Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld toured Afghanistan Thursday to get a first-hand look at reconstruction efforts, and to discuss President Hamid Karzai's efforts to expand the authority of the central government outside the capital, Kabul.
Secretary Rumsfeld began his trip to Afghanistan by visiting Mazar-i-Sharif, the strategic and commercial center in the northern part of the country.
Heavily armed Afghan police lined the dusty road from the airport, and U.S. soldiers driving vehicles with 50-caliber machine guns kept watch, as Mr. Rumsfeld arrived at the headquarters of a British-run provincial reconstruction team in the city.
About 100 British troops are protecting aid workers involved in a variety of civil projects designed to reach out to the people of Mazar-i-Sharif and begin the process of stabilizing northern provinces, which for many years have been run by local warlords.
Captain Tom Barker is an officer with the Royal Gurkha Regiment stationed in Mazar-i-Sharif, and he says the Kabul-based government of President Hamid Karzai still has limited influence in the northern part of the country.
"What we are trying to do is mediate and influence up here to extend the role, extend the influence rather, of the interim government," said Captain Barker. "Up here in the north, Karzai's administration in Kabul has had very little impact. To be honest, the central government has had very little impact for 25 or 30 years."
As recently as last October, fighters led by two rival and powerful leaders in the north, Abdul Rashid Dostum and Ustad Atta Mohammad, have clashed despite efforts to bring security to the region.
Secretary Rumsfeld met with both men, and said he is encouraged that they have pledged to disarm and demobilize their forces.
"Each of them has initiated that process," said Mr. Rumsfeld. "It is under way. That is a very good thing. At what pace it will proceed, I guess, remains to be seen, but we are pleased that they have agreed to do so, and we are pleased that they have initiated it. We will be attentive and encouraging as we go along to see it towards completion."
Mr. Rumsfeld wrapped up his trip to Afghanistan with a visit to the Presidential Palace in Kabul where he met with President Karzai.
Mr. Karzai expressed his appreciation for the recent pledge of an additional $2 billion in U.S. assistance for Afghanistan.
He told reporters it is important that, as Afghanistan moves toward a democratic society, people be able to cast votes without the fear that violence could upset the process.
"We, together with the international community, have a responsibility here in the Afghan government, to provide the means for the Afghan people to cast their free vote," he said. "As I am speaking to you today, we have launched voter registration in Afghanistan. We will try our best to provide the country the best means of security in which the role of the international community is very important and prominent. The Taleban, terrorists, whoever they are, will not be able to disrupt the process."
Later this month, more than 500 delegates from around Afghanistan are expected to meet to work on a constitution, as the country moves toward a democratic government about two years after the Taleban militia was driven from power.
President Karzai says Afghanistan has now reached 40 to 50 percent of the administrative capability that a normal government should have.
Elections are expected to be held in June of 2004, a watershed moment for a nation recovering from decades of misery and war.