'Extremism is a Challenge'

When Laura Bush addressed Middle Eastern leaders in Jordan on Saturday, she praised Afghanistan's new government for its progress in extending rights to women after the toppling of the Taliban. But the government faces increased internal and external pressures from Taliban remnants and radical fundamentalism. Afghanistan Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah talked to Newsweek's Arlene Getz at the World Economic Forum meeting in Jordan.

What are Afghanistan's greatest priorities right now?

That is difficult to say. We have security challenges to deal with, we have the issues of human rights and women's rights as a top priority, we have the issue of narcotics as one of the big challenges, we have institution building, capacity building, so it's not just one aspect. In a country which was ruined for years and years in all these fields, every area becomes a priority.

Are Taliban supporters gaining ground in Afghanistan?

The Taliban and their ideology were rejected by the people of Afghanistan. The people voted [in elections last October] in the millions [in spite of] the Taliban asking for a boycott and threatening the people that there would be bloodbaths if they want to the polling stations. That was a rejection of the Taliban mentality and ideology. Then, later on, because of the piece of news in NEWSWEEK that later on was not substantiated--that hurt the sentiments of ordinary people a great deal. The fact that some extremist elements were able to capitalize on that, that's a different issue. So now as a result we have some lives lost, too many injured, lots of damage to property, and so on. We shouldn't take that as a sort of resurgence of extremism, but as an issue of development.

So you don't see extremism as a threat to your government?

Extremism is a challenge for all of us, throughout the world--and in Afghanistan very much so. But the answer to that would be rather a comprehensive package of different elements [enabling] one to deal with it.

What's your reaction to this week's New York Times' report that U.S. Army investigators have uncovered repeated instances of American soldiers abusing Afghan prisoners.

The issue of treatment of prisoners as well as military operations in different parts of Afghanistan is an issue we have raised with the Americans. There has to be better coordination and improvement in all these fields. I think they understand it and they have made some efforts to improve it--it's of concern for all of us.

Given the volatile situation, are you worried about the effect of these reports inside Afghanistan? Is that going to inflame anti-American sentiment still further?

We have to clarify that the extremists are not happy with the Americans nor with us under any circumstances because they have a different agenda. We will not be able to satisfy them, we are not in the business of satisfying them, but what we can do is prevent them from sowing the seeds of extremism.

Doesn't this make fertile soil for those seeds?

Sometimes they are able to utilize these sorts of situations, there is no doubt about it. But there are certain standards that we need to adhere to. If we need to change in these areas it is because of the principles that we all adhere to--us as well as the Americans because they are supporting us.

If I'd interviewed you two weeks ago--before the protests began--I would have asked if perhaps you felt Afghanistan had been forgotten by Americans.

As far as the [American] people are concerned--perhaps Afghanistan does not get the attention it used to get because of all the other developments [in the region.] I hope that positive developments in Afghanistan continue to take place and continue to get coverage so that [Americans] are aware that their help, their support, has brought a lot of fruits. But at the same time we have to deal with the whole issue with extreme care and sensitivity and pay more attention to sensitivities of the culture.

Is Afghanistan getting enough support from America?

America takes the lead in supporting Afghanistan, both in security terms and reconstruction efforts. There are things that we need to be doing as Afghans [as well,] but the scale of support is not a problem.

What's on the agenda for Monday's meeting between Presidents Karzai and Bush in Washington?

A whole range of elements of bilateral relations. Among them would be the issue of a long-term partnership between Afghanistan and the United States.

What about the issue of treatment of Afghan prisoners?

I wouldn't publicize the agenda ahead of time. I think there might be other issues which will come.

But clearly relations have worsened because of recent developments.

I wouldn't conceptualize it that way. If [Karzai] has expressed concerns, it is concerns for both sides.

What did you think of Laura Bush's praise of Afghanistan for its progressive constitution on women's rights?

Of course we appreciate very much. We are happy that Afghanistan was able to move thus far, and certainly with the support of the international community, which the United States has played a crucial role in.

Much has been written about how much the situation has improved for women since the fall of the Taliban. But how much have attitudes really changed?

From changing the laws, from having the constitution, facilitating the grounds for the implementation of women's rights--in all aspects there have been progress. But in a country where mortality and illiteracy rates are at the [high] levels that we see, where job opportunities and the health situation for the mother and child are [not good], there are certain realities that when these areas are tackled, you will not find these realities satisfactory. But looking at it in the context of what was going on a few years ago, it's a true revolution. From a situation where women were harassed inside their houses, were treated badly throughout the country, to a situation where millions of girls are going to schools-that's a big difference. We had women candidates for the presidency [last year]; we have women candidates for the parliament, perhaps hundreds of thousands are working ... all these different aspects were unheard of just four years ago. That's the change. When we talk about the progress, we shouldn't come under the illusion that we have overcome all the challenges. It means that if that much could be achieved in the past three years, the hopes are much greater for more achievements in the coming times.