Karzai says Afghanistan will rebuild nation's economy if the world pulls through quickly

Wednesday, January 30th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Recalling the lush vineyards, wheat fields and fruit orchards that once thrived in Afghanistan, the interim leader of the war-savaged nation pledged to transform it into the prominent agricultural center it once was.

``The country was so sufficient,'' Hamid Karzai recounted Tuesday, but decades of warfare and drought have ruined its once-vibrant industry.

``Rather than being known for good pomegranates or raisins, now people know us for narcotics. We will change that,'' he promised. ``We will go back to an Afghanistan that produces wheat, and lots of it. We will go back to an Afghanistan that produces the best grapes _ beat the Italians.''

Continuing a U.S. tour aimed at drawing immediate cash help from world leaders and private investors, Karzai was finishing his meetings in the nation's capital before heading to New York for an address Wednesday before the United Nations.

In Washington, he told congressional leaders Tuesday that Afghanistan has the most to gain by stopping opium shipments. Only drug dealers make profits when Afghan farmers grow poppies, rather than fruit and wheat, he said.

``We get the bad name; they get the money,'' Karzai said. ``That's horrible, and we'll stop it.''

House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., greeted Karzai warmly and said congressional leaders were excited to meet him. Then Hastert immediately addressed problems including Afghanistan's urgent need to feed itself again and its history of opium production.

``We want to make sure your farmers can grow good crops,'' Hastert said. ``We hope those crops aren't heroin.''

While the Afghan people want him to make improvements quickly, that would not be realistic, Karzai said in a speech at the National Press Club. In the five months until a grand council picks a new government, he can only lay the foundation, he said.

In a sign of progress, some government employees were paid last week. Soon the government will try to begin sending out tax and customs collectors to bring in basic revenues.

Karzai concluded his day by attending Tuesday night's State of the Union speech as President Bush's guest, sitting next to first lady Laura Bush a day after a historic visit to the White House.

Hours before the speech, Karzai accepted a children's dictionary from the first lady at a ceremony to announce release of $15.1 million in federal money for programs to be implemented immediately in Afghanistan.

The money will be split, with part going to buy school textbooks and teaching supplies for the new school term that begins in March. Another part will go to rebuild agriculture in Afghanistan. Money also will go to vaccinating Afghan children against measles and polio.

The funds are part of the $296 million the Bush administration pledged earlier this month at an international conference to raise money for Afghan reconstruction.

Education, health and agriculture are crucial to the nation's recovery, Karzai said.

``It's all the three combined that will make Afghanistan, once again, a fully living nation, a thriving nation. It's in these three areas that we really need tremendous help,'' he said.

Addressing Mrs. Bush as well as several Cabinet members attending the ceremony sponsored by the U.S. Agency for International Development, Karzai said the Afghan people will not forget America's help.

``You will have an Afghanistan that will be a partner, that will be a friend, but it will not be a burden like it is now,'' he said. ``It will stand on its own feet, and it will extend a good, firm helping hand.''