- The Washington Times - Friday, December 24, 2004

KABUL, Afghanistan — After being criticized for focusing exclusively on the war against terrorism in post-Taliban Afghanistan, the United States appears to be broadening its approach to address some of the problems facing a country in the grip of opium-financed warlords.

Washington underscored its support for Afghanistan’s fledgling democracy by sending Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld for the Dec. 7 swearing in of President Hamid Karzai, the country’s first elected ruler. All other countries, including Britain, sent lower officials to the ceremony in the old royal palace here.

To ordinary Afghans, the presence of Messrs. Cheney and Rumsfeld was a reminder of why they elected Mr. Karzai in the first place — he enjoys U.S. support, which is seen as Afghanistan’s best bet for starting a new life of dignity, development and the rule of law.

Though they haven’t given up hope yet, three years after the Taliban’s ouster, most Afghans still await the promised American-led transformation of their war-ravaged nation.

“The U.S. has to now get involved in nation building,” said Nasrine Gross, who heads a project on conflict resolution at Kabul University. “Afghanistan cannot come out of being a failed state just by holding national elections.”

“The international community has done little so far to address the day-to-day concerns of Afghans, including security,” said Andrew Wilder, director of the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, an independent, Kabul-based think tank.

“For a majority of people, the main security concern is not al Qaeda or the Taliban — it’s the activities of highhanded militia commanders and corrupt police chiefs,” Mr. Wilder said. “But,” he added, “a positive change now is America clearly recognizing the mistake in defining its intervention in Afghanistan solely on the basis of the war on terror — an approach which allowed warlords suppressed by the Taliban to rear their heads again.”

The shift in strategy is exemplified by recent statements from U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, who has increasingly emphasized the need to tame the warlords, fight the illegal drug trade and develop government institutions.

According to a European official, the recent surrender of tanks and other equipment by northern warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum, a candidate in last month’s presidential election, was a genuine and significant act of disarmament accomplished through American pressure.

In the past, independent observers said the much-publicized surrender of heavy ordnance by provincial militias was often a farce, with junk equipment handed over to representatives from Kabul.

The sidelining of two other prominent warlords, Defense Minister Mohammed Fahim and provincial governor Ismail Khan, shortly before the election, was seen as part of the new American strategy.

“These things would not have taken place without U.S. backing,” said Mr. Wilder. “It’s an important signal that the future is not with warlordism.”

Mr. Khalilzad has said as much.

Speaking of the warlords, he said: “Their days are numbered. If they want to be part of the future of Afghanistan, they have to reform.”

The ambassador also promised that previous neglect of poppy cultivation and drug running will end. As proof of its commitment, Washington has pledged $780 million for the war on narcotics.

The United States is expected to lend greater support to efforts to rebuild state institutions like the police and the judiciary. It has been praised for success in creating a professional national army, an ongoing project that has so far trained 20,000 soldiers now in the Afghan National Army.

In an interview with an Afghan television channel, Mr. Khalilzad indicated that an effective police and intelligence force are the next goals.

“A professional police should be trained,” he said. “Some police have been given training, but further work needs to be done.” An intelligence system that is “at the service of the people, and works for the progress of the people” is also required, he added.

Afghans are disappointed at the slow pace of economic reconstruction, especially the neglect of infrastructure and major industry. Even in Kabul, which is far ahead of the rest of the country, there’s an acute shortage of electricity and water.

But Washington has signaled it is changing gears in the drive to develop the Afghan economy. “We have so far focused on building schools, clinics and roads,” said Mr. Khalilzad. “But from now on, in addition to roads and schools, we will concentrate on water and power.”

A major hydroelectric project has already begun in southern Afghanistan.

Even more significant, shortly before Mr. Karzai’s swearing in, where Mr. Khalilzad occupied a front-row seat next to Mr. Cheney, the U.S. ambassador, who many see as the real center of power in Kabul, spoke of the need to start a process of accountability for past crimes against humanity.

Though millions of Afghans are angry that perpetrators of crimes — communists, mujahideen or Taliban — have mostly gone unpunished, the question of accountability has hardly been addressed in Kabul.

For the U.S. ambassador to publicly raise the issue is something new, Mr. Khalilzad said.

“I’d rather not give you the essence of what they’re planning, but one of the things they’re trying to decide is whether accountability should be limited to the Taliban or whether it should be broader, whether it should be top down, or bottom up,” he said. “This is a difficult issue, but one which the Afghan government plans to tackle.”

Analysts see the American endorsement of the demand for accountability as another example of a shift in Washington’s overall policy.

“It’s going to take a long time to deal with Afghanistan’s problems,” said Mr. Wilder. “But it’s clear the U.S. has now decided to adopt a more comprehensive strategy.”

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