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Assessing Afghanistan

August 5, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT
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RAY SUAREZ: The combat phase of the Afghan war is largely over, according to the Pentagon, but peace has been elusive.

It’s been 22 months since the U.S. launched a bombing campaign and special operations ground attacks that ousted the Taliban government, which had provided sanctuary for the al-Qaida terrorists who planned the September 11 attacks.

Yet nearly every day, there are attacks on U.S. and coalition peacekeepers, humanitarian workers, civilians, or journalists.

President Hamid Karzai’s government, with an army of just over 4,000 soldiers, has little control over the country outside Kabul. Karzai himself survived an assassination attempt last year, and his vice president and tourism minister were both killed by opposition groups. The capital, Kabul, is supposed to be secured by an international force of about 5,000. Known as ISAF, the force is currently led by the Germans and Dutch, but NATO will take over the mission this month.

Still, even Kabul is a dangerous place. In early June, four German peacekeepers died, and more than 30 were wounded when a suicide bomber detonated a bomb next to the German bus. Karzai blamed foreigners for the attack.

RAY SUAREZ: To compound U.S. concerns, Taliban forces appear to be regrouping on the border with Pakistan. The U.S. military has launched raids to rout out Taliban holdouts and al-Qaida terrorists from the mountains of southeastern Afghanistan.

At the Pentagon today, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Richard Myers said the hunt for al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden continues.

GEN. RICHARD MYERS: There’s a question of whether he’s alive or not. If he’s alive, a lot of people believe that the region he is in is in the… that border area where the terrain is very rugged, and where he might find people sympathetic to his outlook on life. And beyond that, it’s one of those things, just like Saddam Hussein, that we’ll continue to keep pressure on those kind of individuals. It’s another… it’s important. It’s one more step.

RAY SUAREZ: The southern city of Kandahar in recent weeks, three Muslim clerics sympathetic to the U.S. have been assassinated by Taliban forces. The Afghan conflict continues to claim American lives — five in the last three months.

Outside Kabul, much of the country remains under the control of Afghan warlords, many of them opposed to the Karzai government. Habiba Sarabi, Afghanistan’s minister of women’s affairs, is worried about the power the warlords wield.

HABIBA SARABI, Afghan Minister of Women’s Affairs: Security is a big problem, not only in the city, but in the countryside. It’s a big problem because of warlords. And so they have the power, and anything they want to do it, they can do it.

RAY SUAREZ: The U.S. plan to bring about stability involves creating an Afghan military and police force, and stationing a small number of forces in a few regions in Afghanistan. Paula Dobriansky, undersecretary of state, said improving security and reconstruction go hand in hand.

PAULA DOBRIANSKY, U.S. Undersecretary of State: The United States in tandem with the Afghan government has come forward with what is known as the provincial reconstruction teams. These are civil military teams that are designated to certain areas, particularly those areas in which security has been a problem.

RAY SUAREZ: Decades of conflict have left Afghanistan in ruins, many Afghans face poverty, high unemployment, and lack of basic infrastructure. President Bush has promised a massive reconstruction effort, not unlike the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe after the Second World War.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: As George Marshall so clearly understood, it will not be enough to make the world safer. We must also work to make the world better. True peace will only be achieved when we give the Afghanistan people the means to achieve their own aspirations. Peace will be achieved by helping Afghanistan develop its own stable government.

RAY SUAREZ: But Afghanistan’s foreign minister, Abdullah Abdullah, has said that effort is not paid off yet.

ABDULLAH ABDULLAH, Afghan Foreign Minister: The people appreciate the support which has been given to them. But at the same time, they think that it hasn’t been sufficient. That’s the overall perception of the people. Nevertheless, most of the assistance, so far, has gone to the humanitarian side. So you don’t see lots of visible signs of reconstruction.

RAY SUAREZ: Independent observers within the United States have also issued criticism. In June, the Council on Foreign Relations issued a report entitled Afghanistan: Are We Losing the Peace?

And last week, the New York-based group Human Rights Watch issued a report blaming the U.S. and Afghan governments for a surge in violent crime.

The Bush administration has said it recognizes more needs to be done, and is expected to announce a $1 billion aid package for Afghanistan soon. And last week, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told reporters at Bagram Air Force Base that U.S. troops, now numbering about 8,500, will remain in Afghanistan for as long as it takes.