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Reopening of U.S. Embassy reveals a world of long ago

©Washington Post
December 18, 2001

KABUL, Afghanistan -- In a solemn ceremony that repeatedly invoked the Sept. 11 terror attacks, U.S. officials Monday raised the American flag over the old U.S. Embassy for the first time since 1989 and vowed that the United States would not abandon Afghanistan again.

"With the reopening of the United States mission in Kabul today, America has resumed its diplomatic, economic and political engagement with this country," said James Dobbins, the U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan. "We are here, and we are here to stay."

Speaking in a cold rain, under the gaze of U.S. Marines in sandbag-reinforced machine gun nests on the embassy roof, Dobbins acknowledged in unusually direct language that the United States and the rest of the world had "largely ignored" Afghanistan after the 1989 pullout of Soviet troops who had occupied the country for 10 years.

"The Afghan people paid a great price for this decade of neglect and abuse," Dobbins said, saying it had allowed Afghanistan to become an "international black hole" where Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terror network thrived. "On Sept. 11, the United States and the rest of the international community also paid a great price."

Dobbins' vow of American support comes five days before Afghanistan swears in a new provisional government in accordance with an agreement reached last month in Bonn, Germany.

Dobbins said the United States would participate in a United Nations effort to provide money to rebuild Afghanistan.

Dobbins also said U.S. officials would provide logistical and intelligence assistance -- but no combat soldiers -- to an international peacekeeping force that would be deployed to Afghanistan.

For now, the embassy building is officially a "liaison office. Plans call for it to be upgraded to full embassy status sometime after the new government is installed.

With the Star Spangled Banner playing from a boom-box, a Marine Corps color guard hoisted the same flag that was taken down the same pole when the last U.S. diplomats left here Jan. 30, 1989. The flag had been kept locked in a safe at the State Department in Washington.

The last U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Adolph "Spike" Dubs, was kidnapped, then killed in a shootout in a Kabul hotel in 1979, 10 months before the Soviet invasion.

For the next 10 years, during the 1979-1989 Soviet occupation, the United States kept a skeleton crew at the embassy. It stayed open until two weeks before the completion of the Soviet withdrawal, as fears mounted that the capital would descend into lawlessness once the last foreign troops were gone. Then the United States lowered its flag, chained the embassy doors and left.

Marines who re-entered the building earlier this month found it like a "time capsule," said Cpl. William Briggs, 21, of North Potomac, Md., who was among the first troops in.

"It was like time stopped in 1989," said Briggs, who noted that a picture of President Ronald Reagan, who left office 10 days before the embassy was abandoned, still hung on the wall.

He and others said that Marines found videocassettes of movies from the '70s and '80s, including Saturday Night Fever and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. They found half-smoked cigars still in ashtrays and half-drunk German beers and Fanta sodas still on the bar. Time magazines from January 1989 were there, as was a Sports Illustrated magazine with Cincinnati Reds star Pete Rose on the cover.

In a locked vault in the basement, Marines also found a note and a neatly folded American flag, both of which were on display Monday. The note, written in longhand on lined notebook paper, was addressed to "Marines." It explained that the flag was the last one to fly over the ambassador's residence in Kabul.

"Take care of it," the letter said. "For those of us that were here it means a lot. For those of you yet to enter Kabul it could mean a lot to you. Semper Fi. We Kabul Marines endured as I'm sure you will. Think of us as needed."

It was signed by Gunnery Sgt. James M. Blake, the commander of the Marine detachment in Kabul.

For nearly 13 years, the embassy has been cared for by about 50 Afghan employees of the State Department. Hamid Mamnoon, who attended Monday's ceremony, said the Afghans never entered the building, but came a few hours each day to "drink tea and look after the gardens."

They also maintained an automotive fleet that the U.S. diplomats left behind. Marine Sgt. Robert Schmidt said that most of the 11 cars in the embassy garage started right up.

On the same day, Turkey, NATO's only Muslim member and a leading candidate to provide peacekeeping troops in Afghanistan, reopened its embassy in a bid to highlight growing stability in the country.

-- Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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