Remember Afghanistan and keep Iraqi promises

Friday, April 4, 2003 at 1:00am

Remember Afghanistan? It's a country where the United States waged war to rid the people of an oppressive regime with promises of a massive rebuilding program. American children raised and contributed money to the children of Afghanistan. Remember? What happened next might serve as an object lesson for post-war Iraq.

"There have been some improvements in the last year-and-a-half," said Bruce Rasmussen of the organization Save the Children, which has long been active in Afghanistan. "Girls are in schools, and women teachers are excited to be back at work." But, he continued, "Not enough is being done. It's not good for us politically, and it's not good for children and families."

Afghanistan stayed on the radar screen of the American public and policymakers for about six to eight months after the bombing stopped. The U.S. government followed through on its initial commitments to the ravaged country. But as the war grew more distant and Iraq became the first priority, Afghanistan faded into the background.

The Afghan Freedom Support Act called for more than $3 billion over four years to provide for humanitarian aid as well as security assistance. The law provided for $425 million annually for disaster assistance and child survival. But when it came time for Congress to put up the money, the actual spending for this year fell to $112 million.

Now, with the federal deficit growing and the situation in Iraq demanding resources, it's unlikely that the $400 million the Bush administration has requested for Afghan relief next year will be fully funded.

The security situation is falling apart as well. Last week an International Red Cross worker and two American servicemen were killed, even as reports surfaced that feuding warlords are regaining strength at the expense of the U.S.-backed government. "If you don't have security, you can't rebuild the country," argues Rasmussen of Save the Children, an organization Cokie works with and supports.

Obviously, Afghanistan's not the only place in the world where suffering people need assistance. But Afghanistan holds a special stature among the world's needy. It's downright shameful that the United States made a much-publicized commitment there that's not being met. That abandonment comes as no surprise to the forlorn country, which suffers a history of abandonment by major foreign powers. The people remember the broken promises of the past, warns Bruce Rasmussen, "If we don't follow through this time, the impact on the people of Afghanistan will be devastating."

Sound familiar? That's what reporters in the south of Iraq are telling us now. The Shiite Muslims there remember U.S. pledges 12 years ago to support them if they rebelled against Saddam Hussein. They rose up and were brutally quashed. So now they are understandably skeptical of claims that the coalition forces are there to help them.

U.S. and British troops, along with aid organizations, are trying valiantly to deliver humanitarian assistance while fighting a war. Though a majority of families are dependent on the oil-for-food program for their nutrition, the program actually works, and the distribution system is good. Children still have access to health care and education, even though 12 years of sanctions have taken their toll on both. The basic infrastructure of a functioning society is in place in Iraq. Assisting Afghanistan meant starting from scratch.

But the commitment to humanitarian assistance must be real and ongoing. It can't just be a public relations ploy. The people of Iraq have to believe that America won't abandon them this time. Iraqis looking at the last conflict have reason to doubt whether that's true. It would be wise to remember Afghanistan.

Cokie Roberts and Steven V. Roberts are syndicated columnists.

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