U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell met with Afghan leaders in Kabul today and promised that the United States will stand by Afghanistan for the long term. In response, Afghan leader Hamid Karzai said his interim government will support democracy and be "extremely tough" in battling corruption and combating famine. RFE/RL correspondent Alexandra Poolos takes a closer look at the significance of Powell's visit.
Prague, 17 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- During his visit to Afghanistan today, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell pledged strong American support for the war-ravaged country and its new interim administration.
Powell, the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit Kabul in 25 years, made a brief stop in the country on his way from Pakistan to India. In a meeting at the former royal palace in Kabul, Powell told Afghanistan's new interim Prime Minister Hamid Karzai that Washington will assist Afghans now and in the future.
"We will be with you in this current crisis and for the future. We are committed to doing everything we can to assist you in this time of transition to a new Afghanistan, an Afghanistan where people will be able to live in peace and security, raise their children, dream of a better future."
In his opening remarks at the press conference, Karzai made it clear that Afghanistan will need a "partnership" with the U.S. if it is to join the international community.
"We are asking for a partnership that is much longer in years and that brings Afghanistan back to its own people to control its borders, to generate its own revenues and income, to bring the people of Afghanistan to prosperity and the freedom to choose their own government, and to go back to the world community as a stable, strong member of the world community."
For Karzai and his administration to begin rebuilding Afghanistan after two decades of war and chaos, they will need money, and fast. The Afghan administration is starting its work without even the most basic administrative supplies, much less a national infrastructure of working roads, sanitation, or electricity. There is no money in the Afghan Central Bank to start the work. Worse still, the government owes some $70 million to hundreds of thousands of civil servants who have not been paid in almost a year.
The United Nations has revised its initial appeal for $20 million in initial start-up funds for the new administration, calling now for a total of $100 million. The UN World Bank and Asian Development Bank have estimated Afghanistan needs at least $15 billion over the next 10 years.
Powell said the U.S. has already contributed its promised $1 million to the UN start-up fund (of $20 million) and will soon be releasing money frozen in the U.S. during the Taliban era. He added that the U.S. will make a "significant contribution" to Afghanistan at a donors conference early next week in Tokyo and promised to campaign for more funds.
"I will be calling some of my colleagues in the international community to encourage them to pony up as fast as possible. And we will be making other calls to people who are not part of that initial $20 million tranche to see if they can do something right away. And, of course, the chairman [Hamid Karzai] will be traveling immediately to countries that might have the ability to make a contribution. So, we had a good discussion. In fact, I would say that the majority of our time was spent on the fiscal needs of the country over the next year and a quarter."
Karzai told Powell that money alone cannot prove the U.S. commitment to Afghanistan. He reminded Powell that many Afghans are questioning whether Washington will abandon the country after it completes its battle against the Taliban.
Karzai said the era of ethnic warlordism in Afghanistan is over but that the country needs a long-term partnership with the U.S. in order to pull itself from beneath the rubble of more than two decades of war.
"In addition to money, in addition to help to Afghanistan, as I mentioned in my opening remarks, the Afghan people have been asking for a staying commitment, staying partnership of the United States with Afghanistan in order to make this region safe, in order to make Afghanistan stand back on its own feet and continue to fight against terrorism or the return of terrorism in any form to this country or to the region."
Robert Templer is the Asia program director for the International Crisis Group, a nongovernmental organization based in Brussels. He believes that Powell's strong message of support for Afghanistan, while important, should not be taken at face value.
"Well, I think it does signal a commitment within some elements of the [U.S. President George W.] Bush administration to ensuring that not only are the military aims achieved in Afghanistan, but that there is an enduring political settlement there and an enduring peace, which would prevent the area being used as a base for terrorists in the future. But I think the commitment to financing that peace is not yet clear in the United States. Certainly there's some resistance in Congress and some areas of the administration to providing a substantial amount of money. America has essentially said that it's done its job by sending troops in there to deal with Al-Qaeda and the Taliban and that it doesn't want to be a serious funder. But without U.S. funds, it's unlikely that this program will get to fruition."
Besides a financial commitment, Templer says the U.S. could demonstrate the sincerity of Powell's promises by contributing troops to the international security force for the country.
Powell said he discussed security with Karzai and that the U.S. "[understands] the importance of it," but he made it clear the U.S. has not changed its position toward contributing peacekeeping troops and that it believes its efforts should be "directed toward pulling up Al-Qaeda and the Taliban."