- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 28, 2002

KABUL, Afghanistan Seated at his desk in the presidential palace, Hamid Karzai occasionally rubs his legs. They still ache from the time he hiked through the mountains of Afghanistan, dodging the Taliban as he tried to gauge how popular he was.

But such aches and pains are nothing, he says, compared with what Afghanistan has gone through in the past year as it struggles to rebuild the wreckage of more than two decades of war.

For the 8,000 U.S. soldiers deployed in Afghanistan, 2002 has been a year of settling into grim daily routine after the heady days of driving out the Taliban. Their main focus remains to hunt down Osama bin Laden and his supporters. But in recent months, the U.S. administration has turned its attention to reconstruction.

More U.S. military and civil engineers are headed here. Their big project will be to rebuild the roads to unite a divided country.

For Mr. Karzai, 45, the compromise leader who took office in December 2001 and in June was elected unanimously to run the country for the next 18 months, much of 2002 has been spent trying to heal ethnic divisions, getting a grip on powerful warlords and their own private armies, and surviving assassination plots.

But his National Army, which is supposed to be critical to uniting the country has not yet begun to take shape, the police are pitifully undertrained, and international money to rebuild Mr. Karzai's shattered homeland is barely trickling in.

Last month, four Kabul university students were killed during protests to demand food and electricity. Mr. Karzai couldn't sleep that night. Instead, he fasted and called the dead students' families to console them.

"Just the basics is all they wanted," Mr. Karzai said in a recent interview with the Associated Press. The police had the equipment helmets, riot shields, tear gas but not the skill or courage to quell the crowd without opening fire on it, he said.

Kabul has become increasingly insecure this year, with more attacks including a major one on Sept. 5 that killed 30 Afghans.

In February, the aviation minister was assassinated, in July the vice president, and in September Mr. Karzai himself narrowly escaped a gunman who opened fire on his car in Kandahar, the former Taliban stronghold.

U.S. Special Forces guarding Mr. Karzai killed his would-be assassins. No arrests have been made in other attacks.

Still, it annoys Mr. Karzai to read media reports that his control does not stretch beyond the city limits of the capital, Kabul. "It's become a cliche for the Western media," he said. "I've stopped reading them. They don't take a deep look at my country. It's all superficial."

Mr. Karzai says that "if I give an order, it is carried out." Yet he seems to concede that the problem is a weak bureaucracy.

"After 23 years, we don't have any administration, either in Kabul or in the provinces. This is what we have to build, to develop."

But it wasn't all bad news in 2002.

Many women, who in Taliban times were cooped up at home and forced to cover themselves in burkas, returned to work. Children went back to school. The United Nations expected 800,000 war refugees to go home. The real number turned out to be 1.8 million.

In Taliban times, Kabul people got around on bicycles. Now a traffic jam can stretch for three blocks. New businesses and Chinese, Italian and Afghan restaurants are opening. Foreign aid workers numbered barely 100 under the Taliban. Now there are 2,000 in Kabul alone. In fact, Mr. Karzai says he wishes more money would be spent helping needy Afghans than paying aid workers.

The inflation-blitzed currency has been brought back to earth by lopping off zeros to establish an exchange rate of 43 Afghanis to the dollar and killing off three other kinds of bank notes issued at various times by different warlords.

Mr. Karzai is an urbane, Western-educated Afghan in traditional tunic and baggy pants a man as comfortable in tribal tents as in diplomatic corridors. But critics and well-wishers alike worry that he isn't coming across as strong and decisive. They argue that quarreling warlords still control the regions, threatening stability, even drawing U.S. Special Forces into their centuries-old feuds.

As a member of the majority Pashtun community, Mr. Karzai has a strong political base. But the Defense Ministry is dominated by Tajiks, the ethnic group that led the Northern Alliance to victory over the Taliban in 2001, and little has changed in 2002.

The international accord that set up Mr. Karzai's government said all Afghan military men were to leave Kabul before the first peacekeeper arrived in Afghanistan. Today, 4,800 peacekeepers from 19 countries are in the capital. But the Tajik soldiers, largely loyal to Defense Minister Mohammed Fahim, are also still in town. Mr. Fahim's sizable weapons stocks have yet to be handed over to the National Army.

Mr. Karzai and most Afghans would like to see the peacekeepers fan out beyond Kabul, but the United Nations has voted against that.

The United States and France are training recruits for the National Army, but Mr. Fahim's Defense Ministry provides them, they are in their mid-30s on average and most are loyal to one warlord or another.

Until there's a proper army whose sole loyalty is to the state, the country remains vulnerable to the kind of tribal wars that have torn Afghanistan apart since the Soviet occupying army withdrew in 1989.

Despite having one of their own for president, many Pashtuns fear they are being punished because the Taliban regime also was mostly Pashtun.

Mr. Karzai says the notion of an ethnically divided Afghanistan is a Western media creation, and most Afghans agree, saying they don't personally hate people from other groups. But they do complain that the most important ministries are run by Northern Alliance loyalists.

Meanwhile, international donors say $1.8 billion has poured into Afghanistan in the last year, but Afghan officials are skeptical. "When we heard this, it was a shock to the government, to the people, even to the U.N.," said Yusuf Pashtun, the housing minister.

Mr. Pashtun said only $80 million reached the government. The rest went to administrative costs and emergency aid, but very little went into reconstruction, he said.

The United States has pledged more than $3 billion in aid, and while it is still busy hunting al Qaeda and Taliban fighters, it is increasingly involved in reconstruction.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide