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'Tremendous Strides' Made in Iraq, Afghanistan

By K.L. Vantran
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Dec. 19, 2003 – While the instability and conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan often dominate the news, between 80 and 90 percent of the people in these countries live "much more normal lives than the media normally presents," Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Stability Operations Joseph J. Collins said here Dec. 18.

Despite opposition from the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan and remnants of the Baath Party, foreign fighters and international terrorists in Iraq, the retired Army officer said, "progress in combating these groups has been on-going and U.S. and coalition forces have made tremendous strides."

The work of the troops in the field has been "fantastic," he added. "The capture of Saddam Hussein was clearly a great accomplishment and just the latest in a long series of accomplishments by our troops."

Collins said the former dictator's capture has not only raised the morale of U.S. and coalition troops while lowering the morale of insurgents, it has also helped remove the shadow of fear from the Iraqi people.

People who have talked with Iraqis, Collins noted, have said that when they mentioned Saddam and his regime, they could see the fear and anticipation. "That's being erased," he added. "The capture of Hussein is just another indicator that Iraq will have a bright future."

The key ingredients for stability, according to Collins, are security, reconstruction and expanding the capacity of Iraqis and Afghans for self- government. "Security is Job No. 1," he added. "We don't want to be there forever. We want to make sure what we're doing is oriented towards giving the Afghans and Iraqis the ability to stand on their own two feet, to run their (respective) countries and develop democratic institutions.

"First and foremost, you maintain security," continued Collins. "You go on the offensive and at the same time give people in those areas things to hope for, so you continue to work on stabilization and reconstruction activities."

Collins said one reconstruction project he's most proud of is the Kabul to Kandahar Highway in Afghanistan, "the first significant paved road in that country in 30-odd years. It's a great symbol of reconstruction," he added.

Afghanistan's Loya Jirga is meeting to consider a new constitution, he said, "and it seems to be going quite well."

On the security front, Collins said, he's "very, very proud of the Afghan National Army, as are the Afghan people." Initially, when Afghans see the army, they think it's a European force, he added. But when they come upon it and find out it's Afghans who are there not to rob and steal from the public but to combat insurgents, Collins said the "people are very, very grateful."

While acknowledging that the insurgents in tough areas such as the so-called Sunni Triangle in Iraq are out to get coalition forces, Collins said, "overall, Iraqis and Afghans are very positive that we're there."

In closing, the deputy wished those serving in harm's way a safe holiday. "People in the Pentagon and those like myself who are old retired soldiers think about you constantly," he added. "We wish you and your families all the best for the holiday season."

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