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Debate Over US Policy in Afghanistan - 2002-07-13

Some critics of U.S. policy in Afghanistan say the warlords there have won, and democracy has lost. But at a recent Washington conference, that view was challenged by the U.S. envoy to Kabul who says progress toward democracy is slow and steady, and he remains cautiously optimistic.

Afghans are disappointed with their new government and the U.S. role in sponsoring it, said Hazrat-Omar Zakhilwal at a conference held by the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute in Washington.

Deputy director of the Institute for Afghan Studies, Mr. Zakhilwal said the warlords emerged victorious from the recent loya jirga, or grand council, because the United States continues to support them in the hunt for al-Qaida remnants. "This has resulted in the silencing of democratic forces that could have emerged and publicly challenge the right and competence of warlords to rule. This also explains the inability of the central government to extend its rule beyond the parameters of the Kabul city," he said.

The present government is too narrowly based, said Marin Strmecki, vice president of the Smith Richardson Foundation, who has closely followed events in Afghanistan since the 1980's. He noted that the largely Tajik Northern Alliance has two-thirds of the cabinet posts, while Pashtuns are confined to a mere handful. "There is a powder keg sitting out there, and there is a fuse. Someone at some point is going to pick it up and strike a match and stoke the kind of ethnic resentment that could lead to serious conflict and particularly it could lead to a serious Pashtun backlash."

Mr. Strmecki said a number of credible sources told him that U.S. officials, while undermining the Pashtun-backed king, showed less nerve in confronting the Northern Alliance and its Defense Minister, General Mohammed Fahim. "When the U.S. envoy met with Fahim and provided an outline of what a rebalanced cabinet ought to look like, Fahim looked it over," he said. "He rejected it, and he made threats of using military force and returning to civil war if the United State sought to try to propagate that kind of a new government."

Mr. Strmecki said the U.S. envoy promptly backed down, encouraging General Fahim to act as if he, not President Karzai, were in charge of Afghanistan. As vice president, General Fahim is first in line to succeed Mr. Karzai.

This government does not represent Afghanistan, said Mr. Strmecki, and is not a worthy partner for the United States.

Let's face reality, replied Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan. The Northern Alliance was key to defeating the Taleban and earned a major role in the succeeding government. Furthermore, he insisted the United States cannot dictate to the Afghans: "Afghanistan is first and foremost an Afghan responsibility. We are not running Afghanistan. We do not give much of a damn frankly about X or Y being in this or that position as long as it can work for Afghanistan," he said.

Mr. Khalilizad denied being rebuffed by any group. It was not his job to interfere. He said the loya jirga was a preparatory exercise in democracy. It brought together people from around the country to begin to reconcile their differences. "The way it was conducted was by no means a perfect process, but was it better than any other way the Afghans have selected their leaders in the last 20 to 30 years? By far, from my point of view," he said. "The usual way was coups, killings. Many of you in this room are familiar with the tragedy of Afghanistan."

Mr. Khalilzad said the loya jirga was a first step in a process that will culminate in elections, and Afghans and the international community can take pride in what has been accomplished so far.