The White House is expected to announce soon a major overhaul of U.S. operations in Afghanistan. The plan, which would boost U.S. spending and involvement, would reportedly launch a U.S. military-led reconstruction effort similar to that in Iraq.
Washington, 19 August 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The details of the plan remain fuzzy, but the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush is set to unveil significant changes to U.S. operations in Afghanistan.
According to unidentified U.S. officials quoted in the U.S. media, the new American plan would boost assistance in Afghanistan by $1 billion a year. That extra cash reportedly will come from the Pentagon's war chest. It is one of several changes that look set to put the U.S. military more firmly in charge of Afghanistan's reconstruction efforts.
Reports of the new plan have surfaced as violence and instability have returned to Afghanistan with a vengeance. Last week, more than 65 people were killed in violence tied to renegade warlords as well as remnants of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.
Even today's national holiday -- the 84th anniversary of its break with British rule -- is not passing without incident. Police reported an explosion today in the home of the brother of President Hamid Karzai in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar. No deaths were reported in the blast, which government officials have since said was an accident, not an attack.
Charles Fairbanks is a regional expert with Washington's Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Fairbanks tells RFE/RL that Bush's new emphasis will be aimed at stabilizing the country and Karzai's position ahead of presidential elections scheduled for next June.
"Obviously, the initial [U.S.] formula for the government and the initial economic aid and so forth was very much like a band-aid on a wound. And now they're addressing the task of really healing the problems," Fairbanks says.
Last year, Bush pledged to create a recovery program for Afghanistan. But critics say he has largely failed to deliver on that promise.
The Afghan government has received pledges of about $4.5 billion in aid from international donors. But much of that money has yet to arrive or was spent on humanitarian relief rather than reconstruction.
Last week, a report from human rights group Amnesty International said that efforts to restore security and the rule of law in Afghanistan were being seriously undermined by the failure of the international community to provided urgently needed assistance.
Sima Wali directs Refugee Women Development, a nongovernmental organization based in the Washington, D.C. area. The Afghan-born Wali tells RFE/RL she hopes that after months of focusing on issues elsewhere, the Bush administration has finally decided to engage America more forcefully in the reconstruction of Afghanistan.
"We are hoping that these efforts are genuine and that these promises that have been made to us [are genuine]. We have to make sure that the promises really filter down to the common Afghan person. The peace dividend and aid that is committed to Afghanistan has to filter down to the common Afghan man and woman," Wali says.
Reportedly, under the new U.S. plan, Bush will appoint special Afghan envoy Zalmay Khalilzad as ambassador with sweeping powers over an expanded reconstruction program aimed at stemming mounting violence.
U.S. officials say the role Afghan-born Khalilzad will play in Afghanistan will be similar to that of L. Paul Bremer, who oversees U.S. reconstruction in Iraq.
But Afghan officials have disputed that claim. The "Chicago Tribune" newspaper quotes an Afghan Foreign Ministry spokesman, Omar Samad, as saying: "Afghanistan is not Iraq. We already have a government and we have a bureaucracy." Khalilzad is one of Bush's top national security advisers and a former aide to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. He will replace Robert Finn, who has served as ambassador to Kabul since March 2002.
The administration is also considering placing up to 100 U.S. experts in key positions in Afghan government ministries, as was done in Iraq.
Moreover, reports say that a new coordinator for Afghan policy may be appointed at the National Security Council. A key name floated for that role is Robert Blackwill, a former ambassador to India.
Fairbanks, the expert at Johns Hopkins, says Blackwill's role would be to bring a new sense of purpose to Afghan policy. As to the ex-diplomat's background, Fairbanks says, "He was one of the people quite closely associated with [former] Secretary of State [James] Baker -- not with the new people who have dominated various parts of the administration, the new foreign policy experts, such as the neoconservatives."
The plans floated in the media suggest that much of the aid programs currently run by the State Department in Afghanistan will be transferred to the authority of the Pentagon.
A senior State Department official told RFE/RL yesterday that it was impossible to discuss the plan's details, since several issues, such as funding, are still being discussed.
But whatever its means, the plan's end would be clear: to speed up reconstruction and reel in a wave of recent violence blamed on rebels loyal to the Taliban and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a renegade Islamic warlord.
Experts agree that stabilizing Afghanistan before next year's presidential election is a daunting task. Jean Arnault, the United Nations special envoy for Afghanistan, spoke to reporters last week in Kabul.
"Many Afghans believe today, and we share their belief, that conditions still do not exist in this country for free and fair elections, that security conditions are not yet what they should be to make sure that political parties and Afghans themselves can express themselves fully and freely," Arnault said.
Fairbanks expects to see a greater effort by the U.S. to challenge renegade forces in Afghanistan. But the professor says that Washington is unlikely to try to confront major "entrenched" warlords, such as Ismail Khan or Abdul Rashid Dostum.
"There are other [warlords] who were basically just people who were just paid by the United States to fight against the Taliban, whose roots are very shallow. I think they could be evicted with serious work and money devoted to it. In other words, one isn't going to lick all of the warlords by the time of the election. But some of them could be [defeated]," Fairbanks says.
But how that would be accomplished remains unclear.
The International Security Assistance Force in Kabul recently came under NATO control, but it is unlikely to have its mandate extended outside the capital -- at not least any time soon.
U.S. officials are reportedly planning to deploy more civilian-military Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRT). Four PRTs, each comprising 60-70 people, are already operating in Afghanistan, helping with reconstruction and providing a stabilizing presence in volatile areas.
The challenge for U.S. policy in Afghanistan is clearly enormous. But critics who blame the Bush administration for not doing enough to rebuild Afghanistan now say that the president has a new motivation to finish the job: his own re-election bid in November 2004.
If Afghanistan and Iraq are on the right track, critics say, then Bush can take credit for that success and boost his chances of winning a second term.