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US Soldiers in Afghanistan Closely Monitor War in Iraq - 2003-03-22

As U.S. and other coalition forces push deep into Iraq, their efforts are being watched by their armed forces colleagues in other parts of the world with a mixture of concern, pride, and even some envy.

The post-exchange, or PX, is where you go at Bagram, if you want to buy a book, a video, or even a souvenir commemorating operation "Enduring Freedom" the coalition military operation in Afghanistan meant to destroy the Taleban and al-Qaida terrorist organization.

While hundreds of thousands of troops are involved in the military effort under way to disarm Iraq, only about 12,000 coalition forces remain in Afghanistan. U.S. troops here number about 9,000. Many, like Sergeant Arnell Udani from Honolulu, Hawaii, say their morale remains high, even though the world's attention has shifted from Afghanistan to Iraq. "It does not matter where I go, I am ready to fight anywhere," he said. "Just because we have actions in Iraq, the soldiers here have high morale, we always have high morale."

Sergeant Udani is a forward observer, or artillery scout, and a member of the elite 82nd Airborne Paratroops. The combat veteran says he has several close friends in action in Iraq, and he is concerned about their welfare. Still, he says, he has no regrets about not being in Iraq; there is plenty to do in Afghanistan. "There is always work to be done here, that is why we are here," he said. "Like I said, our main fight is to conduct operations in Afghanistan, and if there is work to be done, we will do it."

While United States and coalition forces are still carrying out combat operations against the remnants of the Taleban and al-Qaida, military authorities say about three-quarters of Afghanistan is now considered secure enough to start moving from combat operations to civil reconstruction.

Colonel Michael Stout from Pennsylvania is the deputy commander of the coalition civil affairs task force. Standing in line at the Bagram PX, Colonel Stout says Afghans are concerned about the war in Iraq. He says he and his civil-affairs teams spend a lot of time explaining that the war in Iraq is similar to operations in Afghanistan. "I will tell you their initial concerns are that Iraq is another Muslim nation," said Col. Stout. "So, what we tell them is that this war is not about religion, it is about terrorism, and is very similar to what they experienced in their country with al-Qaida."

Colonel Stout says many Afghans are worried the war in Iraq will divert resources from Afghanistan. He tells Afghans that the eight provincial reconstruction teams, or PRTs, he commands will be working in Afghanistan for a long time. "You know all I can control is what we do in Afghanistan," he said. "I can control the eight PRT's I command, and we are going to continue doing our projects, and continue being visible."

Since the war in Iraq started, there has been an increase in rocket attacks against isolated U.S. posts in southeastern Afghanistan, where remnants of the Taleban and al-Qaida remain active.

U.S. military authorities say the attacks have caused no damage or casualties, and they do not know if they are in response to the U.S.-led attack on Iraq, but they have increased security at coalition bases.

Many U.S. troops in Afghanistan say they have a heightened sense of security since the Iraq war started, and they say their families back home think Afghanistan is safer than Iraq.

Private First Class Laura Saint Claire, 19, from Shreveport, Louisiana, says her family has mixed feelings. "My parents are not too happy that I'm gone from home, because I am so young," she said. "But, they are more happy that I am here [Bagram] than in Iraq. It is more of a threat to be there than here."

Ms. St. Clair says like many of her fellow soldiers at Bagram, she would like to be part of the Iraq war action. But for her family's sake, she is happy to be stationed in Afghanistan, at least for the time being.