Vitality, Optimism Characterize Afghanistan Today
By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
KABUL, Afghanistan, Mar. 16, 2005 Vitality and optimism are the most striking changes in today's Afghanistan, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said here today.
Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers visited Afghan leaders and American servicemembers here.
The chairman first visited the country in December 2001, soon after Kabul fell to a force of Afghan fighters and American Special Forces soldiers. "Every time I come back, the economic activity is obvious and a sure sign that there is progress in security and stability and in economic growth," Myers said during a joint interview with the commander of Combined Forces Command Afghanistan, Army Lt. Gen. David Barno.
Myers said the leaders of the Afghan government are optimistic that they can address the problems that still confront the nation. The general said that he has seen optimism grow with each visit. "When I first came ... in December 2001, there was a lot more uncertainty in the air than there is today," he said.
Since then, Afghans have written a constitution, elected a president under that constitution, and set parliamentary elections for the summer. Also, 22,000 soldiers in the Afghan National Army have been trained and deployed.
The Afghan government has established good working relationships with its neighbors, especially Pakistan, the chairman said. "Security is exceptionally good throughout the country," he said.
But not everything is rosy; dangerous areas still exist in Afghanistan, and coalition forces continue to hunt for terrorist leader Osama bin Laden and die-hard remnants of al Qaeda and the Taliban in the country.
The opium/heroin problem in Afghanistan is serious and "could destabilize the country if not dealt with," Myers said. But, he said, there is a willingness in the government to deal with the problem.
"The way the government here and the international community is attacking the next big strategic problem we have -- the drug problem -- is cause for optimism as well," the chairman said.
Afghanistan will need help from the international community to deal with this very serious problem, Barno added. Barno, who is due to turn over command in Afghanistan, has served in the country for 18 months. He said he was "most impressed to watch and be a part of ... the dramatic growth of the democratic political process here."
The United Nations believed that perhaps 5 million Afghans would register to vote; instead, about 10.5 million did. "Then 8 million-plus Afghans coming out to vote in their first-ever presidential election in October was an incredible event, and exceeded many expectations, and certainly set a high mark for last year being a turning point," Barno said.
Myers said the time it took to effect such change is small, noting that it has taken just over three years for the Afghan people to make tremendous progress. "We're here to assist them and keep that progress moving forward and helping them in any way we can," he said.
But it is not just the United States helping Afghanistan. NATO plays an important and growing part in stability operations in Afghanistan. NATO commands the International Security Assistance Force in and around Kabul, and that force is expanding to the western portion of the country. NATO troops will patrol right up to the Iranian border.
NATO will also establish four more provincial reconstruction teams in the western part of Afghanistan. Once that is finished, NATO would like to move into the southern part of the country and eventually the east, Myers said.
"Every trend line in Afghanistan is going up, and going up at a great rate," the chairman said. "As much as you'd like to stand here and take credit for that, it really belongs to the Afghan people, who are industrious and seized the opportunity for a better future for themselves and their families."
Both Myers and Barno said that international commitment is crucial to maintaining the momentum for success in Afghanistan. "If this were a 10-mile race, Afghanistan is at mile three," Barno said. "There's a long way to go before the finish line."