By Scott Baldauf, Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor
KABUL, AFGHANISTAN - With war looming in Iraq, Afghans have something new to worry about: Will the US forget about Afghanistan?
It's not an idle question. Ten years ago, American military and diplomatic support dried up after the Soviets withdrew and Afghan factions fought each other for control. And with the end of the cold war, America was interested in reducing its foreign commitments.
Today, American diplomats say they won't make the same mistake twice - despite ongoing US military commitments around the world, putting US soldiers and reservists on nearly constant duty.
"The United States is capable of doing more than one thing at a time," says Zalmay Khalilzad, President Bush's special envoy to Afghanistan. "The resources required for Afghanistan in its entirety ... we are committed to delivering on, no matter what happens in Iraq."
Current evidence seems to back this up. American troop presence in Afghanistan remains at the same level as a year ago. Some 8,000 US soldiers from all four branches of the military are stationed in Afghanistan. Nearly a quarter of the soldiers - including civil affairs personnel and even US Army Special Forces - are either members of the National Guard or US Army reserves, serving in six-month deployments.
But if military assistance is expected to hold constant, preliminary figures suggest that Washington may increase foreign aid to Afghanistan in the present year. According to Bush administration budget figures, the sum total of all US foreign aid programs in Afghanistan will be $650 million. By contrast, the total amount of money spent by America last year - including military and foreign agency programs - was $846 million.
"The only sector that seems to be downsizing here is you guys, the media," says Alberto Fernandez, spokesman for the US Embassy in Kabul. "All the news organizations are running after the war in Iraq, but the aid groups, the UN, the US Embassy staff, we're all here to stay."
For their part, Afghan officials say they are grateful for the continued attention of the world donor community. "The war in Iraq will not have any effect on what the US has already pledged to Afghanistan," says Afghan Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani Ahmedzai. "On the contrary, the US will intensify its assistance."
The next few years will be crucial for helping Afghanistan to stand on its own feet. If the country can remain stable and secure enough, aid dollars will flow in, and the lives of Afghans will improve. The central pillar of that security, UN officials, diplomats, and aid workers agree, is the continued presence of US troops to support the current government until elections can be held next year.
"We are still in a situation where the country is not yet truly stable - and not yet at a point where the past achievements are irreversible," says Manoel de Almeida e Silva, Kabul-based spokesman for the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan. "But US authorities at senior levels have reaffirmed their commitment to Afghanistan, no matter what happens."
The key question, some Afghan officials and diplomats say, is how the Afghan government and US supporters respond to apparent resurgent Taliban and Al Qaeda forces. Along the Pakistani border, leaflets have begun to appear, calling for resistance to the government of President Hamid Karzai, in part because it relies on US support, and in part because it has not substantially improved the lives of Afghans.
Most worrisome, Afghan intelligence officials say, are the activities of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a former hero of the war against the Soviets who now openly supports Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Mr. Hekmatyar's party, Hizb-I Islami, still retains strong ties throughout ethnic Pashtun areas across the south, and several top officials and governors who presently vow allegiance to the Karzai government may owe a greater allegiance to Hekmatyar.
This makes the distribution of aid all the more important, Afghan officials say. Indeed, the more crucial step now may be deciding who gets the money - aid groups or the government - rather than how much money to send.
"By giving money to these NGOs [non-governmental organizations], the world has made it so that the money has vaporized without any result," says Masood Khalili, Afghanistan's ambassador to India in New Delhi. "All the money goes to big houses, big cars, big salaries, and where is our money? President Karzai is not able to point and tell the people that I can deliver something on my promises."
It's in this uncertain period, when aid dollars have yet to touch the lives of many Afghans, that enemies can take advantage of public impatience or discontent.
"There are hundreds of Pakistani extremists and Arabs on Afghan soil now, and I don't think they can grow into thousands because of the US presence and international attention," says Mr. Khalilzad, the special envoy. "But if the American forces leave, we will not be able to beat them. And if we lose Afghanistan, we will lose the war against terrorism."
- Monitor interpreter Ali Ahmed Safi contributed to this report from Kabul.