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US Reconstruction Plans in Afghanistan, Iraq Take Different Paths - 2003-10-07

On October 7, 2001, the United States launched an aerial bombing campaign in Afghanistan that led to the collapse of the ruling Taliban regime. Now, two years later, the Bush Administration is reorganizing its reconstruction efforts in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Although both Iraq and Afghanistan are targets of multibillion-dollar reconstruction efforts, the approaches taken by the United States in both places could not be more different.

Iraq is under direct U.S. occupation with the military having the dominant role. The United States is so far footing most of the bills itself. The United Nations has so far had only a small supporting role there.

In contrast, Afghanistan is under an interim government, and reconstruction there is heavily internationalized. Aid comes from many donor countries. The peacekeeping force in Kabul is multinational, and after one and one-half years of prodding by Hamid Karzai's interim government is finally preparing to operate outside the capital.

Tom Goutierre, director of the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska, suggests that the U.S. approaches to Iraqi and Afghan reconstruction could be reversed.

"In some ways, though, our presence in Iraq would be more welcomed the approach in Afghanistan than it is in Iraq in other words a heavy, really strong American leadership," he said. "And it's not too far to argue that perhaps that in Iraq, we might mitigate against some of the bad feelings that are felt there if we had a broader international participation in what is being done there."

Security in both countries remains difficult. In Iraq, what U.N. international presence there was has pulled out. But, despite security concerns, U.N. and other aid agencies are all over Afghanistan. Mr. Goutierre says that has led to what he terms an "aid gridlock."

"There are many marginal programs that are there that Afghans don't wish to offend and certainly welcome assistance from, but really contribute not so much in program as they might, and wind up providing this incredible gridlock in the coordination of the overall programs in Afghanistan," explained Mr. Goutierre.

The construction of a new highway between Kabul and Kandahar has become symptomatic of what many analysts say is a glacial pace of reconstruction in Afghanistan. Indeed some reports say the status of that project is what prompted President Bush to order a reorganization of U.S. reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Christopher Preble of the Cato Institute says he is baffled over the focus on highway construction.

"Why is our security dependent on the construction of a highway from Kabul to Qandahar? I don't understand," he said. "And the fact that this administration is so focussed on reconstructing two countries where we have traditionally never had a large role or interest, why we are basing our antiterrorism measures on the construction of a highway in Afghanistan or similar projects in Iraq is completely beyond me."

But President Karzai has said rebuilding the country's arteries is essential for Afghanistan's rehabilitation. Omar Zakhilwal, an Afghan émigré who is now senior adviser to the minister for Rural Rehabilitation and Development, says that is what people want.

"There are lots of small projects that have been completed," he said. "And there are many projects in different parts of the country that have been under either construction or reconstruction. But those don't get really noticed. What gets noticed and what people really want to see is work on major projects, such as highways."

On the political front, steps towards a new Iraqi constitution are still in an embryonic stage. With more time, Afghanistan has now come up with a new draft constitution, and elections are scheduled for next June. But the grand council that was to have met this month to ratify the draft has been delayed until December.