When it comes to aid, U.S. track record offers Afghans bitter lessons

Washington often fails to keep commitments after crises subside

January 21, 2002|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- For weeks, a stream of American officials has stopped off in Kabul bearing a message summed up by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell: "We are here to stay."

Yet if the past is a guide, Afghans might be forgiven for feeling a bit skeptical. From Central Asia to Africa and Latin America, the United States has a less-than-stellar record of sustaining its commitment to poor regions once the crises that captured American attention have subsided.

Some of these concerns may be addressed at a conference opening today in Tokyo on raising the $15 billion needed to rebuild basic services in Afghanistan. Including Powell, officials from 60 countries and 60 nongovernmental organizations are attending the International Conference on Reconstruction Assistance to Afghanistan, which runs through tomorrow.

The United States continues to bolster its close allies in Western Europe, Asia and the Middle East with military forces, money or both. But elsewhere in the world, Washington has lost interest quickly after its troops or military advisers have exited.

The result has left many such nations struggling to avoid sliding back into the poverty and instability that had turned them into trouble spots to begin with.

Some analysts say the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 changed all that. Far from being pushed off Washington's field of vision, the world's poor and unstable states have suddenly assumed greater importance as potential launching pads of global terrorism, and they require constant American attention.

Old habits, though, will be hard to break.

"We're not good anyway in preventive diplomacy," said Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser in the first Bush administration. "It takes a crisis" to alert Washington, and once it eases, "then our attention tends to turn to the next crisis."

Afghanistan's recent history offers a bitter lesson in how such tendencies can eventually harm the United States. In the 1980s, working in partnership with Saudi Arabia, the United States covertly supplied training, arms and money to the mujahedeen who were fighting Soviet forces in Afghanistan.

Once the Soviet Union pulled its troops out in defeat in 1989, Afghanistan lost its strategic value to the United States, though the U.S. weapons flow continued for two years to counter a major weapons edge by Moscow's client regime in Kabul.

After the Soviet Union collapsed, the American goal was to transform the U.S. relationship with the ruined empire and to shore up the reformers trying to steer Russia and other former Soviet republics toward becoming Western-oriented democracies.

"We have leapt into a new era of history," Robert B. Zoellick, then a senior State Department official, told Congress in October 1991.

He pointed to U.S.-Soviet cooperation in ending regional conflicts, such as Afghanistan's, as one of the hallmarks of the new relationship. The two countries also worked to quell the smoldering regional conflicts of the Cold War in Asia, Africa and Central America, where the United States and Soviets had backed opposing sides

In September 1991, the United States and Soviet Union agreed to cut off arms supplies to opposing sides in Afghanistan. Still, the Afghan war raged on with its own momentum, turning the country over the next 10 years into a hotbed of extremism that harbored terrorists, threatened to destabilize the region and eventually damaged the United States.

To Peter Tomsen, special envoy for Afghanistan in the first Bush administration, the United States missed a chance to prevent disaster.

"There is a tendency to have a shallow view of our strategic interests and also of what our assets are" in places where the United States has become embroiled in a conflict, he said.

The "assets" included U.S. allies among the mujahedeen. "We were the most popular single country in Afghanistan," Tomsen said.

From his office in the State Department, "I was writing memos outlining why it was in the U.S. interest to stay," Tomsen said. He argued in the early 1990s that the United States needed to prevent Muslim extremists, allied with radicals from the Persian Gulf, from gaining ascendancy and using Afghanistan as a base for terrorism and drug smuggling.

He also contended that if the United States could ensure a moderate regime in Afghanistan with aid and diplomatic support, "it could open up Afghanistan and Central Asia to global trade corridors -- north, south, east and west."

Instead, Tomsen said, the prevailing view among U.S. policymakers was, "Let's outsource our policy to Pakistan," a longtime Cold War ally.

Pakistan's aim, in turn, was to use Afghanistan to gain "strategic depth" against its far larger adversary, India, and to forge alliances with Muslim states on the Russian periphery. Its Inter-Services Intelligence agency first backed the brutal warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and later, the Taliban.

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