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Afghanistan: With Iraq Looming, Karzai Competes For U.S. Attention

With his country still struggling to achieve stability after years of war and unrest, Afghan President Hamid Karzai looked for signs of hope in Washington this week that the United States will maintain its focus in Kabul despite a possible war in Iraq. As RFE/RL correspondent Jeffrey Donovan reports, the signals were mixed.

Washington, 28 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- President Karzai wrapped up a two-day visit to Washington on 27 February amid rising concern that unfinished business is being left behind in Afghanistan as U.S. attention shifts toward a possible war in Iraq.

Karzai, who met with U.S. President George W. Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, said he received assurances the United States would not lose its focus in Afghanistan because of Iraq. Yet the Afghan president appeared to be leaving Washington without any new pledges beyond the current levels of U.S. aid -- despite his own direct appeal Bush before reporters at the White House:

"I am here to thank you and the American people, but I'm also here to ask you to do more for us in making the life of the Afghan people better, more stable, more peaceful," Karzai said.

Still, Karzai -- whose visit coincided with a major push by Bush to persuade an ambivalent public that an Iraqi war could spread freedom across the Middle East -- painted an upbeat picture of progress in Afghanistan since the repressive Taliban government's collapse in November 2001 following a U.S.-led bombing campaign.

Testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on 26 February, Karzai presented a long list of achievements, including the return of 2 million refugees, the opening of 100 media outlets, success in the war on terror, and the ongoing creation of a sound civil administration and national army. He added: "I see a lot of press reports, coming from the Western press especially, of warlords and provincial people. It is not like that. The government has much more authority and charge in the country than you can presume. It's probably better than in lots of other countries around us."

Karzai's comments came amid fresh reports that the situation in Afghanistan might be deteriorating.

A spokesman for the United Nations, Manoel de Almeida e Silva, said on 27 February that Afghanistan is in a precarious state. He told a news conference the UN has suspended aid work in parts of northern and southern Afghanistan because of fighting between rival factions and uncertain security conditions.

Also, the government-funded U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom this week sent a letter to Bush alerting him to a possible return to Taliban-like conditions in Afghanistan.

The letter cited what it called "disturbing reports" that an extreme interpretation of Islamic law, or sharia, is being cultivated and that the Taliban's former "religious police" and notorious Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice have reemerged in "a gentler guise."

The letter said "on-the-spot-beatings" have been reported as well as other coercive measures to make Afghans follow strict religious practices and force women to conform to stringent codes of dress, movement and behavior. It also drew attention to reports of blasphemy charges being hurled at reformers, particularly women, and reports of torture of prisoners and of maltreatment of returning refugees.

The commission's president, Felice Gaer, said in an interview with RFE/RL that senior judicial officials in Afghanistan have endorsed the idea of severe punishments such as amputations, as well as public death threats to recalcitrant non-Muslims.

Gaer also expressed concern that an Afghan constitution currently being drawn up would not give women equal rights with men -- something the country's 1964 constitution did provide for.

"Our concerns are that the groundwork that's being laid in Afghanistan for the reconstructed government is not working out the way people may think. We seem to think that they're laying the groundwork for a regime that may be as repressive as the Taliban, particularly with regard to religious freedom, and we are concerned about the fact that this appears to be taking place with the consent and in some cases, with the help from the United States," Gaer said.

At a news conference at the National Press Club, RFE/RL asked Karzai about the commission's letter: "I would like the commission to send a delegation to Kabul to see for itself. There's no way to give them reassurance in writing them a letter. Let them come to Kabul and let them talk to our people. There's no 'virtue police' there. There's no such radical change in the interpretation of our laws that would cause concern."

Karzai went on to say: "Of course, you must keep in mind that we are a certain cultural society that's different from the United States, that's different from Europe, and in the environment that we have, we are trying to do our best to protect human rights. Human rights are universal; they apply to all religions. They apply as much in Islam as they apply in other religions."

In his Senate testimony and at a briefing with Rumsfeld, Karzai made a point of stating that some 3 million Afghan children have returned to school since his government came to power.

Gaer said, however, that societal pressures in some areas still exist to keep girls away from schools.

"Girls are now allowed to go schools, but threats have been made in a variety of ways, threatening parents and others not to send their children to schools. Leaflets have been dropped; mullahs have made statements in sermons warning people not to send the children to school. There is a palpable sense of fear and it's physical as well as psychological," Gaer said.

Rumsfeld, appearing with Karzai at the Pentagon, agreed with the Afghan president that the situation was much improved: "The changes that have taken place are enormous. The president pointed out that there've been two million Afghans who have left where they were as refugees and returned to that country. They have made a conscious decision to vote with their feet. They decided that where they were was not as attractive as where they wanted to go. They went back to that country."

And Karzai, as well as other Afghan officials, will continue to return to the United States in search of aid and continued support, even as Washington contemplates a war and multiyear rebuilding of Iraq that could costs more than $100 billion.

Karzai, who said he asked officials Washington for funds for irrigation and power projects, and to repair dams and canals, did not say whether his requests were granted. They also included a plea for help to pay the salaries of 100,000 irregular militiamen working in the provinces.

Such help, he said, would greatly add to Afghanistan's security by facilitating the creation of a national army, whose 3,000 existing soldiers cannot be paid out of the usual international aid funds.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said discussions between Karzai and Bush at the White House focused on reconstruction efforts already underway.

"The United States is providing assistance to Afghanistan," Fleischer said. "We will continue to do so. Private-sector assistance can grow, and there are other forms of assistance from nongovernmental organizations that are available too."