WASHINGTON -- U.S. and international forces should remain in Afghanistan beyond the six-month life of the interim government and until all al-Qaida and Taliban resistance are gone, the foreign minister said ahead of Prime Minister Hamid Karzai's first meeting with President Bush.
The close U.S. assistance is needed to secure the country, although "perhaps our enemies -- those who are not happy with the present setup -- they would like to use it against us," Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah said in an interview with The Associated Press.
Enemies of the interim government, he said, including "some who have lost power" in Afghanistan and groups in the region, might try to use Karzai's close alliance with the United States to cause trouble in a country long hostile to outside meddling.
"But it will not work," Abdullah said, asserting that most Afghans are grateful to the United States for helping opposition fighters oust the Taliban, and see its commitment to rebuild "as a friendly gesture."
Indeed, Abdullah said, the Afghan people and Karzai's government have made clear they want even more foreign troops: namely the expansion of an international security force to "at least three to four major cities" beyond Kabul, where the British-led force is now operating.
Abdullah would give no estimate of how long either the U.S. military -- now numbering about 4,000 troops -- or the international force that's expected to grow to 5,000 members, might be needed.
"The biggest challenge is the security," Abdullah said. Without security provided by those foreign forces and a central Afghan government, "warlordism" -- the jockeying for power among regional generals and governors -- might return.
Abdullah, in the interview late Friday, spoke with bemusement of his country's changed circumstances since the fall of the Taliban as he prepared for Karzai's meeting Monday with Bush.
A small man with a clever smile, Abdullah -- who uses only one name -- sat in an elegant hotel room surrounded by chocolates, silver bowls of flowers and a tray of exquisite pomegranates and tiny pears. Aides said Gucci had recently approached the government to suggest a new line of clothing inspired by Karzai's traditional Afghan cape and hat.
At his office at the Foreign Ministry in Kabul, Abdullah said he was shocked to find not just crystal statues disfigured by the Taliban, but -- much worse -- employees whose spirits had been crushed by living under the radical brand of Islamic rule since 1996.
"They were not alive," he said. "They were human beings, like with a mask."