U.S. acts to assure Afghans of support

Officials seek to maintain stability, as focus of war on terror shifts to Iraq

September 30, 2002|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

KABUL, Afghanistan - A top Pentagon official said yesterday that the United States will remain committed to ensuring Afghanistan's stability even as the war on terrorism shifts elsewhere.

Faced with a shortfall in promised financial aid and a diversion of U.S. attention to Iraq, some Afghan officials and international observers have voiced concern that Afghanistan could slide into the instability and chaos it suffered during two decades of civil war.

But Douglas J. Feith, U.S. undersecretary of defense for policy, suggested that his visit to the Afghan capital was designed in part to allay those concerns.

"We have a responsibility here in Afghanistan that the U.S. government is committed to fulfilling, no matter what happens elsewhere in the world," said Feith, speaking to reporters at the heavily guarded U.S. Embassy.

"We understand what those responsibilities are, and we are going to fulfill them. We are committed to creating conditions for stability here in Afghanistan," said Feith.

Feith's visit came less than 24 hours after a powerful bomb exploded less than a quarter-mile from the compound. The blast injured three people and caused little damage but was the latest in a series of bombings in the capital since June, including one two weeks ago that killed 30 people and injured 150 in a crowded market.

The blasts and recent calls for holy war against the U.S. military and the central government of President Hamid Karzai by former Taliban officials and other extremists have raised concerns about increasing instability.

Feith said the creation of an Afghan national army, which the United States is helping to train, is a fundamental requirement for improved security across the country.

He said U.S. officials are also trying to speed up the delivery of economic aid, another prerequisite for reconstruction and long-term peace.

Since the ouster of the hard-line Taliban regime by the U.S.-backed Northern Alliance last year, lawlessness, banditry, ethnic violence and occasional infighting between rival warlords have afflicted much of the country.

Coupled with the slow delivery of promised international aid, these problems have contributed to growing dissatisfaction with the central government in many far-flung provinces.

In southern and eastern Afghanistan, U.S. military operations to root out al-Qaida and Taliban rebels have contributed to growing resentment against the central government and the U.S. presence, especially among ethnic majority Pashtuns who feel they have unfairly borne the brunt of the U.S. operations.

Seeking to capitalize on this growing resentment, a military commander loyal to extremist former Prime Minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar told reporters in Peshawar, Pakistan, last week that a new alliance with former Taliban fighters plans to carry out suicide attacks against U.S. military and coalition forces.

The commander, Salauddin Safi, said the group, known as the Islamic Martyrs Brigade, was receiving money and arms from al-Qaida and Iran to carry out the attacks.

Feith dismissed reports that U.S. soldiers occasionally mistreat civilians during search operations for al-Qaida and Taliban fugitives. After Operation Mountain Sweep last month, some villagers in eastern Afghanistan complained that soldiers from the Army's 82nd Airborne roughed up civilians and mishandled women while searching homes.

"We've seen no evidence of that," he said.

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