U.S. Cedes Duties in Rebuilding Afghanistan

By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, January 3, 2006

KABUL, Afghanistan -- Four years into a mammoth reconstruction effort here that has been largely led, funded and secured by Americans, the United States is showing a growing willingness to cede those jobs to others.

The most dramatic example will come by this summer, when the U.S. military officially hands over control of the volatile southern region -- plagued by persistent attacks from Islamic militias -- to an international force led by the NATO alliance. The United States will cut its troop strength by 2,500, even though it is not clear how aggressively NATO troops will pursue insurgents, who have shown no sign of relenting.

At the same time, the U.S. government is increasingly allowing Western allies, or Afghans themselves, to take on the tasks of rebuilding a country that has suffered more than two decades of fighting and remains beset by poverty, drugs and insurgency.

The United States says that its shifting approach complements Afghanistan's evolution into a self-sustaining democracy and that Washington has no plans to pull out altogether.

"The Afghans have to have enough space to make their own decisions, even to stumble sometimes," said U.S. Ambassador Ronald Neumann. "But we shouldn't leave them without critical support before they're strong enough."

As the U.S. presence becomes less visible, however, Afghans are starting to question whether the U.S. support is sufficient. Some Afghan officials express concern that the Bush administration's priorities are simply shifting elsewhere and that the United States may abandon their country prematurely, much the way it did in the early 1990s following the withdrawal of Soviet troops.

Funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development, which topped $1 billion for 2005 and has helped build highways, schools and clinics across the country during the last four years, will be reduced to just over $600 million in 2006, unless Congress appropriates more money.

On one of the biggest threats facing the country, the illicit drug trade, the United States has largely ceded leadership to the British government and is pinning its hopes on Afghan provincial governors to eradicate poppy fields. Although U.S. officials have warned repeatedly about the need to curb the burgeoning opium business, they have so far spent only modest amounts to help and now say Kabul must take the initiative.

Politically, too, the United States has been less willing to exert its influence. The previous ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, played a strong, high-profile role here, negotiating directly with recalcitrant regional leaders and openly advising President Hamid Karzai. Neumann, who arrived several months ago, is a quieter presence who rarely interferes in Karzai's decisions.

Earlier last month, to the surprise of many Afghans, the U.S. Embassy stood by silently during a struggle for the leadership of the new parliament, in which Karzai's government was believed to have backed a radical Islamic scholar and ex-militia leader accused of past human rights abuses over a more moderate candidate who had run against Karzai for president.

Some foreign allies are encouraged by the signs that the United States is willing to loosen its grip and allow others a greater role in the country's rebirth. Several Afghan officials said they welcomed the increased responsibility.

"We don't want to be a permanent burden on the international community," said Defense Minister Rahim Wardak. "This country has been defended by us for 5,000 years. That is our duty." Still, Wardak noted, the abrupt withdrawal of U.S. support after the decade-long Soviet occupation ended in 1989 precipitated a civil war that culminated with the Taliban movement taking power.

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