RFE/RL: How do you see Afghanistan now, almost four years after the reconstruction process started? Do you think it has benefited the population at large, especially women and the young?
James Kolbe: Well, I have been in Afghanistan on several occasions, most recently two months ago, in November and December. We had an opportunity to visit some of the schools that have recently been opened. I was struck by what I regarded as the courage of some of the teachers that we listened to and heard from, who all through the Taliban years -- secretly in their homes -- continued to teach young girls. They would put a sign out that would say 'Cooking Lessons' or 'Sewing Lessons' or 'Koran Lessons' but they were also teaching them academic subjects. They were teaching them reading and writing and math. So they kept the kernel of education alive for these girls in those years so the Afghan nation did not lose as much as it would have done otherwise. Many of these teachers suffered greatly when they were caught by the Taliban. Some died, others were imprisoned and punished in other ways…Today it's wonderful to go to schools and see the girls learning -- at a younger age -- right alongside the young boys, and, as they get older, in their own schools of course but having the same educational opportunities, the same programs for learning that young men have.
RFE/RL: The government of President Hamid Karzai has never had very easy relations with Pakistan due to the recent history of relations between the two countries. However, during his latest trip to Pakistan, President Karzai appeared to take a harder line than before. What do you think could have caused that? And how does that reflect on relations between the United States and Pakistan?
Kolbe: We believe that President [Pervez] Musharraf of Pakistan has been a good ally for the United States in the war on terror, since, less than three days after the terrible events of 11 September, President Musharraf pledged his support for this fight against terror. And while not everything perhaps has been perfect, at least as it relates to the relationship between Pakistan and Afghanistan, we've seen enormous changes take place in Pakistan. The Pakistani-Indian relationship is infinitely better today than it was then and I think the Pakistani-Afghan relationship is better today. But there are literally centuries of hard feelings and enmities that have to be overcome. But in the end Pakistan has to understand that it is in [its] interests to have a stable government in Afghanistan [and] a stable and growing economy because they will have great opportunities to trade and export to that country.
RFE/RL: In Afghanistan we heard for years about wars, interethnic and interregional fighting but never about suicide bombings. Is this an effect of the war in Iraq?
Kolbe: Suicide bombers are something that it is very hard for those of us in the West to understand; [it is very difficult to understand] the mentality of [people who] would destroy themselves, kill themselves, and -- more importantly -- kill innocent women and children who have done nothing that is wrong. So we deplore that and we hope that this does not become a trend that becomes larger in Afghanistan, as it has in Iraq. We believe we are going to defeat this insurgency, this suicide bombing, in Iraq. But we certainly hope it does not begin in Afghanistan in a major way.
RFE/RL: With Iraq proving a bigger burden on the U.S. budget than anticipated, how committed will the United States remain to Afghanistan?
Kolbe: There is no question that this government is committed to a long-term relationship with Afghanistan and I am certain that, regardless of what administration follows [U.S.] President [George W.] Bush, there will be a similar commitment. This a commitment that we understand is there for the very long term.
Helmand Province Governor Comments
U.S. Marines operating in Helmand Province in 2002 (epa)
RULING A RESTIVE LAND: On February 12, RFE/RL Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Jawaid Wafa spoke briefly with Helmand Province Governor MOHAMMAD DAOUD about the ongoing violence in his restive region on the border with Pakistan.
RFE/RL: Recently, there have been many clashes and attacks by insurgents in Helmand Province. What in your view facilitates these attacks, especially in Helmand?
Mohammad Daoud: This province has a 160-kilometer border with Pakistan's Baluchistan Province. In reality, armed people, armed terrorists, from the other side of the border cross the border into Helmand. They carry out attacks and return back. It is a serious problem in Helmand that within our borders there is neither tribal good will, nor are there are special military or security measures to prevent enemies from crossing back and forth.
RFE/RL: The attacks and clashes have not only been between government forces and insurgents. There have been various clashes in different parts of Helmand between police and purported drug smugglers. How do you explain this?
Daoud: Drug smugglers also use the border for their own purposes. They have opened markets on the border and process opium there. This is a serious problem along our border. We are in touch with our authorities on this problem.
RFE/RL: There are government border police patrol your border. What is their role in preventing illegal crossings?
Daoud: Along this 160-kilometer border, there are car routes, walking routes. We have border police, but unfortunately, either because of their own problems or because of weak administration, they have not been able to stop the crossing.