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Afghan leader to U.S.: 'Stay with us'

Senators say Iraq can't distract from rebuilding Afghanistan

By Sean Loughlin
CNN Washington Bureau

Sen. Joe Biden, D-Delaware, with Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai before Karzai testified on Capitol Hill.
Sen. Joe Biden, D-Delaware, with Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai before Karzai testified on Capitol Hill.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Despite the fall of the Taliban, Afghanistan is "not yet out of the woods" and needs the continued assistance of the United States in order to build a stable democracy, its president, Hamid Karzai, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Wednesday.

Karzai stressed that commitment cannot waver, even if the United States goes to war against Iraq. To ignore Afghanistan's needs, Karzai said, would be "repeating the mistakes" of the past.

Speaking to sympathetic senators, Karzai said his country had made progress in rebuilding its infrastructure, sending millions of children to school, dismantling the drug trade and returning to the countryside about two million refugees.

"Afghanistan will, by the grace of God, stand on its own feet in three to four years time," Karzai said. "Till then, of course, we need strong support from the international community, including the United States, to stay with us and support us fully."

That support, he said, should include training for the Afghan army and aid to rural areas.

The panel's chairman, Republican Richard Lugar of Indiana, and top Democrat, Joseph Biden of Delaware, said the United States could not afford to divert its attention away from Afghanistan, despite the prospect of war with Iraq.

"Our central question today is what more can be done," Lugar said.

Seeming to address his remarks to the Bush administration, Biden said Afghanistan's recent past as a haven for terrorists, notably al Qaeda, would be repeated if the United States and it allies did not see the rebuilding of Afghanistan to the end.

Karzai suggested he believed the United States would continue to stand with Afghanistan.

"I had a call from President Bush about a month ago and he reassured me that even if the United States and the rest of the world get engaged in other regions of the world, Afghanistan would not be forgotten," he told the senators.

The United States led a military operation in Afghanistan after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 to oust the Taliban, which had allowed al Qaeda to operate in the country. The Bush administration and its allies have fingered al Qaeda, led by Osama bin Laden, as being behind the attacks against the United States.

Problems remain

"We have a great deal of work left to do in Afghanistan," Biden said, adding that security outside of Kabul, the capital, was a problem. He said warlords were again in control of certain regions and that "murder, rape and torture" were "instruments of policy" in some places.

Karzai acknowledged that problems remain in Afghanistan, but he gave a generally positive assessment of progress in the country.

"It's a much brighter picture than what you read in the newspapers," he said.

But several senators cautioned Karzai to give a blunt and realistic assessment in his private discussions with President Bush and administration figures, saying it would be a mistake not to fully acknowledge all of the problems and challenges the country faces.

"If you leave an impression that everything is going well...the next time you come back, your credibility will be in question," said Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Nebraska.

Karzai is to meet with Secretary of State Colin Powell Wednesday afternoon and with Bush on Thursday. Late last year, Bush signed a bill authorizing $3.3 billion to help with the reconstruction of Afghanistan.

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