Stay the Course, Afghan President Urges U.S. Lawmakers
By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Jun. 15, 2004 Afghan President Hamid Karzai thanked America today for its resources, leadership and especially "the precious lives of your soldiers" in the effort to free his country.
Karzai spoke before a joint session of Congress. He listed the progress his country has made since being freed from the Taliban yoke in 2001 and the challenges that remain.
He urged lawmakers to stay the course in the global war on terror, saying the effort is worth the price.
Karzai told lawmakers that life is returning to normal in Afghanistan. More than 3 million people have voted for freedom with their feet, he said. That's the number of refugees the United Nations has estimated have returned to Afghanistan.
"We have today in Afghanistan our former king, back in his old home," Karzai said. "We have today in Afghanistan the leaders of the former resistance of Afghanistan against the Soviet Union. We have also millions of refugees who left Afghanistan because of tyranny and invasion. They're all back in their country, and more are returning."
Karzai's dress illustrates the multiethnic nature of the nation. Although of Pashtun ethnicity, the president wears a chapan an Afghan coat associated with Uzbeks who live near Mazar-e Sharif.
More than 5 million children boys and girls are attending schools. Health clinics have opened and roads are being built or rebuilt, Karzai said. "We have started to reconstitute our national army, our national institutions (and) national police in order to both defend our sovereignty and provide security to our citizens," he said. "Our national army is being trained by American forces, American troops. And wherever we have deployed them, the Afghan people have welcomed them."
Afghanistan has adopted a new constitution that guarantees the rights of all especially the rights of women. The Taliban discrimination against women amounted to abuse. A total of 25 percent of the seats in the legislature are reserved for women. Karzai estimated that by elections in September, between 6 million and 7 million Afghans will have registered to vote, and about half of them will be women.
Afghanistan's president said that without American and coalition support, none of this progress would have been possible. He reminded Congress that the country still is a fledgling democracy that requires support from outside.
For example, he explained, private militias under the control of warlords remain a serious impediment. "The Afghan people demand and insist on disarming and demobilizing private militias," he said. "Only with your support and that of the international community can we achieve this necessary goal."
Opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan continues to rise, and the profits from that crop finance the private militias, terrorists and extremists. "Drug profits undermine our effort to build a healthy and legitimate national economy," he said. "Drugs threaten the lives and future of children yours and ours. We are determined to cleanse Afghanistan from this menace."
Economically, Afghanistan remains one of the poorest nations on Earth. "We still have the second-highest infant and maternal mortality rates in the world," the president said. "We have one of the highest illiteracy rates, and very few Afghans have access to safe drinking water."
He said Afghanistan has resources that can aid the people. The country must work to develop its hydroelectric potential. Only 6 percent of Afghans have access to electricity.
"While Afghanistan has great rivers, our farmers, ironically, suffer from a shortage of water," he said. "Even now, our vast mineral resources, such as iron ore, copper and precious stones, remain undeveloped. Our delicious foods are not reaching major markets due to the lack of refrigeration and proper marketing." But the country is open for business, he said, and American firms are more than welcome.
Karzai said the shared success in Afghanistan is vital to achieving victory over the greatest menaces in the world faces today: terrorism and extremism. The president said that the "tragedy of Sept. 11 once again tied the destinies of our two nations. You came to Afghanistan to defeat terrorism, and we Afghans welcomed and embraced you for the liberation of our country."
He said this war on terror is not the first time the United States has taken the lead. "Two weeks ago, on Memorial Day, you remembered the hundreds of thousands of American soldiers who gave their lives for defending democracy and freedom around the world," he said. "You led the world in eliminating fascism. You stood with the Afghan nation in our heroic fight against the former Soviet Union. Just last week we honored one of our great fellow freedom fighters in that struggle, the late President Ronald Reagan.
"Today the United States is once again leading the global effort to defeat terrorism and extremism. Afghanistan is a central front in this war against terrorism. The Afghan peoples are and will remain with you in this struggle."