KABUL, Afghanistan – There's a new flag flying in the the capital of Afghanistan — the Stars and Stripes.
The long-abandoned U.S. Embassy in Kabul was officially reopened in the war-ravaged Central Asian country with Marines raising the American flag over a building that will be very busy in the years to come.
"Today's ceremony symbolizes the return, after more than a decade of absence, of the United States to Afghanistan," U.S. envoy James F. Dobbins said, presiding over a rain-soaked ceremony in the Kabul embassy's front courtyard. "We are here, and we are here to stay."
As "The Star Spangled Banner" played over a sound system, a Marine honor guard bore the flag forward and then carefully raised it on the flagpole. Though it's a new sight for many, the banner is the same flag that had flown over the embassy when it was evacuated on Jan. 31, 1989.
Besides the flag, the embassy will largely have to start from scratch. For now, the embassy building will be used as a liaison office, housing a small group of American diplomats. A charge d'affaires will be appointed in coming weeks, and then an ambassador in coming months, Dobbins said. The small group of U.S. diplomats working the embassy is being guarded by Marines.
"I declare this mission open for business," Dobbins said.
Dobbins was a key architect of the U.N.-brokered interim government, and has long experience in troubled venues like Haiti, Somalia, Bosnia and Kosovo. The re-establishment of an American diplomatic presence in Kabul is laden with symbolic significance — but is also seen as an important practical move to help keep the transfer of power on track.
A small crowd of invited guests saw the flag ceremony, including the incoming defense minister, Mohammed Fahim, who represented the new Afghan government. The embassy was one of many long-abandoned diplomatic outposts in the capital being rushed into service before Afghanistan's interim government is inaugurated Saturday. Turkey, NATO's only Muslim member, also reopened its embassy on Monday.
In the 12 years after the American diplomats left, the U.S. embassy building has stood silent witness to years of violent upheaval in Afghanistan — the Soviet invasion, the bloody civil war that left much of the capital in ruins, the harshly repressive Taliban era.
The embassy itself was victim to violence as well. The last U.S. ambassador in Kabul, Adolph Dubs, was kidnapped by Islamic militants in 1979. He died in a crossfire in a botched rescue attempt by Afghan security agents.
The embassy functioned without an ambassador until the last of its staff left in early 1989. After that, Afghan custodians — honored at Monday's flag-raising ceremony — kept watch over the deserted compound.
In September, with Taliban police looking on, protesters attacked the embassy in a carefully choreographed display of anti-American sentiment, ripping down the U.S. seal, setting vehicles ablaze and burning a guardhouse.
The American-led air campaign began less than two weeks later, after the Taliban refused demands to hand over Usama bin Laden, chief suspect in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the U.S. During the airstrikes, a few Taliban broke into the compound and camped out in the embassy's bomb shelter.
The new post-Taliban government is headed by hereditary Pashtun tribal leader Hamid Karzai, and key Cabinet posts are held by members of the Northern Alliance, which seized most of Afghanistan's territory from the Taliban, aided by a massive American air offensive.
Some Afghan factions — famous for settling their differences with gunplay — have made plain their dissatisfaction with the allocation of power in the new government. But Dobbins told The Associated Press in Washington last week that "things are continuing to develop more positively than most of us would have expected."
After the interim administration has been in place for six months, an emergency assembly is to meet, decide on another provisional government and begin writing a constitution. Approximately two years later, another assembly, a tribal council called a loya jirga, will adopt a constitution.
An international peacekeeping force is expected to be deployed soon, roughly coinciding with the handover of power to Karzai's government.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.