Aid to Afghanistan remains priority, Rice says

Karzai voices confidence in commitment to rebuild

May elections postponed

March 18, 2005|By Michael Tackett | Michael Tackett,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

KABUL, Afghanistan - Touring this grim, forlorn nation whose political transformation she helped design, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said yesterday that reconstruction aid remains one of "the very high priorities of this administration" even as the House voted to cut $570 million in assistance.

In a six-hour visit, Rice saw only a glimpse of the country that has been so central to the war on terrorism. But there were inescapable signs that despite U.S. efforts to bring democracy to Afghanistan, its apparently intractable struggles are far from over.

Although Hamid Karzai has been elected president, the government remains in its nascent stages, and parliamentary elections scheduled for May have been postponed until September, Karzai confirmed yesterday.

Streets in the capital are strewn with rubble and trash; buildings bombed in numerous wars remain shells; serpentine barricades are in place to deter suicide bombers; the National Museum holds only a spare collection after its priceless artifacts were looted or destroyed.

The U.S. Embassy is a fortress of trailers. American contract security workers said they rarely venture into the city unless they are guarding the ambassador.

At Rice's news conference with Karzai on the grounds of the presidential palace, guards armed with assault rifles stood next to the lecterns before the two officials appeared, and the guards stood just out of camera range as the officials spoke.

Despite the cordial tone between Rice and Karzai, one point of friction with the United States has been the resurgent opium poppy trade in Afghanistan, a situation so dire that a State Department report this month said that the country had almost become a narcotics state that "represents an enormous threat to world stability."

Karzai said opium trafficking and overall violence are down from last year and gamely said the declines will continue.

"It all comes with the increasing capacity of the Afghan state," Karzai said. The opium crop provides a far greater return for Afghan growers, he said, than pomegranates. "This is a long-term fight and requires a long-term strategy."

Karzai expressed confidence in Rice's personal commitment to rebuilding Afghanistan "because she was there from the first day of the liberation."

Before her session with Karzai, Rice spoke to about 100 cheering U.S. troops at a base in Kabul and linked their service to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. "I just stopped by to say hi to you ... for what you have done. ... I know it's been a sacrifice, and sometimes it's been tough because this is not an easy place."

Then she recalled how President Bush, herself and others gathered at Camp David after the 2001 attacks to plot strategy. "We rolled out a map because we knew that the people who had done that to us had come right out of here, right out of Afghanistan, which had become a terrorist haven for al-Qaida and for the ideology of hatred that caused people to fly those airplanes into our buildings," she said.

Now, she said, Afghanistan is an ally in the war on terrorism, although there were signs even yesterday that it is in no way unified. An explosion near Kandahar killed five people and wounded more than two dozen.

After leaving Afghanistan, Rice returned to Pakistan for talks with its president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf.

In Islamabad, she said that Pakistan "has come an enormously long way," while giving no indication she had pressed Musharraf on a longstanding U.S. demand to give up his control of the armed forces, the Associated Press reported.

Today, Rice will embark on the final three days of her Asian trip, with stops in Japan, South Korea and China. The focus is expected to be on North Korea's aggressive posture on its nuclear weapons program.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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