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Newsmaker: Zalmay Khalilzad

February 15, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT

RAY SUAREZ: The latest riots in Kabul-at the soccer game and the airport– underscore the danger facing international peacekeepers there.

Afghanistan has long been considered lawless, in part because local warlords have carved up the country. Last month in the southern city of Gardez, 50 men died in factional fighting over control of the governorship.

In December, as part of the deal to create Hamid Karzai’s new regime, UN and Afghan leaders established a six-month peacekeeping force of 4,500 soldiers. Led by British troops, the international security force is represented by 16 nations; Americans are not participating. By mandate, the force monitors only the capital, Kabul. But Hamid Karzai wants more peacekeepers in more areas. He told the NewsHour that the Afghan people would benefit.

HAMID KARZAI: This force gives them the sense that the international community is with us now, that we will not be left alone in the region.

RAY SUAREZ: When Karzai visited the White House two weeks ago, President Bush was silent on the issue, though he did offer to help build an Afghan army and police force. Since then, some administration officials have expressed a willingness to expand the security force.

RAY SUAREZ: For more on the situation in Afghanistan, we turn to President Bush’s special envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad. He was born in Afghanistan and came to the USA in 1966 as a student; he’s been working here ever since. Welcome.

ZALMAY KHALILZAD: Thank you. It’s nice to be here.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, you spoke to President Karzai earlier today about the situation, the alleged assassination. What did he tell you?

ZALMAY KHALILZAD: Well, what he said was that while yesterday they thought that those who wanted to go on a pilgrimage to Mecca might have been responsible for what happened to the minister of aviation, but in fact overnight the investigation indicated that there was a conspiracy involving some security officials from the intelligence agency and the Defense Department.

Those people had a vendetta against the minister of aviation dating back to the war against the Taliban. At that time the minister had been a member of the Northern Alliance and subsequently broke away from them and joined the wrong group and that those officials who were responsible have been identified and have been fired.

Three of them had gone to Saudi Arabia with the pilgrims yesterday. Mr. Karzai has asked the Saudis for the return of those people immediately. And the Saudis have agreed to do so.

RAY SUAREZ: Now here is an example, the minister Abdul Rahman, minister of aviation in this new interim authority, a man who the President, Hamid Karzai describes as having changed sides at one time.

These are just the kind of splits that the almost threatened to pull apart the Bonn Conference that created his government in the first place; that these vendettas can last, if this is indeed how the killing happened, what does that tell us about the state of the administration in Afghanistan now?

ZALMAY KHALILZAD: We have to think about where Afghanistan has been and where it might have been. Compared to the many years of war involving the Taliban and the Northern Alliance and some and prior to that the civil war among various factions that fought against the Soviet Union and the war against the Soviet Union, which lasted some ten years, this is — what they have now is a much better situation.

The civil war has ended, Afghanistan has been liberated. There are challenges, clearly, there are security challenges, there are political challenges, there are economic challenges, but these problems that they face now are much smaller, better problems, if you like, to have compared to the problems they had just a few years ago.

RAY SUAREZ: Those charged in the crime with having fled to Saudi Arabia include two army generals from the Department of Defense. These are not nobody’s who are accused of this crime. When Mr. Karzai was here earlier in the year and talked about putting aside the divisions of the old times and all these people looking at each other not as Northern Alliance or Tajik or of the forces of one or another of the factions but all as Afghans, are we still far away from that in real life?

ZALMAY KHALILZAD: Of course Afghanistan right now is doing two things. It’s building a nation and building a state, because the many years of the civil war created regional warlords, rivalries; ethnic relations became politicized. And so it’s not surprising that given the problems that have been existing over many years, you can’t expect overnight the country to sort of pull together and for it not to have any problems at all.

I think it’s interesting to note that even in this case, the interim authority moved very rapidly to come to a judgment, and that rather than anyone of the factions or groups giving protection to these people, they’re going to face justice. Those who have been– who were in Afghanistan have been put in jail already. There will be a legal process that will determine their fate. As I said, the Saudis have agreed to return the other three.

