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US Sees Afghan Refugees' Return As Vote of Confidence - 2002-05-07

The Bush administration's new coordinator for Afghan affairs says the unexpectedly-large flow of returning refugees into Afghanistan is a vote of confidence for the country's future. The U.S. envoy, David Johnson was named last week to replace retiring diplomatic trouble-shooter James Dobbins in the key post.

U.N. officials estimate that nearly a half million refugees from Pakistan and Iran, and another 150,000 internally-displaced Afghans have returned to their homes in the last two months, straining the resources of international relief groups.

However, the State Department's new coordinator for Afghan affairs, David Johnson, says he thinks an aid crisis will be avoided, and that the return of the refugees some of whom left the country two decades ago, reflects the success of U.S.-led efforts to rebuild the country's economic and political infrastructure.

"This is, what we hope is, a success story in the making. And there will be setbacks," he said. "It is not easy, it is a difficult environment. But the people of Afghanistan. I think, are the most inspiring on this, and particularly those refugees who are taking the chance and going home. And they're voting with their feet, if you will, and I think that's probably the most compelling voting that can be done."

Mr. Johnson, former U.S. envoy to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, took over the Afghan envoy post last week from retiring diplomat James Dobbins.

In an interview here, Mr. Johnson said much of his early attention will be focused on organizing help for the building of an Afghan army and police force, a project he said will ultimately be the best guarantor of the country's security and stability.

Although the Afghan interim government of Hamid Karzai has pressed for an expansion of the 4,500 member International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF) that currently patrols the Kabul area, Mr. Johnson said creating an international force capable of patrolling the entire country would be impractical.

"It wouldn't just be the challenge of the cities, and many of the regional cities are in fact reasonably safe. It's the countryside. And to imagine an international force which could provide security throughout the Afghan countryside I think is beyond the scope of what can be provided," he said. "So I believe that the combination of ISAF and the other undertakings which we and others have made in order to foster security have made a significant contribution. And I think that combination is the best prescription for what the international community can provide as Afghanistan builds up its own security."

Mr. Johnson welcomed a U.N. brokered deal Tuesday under which forces of Uzbek factional leader Abdul Rashid Dostam and Tajik rival Mohammed Atta, both of whom members of Afghanistan's interim government, are to disengage from the streets of the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, where they have clashed several times in recent weeks.

The new U.S. envoy acknowledge much more needs to be done to overcome Afghan's legacy of warlord rule. He said one the objectives of the transitional administration to be chosen at next month's grand council, or Loya Jirga, is to try to transform the chiefs of local armies into political leaders.