The United States looks set to unveil a new plan aimed at stabilizing and rebuilding Afghanistan, which is undergoing a resurgence of violence from Taliban fighters nearly two years after the regime fell from power. RFE/RL spoke about the plan with William B. Taylor Junior, who is the coordinator of Afghan policy at the U.S. State Department.
Washington, 3 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- With U.S. forces still battling remnants of the Taliban regime, President George W. Bush will soon announce a new plan to improve security and living conditions in Afghanistan ahead of general elections scheduled for June 2004.
Ambassador William B. Taylor Junior -- coordinator of Afghan policy at the State Department -- says the new strategy will involve an increase of $1 billion in U.S. assistance.
But in a recent interview with RFE/RL, Taylor took issue with what he called incorrect media reports about the plan and said its details are still being worked out. However, he says the main thrust will be to accelerate U.S. programs already underway in Afghanistan.
"We're going to put additional resources into building schools and additional resources into the ongoing project of building clinics. We're going to add additional resources into the ongoing project of training the Afghan National Army. We're going to put additional resources into the training that's already begun, on training the national police, as well as highway patrol and border police," Taylor said.
News of a possible U.S. strategy shift in Afghanistan surfaced after a wave of violence swept the country this summer. In the first two weeks of August, some 90 people were reported killed in fighting and attacks involving suspected members of the former Taliban regime and the Al-Qaeda terrorist network.
Early last month, "The Washington Post" reported that in response to the upsurge in violence, the Bush administration was preparing to appoint Afghan special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad as U.S. ambassador to Kabul and give him sweeping powers over the country. Those powers would be similar to those enjoyed by L. Paul Bremer, the man in charge of the civilian aspects of Washington's occupation of Iraq.
That report sparked immediate criticism from Afghan officials, who characterized the idea as an infringement on their country's sovereignty. But Taylor, while sidestepping the question of Khalilzad's possible appointment as ambassador, strongly denies any new U.S. ambassador to Kabul will have such sweeping powers.
"This business of a comparison between any American in Afghanistan and Ambassador Bremer in Iraq makes no sense, is crazy, because of a major and important, critical difference between Afghanistan and Iraq. In Afghanistan, there's a government. There's an Afghan government duly elected, perfectly legitimate, sovereign government that we fully support. That is not the case in Iraq," Taylor says.
Likewise, Taylor also denies reports that Washington is preparing to duplicate its Iraq model by placing scores of American experts in key roles in Afghan ministries. He says that, as they do now, U.S. experts will offer advice and technical assistance to Afghan ministers, who are in full charge of a sovereign government.
Taylor confirms reports that Washington is set to increase the number of Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) in Afghanistan. There are currently four such teams -- of 50 to 70 people each, including a military and security component -- that are working on reconstruction projects in the Afghan countryside. Taylor says another four PRTs will be added, and likely more than that.
"They're working on now and will continue to work on providing wells. There are a lot of wells that have been dug in places where people need clean drinking water. They have reconstructed schools and will continue to do that. They have reconstructed some bridges and will continue to do that. They've helped reconstruct clinics and provide medicines, as well as other consumables, to the health clinics around the country. So these kinds of things will continue, but again, even more important is the security that these teams are providing in these regions," Taylor says.
Security remains the number-one problem in Afghanistan.
U.S. and Afghan government soldiers are currently engaged in a battle in the southern province of Zabul with Taliban forces, who have declared a holy struggle against foreign forces, aid organizations, and allies in Afghanistan. Two U.S. soldiers and 11 Afghans were killed in the latest fighting, along with some 70 militants.
Afghan policemen, soldiers, and aid workers have borne the brunt of the attacks by militants. On 1 September, four policemen were killed, four were wounded, and four went missing after a raid on their checkpoint 180 kilometers northeast of Kandahar in Zabul Province.
They were guarding resurfacing work on a highway from Kabul to Kandahar. It's the largest reconstruction project in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban in late 2001. Its progress is seen as a key measure of the ability of Karzai's government to stabilize the country.
Taylor says that not only will Washington help finish work on that road, but will also help to build a highway connecting Kandahar with the western city of Herat.
The State Department's coordinator for Afghan policy also says U.S. forces will not tolerate any provincial warlords who thwart the authority of the central government.
"On the other forces, other warlords, local commanders: if they are supporting the central government, then that's not a problem. If they're not supporting the central government, then they have a problem. Because we will support the central government in its efforts to bring law and order to the countryside," Taylor says.
In particular, Taylor says Washington will continue to target renegade warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who has declared a jihad against U.S. forces in Afghanistan but whose whereabouts remain unknown.
Yesterday, Afghan authorities arrested a former commander loyal to Hekmatyar, a former prime minister of Afghanistan who rained rockets on Kabul during factional clashes in the 1990s.
Despite the mounting security problems, Taylor says Washington remains confident that Afghanistan can successfully stage general elections scheduled for June of next year. He says the U.S. will work with the United Nations to lay the groundwork for the vote, and that Washington's new plan will include funding to educate voters and increase women's participation in the electoral process.