RAY SUAREZ: Also in the last few days came this unusual story from the soccer field, perhaps not as important as the killing of a government minister but perhaps a sign of just how hard it is to keep control even of a pacified capital city full of peacekeepers.

ZALMAY KHALILZAD: Well, I don’t know whether compared to soccer matches in Europe what happened in Kabul was any worse, but clearly Afghanistan does need to have a police force. Kabul itself needs to build a police force able to deal with situations such as crowd control and what they have right now with the help of the international force that exists, the ISAF, some of the Northern Alliance military forces, who are acting as police.

Everyone recognizes, including the interim authority, that they need to build a national army, a police force, both national and local, and I think that given the determination that exists both here and in other countries to help, I think that we should see improvement over time.

But would I not be surprised to have instances such as the ones we have seen in the last couple of days take place again. As I say, the country has been in a state of war for 20 years. You cannot expect all problems to be resolved in a very short time.

RAY SUAREZ: But do they need a breather, a period o calm, to build these kinds of institutions that you’re describing, and you say Mr. Karzai recognizes he needs?

ZALMAY KHALILZAD: Well, they need several things at the same time to move on. They need to build national security institutions such as the army and the police. The threat that they face is one of warlordism returning because in some places there are multiple armies that continue to exist.

Then they have to deal with implementing the Bonn agreement, which calls for the six months of the transitional authority leading to the convening of the grand assembly and a transitional government. And they established a commission for the convening of that grand assembly, and that’s moving forward.

And they also need to do economic reconstruction, which they have begun to do so, again with the help from the United States and the international community. And also there is a threat of al-Qaida and Taliban pockets, which remain, which we have to – which you have to finish with the US in the lead and support from Afghan forces.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, taking that situation, with private armies still in the field, rival warlords still in charge of their armies, the pockets that you mention of Taliban and al-Qaida, is this country governable? Is this country able to be calmed to the extent necessary for that tribal council to be convened, for the institutions like the army and the police force to be built?

ZALMAY KHALILZAD: Well, Afghanistan historically has had periods where there has been calm, where they’ve had orderly transfer of power from one government to another. And I think, overall, the security situation in Afghanistan, given what it has been in the last 20 years, is not that bad. There are potential problems, but these problems have been relatively small.

And I think the challenge for the interim authority and for those who support it is, as we build these institutions, which there is every reason to expect that the interim authority will implement the agreement that has been made, we have to do what we can to preclude a war, a conflict among the various warlords or armies that exist in various parts of Afghanistan.

And the situation is not the same across Afghanistan. The risk of this sort of conflict in some regions is very small to nonexistent. It only exists in some regions such as what we saw in Paktiar, potentially perhaps in Jalalabad and maybe in Mazar, but for the rest of the country the risk of a return to warlordism and armed conflict remains very small.

Whether, of course, ultimately the country becomes governable or not, of course, depends on the Afghans, whether they can take advantage of the opportunity that their liberation, the second time in sort of 15 years, once from the Soviet occupation and now from the occupation by al-Qaida has given them, but I think that we in the United States and international community, are willing and are, in fact, seeking to assist them in seizing this opportunity.

RAY SUAREZ: And briefly, will they need more peacekeepers?

ZALMAY KHALILZAD: Well there are… That’s one option and perhaps in some pockets. But there are other options. The ultimate answer, of course, is the Afghan army and Afghan police.

But in the interim, might they need additional stabilizing forces? Or advisers to some of these regional places where there is the danger of potential conflict or some other measures to preclude or deter or prevent a return to a conflict, those are possibilities. We are looking at them, but no decision has been made.

RAY SUAREZ: Zalmay Khalilzad, thanks for joining us.

ZALMAY KHALILZAD: It’s a pleasure to be here.