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Strong US Influence in Afghanistan Draws Criticism - 2004-08-24

As Afghanistan seeks to rebuild its place in the world after decades of war, foreign powers are seeking to gain influence inside the country. But one nation enjoys far closer relations with the new Afghanistan than any other, the United States. VOA's series on foreign influence in Afghanistan concludes as Islamabad correspondent Michael Kitchen looks at the U.S. role and some of the controversy surrounding it.

The U.S. presence in Afghanistan is everywhere: building roads, setting up an Internet network, training the new army or providing security for the coming elections.

In the years before 2001, the United States did not even have diplomatic relations with the country and its conservative Taleban Islamic government.

But when the Taleban refused to surrender the leaders of al-Qaida, blamed for catastrophic terror attacks on the United States, U.S. forces teamed up with dissident Afghan militias to overthrow the regime.

Since then, Washington has been a chief donor to the new government, and its troops have acted as Kabul's protectors while the new Afghan National Army is trained and equipped.

For Afghanistan's transitional president, Hamid Karzai, the presence of the United States and its Western allies offers an ideal partnership.

"The international forces in Afghanistan have brought Afghanistan its sovereignty back, ? have brought Afghanistan back as a nation-state that is moving toward being able to stand on its own feet," said Mr. Karzai.

But others are not so sure.

Critics accuse Washington of meddling in Afghan affairs and seeking to run the country as a puppet state.

As head of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency in the late 1980s, former Lieutenant General Hamid Gul helped the United States funnel aid to Afghan mujahideen fighting the Soviet occupation of their country.

He says Mr. Karzai's support for the U.S. presence is one of necessity, because he and his supporters need U.S. military protection to survive.

General Gul says many Afghans, such as those supporting an ongoing insurgency led by remnants of the Taleban, believe the United States plans to keep its troops in Afghanistan indefinitely.

"Karzai would be selling his point of view: 'Look, I am, once a stable government is formed, am [going to] ask the Americans to quit.' The other Taleban, they will be saying: 'No, the Americans will not quit. They will bring in their own culture, they will bring in their own system,'" said General Gul.

Other, more mainstream, Afghan voices are also suspicious of Washington's intentions.

Some Afghan politicians say Mr. Karzai has sold out to the United States, which they say is backing him in October's presidential election.

The Afghan analyst for the International Crisis Group policy institute, Vikram Parekh, says this perception is growing.

"There is a lot of concern amongst Afghans ? that the U.S. is deciding what the outcome of the election is going to be," said Mr. Parekh.

A spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Roy Glover, denies any favoritism toward Mr. Karzai as a candidate, but admits there are some who see it that way.

"We are doing our best to be very neutral about this and to make it a point that we're not campaigning for the president," he said. "I think misunderstanding is bound to happen because we've got to work with the government."

But Mr. Parekh adds that the U.S. military's battle against anti-government militants also causes an image problem for the United States.

He points to U.S. raids on households believed to be aiding the militants and allegations of abuse in U.S. detention centers.

"I don't think it's quite at the point of backlash yet, but I think a confluence of factors could ultimately lead to that," said Mr. Parekh.

The United States is not alone in trying to influence Afghanistan's future. Pakistan, which had supported the old Taleban government, is eager to rebuild friendly relations with Afghanistan. Iran also is using aid and trade to win favor in Kabul.

The U.S. government believes that by ignoring Afghanistan in the past, it helped allow the country to become a haven for anti-American terrorism.

As a result, it says it will not cut its support for Afghanistan until a viable state is up and running.

But for the time being, Washington may have tread cautiously to avoid being seen as too involved in Afghanistan.