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Afghan president finds he's lost cachet

©Associated Press
March 2, 2003

WASHINGTON -- By the time Afghan President Hamid Karzai finished his stroll down the corridors of American power last week, he had learned a few harsh lessons in the fickle ways of Washington.

Karzai got the red-carpet treatment and had lunch with President Bush. But he also got a stern lecture from senators about the hazards of sugarcoating the problems of his devastated land -- criticism that seemed to offend him.

He was the toast of Washington a year ago. Now reality is setting in, as the West's attention turns elsewhere and Karzai must cope with a country struggling to reconcile its past and build a future.

Karzai spent a good deal of time pressing U.S. officials not to let the war being fought on his territory now become eclipsed by one not yet under way. He saw that no matter how good the Bush administration's promises sounded, Afghanistan is destined to fade if the United States takes on Iraq.

"Afghanistan has been destroyed, completely, devastated almost to ground zero. A lot more needs to be done in order to enable us to stand on our own feet," Karzai said. "And a lot more needs to be done for a consistent period of time, in a systematic, sustained way."

In the process of finessing his dilemma, like any politician would, Karzai sent mixed signals. He said a war in Iraq would mean less time for Afghanistan. Then, less than an hour later, he said that it would not.

One day, Karzai told a Senate committee it would be a mistake to leave Afghanistan alone to deal with al-Qaida remnants and other terrorists that congregate in border regions near Pakistan. The next day, he stood with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and said "the Afghan people will continue to hunt for the bad guys."

A year ago, the problems posed by Afghanistan seemed to be the highest priority for the United States. Bush had won a resolution from Congress and gone to war there.

Karzai, then the country's interim leader, beamed proudly from a balcony in Congress as Bush declared, in his 2002 State of the Union address, that Afghanistan was an enduring partner against terrorism. This year, Karzai sat alone before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, telling lawmakers that he and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf have been brainstorming on how they can contain the terror operatives who dart back and forth across their borders -- a problem that can escalate without full American attention.

He urged the United States to learn the lessons of history. Do not pull away from Afghanistan too quickly, as America did after the Soviet Union ended its occupation, and run off to other causes, he said.

"Don't forget us if Iraq happens," he said.

Karzai's pleas did not fall on deaf ears, but were met with blunt words from senators who said they feared Karzai, by highlighting millions of children returning to school and a swift government response in replacing the currency, had put too positive a spin on Afghanistan's problems.

One senator even said stressing the positive could hurt Karzai's credibility in the future. Those criticisms in the early hours of his visit still gnawed at the Afghan president by trip's end.

"I'm sorry I can't tell you that everything is wrong there, but it isn't. It is a good thing for the Senate to be negative all the time, but I can't do that," he said.

In his audience with Bush, Karzai hoped for a public rededication to the fight against terrorism no matter what happens in Iraq. What he got was some U.S. sugarcoating: Bush declared himself deeply impressed with Karzai's reports of children going back to school and refugees returning to their homes.

Karzai left the White House with pledges of help in transportation, agriculture, education and health, and a general assurance that the U.S. military -- which currently has about 10,000 troops in Afghanistan -- will "continue with its primary mission to prevent terrorist elements from undermining the security environment, while building the Afghan national army."

The United States promised to help build -- along with Norway -- a bridge over the river between Afghanistan and Tajikistan; to develop programs for restoring irrigation and water management systems; to devote $60-million to building or fixing schools, printing textbooks and training teachers; and to construct or rehabilitate 550 health care centers over three years.

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