Afghan Election 'Remarkable Event,' Ambassador Says
By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Oct. 15, 2004 The Afghan presidential election held Oct. 9 was "a remarkable event," U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad said at the Pentagon today.
Following a meeting with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, the ambassador told the press that Afghanistan is the front line of freedom and "the Afghans took advantage of the opportunity provided to them by the coalition to move towards building a democratic society."
The election was relatively violence-free. U.N. officials estimate that about 80 percent of the 10 million Afghans registered to vote did so. Counting the ballots has begun in the capital of Kabul.
Khalilzad said this progress was in spite of al Qaeda and Taliban threats to disrupt the election. The ambassador said some Afghans prepared themselves for death washing themselves and saying prayers before going to the polls.
The ambassador said the election was only possible due to the fine work of the men and women of the armed forces. American troops and their allies "provided a secure environment for the Afghans to vote by effective preventive and preemptive action." He said the election could have been a bloody day "because the Taliban and al Qaeda declared war on this election."
The forces including 15,000 members of the Afghan National Army and 30,000 members of the Afghan police force took effective measures. The terrorists attempted spectacular attacks in Afghanistan, but effective work by coalition and Afghan forces "disrupted their attempts to disrupt the election. They failed. We succeeded. Our forces succeeded and the Afghan forces succeeded," he said.
In Kandahar, security forces intercepted a tanker truck with five tons of explosives on it. "God forbid if that tanker truck had exploded in downtown Kandahar," Khalilzad said. Security forces also intercepted many rockets that terrorists intended to fire.
He also praised the Pakistani government for its "useful and important role" in preventing cross-border operations.
The ambassador said Afghans are grateful to coalition forces for the chance they have been given. U.S. forces will remain in Afghanistan as long as they are needed, said Pentagon spokesman Lawrence Di Rita. The election was an "enormous milestone" that has been passed.
Khalilzad said that "if the journey of Afghanistan standing on its own feet and being a successful country is a 10-mile journey, then Afghanistan has just passed Mile 3."
He said security, economic and political progress is going very well. The national government is taking more control in the country. Three years ago, militias commanded by regional leaders ruled the country. "Today more than 20,000 of the 50,000 militia forces have been civilianized," he said. Militias are cantoning their heavy weapons. He said nationally 57 percent of the heavy weapons in the heavily armed country have been cantoned.
"The country is succeeding thanks to efforts of the United States and other nations as well as ordinary Afghans taking their future in their own hands," he said.
The ambassador said that al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden will be caught. "I don't know when, but ultimately we will find him in a hole somewhere and his days are numbered. But I'm not predicting when," he said.
He said that even with bin Laden's capture, the war on terror will continue. He said catching or killing bin Laden is important symbolically, but the war on terror is "not about one person it is about networks."
He said the chance of terrorist networks getting weapons of mass destruction "is the challenge of our time, the defining threat of our time."