British Prime Minister Tony Blair and a group of U.S. senators visited the Bagram air base north of Kabul overnight, becoming the highest-ranking Western political leaders to visit Afghanistan in more than a decade. Blair pledged long-term help for the reconstruction of Afghanistan, while U.S. Senator Joseph Lieberman said Washington also should be more committed to other countries in Central Asia.
Prague, 8 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- British Prime Minister Tony Blair's four-hour stopover at Bagram air base overnight marks the first time that a Western head of government has visited Afghanistan since the Soviet invasion of 1979.
Blair marked the occasion by pledging Britain's long-term commitment to the reconstruction of the country.
Although Blair did not announce any specific new aid commitments, he said he expects to start seeing significant aid pledges when potential donors meet at a conference in Tokyo on 21-22 January 21: "The conference that will take place shortly in Tokyo, which I think will be a high-level conference of all the major partners in the international coalition -- I think that will demonstrate very clearly that people are not going to walk away [from Afghanistan]."
Blair said that by largely ignoring events in Afghanistan since the withdrawal of Soviet forces from the country in 1989, the West had unintentionally created an environment that allowed terrorist bases to proliferate in the region:
"What happened last time when the West walked away from Afghanistan was that, a decade later, terrible evil erupted on the streets of New York. But also, the whole region became a breeding ground for acts of terrorism," Blair said. "So it is not just the correct thing to do. It is also in our own self-interest to be here in partnership with the new authorities in Afghanistan for the long term."
Although Britain is expected to lead the UN-mandated international security force for Afghanistan for the next three months, Blair stressed that the commitment of Britain and other Western nations to rebuilding Afghanistan is to last much longer: "We've made it clear that, in time, we wish to pass over leadership of this [international] security force to others. But the long-term commitment of Britain, in the sense of the commitment to the reconstruction of the country -- and not just of Britain, but I believe of the whole of the international community -- yes, that is there."
Afghanistan's interim prime minister, Hamid Karzai, welcomed Blair's support after the two met amid tight security at the air base north of Kabul: "We had a nice discussion about Afghanistan and what needs to be done here. And I'm glad also to announce that Prime Minister Blair gave us the best of his support, and we are glad to have the backing and support of Her Majesty's government."
Blair's pledges of support were echoed by U.S. Senator Joseph Lieberman, who is heading a bipartisan delegation of nine U.S. senators who also visited Bagram air base overnight.
The senators, who have been touring Central Asia since last week, also met for 30 minutes with Karzai and other senior members of the interim Afghan government.
Lieberman admitted after those talks that both Afghanistan and the United States have suffered because of the lack of U.S. engagement in Central Asia during the last decade: "We learned at a very high and painful price the cost of a lack of involvement in Central Asia on 11 September, and we're not going to let it happen again."
Lieberman's remarks reflected similar comments made during the weekend to Radio Free Europe correspondents in Tajikistan. On 6 January, Lieberman told RFE/RL that the United States must become more "economically and geopolitically" involved in Central Asia.
In Islamabad, a World Bank official yesterday offered one of the first comprehensive estimates of the cost to rebuild Afghanistan. The bank's Abid Hassan said Afghanistan will need some $15 billion in aid and investments over the next 10 years.
Hassan singled out health, agriculture, and education as the sectors where investment is most urgently needed. He said as much as $140 million is needed to build hospitals. He said repairing water supply systems could cost another $100 million. For primary education alone, Hassan said some $60 to $80 million are needed. He said another $40 to $50 million is needed urgently to help rebuild the electrical power network.
Antonio Donini, head of the United Nations Development Program for Afghanistan, said major reconstruction work is not likely to start until an assessment survey is completed in about three months.
Donini cautioned that political stability and security will be essential for the successful implementation of reconstruction programs.
Japan also is taking a leading role in reconstruction efforts. The Japanese government yesterday sent Sadako Ogata on a 10-day tour of Central Asia in her new role as a representative for Afghan assistance.
Ogata had served as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees from early 1991 until the end of 2000. She is expected to report on the most essential needs in Afghanistan and neighboring areas ahead of the conference in Tokyo later in January.
Ogata's tour is likely to include visits to Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran. She is due to meet Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf before traveling on to Kabul tomorrow for talks with Karzai.