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Afghanistan: Kabul Fears Iraq War Could Divert International Attention From Its Struggle

In the Afghan capital, Kabul, there's a growing feeling of deja vu as talk in the United States and Europe turns increasingly to war against Iraq. Many here draw similarities to 1992, when Afghanistan emerged from one war only to fall into another, while the West fixated on problems in Yugoslavia and other areas. The fear is that, once again, the international community will turn away at a crucial moment in Afghanistan's history.

Kabul, 23 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Ten years ago, Afghanistan descended into chaos, while much of the world looked away.

In 1992, the country was emerging from its devastating war against the Soviet Union. The rebuilding process had begun. Then, the mujahedin warlords who had defeated the Soviets turned against each other. The resulting civil war led to a decade of chaos and destruction.

But the West seemed to be paying little attention. Instead, attention was focused on the famine in Somalia and on Yugoslavia, which was coming apart at the seams. The war in Bosnia began in 1992.

Afghans have never forgiven the West for having provided so much assistance in Afghanistan's war against the Soviet Union, only to turn away at a crucial moment. These days in Kabul, there's an increasing sense of deja vu, as talk in the West turns to war against Iraq. Many are afraid that, once again, the international community will have helped the Afghans win a war, only to turn its attention elsewhere before peace can firmly be established.

Kabul's mayor, Anwar Jekdalek, remembers those chaotic days in the early 1990s and the frustrations that followed. In an interview with RFE/RL, his voice revealed traces of anger when he spoke about how his country was "abandoned" by the West. "We were left alone in a miserable condition after the fall of communism because [the West's] enemy was defeated, as well. From that time on, [the West] did not pay any attention to the reconstruction of our country and to the strengthening of our government," Jekdalek said.

Development officials here are concerned, as well, and say any lapse of interest in Afghanistan by the outside world will only make it easier for donor countries to renege on their aid pledges. Of the $4.5 billion pledged to Afghanistan at a donors' conference earlier this year in Tokyo, the country has so far received only around $500 million.

Cyril Dupre manages the Kabul office of ACTED, a nongovernmental organization active in building shelters around Kabul and in the north of the country. He was reluctant to discuss the impact on Afghanistan of a possible war in Iraq but said he's following the situation closely. "For the moment, we think the amount [paid from the pledges made] in Tokyo for Afghanistan is far less than what was expected, so that is creating some frustration in Afghanistan among the government and ministries that are responsible for implementing programs. So, of course, [Iraq] could be an important issue," Dupre said.

So far, the Afghan government is putting on a brave face, saying the United States and other countries have given their assurances that any conflict in Iraq will not divert attention from Afghanistan.

On a visit last week to the United States, Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah told RFE/RL in Washington that he had been reassured by U.S. officials that the antiterrorism campaign in his country will continue at roughly the same level, even if Washington launches a military attack against Iraq.

Any shift in focus by the international community away from Afghanistan could have serious consequences. Afghan President Hamid Karzai's Transitional Authority has little or no real authority on the country outside Kabul. Much of the north, west, and south remains under the control of regional commanders -- in many cases the same individuals who devastated the country in the early 1990s.

Karzai is keenly aware of the dangers. He's now pushing the West to expand the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to areas beyond Kabul as a way of deepening international involvement in the country. Currently, ISAF's 4,700 soldiers patrol only the capital and the immediate area.

Karzai told reporters on 20 September in Kabul that, "My main goal [for pressing for the continued] presence of ISAF in Kabul and their deployment to other provinces is to make sure that the world is no longer unfaithful to Afghanistan and that the world and international community do not leave us alone."

Karzai said a recent trip to the United States assured him that attitudes toward expanding ISAF are changing. "Previously, the stance of the U.S. regarding ISAF expansion was negative. But on this trip, it was not so. [U.S. officials] said, 'We do not disagree with the expansion of ISAF,'" Karzai said.

Kabul Mayor Jekdalek was more direct in his plea to the outside world. "My message to the world is that we lived through the experience [of being abandoned], and this experience should not be repeated. We should not be left alone. Afghanistan is part of human society, and it is the core of Asia. If Afghanistan is forgotten, then obviously there will be danger for the entire region," Jekdalek said.

Kabul was almost completely destroyed in the fighting in the 1990s. Jekdalek knows that any serious plan to rebuild his city cannot happen without the strong and continued support of the international community.

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    Mark Baker

    Mark Baker is a freelance journalist and travel writer based in Prague. He has written guidebooks and articles for Lonely Planet, Frommer’s, and Fodor’s, and his articles have also appeared in National Geographic Traveler and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications.