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Powell Reassures Worried Afghans

Diplomacy: The secretary of State visits Kabul to tell leaders, 'We will be with you.' His trip is to include a donors conference in Tokyo.

January 18, 2002|ERIC SLATER and PAUL WATSON | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

KABUL, Afghanistan — Secretary of State Colin L. Powell promised worried Afghans on Thursday that the United States won't leave them in the lurch, vowing to play a key role in the reconstruction of their country long after the war against the Taliban and the Al Qaeda terror network ends.

The highest-ranking U.S. official to visit Kabul, the Afghan capital, since then-Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger in 1976, Powell met with interim Prime Minister Hamid Karzai and several members of his Cabinet to discuss the ongoing war effort and the arduous rebuilding of the shattered country.

"In all our meetings with the Afghan people, they ask us: 'Is the United States committed? Will they stay with us?' " Karzai said at a news conference here. "Now I can tell them, 'Yes. The U.S. will stay with us.' "

Powell quickly concurred. "We will be with you in this current crisis," he said, "and for the future."

Powell flew from Islamabad, the Pakistani capital, to Bagram air base north of Kabul early Thursday, then took an Army Chinook helicopter into the Afghan capital. He arrived at the presidential palace under extremely tight security, with a helicopter gunship covering his route through the city and warplanes patrolling overhead.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair flew into Bagram earlier this month for a meeting with Karzai. But on the advice of his security team, he didn't go on to Kabul.

Karzai, dressed in a bright-green robe and his traditional Afghan hat, went out of his way Thursday to thank Powell for taking the "risk to come here."

Powell's whirlwind visit to Afghanistan was sandwiched between trips to Pakistan and India.

On Wednesday, he met in Islamabad with President Pervez Musharraf. After meeting with Afghan officials in Kabul on Thursday, he flew on to New Delhi in an effort to moderate tensions between India and Pakistan over the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir.

India insists that it will not withdraw several hundred thousand troops from its border with Pakistan, and along the cease-fire line dividing Kashmir, until it is convinced that Pakistan is acting on a promise to stop terrorism.

One of India's key demands is for Pakistan to hand over 20 men wanted on terrorism and other criminal charges.

Encouraging Signs

Although he didn't report any breakthroughs after a working dinner with Indian Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh on Thursday night, Powell sounded encouraged by recent developments. The secretary of State said he had been told that India is sending Pakistan more details about the 20 suspects, as authorities in Islamabad requested.

When Musharraf, a general who took power in a bloodless 1999 coup, announced tough new measures against Islamic extremists Saturday, he left open the possibility that he would deliver those on the wanted list who are Indian citizens.

"In my conversations with him, [Musharraf] did not rule this out," Powell said. "He considered that appropriate action might involve returning them from whence they came."

Indian authorities have said about 14 of the suspects are Indian nationals, but some of those are believed to have become Pakistani citizens or fled the country. Among the least politically risky for Musharraf to extradite are several Sikh separatists accused of terrorist attacks during a failed campaign to carve out an independent state called Khalistan.

But India won't easily settle for anyone less than Maulana Masood Azhar, head of Jaish-e-Mohammed, one of the Pakistani-based groups fighting Indian forces in Kashmir. India says the group is one of two behind the Dec. 13 attack on its Parliament that killed 14 people, including the five gunmen.

Terrorists may have struck again Thursday night with a bomb blast in a crowded market in Jammu, the winter capital of India's Jammu and Kashmir state. The explosion killed one person and injured 10, but police did not immediately lay blame.

After the assault on Parliament, India responded by massing troops on its border with Pakistan, leading to a dangerous face-off between the two nuclear powers that Powell is trying to talk back from the brink.

In Washington, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld urged the two countries Thursday to back away from their standoff. Speaking to reporters after talks with his Indian counterpart, George Fernandes, Rumsfeld said the tension between the two nations is "unhelpful to them, unhelpful to the world."

A series of meetings between Rumsfeld and Fernandes and their top aides in recent months is designed to reassure India that the new U.S. partnership with Pakistan, India's archrival, will not come at India's expense, and to remind New Delhi that it has a long-term interest in staying on America's good side, a senior U.S. military official said.

In New Delhi, Powell said he had "shared some ideas" with the Indian foreign minister on possible ways to resolve the crisis with Pakistan and will bring them up again in a scheduled meeting today with Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee.

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