WASHINGTON – On Tuesday night, America will get a chance to sit calmly in their living rooms and view Afghanistan's interim prime minister seated next to the first lady as President Bush's guest of honor during the State of the Union address.
That was not the case Monday, when hundreds of inside-the-Beltway power brokers, bureaucrats, Afghan ex-patriots and members of Congress pushed and scrambled their way through the throngs at a Ritz Carlton reception for a handshake with Hamid Karzai and his newly appointed ministers.
"It's an historic event," said Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "It's dramatic and it's hopeful – there is a lot of hope in this room."
The rock star reception was a stark contrast to just a year ago, when the exiled Afghan delegation had to pound on doors in order to get members of Congress to listen to their cause.
"Sept. 11 woke up a lot of Americans to the fact that they have a stake in what is happening in Afghanistan," said Jim Phillips, Middle East expert for the Heritage Foundation as he nodded to the stage where Karzai spoke. "And these guys are the good guys."
Karzai has come a long way since he served as deputy foreign minister in the United Front government of Burhanuddin Rabbani. When the government was overcome in the end of 1994 by Taliban forces, Karzai fled to Pakistan, where he supported United Front soldiers, a group of ex-mujahedeen fighters who had fought the Soviets and now were up against the repressive Taliban government.
From that time until Sept. 11, the State Department said they saw "no national interest" in trying to remove the Taliban and re-instate Rabbani.
Now, with the U.S.-led ouster of the terrorist Al Qaeda network and their Taliban sponsors, Karzai has reached critical mass in Washington, achieving the nearly-unheard of feat of meeting with the president, vice president, and secretaries of defense and state all in one day.
Monday, Karzai thanked the American government for allowing "the people of Afghanistan to choose their destiny."
"For the people of Afghanistan there is a new opportunity, an opportunity they were denied for two decades," he said. "That opportunity has not come for free. We have paid for it."
The United States government is paying for it too. In Tokyo last week, the Bush administration promised a restructuring package of $297 million, which will include $52 million for refugee assistance, $122 million for food assistance and $45 million to feed students, teachers and workers.
Bush also pledged Monday to open a $50 million line-of-credit for the country and thaw $233 million in frozen assets.
The president stopped short of pledging troops to keep peace in the country, offering instead to train Afghanistan's military and police forces, a measure Karzai and his ministers appear willing to accept.
"The future, my fellow Afghans, is a bright one," he said. "We have a vision, a clear one. We want an Afghanistan where the people determine their own future. We want a country that will be ruled by law, not by guns."
As the Afghan flag flies now over the embassy in Washington for the first time in more than five years, the turnaround in Afghanistan's fortune was not lost on guests at the decorous reception. The hope among partygoers now is that the relationship will last.
"I think there is also a spirit of confidence in the room, that the 23-year nightmare is over. It's been made clear by the president that the people of Afghanistan will not be abandoned," said Rob Reilly, director of Voice of America.
But as Afghans and their long-time supporters supped over an elaborate Afghan dinner Monday night, doubts lingered over whether the United States will continue to keep its interest.
"I think the Afghans know who was on their side and who wasn't," said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., a staunch supporter of the anti-Taliban cause for years. "The powers that be that resisted helping them fight the Taliban are now shepherding these guys around Washington. They're not fooling anybody."