The first thing that attracts attention upon entering the temporary premises of the US Embassy in the heart of the district of Wazir Akbar Khan in Kabul is the glaring contradiction between the misery and poverty engulfing the Afghan capital around the embassy, and the luxurious and easy life the Americans live inside the temporary embassy offices pending the completion of the new embassy building on the other side of the road within a few months. This is the district in which top Al-Qa”ida leaders like Bin Ladin”s top aide Ayman al-Zawahiri lived in plush villas before the fall of the Taliban Movement at the end of September 2001.
The US Embassy consists of a number of white mobile homes that are air conditioned and supplied with cold and hot water. They include meeting and conference rooms and are provided with large dishes to pick up satellite television and intelligence service signals.
The temporary US Embassy compound is like a beehive working around the clock. It is packed with hundreds of civil and military servants from both sexes. Among the workers there is a team of local Afghans who fluently speak Pashto, Dari, English, and Arabic. They accompany foreign delegations and are happier than other Afghans because they ride in bullet-proof vehicles and receive their salaries at the end of the month in dollars.
We met with US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad at the US Embassy auditorium in Kabul. That was his first meeting of its kind with a number of Arab press representatives in the presence of some advisers, who took notes of the dialogue.
The US ambassador began the meeting by welcoming the
Arab press representatives, indicating that he graduated from the American University of Beirut and that he still maintains friendships with many of his former Arab colleagues.
Responding to a question posed by Asharq Al-Awsat, he said he does not run Afghanistan in spite of his strong friendship with Afghan President Hamid Karzai for over 20 years. He indicated that the US Administration”s commitments in Afghanistan have increased rather than decreased after the US forces” entry into Iraq. He said Usama Bin Ladin
is most likely on the Pakistani side of the border, adding that it is difficult for an army or large forces to hunt for a person in the mountains.
He stressed that the mistake made by the Americans in Afghanistan will not be repeated. He was referring to US negligence of the Afghan file after expelling the Russians from Afghanistan. He said, "We made a mistake in the early 1980s when we left Afghanistan after the departure of the
Russians. The Americans were supposed to support the Afghans so that they could stand on their own legs." He described that as a grave mistake that will not be repeated.
Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad is a US State Department man although he is Pashtun in origin, born in Mazar-e Sharif, 70 miles from the Russian border, in 1951. He is a former prominent adviser on foreign policy affairs and worked at the White House close to the decision makers. This means he is an American of Afghan origin. Before the 11 September terrorist attacks, he expressed concern and spoke of the need to confront the Taliban. He knows Afghanistan better than any other US official.
US Ambassador Khalilzad is a tactful and smart diplomat. He quickly answers questions and is responsive. He is also elegant in his dress the Parisian way. He also spoke about his close relationship with many Arab intellectuals.
When Asharq Al-Awsat asked him at the start of the meeting if his command of Pashto and knowledge of the Afghan heritage and culture have benefited the US policy in Afghanistan, the ambassador smiled and said:
"I leave it to you to judge the extent of our success in serving the Afghan people." He stressed that in spite of his strong relations with President Hamid Karzai over the past 20 years and although he sees the president almost everyday, he does not interfere in the Afghan government”s affairs.
Asharq Al-Awsat: Where is the Al-Qa”ida leader Bin Ladin? I know that this question is so common, but why have the US forces failed to find him?
Khalilzad: I wish I knew his location. He is most likely on the border and perhaps on the Pakistani side of the border.
Asharq Al-Awsat: How do the Afghans view you as a US envoy?
Khalilzad: The people are fed up with war. They knew nothing in 23 years except hunger, pain, poverty, and disease. We seek to make the mujahidin and militia leaders surrender their weapons in return for financial compensation. This is not an easy thing to do, but it is essential in order to further boost the security situation. About 93 percent of the heavy weapons in the possession of the mujahidin leaders have been collected thus far. I can say that the end of June will mark the end of the age of mujahidin militias. Some 50,000 to 60,000 militiamen will be disbanded and merged with the society. This is
another problem, but we are determined to continue until the end of the road. I am the son of this country and know its leaders very well. I have friendships with many of them. I also know the ethnic map of the country very well.
We made a mistake in the early 1980s. At first, we worked side by side with the Afghans to expel the Russians. When the latter withdrew, we left Afghanistan, too. This mistake will not be repeated and we will not give Taliban a chance to threaten the security of the country.
More than 3 million Afghan refugees have returned home from neighbouring countries during the past three years. There are today 5 million children, including 2 million girls, who have returned to school. Some schools do three shifts daily. Another important event that this country has
witnessed for the first time in decades was the holding of presidential elections, in which 10 million voters registered their names. More than 40 percent of them were women.
Asharq Al-Awsat: What were the most prominent challenges you faced after your assumption of the post of special US envoy?
Khalilzad: I have been in Kabul for about one and a half years, during which much has been accomplished. The road is still long toward more accomplishments. The adoption of the new constitution was an important event in the history of this country. It is a constitution which separates between the branches of power and concentrates on the rights of Afghan women, including their legal right to education.
The process of rebuilding Afghanistan is a difficult one, especially in a country which begins from point zero after 23 years of war. Wars destroyed most of the infrastructure, roads, buildings, and institutions. Afghanistan is a poor country which fought to expel the Soviets. The mujahidin and militias then fought each other. These wars led to the death of more than one million Afghans and the exodus of about 3 million people to Iran, Pakistan, and other countries in search of security and stability.
The important step taken by the Afghans was training regular forces to protect the borders and impose security and stability in the country. They all graduated from the Kabul Military Training Center in Pul-e-Charkhi. Thus far, 18,000 soldiers and officers have been trained. We hope to establish a 70,000-strong army. As for the police, the target is to establish a 60,000-strong police force.
Many challenges are facing the Afghans. These begin by restoring security and stability to the country, building roads and bridges, and reconciling the various communities in the country. These are the Pashtuns, who constitute about 60 percent of the population and who are present in the south, east, and north, in addition to the Tajiks, the Shiite Hazaras, the Uzbeks, the Turkomen, and the Baluches. Each minority has its own language, culture, habits, and traditions. Today,
only 6 percent of the population has electricity. There is still a great need to provide people with water.
Asharq Al-Awsat: What are the priorities of the next stage in Afghanistan?
Khalilzad: Establishing security and eliminating the armed militias. Therefore, we seek to train Afghan forces that can undertake this task.
We hope to finish training the army next year. We are not occupation forces. After the elections, we told the Afghans they should learn fishing by themselves instead of getting the fish ready for them.