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US Officials Optimistic About Afghanistan - 2004-04-29

U.S. officials say efforts to strengthen the government in Afghanistan and build a national army are going well, despite continuing security problems. Their comments came in a congressional hearing looking at progress since the ouster of the Taleban regime in 2001.

William Taylor, State Department coordinator for Afghanistan, cited progress toward adoption of a constitution and elections scheduled for September, as proof the country is on track to becoming a "successful Islamic democracy."

He also praised contributions from other countries, reflected in the recent donors conference in Berlin. "Sixty delegations, 60 countries came and pledged $4.5 billion just for this year, $8.2 billion for the next three years in a remarkable show of support for Afghanistan," he said.

Assistant Secretary of Defense, Peter Rodman said that "accelerating" formation of an Afghan national army is also going well, in combination with a political strategy. "President Karzai has over the past 12 months been moving out methodically, systematically and I think successfully to assert government control," he added.

The Afghan army now has 8,300 soldiers, with another 2500 in training. The U.S. goal is to train 10,000-12,000 per year toward an eventual force of 70,000 by 2011.

However, continuing security problems in Afghanistan and concerns about resistance to the central government by regional "warlords" were an undercurrent in Thursday's hearing. William Taylor describes the message being sent by President Karzai and U.S. officials to various regional chiefs.

"The time now is to support the re-development, the re-construction of this country and if you, officials, commanders, local strong-men, if you are part of that solution, if you are part of this reconstruction, then you will have no trouble with us," he said. "If, however, you don't, if you don't support President Karzai, if you're not willing to support the constitution as it was passed, by the Loya Jirga. If you're not willing to support the work to reconstruct the country in a comprehensive way, in a democratic way, then you are going to have difficulties with us."

Officials offered reassurances U.S. forces have not slackened their efforts to locate Osama bin-Laden, still thought to be hiding somewhere along the Afghan-Pakistan border.

They also had to assure lawmakers U.S. military operations in Afghanistan were not being strained by war in Iraq. One person who believes that is Congressman Ike Skelton, a Democrat and strong supporter of the military. "We are short-changing our effort to establish a viable federal government to re-build that country," he stated.

In this and a separate House hearing, lawmakers raised questions about how aggressive U.S. military efforts are in fighting opium cultivation in Afghanistan.

Defense official Rodman had this response when asked why U.S. troops have not so far taken up this role.

"We have not up to now given our military the mission of proactively chasing down the drug trade," he added. "Their primary mission has been counter-terrorism."

In a separate hearing, Congressman Jerry Lewis made this comment to Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz. "We have the capacity to eliminate those poppy fields," he stated. "There is no excuse for our not doing that."

Congressman Lewis said that he will be pressing the State Department and Pentagon for results in the anti-drug effort in Afghanistan.