On the eve of war in Iraq, many Afghans are anxious that the crisis may disengage the U.S. from its commitments to rebuilding their war-torn country. U.S. officials, however, say Washington will not forget its commitments in Afghanistan, despite its current preoccupation with Iraq.
Prague, 19 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Many Afghans say they oppose a U.S.-led offensive against Baghdad, but for different reasons than those who are against the war in much of the West. Afghans say they are afraid that the U.S. and the rest of the international community will forget about their war-ravaged country as the focus shifts to Iraq.
Afghans remember that the U.S. lost interest in their country after the former Soviet Union withdrew in 1989. Without military and diplomatic support from the West, Afghan factions ended up with fighting against one another for control.
The residents of the Afghan capital, Kabul, are largely aware, through radio reports, of what is happening in Iraq. In interviews with RFE/RL, they expressed their fears that history will once again be repeated in their country.
"I am worried that if the war starts in Iraq, the foreign aid will be stopped to Afghanistan."
"I am so worried that with the war in Iraq, the UN and the foreign countries, especially America, which plays an important role in our country, will focus mostly on Iraq. Afghan people are afraid that the war will return to Kabul and our people will be forced to leave the country. We are very worried about it."
"Saddam is a dictator and the Iraqi people have no freedom. His regime should be toppled with minimum civilian casualties. But on the other hand, the war in Iraq will have a negative impact on Afghanistan because the world's attention will turn away from the country."
"War in Iraq would affect the whole world, especially Afghanistan. Prices would go up here. What would our poor people do?"
Afghanistan's government today backed the United States in its war to disarm Iraq. A statement from the Foreign Ministry said the use of force is justified because Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein "does not seem to have complied with all UN demands to fully disarm and eliminate all weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in due time."
The U.S. has promised Afghanistan that it is committed to the rebuilding of the country, to creating new infrastructure as well as a broad-based democratic government. Washington says it will not leave its business in Afghanistan unfinished.
Anwar-ul-Haq Ahadi, the chief of the Afghan Central Bank, told RFE/RL that the process of reconstruction has not really even started yet. "If the West does not continue its financial assistance to Afghanistan, I am sure the reconstruction process would face a catastrophic problem," Ahadi said.
Ahadi said rebuilding Afghanistan will be a lengthy process, requiring large amounts of money and stamina both from the international community and Afghans themselves.
Afghanistan also has yet to be totally freed from the remnants of the ousted Taliban and Al-Qaeda terrorist network, as well as some of the other armed groups who oppose the U.S. presence, such as supporters of renegade warlord and former Afghan Prime Minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.
Afghans fear that those forces will try to regroup if the U.S.-led coalition turns its attentions elsewhere. The hard-liners are blamed for an attempt to assassinate Afghan Transitional Authority President Hamid Karzai last year, as well as for rocket and bomb attacks against both coalition and Afghan targets.
The U.S. has some 8,000 soldiers in Afghanistan.
A Swiss-based Afghan expert, Abdul Majid Aziz, who has worked for several UN agencies, told RFE/RL that he is confident that the U.S. will not neglect Afghanistan, despite its preoccupation with Iraq. "I don't think the Iraqi issue will lessen America's attention to Afghanistan. America is a powerful country. Both the Afghan and Iraqi issues are parts of American foreign policy, and the two issues relate to each other. I don't believe that because of the Iraqi crisis, America will pay less attention to Afghanistan," Aziz said.
American officials have repeatedly said they will not abandon their task of rebuilding Afghanistan. They say the only sector that is downsizing in Afghanistan is the foreign media presence, and that the U.S.-led coalition troops, international aid organizations, UN agencies and Western embassies will continue their work in the country.
Ahadi, the head of the Afghan Central Bank, hopes that war in Iraq will be quick and that the rebuilding period that will follow will not be as costly as the reconstruction of Afghanistan. Iraq has enormous oil resources, he said, and unlike Afghanistan, the county has not been completely destroyed by two decades of civil war. "There is a source of optimism for me. [After the Iraqi war], the main task will be the rebuilding of Iraq. Iraq has enough resources for that. Iraq will be able to sell its oil and to get revenue that would be enough to rebuild the country. But Afghanistan lacks the financial resources to get back on its feet," Ahadi said.
Ahadi said the West understands that, without its support, Afghans will not be able to rebuild their country or resist security threats. Like many Afghans, he believes that if the international community loses Afghanistan once again, it would mean it has lost the war against terrorism.
(Ibrahim Amiri and Qader Habib from RFE/RL's bureau in Kabul contributed to this report.)