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U.S.: American Diplomats Upbeat About Afghanistan's Future

Osama bin Laden and the Taliban's top leaders may still be on the run from U.S. firepower in Afghanistan, but America is already hard at work with the international community on plans to rebuild the war-torn country. According to U.S. officials working on Afghanistan, there's every reason to believe the country is on the road to a much brighter future.

Washington, 10 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The top American officials working on post-Taliban Afghanistan say they are optimistic about the country's future and don't believe the new interim government led by Hamid Karzai will be derailed by traditional tribal and ethnic infighting.

America's coordinator on Afghanistan, Richard Haass, and its special envoy to the country, James Dobbins, also told a news conference on 7 December that alleged terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden is likely still there and that supreme Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar will be brought to justice.

Karzai on 6 December said the Taliban's surrender of Kandahar, its last stronghold, included a possible amnesty for Omar if he renounced terrorism -- a possibility that Washington rejected. But Karzai changed tone the following day, saying that Omar had not severed his ties to terrorism and would thus face justice, although Omar's whereabouts were not immediately known.

Haass, the State Department's policy planning chief, said the U.S. believed bin Laden, whom it blames for the 11 September terrorist attacks on America, is still on the run in Afghanistan. Recalling that U.S. objectives there are to root out terrorists and those who harbor them, Haass was confident both bin Laden and Omar would be brought to justice: "Mullah Omar's committed all sorts of crimes against the Afghan people. The Afghan people, above all, are well aware of that. And we've talked about it with them, with the Afghan leadership, and it's clear to me that he will be brought to justice."

Haass and Dobbins, who are headed to Kabul to help set up a new U.S. diplomatic office, said it is time to start planning Afghanistan's reconstruction. They said it would cost billions of dollars over years, but there was reason to be hopeful of its eventual success.

Still, the specter of traditional infighting already hangs over the ethnically broad-based interim government, which was established after United Nations-sponsored talks in Bonn, Germany. The government, which will take over after the Taliban was defeated by opposition forces backed by U.S.-led air strikes, is due to be sworn in on 22 December with ethnic Pashtun Karzai as its head.

On 6 December, an ethnic Uzbek warlord in the north, General Abdul Rashid Dostum, said he would boycott the government deal between four major Afghan groups. Pir Sayed Ahmad Gailani, a Pashtun spiritual leader whose Pakistan-based faction took part in the Bonn talks, called the deal unbalanced. And Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, an ex-Afghan warlord, says the agreement amounts to a U.S.-imposed government.

Dobbins, who represented the U.S. at the Bonn talks, played down their criticism. He said that anybody familiar with coalition governments in places like Italy or Belgium knows that they always entail a fair bit of bickering among the partners.

But Dobbins, who praised Iran's part in the Bonn talks, also said Afghanistan's neighbors must help soften Dostum's objections and iron out differences among rival tribes and ethnic groups: "We would expect that the countries who have traditionally maintained a relationship with Dostum -- which recently would include us but has included historically countries like Uzbekistan, Turkey, Iran, and Russia -- will also, as they did at the [Bonn] conference, make clear how important it is that this agreement be implemented. And we're reasonably optimistic that those kinds of approaches will be effective."

Haass said an economic assessment of Afghanistan's reconstruction needs would soon be carried out. He added the countries that were unable to take part in the U.S.-led military campaign to oust the Taliban should step forward and help in the country's costly reconstruction: "I would expect the European Union and the Saudis and others in the Arab and Islamic world, and clearly the Japanese, are all prepared to more than do their share -- just as we will."

But in rebuilding the country, which has also suffered from five years of drought, Haass said emphasis must be given to alternative agricultural development so that Afghans stop leading the world in growing poppies, the crop used to produce heroin: "Eradicating poppy production is one of the principle goals. Indeed, in some ways it's second only to eradicating terrorism."

Haass concluded that he believes Afghanistan will not descend into tribal and ethnic bloodletting, as in the past. But he added that no matter how much aid is provided by the international community, it will be up to the Afghans themselves to build a viable political system and productive economy.