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One Year of Tremendous Change for Afghanistan

One country that was fundamentally changed in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks is Afghanistan. One year ago, it was ruled by Islamic radicals, the Taleban, who provided safe haven for the al-Qaida terrorist network blamed for the grisly attacks. Now it has a new interim government that is dedicated to establishing democracy. But the struggle for Afghanistan's soul is far from over.

Under the Taleban, Afghanistan had become what one United Nations official termed a "swamp of terrorism." The Taleban provided safe haven for terrorists, including, say U.S. officials, the plotters of the September 11 attacks. The United States wasted little time in launching a military campaign to oust the Taleban and root out the terrorists.

But one year later, the question is raised: Is the United States military goal of ferreting out the terrorists overshadowing attempts to build a stable, democratic Afghanistan? Barnett Rubin, a prestigious U.S. scholar of Afghan affairs, says more effort should be put into stabilizing Afghanistan to prevent it from again becoming a terrorist haven.

"Is the U.S. primary goal in Afghanistan to capture the primary suspects for the acts of September 11, and then move on to do other things to disrupt al-Qaida and other terrorists with global reach, or other terrorists everywhere in the world," he asks. "Or is, and this is of course what I have been advocating since that time, should the strategic goal in Afghanistan be to take the occasion afforded by the U.S. presence there in response to the events of September 11th to help Afghans establish a stable state, or a stable enough state, that it can be a responsible member of the international community, and police its territory enough to prevent such threats."

With United Nations assistance, a deal was brokered in December among Afghanistan's myriad rival factions to form a new interim government in Afghanistan. But the situation remains very insecure.

The government, under the leadership of President Hamid Karzai, is shaky, with little authority outside the capital. On September 5, someone tried to assassinate Mr. Karzai while he was visiting southern Kandahar, and bombs exploded in the capital, Kabul. Two ministers in Mr. Karzai's cabinet were killed earlier.

But U.S. Special Envoy to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad says, despite such attacks, the United States remains committed to Afghanistan.

"There is a struggle for the future of Afghanistan that's ongoing. We've made progress," he says. "But the forces that do not want the kind of order that we envisage, and we support, and we believe that most Afghans want, they're going to be also active. And, therefore, it's our judgment that to succeed, we need to remain committed, and we need to stay there for the duration. And I can say with full confidence to you, I can report to you, that the president is very much committed to this course of action."

The international community, including the United States, has been reluctant to extend any peacekeeping role outside of Kabul. However, there are now signs the Bush administration may be prepared to back such a move.

There also are fears in some Afghan quarters that international indifference to Afghanistan will again take over, as it did in 1992, when the the Soviet-installed government collapsed, and the country splintered into civil war, paving the way for the advent of the Taleban.

Most Afghans welcome the U.S. presence. But there is some resentment. Some of it stems from the civilian casualties of U.S. bombing raids. U.S. officials characterize those casualties as tragic mistakes.

There is also resentment over how U.S. forces have been utilizing the services of powerful regional warlords in the anti-terrorism fight. Many of these warlords are responsible for the factional fighting of the early 1990s.

Mr. Khalilzad says the United States had no choice but to rely on some of the warlords.

"You know, your policy has to deal with reality. And the reality is, we had to deal with people who could help on this," he says. "But, as the problem of counter-terror declines, or as the national institutions are erected, are built, that can assist in this, a shift - incremental shift, evolutionary shift - by necessity will take place, and is part of our thinking."

Barnett Rubin says the United States already seems to have changed course on that issue.

"I think that the U.S. has multiple goals. When you have multiple goals, there are always contradictions among those goals," he says. "To the extent that it was focussing on the anti-terrorism fight, and, therefore, supporting warlords, that was undermining the goal of consolidating the political administration in Kabul. I believe the U.S. has now changed the emphasis there, has cut off the financial support to quite a few of the warlords, and is going to place more emphasis on consolidating support for the administration in Kabul, and supporting security."

However, warn analysts, support for U.S. efforts could erode quickly in Afghanistan, if the Bush administration decided to attack Iraq.