'Don't Forget Afghanistan,' Karzai Cautions U.S. Congress
By Kathleen T. Rhem
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Feb. 26, 2003 Afghan President Hamid Karzai delivered a sobering message to the U.S. Congress today: Don't forget Afghanistan.
"If you leave the whole thing for us to fight again, it will be repeating the mistakes that the United States made during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan," Karzai told members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
"Once the Soviets left, the Americans left. The consequence of that was what you saw in Afghanistan and in the United States and in the rest of the world," he said, indicating increased terrorist activity, including the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States.
The Afghan president said the United States must maintain a focus on his country until terrorism is absolutely defeated, the Afghan government and institutions are rebuilt, the economy is stronger, and a constitution is in place. "We are nearly at the end of the forest, (but) not outside of it," he said.
Karzai also reached out to the Iraqi people, calling them resourceful, educated and "among the best part of the Islamic world."
"We would wish for them what we wish for ourselves -- for the Iraqi people to be free, and liberated, and to have access to a better life," he said.
The Afghan president was briefing Congress on progress in his country during the past year. On the positive side, he noted 3 million children have returned to school, 2 million refugees have returned, and the country has a new currency and "a helluva free press."
He spoke with pride of the "100 newspapers in Kabul alone" and radio stations functioning in all provinces. "And they are all critical of us, of course, as the press is all the time," he added.
The success of the 3,000 national army troops is also a bright spot in Afghanistan's future. Karzai said he's heard stories of Afghan forces being mistaken for British or International Security Assistance Force troops in the countryside.
"And when they render that they are Afghans, they are really, people get cheered and happy to see their own soldiers patrolling," he said.
The country is undertaking a major initiative to demobilize the hundreds of thousands of regional militia members who roamed the country under Taliban rule. The United States, Japan and the United Nations have pledged $15 million for this "disarmament, demobilization, reintegration" project.
Even traffic jams, the bane of industrialized nations, are a bright spot for Afghanistan. "We have traffic jams in Kabul now," Karzai said. "And traffic jams are signs of activity and riches rather than instability and poverty."
But his country is not without continuing problems. According to the United Nations, Afghanistan is the world's largest producer of opium. Karzai said his government is putting as many resources as it can to "eradicate this menace."
"We are in a big hurry, as Afghans, (to eradicate poppies) because this hurts our economy, it hurts our social system," he said. "It's against our religion, as well."
Another problem is distributing international aid beyond the provisional population centers, down to the village level. "We need a more equitable distribution of the reconstruction activity to the villages of Afghanistan," Karzai said.
Increased cross-border activity with Pakistan is also a concern to the central government. Karzai said he's discussed the matter with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, and the two have agreed to cooperate in securing this frontier region.
Still, the people of Afghanistan are much better off than they were a year ago, and they largely view the remaining foreign military forces in the country as liberators.
"The United States and the coalition forces came to Afghanistan to free us from an extremely great evil, a menace to the world and to the Afghan people. The Afghan people felt liberated," Karzai said, noting the Afghan people chose to work with the friendly forces that came to help them.
"And they see the U.S. forces and the other coalition forces as friends," he added.