For dozens of years, Afghanistan has been in the news -- from the Soviet invasion followed by the civil war, the Taliban rule and the US-led forces war on terror to the reconstruction of the country. The latest headline grabber was the July 19 abduction of 23 South Koreans.
But "the abductors cannot be true Afghans," says Afghan Foreign Minister Rangin Dadfar Spanta. "They have to be foreigners because in Afghan culture it's a taboo to kidnap women. No true Afghan would do that."
"Unfortunately, the Taliban have killed two of those people. We have reacted to the brutality and are trying to resolve the crisis, but our position is very clear - no change (in our policies) for terrorist groups. If we begin changing (our policies) it would mean the success of terrorists. We are determined not to go in for an exchange (of captives)."
"If you ask me what are Afghanistan's two main challenges, I would say terrorism and drugs," says the 54-year-old minister. Terrorism poses the greatest threat to security, and the Afghan government has been trying to deal with it to provide safety to its people, as well as foreigners.
Since the new government took over in Afghanistan, an increasing number of Chinese engineers and workers have been going to the country, he says. And some of them, such as the group attacked by terrorists in 2004, have come face to face with terror. Eleven workers were killed in that fateful attack. So now the Afghan government provides Chinese workers with extra security.
But contrary to some reports, the Chinese don't have a problem getting along with local people because they accept Afghan culture." In fact, the two peoples "have a long history of cooperation." Exchanges between them started more than 2,000 years ago with the booming of trade along the Silk Road.
Economic exchanges, however, came to a halt from 1978 to 2001 because of the turbulence in Afghanistan. They resumed only after the Ahmed Karzai government took over. "More Chinese goods are being exported to Afghanistan today. I cannot give you an exact figure, but we think it is at least US$130 million (for last year)." One can see lots of textiles, electronic goods, shoes and other "made in China" products in Afghan markets these days.
China has also resumed its traditional assistance to Afghanistan. More than 30 years ago, China helped Afghanistan build an irrigation system, the country's largest textile mill and the largest hospital in Kandahar.
When in January 2002, Hamid Karzai, then chairman of the Afghanistan Provisional Government, visited China, Beijing promised US$150 million in aid, half of which was to be in the form of construction projects, and the rest in low-interest loans.
China has given more than 80 million yuan (US$10.55 million) in aid to Afghanistan since last year and is committed to keeping its promise. At his meeting with his Afghan counterpart on Wednesday, President Hu Jintao said China would continue to work for the success of major schemes such as the Parwan water project and a hospital in Kabul. "China supports the peaceful reconstruction of Afghanistan and respects the political system and development mode chosen by the Afghan people," Hu said.
Drugs are the other big problem that Afghanistan faces. The Golden Crescent replaced the Golden Triangle as the world's largest opium producing area years ago. Last year Afghanistan's opium output reached a record 6,100 tons, an increase of 49 percent over 2005, accounting for 92 percent of the world total, says the World Drug Report, 2007, of the UN Office on Drug and Crime.
Moreover, a new drug trafficking route has emerged since 2005 - from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia to China. Drugs smuggled into China through this route have more than offset the drop from that of the Golden Triangle, the report warned.
"We face many challenges," says Spanta. "But for Afghanistan, for our economy, for the life of the people, for the neighboring countries and for the world, we have to act." The cooperation between the Afghan Ministry of Interior and other ministries has been quite successful. The Chinese and Afghan governments, too, have begun cooperating in the fight against drugs because the problem cannot be solved by Kabul alone.
And despite all our joint efforts, it will take some time before the drug menace is eliminated because "farmers have to be given incentives to stop growing poppies," security in Afghanistan has to be tightened and the "drug trafficking mafia" have to be brought down.
The fight against any evil or condition, whether it be drugs or poverty or security threat, demands the involvement of brilliant minds. But there has been a dearth of intellectuals in post-war Afghanistan, and that has hampered its development, says Spanta.
"Twenty-eight years of war killed a large number of educated people." So a Chinese group had to train some Afghan ministries' personnel. And "my ministry, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, has benefited from that." In fact, "China has helped reconstruct Afghanistan in many ways."
Right from 1949, when the People's Republic of China was established, Afghanistan has seen China as a friend, Spanta says. President Hu expressed the same feeling when he met with President Karzai last week saying he wanted China and Afghanistan to be good neighbors, good friends and good partners forever.
"The relationship between China and Afghanistan is very special -- one of cultural exchanges, cooperation, friendship and non-interference in one another's internal affairs. This is not a relationship only between political (parties) and administrations, but also one between our peoples. We are proud to have China as a good friend, a very important partner and see it as a very powerful success story in development and prosperity. I cannot describe it in words," says Spanta.
But how does he see his country's future? With utmost "optimism," he says. "Now after five and half years after the Taliban regime was overthrown, we have more than 6 million children going to school. You know that during the Taliban's reign girls were not allowed to go to school. We have built more than 3,500 km of roads." What's more, Afghanistan's economic growth has been 12-14 percent a year in the recent times.
"I'm sure we can overcome all our problems, and that's the reason for cooperation with the international community, including China." But "we have to increase exports of Afghan goods to China just as China has to raise the level of its investment in Afghanistan."
"We have to establish cooperation (in all fields), and we will, " he said.
(China Daily August 21, 2007)