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U.S. Envoy Faces Tough Test In Afghanistan

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U.S. Envoy Faces Tough Test In Afghanistan

Politics

U.S. Envoy Faces Tough Test In Afghanistan

U.S. Envoy Faces Tough Test In Afghanistan

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The new American special envoy to Afghanistan is visiting the region this week. But the honeymoon could be a short one if Richard Holbrooke is unable to deliver on the long list of things that Afghans want done to change their country. They're especially interested in the areas of security, development and government corruption.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

As we mentioned, Richard Holbrooke arrives in Kabul tomorrow. Holbrooke is a veteran diplomat, but he has had little experience with Afghanistan, and this will be his first trip. Even so many Afghans say they expect a lot from him. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson has the story from Kabul.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: There's a lot of optimism here at the Bush bazaar, which has unofficially been renamed the Obama bazaar. Many here in this hodgepodge of stalls selling American sundries have not heard of Richard Holbrooke, but they approve of Mr. Obama appointing a special envoy to their country. It's a diplomatic post they hope carries enough clout to turn Afghanistan around.

Mr. SHUWIE OMADI(ph): (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: Take Shuwei Omadi. The 18-year-old vendor has a tall order for the new envoy, bring peace and stability to Afghanistan and help it and neighboring Pakistan become friends. He acknowledges that no other diplomat, let alone an American one, has ever done either. But Omadi and many other Afghans believe Holbrooke, as a sort of king among Western ambassadors in Afghanistan and Pakistan, just might pull it off.

Afghan politicians familiar with Holbrooke's reputation share their constituents' optimism. They see him as a no nonsense guy with experience at calming ethnic tensions, like his brokering a deal that ended the Bosnian conflict 14 years ago.

Ms. SHUKRIA BARAKSAI(ph) (Afghan National Assembly): I think this is the great appointment that we had since seven years.

NELSON: Shukria Baraksai is a lawmaker representing Kabul in Afghanistan's Lower House.

Ms. BARAKSAI: I'm sure he can solve part of problems. It's very optimistic to say all, but we will be happy if 20 percent problem will be getting solved. I think that will be a great achievement for United States and for Afghans, too.

NELSON: But no one here thinks it will be easy. Interviews with Afghan politicians reveal a list of competing priorities. Each says Holbrooke must tackle first to put Afghanistan back on track, like reducing civilian casualties in U.S. and NATO-led military operations here, or making sure the United States doesn't favor one ethnic or political group over another, or giving the Afghan government more control of foreign aid, or bringing stability to the entire region.

They say Holbrooke will also need to ride herd over the large international coalition in Afghanistan, a group in which members tend to act without coordinating with each other or the Afghan government. It's something the United Nations, which also has a special envoy here, has struggled with. For example, the U.N. has tried to refocus foreign aid on Afghan provinces that are secure enough for development.

In order to speed up progress here, the strategy has garnered support but little action. Paula Cantor heads the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, a think tank in Kabul.

Ms. PAULA CANTOR (Director, Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit): That straight-talking approach that Holbrooke is known for could be useful here in shaking up actors from the international community to the government, which, while not necessarily complacent at the moment, I think might be somewhat spinning wheels trying to find a new course.

NELSON: Holbrooke will also have to sell Afghans on the emerging U.S. strategy for the country. Hints at the Obama administration making the war effort its priority and leaving development to others have not gone over well here, nor has the placement of additional American troops in areas other than Afghanistan's eastern southern border regions where insurgents cross into and out of Pakistan.

Mohammad Ichbul-Safi(ph) is a lawmaker from Kapisa Province.

Mr. MOHAMMAD ICHBUL-SAFI (Lawmaker, Kapisa Province, Afghanistan): (Through Translator) In the past, when the Americans didn't listen, they failed here, like when we told them that they needed to fight the terrorists in Pakistan. If the new administration doesn't listen, it will fail like the previous one.

NELSON: Safi adds the warm reception Holbrooke is getting now could quickly turn cold. Afghan patience has worn thin, he says, especially in this time of insecurity and economic hardship. He and others here estimate the new envoy will have less than a year to prove to Afghans that the new U.S. administration can deliver. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Kabul.

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