and Mark Baker contributed to this story.)