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Karzai Applauds Washington, Where the Feeling Is Mutual

The Afghan leader says his country will be 'an enduring example' of a democracy. Bush cites it as the 'first victory in the war on terrorism.'

June 16, 2004|Maura Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The White House and Congress rolled out the red carpet for Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Tuesday, praising his leadership and hailing the progress of nation building in Afghanistan as a model for Iraq and the rest of the region.

"Together we will make Afghanistan a great success and an enduring example of a prosperous, democratic society," Karzai said in an address to a joint session of Congress, a special privilege for a visiting head of state. "Our shared success in Afghanistan is vital to achieving victory over the greatest menace the world faces today: terrorism and extremism."

The attention to Afghanistan served a mutual interest of Karzai and the Bush administration. Karzai sought to make sure his country would not be forgotten amid the clamor surrounding the U.S. return of sovereignty to Iraq at the end of the month. And President Bush sought to showcase U.S. efforts in a country representing what he called "the first victory in the war on terrorism."

"The United States and I will continue to make it clear that we will not abandon those who are building free societies, whether it be in Afghanistan or whether it be in Iraq," Bush told reporters at a news conference with Karzai in the White House Rose Garden.

At times, Karzai's language on Afghanistan echoed White House assertions on Iraq, such as his statements that the United States had "liberated" his country and that the enemy was not Al Qaeda or the Taliban but terrorism.

"You came to Afghanistan to defeat terrorism, and we Afghans welcomed and embraced you for the liberation of our country," Karzai told members of both houses of Congress who had gathered in the chamber of the House of Representatives. "Together we ended the rule of terrorism."

Rick Barton, director of a post-conflict reconstruction project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said Karzai was afraid Afghanistan would be forgotten amid U.S. preoccupation with Iraq. He described Karzai as a "steady, likable communicator" who for his own reasons is more than happy to help the White House try to focus public attention more on its successes in Afghanistan than its troubles in Iraq.

"He's one of the most attractive faces that can be put on American nation building right now," Barton said. "If he can become the face of 'Iraqistan,' that will help us."

Karzai acknowledged the problems still facing his country, including the growth of the opium trade and preparations for national elections scheduled for September. But he also cited significant progress, including the registration of 3.8 million Afghan voters, more than 35% of them women. And he pledged strong efforts to eradicate the export of drug crops, especially opium.

"The Afghan government is adamant, the Afghan people are adamant to ... end it in Afghanistan. And we seek your help in that," Karzai told the news conference.

Mark Schneider, senior vice president at the International Crisis Group in Washington, a nonprofit organization that studies wars and works to resolve conflicts, said Karzai had painted a somewhat rosy picture of gains in his country. It's not clear that elections will take place as scheduled, Schneider said, and this year's opium harvest is expected to be the country's largest.

"If you assume that the White House's purpose was to demonstrate that the administration's policies were successful, I don't think he did that, because the reality is that there are many serious problems with the policy, starting with security," Schneider said.

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