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Helping Afghans Realize Their Dreams

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Dec. 10, 2002 – Afghan President Hamid Karzai has a vision for his country as a trading hub for Central Asia. The United States wants to help.

As in home real estate, Afghanistan has the advantage of location, Dov Zakheim, DoD comptroller and point man for Afghan reconstruction within the department, said in a recent interview. Karzai, he said, is determined to use his country's central location to be a transshipment point for Central Asia.

But before that can happen, there must be a lot of rebuilding. After 23 years of war, Afghanistan's infrastructure is absolutely ruined. Zakheim is coordinating donations to aid in rebuilding the country. He is also trying to persuade other countries to donate to the effort or to pay what they previously promised.

While the United States is shifting funds and personnel into the rebuilding effort, it is not imposing its will on the Afghans, Zakheim insisted.

"We're not nation-building in the way people normally think," he said. "We're supporting a government that is trying to rebuild its own nation."

But to become a transshipment point, people have to have something to drive on. The CIA 2002 World Factbook estimates Afghanistan has only 15 miles of railroad track. So rail is out of the question, as are seaports and harbors -- Afghanistan is landlocked.

Trucks are the obvious answer to transportation, but Afghan roads are also suffering from 23 years of war. Journeys take days that would take only hours in the United States or Europe. It's not uncommon for Afghan roads to simply peter out into tracks that horses have trouble on, Zakheim related.

Recently, a small village had an outbreak of whooping cough, he continued. The roads into the area were so bad that the vaccine would have gone bad before it arrived if carried by truck. U.S. helicopters airlifted the vaccine to the village, he said.

The United States, Saudi Arabia and Japan are joining together to build the southern part of the "ring road" in the country. The road will link Kabul in the northeast, Heart in the west and Kandahar in the southeast. The State Department's Agency for International Development is handling the U.S. contribution to the effort.

Zakheim said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers originally built the road in 1956, and it may be asked to oversee the project again. U.S. civil affairs personnel, almost all of whom are reserve component members, are in the country to help the Afghans rebuild and take their cues from the Karzai government.

"We're not in the business of telling Afghans how to be Americans," Zakheim said. "And these soldiers really do a marvelous job of helping these people raise themselves by their bootstraps."

U.S. goals in Afghanistan are to eliminate the al Qaeda and Taliban influence in the country, and also to ensure that terrorist organizations cannot flourish in the country. The long-term solution is a stable Afghanistan that can provide its own security. Projects like the ring road can be the key to a stable, democratic future for Afghanistan, Zakheim said.

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