The man in the emerald cloak was everywhere in Washington 13 months ago -- conferring with ambassadors, greeting members of Congress, and as a prime symbol of America’s success in battling terrorism, sitting with the first lady in the gallery as President Bush delivered his State of the Union address.
U.S. forces had destroyed the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Hamid Karzai, just in from Kabul, the Afghan capital, was the man of the moment.
Karzai, now the president of Afghanistan, is back in Washington making many of the same rounds -- but the capital’s attention is largely elsewhere. With the White House firmly focused on Iraq, Karzai is here to prod the administration to not forget his country.
He testified before Congress on Wednesday and meets with Bush today.
The immediate needs of Karzai’s struggling government have remained largely unchanged: help with building roads, creating a communications network and, perhaps most important, establishing a national army and police force to meet basic security needs.
How the United States responds has assumed new importance in the context of the confrontation with Iraq.
The U.S. commitment to Afghanistan demonstrates “how we will approach post-conflict Iraq,” Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said recently. “American credibility is on the line in these situations, and we must understand that failure to follow through could have extremely negative consequences on the war on terror.”
The needs in Iraq would differ from those in Afghanistan. For example, Afghanistan lacks the oil resources that a new Iraqi regime could draw upon.
But in Iraq, as in Afghanistan, the Bush administration must be committed to a long-term role to prevent a civil war, foreign policy experts said.
“The day after the war, and four years after the war, we have to demonstrate staying power,” said Karl F. Inderfurth, a professor of international affairs at George Washington University who served as assistant secretary of State for South Asia in the Clinton administration.
Concerns that Afghanistan’s needs will be overshadowed by Iraq are the focus of Karzai’s visit to Washington. They also go to the heart of the Kabul government’s ability to turn back warlords’ attempts to grab power.
One worry for Karzai has been Afghanistan’s experience with international donors.
A January 2002 conference in Tokyo produced pledges totaling $4.5 billion over four years for Afghanistan’s reconstruction and security. But the Finance Ministry in Kabul has said that $20 billion to $25 billion will be needed to rebuild the nation’s crumbled infrastructure.
Congress has approved the American commitment made at Tokyo, setting aside $3.3 billion. But contributions from other countries have been lagging. The result has been dashed expectations among the Afghan people and the government, said Robert Templer, Asia program director of the International Crisis Group.
“It’s amazing how there is a great flourish when everyone signs a peace agreement and then there’s very little follow-through,” Templer said. His Brussels-based nonprofit organization is one of the major institutions tracking Afghanistan’s needs.
“Afghanistan is not yet out of the woods,” Karzai said to senators Wednesday. The U.S. “must remain committed to Afghanistan in order to make sure that terrorism is defeated completely, that Afghanistan gets a stability and economic function that would put it on its own feet.”
That could be several years away, he said.
“Before that,” Karzai told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, “it would be very, very unwise to think that it’s OK to reduce attention to Afghanistan, and I would very strongly recommend that [Congress], and all of the government, stay committed and aware of the goings-on in Afghanistan, and commit to it the resources, both material and moral, needed so Afghanistan becomes a country standing on its own feet.”
Arzo Mansury, a spokeswoman for the Afghan Embassy, said in an interview that her government is grateful for the United States’ support so far and for the assurances that the Bush administration has given of future assistance. But when Karzai meets with Bush, “he wants to talk about concrete details,” she said.
Karzai also met privately Wednesday with the House International Relations Committee. A Republican aide, speaking on condition of anonymity, said of the challenges facing the Afghan leader and his government: “They’re into the tedious job of nation-building, rebuilding roads, rebuilding houses, opening schools.”
Karzai’s team of bodyguards at home is largely made up of members of the Special Forces, who are among the estimated 8,000 U.S. troops still stationed in Afghanistan.
Times staff writer Nick Anderson contributed to this report.