Thursday, March 25, 2010
0 BEIJING – A top Chinese official reassured visiting Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Thursday that Beijing won't take a position when it comes to Afghan politics.
The remarks by top lawmaker Wu Bangguo reflect China's policy of ignoring the politics of neighboring states as long as they don't infringe on Chinese interests.
"I don't see any differences between us on political issues," Wu, the Communist Party's second-highest ranking official, told Karzai at the start of a meeting at the Great Hall of the People."We have made good progress in our practical cooperation. I'm sure your visit will give a great boost to the bilateral relationship," Wu said.Karzai faces criticism at home and among some in the West over corruption, cronyism, and electoral fraud that are blamed for stymieing development, fueling crime and driving some Afghans into the arms of the Taliban insurgency.Wu's comments seemed to ensure that such issues won't be raised in his talks with Chinese leaders, who oversee a one-party communist state that brooks no internal dissent or outside criticism.While China has no troops in Afghanistan — where Karzai relies on U.S. and NATO forces to prop up his weak government against the Taliban — its proximity and booming economy make it a valuable partner for the war-battered country.China is already a major source of consumer goods for the country and while two-way trade totaled just $155 million in 2008, according to Chinese figures, it appears to be growing quickly.A Chinese company has also pledged $3 billion to tap one of the world's largest unexploited copper reserves at Aynak in Afghanistan, and is favored to win the rights to iron deposits at Hajigak when bids are considered this year.
Karzai, traveling with a delegation of Cabinet officials and business figures, on Wednesday oversaw the signing of three agreements boosting economic ties.
The trip to Beijing also allows Karzai to further establish himself as a regional political figure with stature and independence.Karzai has participated as an observer in summits of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a grouping of Central Asian nations dominated by China and Russia that aims to challenge U.S. dominance. He has also cemented ties with India to balance the influence of neighboring Pakistan, with which Afghanistan has an acrimonious relationship.
And earlier this month, Karzai hosted Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who used his brief visit to lob insults at the United States and argue that international forces in Afghanistan would only lead to more civilian deaths.
Karzai called Iran — with which Afghanistan shares a long land border — "our brother nation" with whom it had excellent relations.
Nearly a year after a Pakistani army offensive cleared the Taliban from Swat, government efforts to stabilize the region through economic rehabilitation have yielded limited results.
While small businesses are recovering from two years of fighting, massive state funding is needed to create jobs and industries in the former tourist hub where militants blew up hotels, houses and girls' schools and beheaded tribal elders.
Only that, officials say, will prevent the Taliban from returning to recruit residents disillusioned with a government widely perceived as corrupt and inefficient.
"This is by far the most important drive to keep the Taliban away," chief regional minister Amir Haider Khan Hoti told Reuters recently.
The first phase will require $1 billion, he said. It's a daunting task for the government, which will be hard-pressed to extract money from a sluggish economy battered by the steep cost of fighting Taliban insurgents.
The drive to win over the population by providing better economic opportunities and basic services is moving at a slow pace, as evidenced by grim living conditions, joblessness and lack of industries.
Unemployment has eased a little after thousands joined a newly created community police force, which pays $112 a month.
Swat's most advanced medical facility, Saidu Sharif Teaching Hospital, lacks basic equipment. Cardiac arrest victims rushed to the emergency room have no access to defibrillators.
A young boy with a fractured skull lay disoriented in a bed waiting for results from a battered X-ray machine. A bloody bandage lay on the floor. Flies hovered nearby.
A poster of wanted would-be suicide bombers with code names remind patients of lingering security threats in Swat, 130 km (80 miles) northwest of the capital, Islamabad.
A suicide bomber recently killed 14 people and wounded 50 at a police checkpoint in Swat's main town, Mingora.
MUSIC HEARD AGAIN
Progress has been made, aid groups say. Reconstruction has partially started. More than 200 school demolished by the Taliban were repaired. Tent schools have gone up and issues like supplies of electricity, furniture and latrines are being tackled.
Some small shops are back in business. During the Taliban's reign of terror, which began with rebel incursions in 2007, militants destroyed pop music cassettes sold in Akthar Muneer's store and forced him to sell music calling for holy war.
Despite thousands of dollars in losses, he now draws enough customers to make a decent living because there is less fear on the streets of Matta, once a major Taliban bastion in Swat.
"People are comfortable listening to music again," he said.
But major economic development is needed to ensure the region doesn't return to the bloodshed that kept tourists away from the stunning valley, officials and residents say.
Two men who said they were beaten and forced to join the Taliban sat near a house that was flattened by the group, comparing those chaotic days to a more stable life now. They are happier but the future is uncertain.
"We expect a lot from the government," said one of the men, who looked far older than his 47 years, perhaps from the stress of fighting and the ruins it left behind. "We have no jobs now."