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Interview with David Johnson - 2002-10-10

Ambassador David Johnson was appointed as the Afghanistan Coordinator by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell on May 23, 2002. Ambassador Johnson is responsible for overseeing all aspects of United States policy toward Afghanistan. He spoke with VOA's David Borgida.

Joining us now live in our Washington studio, Ambassador David Johnson, the U.S. Afghanistan Coordinator, and an old friend of mine from our White House days. Thanks so much for joining us, Ambassador.

Thank you for inviting me. It's a real pleasure to be here.

It's great to see you again. Let's get right into it. How is Afghanistan doing, in your view, one year later?

Well, this is an important week. It marks a year since Operation Enduring Freedom actually began and the great effort that we have undertaken, along with the Afghans, to liberate their country. I think if you look over the past year, while it is clear that much more needs to be done, it is pretty amazing how far things have come in a year.

First and foremost, Afghans and Americans have given Afghanistan back to the Afghans. And I think that is the most important thing. But, in the meantime, a Bonn agreement was negotiated, which set up an interim authority, and now a transitional government.

We had a Loya Jirga which, by any measure, was the most representative gathering that Afghanistan has ever had in its history, in June, which selected leadership for the transitional government. And we have a government which is beginning to function -- more than beginning to function; it's really showing signs to the Afghan people that it is a government of durability and stability, which can provide leadership and bring them the resources that they need.

Let me play the devil's advocate, which you know I'm used to. Violence continues, critics would say. It is a fairly unstable environment in and around Kabul and also in the countryside to some extent. Food shortages continue. The government remains fairly stable, but if I was a critic I might question your assessment that things are going well. What would you say to those critics?

I would say you have to look at the perspective that we stand from. And since a year ago today, a year ago this week, I think we have done an incredible amount.

With respect to the security situation, Kabul is not a completely safe area, but it is relatively safe. And we believe that first the British ISAF and now Turkish ISAF have done extraordinary work in helping to provide stability and security in Kabul. There have been incidents, no doubt, but, by and large, Kabul is a reasonably safe place for people who live in Kabul to do their business.

It remains dangerous for those of us who work there from the international community, particularly Americans, and so we have to take precautions with respect to that. The government itself does. We have a protective detail from the U.S. military protecting President Karzai. And we think that is an important contribution that the United States can make.

In the countryside, in much of Afghanistan, security is reasonably good. The nongovernmental organizations, contractors working for aid organizations, have been able to do a great deal.

There has been much that has been done to support the enormous number of individuals who voted with their feet to come back to Afghanistan. More than 1.5 million, more than twice as many as the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees had estimated at the beginning of the year, have come back. They need support. They need humanitarian assistance. And that is being provided.

We have been working very hard over the course of the last month or two to prepare for winter. Because, as we all know, Afghanistan, especially in the higher elevations, has a harsh winter, and it is difficult to get provisions in if you don't prepare the food pipeline ahead of time. We had concerns in July and August, and we have taken some steps that we believe have addressed -- not totally, but largely -- those concerns.

You are taking me exactly where I want to go, which is to say the food shortages and how to feed these refugees. What is the international community doing to make sure that there is not a starvation problem in the winter in Afghanistan?

First of all, the Afghans have done a lot for themselves. And the Almighty has blessed in some places where that hadn't been the case over the last several years. There is still a significant drought in Afghanistan, but in the northern part of Afghanistan in particular, crop yields are up about 80 percent this year over last year. So there is significant domestic stocks that have become available. The World Food Program, which is largely supplied by the United States but also with some help from our international partners, has been providing food and stockpiling it in these areas. We were concerned earlier about what we call the food pipeline. You don't just need food today, you need to have a continuous supply. Much work has been done on that over the course of the last couple of months. And we are not exactly where we want to be, but we have made enormous strides there. And we are significantly more confident now that feeding during the winter can take place as it is needed.

There are still some things that need to be done. The international community still has to step forward with greater generosity on the humanitarian front as well, but we are much further along just in the course of the last couple of months than we were at the end of the summer.

Ambassador David Johnson, thanks so much for joining us. Ambassador Johnson is the U.S. Afghanistan Coordinator. We are delighted you could join us today.

Thank you very much. I appreciate it.