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U.S. Commander Notes Great Successes on OEF's Third Anniversary

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Oct. 6, 2004 – Three years after the coalition began combat operations against the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan, the Afghan people are just days away from a presidential election expected to be a major stabilizing effort in a lynchpin country in the war on terror.

The commander of 18,000 coalition forces in Afghanistan said credit for this "awesome accomplishment" goes largely to the "very unsung, very heroic work" being performed by U.S. soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines supporting Operation Enduring Freedom.

Army Lt. Gen. David W. Barno, commander of Combined Forces Command Afghanistan, praised the role the coalition is playing in Afghanistan's transformation during an interview today with The Pentagon Channel.

"Just three years ago today, the Taliban were still ruling Afghanistan and al Qaeda was still very much active in the country," he said.

In contrast, today the Afghan people are registering in records numbers 10.5 million at the latest count to vote in their first direct vote for president in Afghanistan's history and the first election of any kind in the country since the early 1960s, Barno noted.

"That is an awesome accomplishment in a three-year period of time in any country's history," he said.

He tells troops he visits with in Afghanistan how critical they are to the mission, which he acknowledges they carry out "in some of the toughest conditions of geography and climate you could find anywhere in the world."

The general said he reminds troops that the protection they provide in Afghanistan have set the conditions for the upcoming Oct. 9 presidential elections something he tells troops they'll some day talk to their children and grandchildren about. "It's happening in large measure because of their great efforts," he said.

Barno said the coalition mission has broadened significantly since President Bush announced on Oct. 7, 2001, that the U.S. military had launched attacks on al Qaeda training camps and military installations of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

The opening strikes of Operation Enduring Freedom followed the Taliban's rejection of U.S. demands after terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon on Sept. 11, less than four weeks earlier. Bush had called on Afghanistan's leaders to close terrorist training camps and hand over al Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden. The president also demanded the return of all unjustly detained foreign nationals and the opening of terrorist training sites to U.S. inspection.

"Initially, we were very much focused on removing Taliban remnants and al Qaeda remnants here, trying to hunt down terrorists that might be left in various hills and the caves in various corners of the country, particularly in the south," Barno said.

That initial effort required a far smaller force "only a few hundred special operations forces along with thousands of Afghan forces in the Northern Alliance," Barno said. "And that very small presence, assisted by some powerful U.S. air support, was able to undercut the Taliban and essentially cause them to give up and move out of the country," he said.

Later, U.S. Marines and soldiers joined the force, he said, "to clean out the remnants" of terrorist elements still in Afghanistan, he said.

Today, Barno said the coalition has shifted to a "broader-based approach" focused on creating conditions in Afghanistan that cause people worn down by more than 23 years of war-- to reject terrorists and their activities outright.

This includes the establishment of provincial reconstruction teams 14 now dot the country that Barno said "assist in extending security and the reach of the national government out there in the provinces."

Barno said other conditions around the country demonstrate continued progress: an economy growing at the rate of 20 percent a year, more than 5 million children in school compared to just over 1 million two years ago, and the completion of the "Ring Road" that links Afghanistan from Kabul to Kandahar, with construction continuing on the section from Kandahar to Herat.

Also exciting, Barno said, is the continued progress in building Afghanistan's security forces and justice system. The Afghan National Army, with about 15,000 soldiers, is rapidly becoming a pillar of the county's security, and its four new regional command headquarters in Kandahar, Gardez, Mazar-e-Sharif and Herat is considered a milestone in extending that security.

Even with this expanded focus, Barno said the coalition has "a very limited footprint" in Afghanistan, which he noted is about equal to Iraq in terms of both size and population.

"So there are a lot of very, very exciting things going on," Barno said. "But most of all is the optimism and energy of the Afghan people."

Barno said U.S. forces are doing "an incredible job" in helping Afghanistan progress. He called them "the centerpiece of helping to enable the Afghan security structure to grow and to assist" in protecting the Afghans "as they develop their own democracy here."

He said the Afghans recognize the contributions coalition troops are making and appear to be in no hurry for them to leave. If anything, he said, they're more concerned about "being abandoned" by the international community "than they are of us overstaying our welcome," he said.

"We certainly don't want Afghanistan to return to the era of the Taliban and the era of al Qaeda being welcome in the country here," Barno said. "We can't afford to have that resume once again."

Barno stressed the international community won't allow that to happen. "We are clearly going to be here as long as the Afghan people want us to and not beyond that," he said. "I see very much interest in having us here to support their efforts so that they can stand completely on their own feet," he said. "And we are working very hard to do that."

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