S ince last June, Zalmai Rassoul has been the counterpart, if not the exact equivalent, of Condoleezza Rice in the transitional government of Afghanistan. The soft-spoken national security adviser in Kabul came to seek American assurances that Washington will stay the course in helping deliver long-lasting stability to Afghanistan as the Bush administration's gears shift toward possible action against Iraq.
One of his government's "worries," he said, was that U.S. preoccupation with Iraq would leave Afghanistan behind, "though we are part of the same story." Rassoul, wearing a pinstriped wool suit and gold-rimmed glasses, said in an interview Wednesday that he welcomed "the very positive shift" in U.S. policy to expand its military commitment from the capital to the countryside to help in security and reconstruction efforts.
"Americans now are not only focusing on the war against terrorism but paying attention to building infrastructure and nation-building. Fanning out to the provinces will build confidence among the local population and discourage warlords from misbehaving," he noted, warning that if Afghanistan is not totally pacified, the country will become fertile ground again for fundamentalist influences. Rassoul said things were quiet in the major cities, but in the rest of the country there were pockets of resistance. "The Taliban have been defeated, but the war continues," he said.
The Afghan official said his country was weary of unwanted meddling by its neighbors, including Pakistan, Iran and Russia. "We have enough problems inside Afghanistan. We are working on a declaration of non-interference with our neighbors and we wanted our friends to also make that clear," he said in a reference to U.S. support in keeping Afghanistan free of foreign intervention.
He noted it was no secret that in the recent elections in Pakistan, politicians who had cooperated closely with the Taliban and al Qaeda had gained power in the North-West Frontier area. Rassoul said that his government had expressed its apprehension to Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and that he had promised to cooperate. "This is a problem for Musharraf, too," Rassoul noted. "It all depends on how much the Pakistani army and the Inter-Services Intelligence [agency] is committed to the fight against terrorism, but the overall picture is very difficult," he observed.
Asked if he thought Osama bin Laden was hiding in Yemen or Pakistan, Rassoul said: "My bet is that he is in Pakistan. My feeling is he is around the border area, which is very mountainous and difficult to control." He said he thinks fugitive Taliban chief Mohammad Omar is within Afghanistan. He said that Pakistani and U.S. forces are tracking his movements and Afghans are cooperating with them.
Rassoul said his office has a large brief: external security, relationships with key nations in the region, drug control, human rights and the creation of a national army, as well as demobilization and disarmament in postwar Afghanistan. It follows the U.S. model, he said, with adaptations for his country's challenges.
Rassoul was in Washington to meet with Rice; Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage; Paula Dobriansky, undersecretary of state for global affairs; Zalmay Khalilzad, NSC senior director for Southwest Asia, Near East and North African affairs; Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul D. Wolfowitz; officials handling terrorism and drug control; CIA officials; and a host of senators.
High Praise From Norway
Actress and film director Liv Ullman said she gives Norwegian Ambassador Knut Vollebaek good marks for his ambassadorship, his sparkling conversation in matters political and artsy, and his fine entertaining skills. Now that she is married to an American, the film star visits here often and has seen envoys come and go. Vollebaek, in toasting his guests at a dinner Wednesday night, fretted that "the problem with Liv Ullman is everyone thinks she is Swedish, but she is really Norwegian and one of the country's symbols. I have nothing against the Swedes, of course."
Ullman was here to narrate "a literary journey" through the life of Ole Bull, the legendary Norwegian violin composer and patron of dramatic arts, last night at the National Museum of American History. Bull (1810-1880) even came to settle in Pennsylvania at one point in his life, bringing with him other Norwegians, who eventually went west. "At this time of terror and fear, there is nothing as soothing as music and storytelling," Ullman said.