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RESPONSE TO TERROR

Bush Assembles Diplomatic Team to Aid Transition

Envoys: Zalmay Khalilzad, the highest-ranking Afghan and Muslim in the U.S. government, is named to lead the effort.

January 01, 2002|ROBIN WRIGHT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — With the Afghan government now in place, the United States has lined up its new diplomatic team for Kabul to help oversee the critical two-year transition period.

It will be headed by Zalmay Khalilzad, the highest-ranking Muslim and Afghan in the U.S. government, the White House announced Monday. Khalilzad, who is special assistant to the president and senior director for Near East affairs on the National Security Council, will be the new special presidential envoy to Afghanistan.

The position was created to underscore President Bush's support as Afghans "seek to consolidate a new order, reconstruct their country and free it from Al Qaeda and Taliban control," according to a White House statement.

Khalilzad heads a team that will play an increasingly important role as the focus of U.S. intervention shifts from the war front to stabilizing the fragile post-Taliban government and preventing long-standing political rivalries from disintegrating into civil war. The posts will be among the most sensitive--and dangerous--in the U.S. foreign service.

Khalilzad, who was also considered for the job of ambassador to Afghanistan, played a crucial behind-the-scenes role during talks in Bonn among disparate Afghan warlords, tribal leaders and ethnic groups as the United Nations brokered a deal to set up the first post-Taliban government. He was pivotal in convincing holdouts to sign on to the U.N. proposals for a staged transition that embraced all aspects of Afghan society, according to U.S. and U.N. officials.

Khalilzad is expected to play a similar role in the political transition. He will travel to the region and consult with U.N. officials as needed. But he will be based in Washington, and the new assignment will be in addition to his National Security Council duties at the White House, according to U.S. officials.

Robert Finn, the former U.S. ambassador to Tajikistan, is a leading candidate to be the new ambassador to Afghanistan, according to U.S. officials. Tajikistan shares a strategic border with Afghanistan, and the second-largest ethnic group in Afghanistan is Tajik. The leadership of the Northern Alliance, the opposition force that helped oust the Taliban and is strongly represented in the new government, is also heavily Tajik. Finn, a career diplomat, also served in Turkey.

Whoever is nominated must be confirmed by the Senate, and that could take several weeks.

In the meantime, Ryan Crocker, former U.S. ambassador to Syria, Kuwait and Lebanon, will be assigned to Kabul as charge d'affaires. He may leave for the Afghan capital as early as this week, according to State Department sources. Crocker is expected to be in Kabul for two to three months until the ambassadorial appointment is finalized.

Crocker has long experience in war zones and crises from decades in the Middle East. He and his wife were in the U.S. Embassy in Beirut in 1983 when it was bombed by Muslim militants. He also served in Baghdad and is deputy assistant secretary of State for Near East affairs, with particular focus on Iraq.

Officials say the appointments signal a strong ongoing commitment to war-ravaged Afghanistan.

"We intend to remain engaged in Afghanistan. We intend to work with the interim authority throughout the transition to a broad-based government," a State Department official said.

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