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Afghan President Thanks US Soldiers for Service - 2004-06-10


Afghan president Hamid Karzai is meeting with other world leaders at the G8 summit at Sea Island, Georgia, part of a week-long visit to the United States. He meets with President Bush at the White House next Tuesday and will address a joint meeting of Congress.

His first stop, this past Tuesday, was the Fort Drum Army base in Upstate New York, home of the 10th Mountain Division. He came to thank the thousands of soldiers here who helped to stabilize his country and put Afghanistan on the road to democracy.

Under a blazing sun, soldiers in green camouflage marched to the parade field for a special ceremony with the Afghan president.

Almost 5000 members of the 10th Mountain Division based at Fort Drum returned home in May, after nine months in Afghanistan. They were fighting insurgents and helping to rebuild the country. Staff Sergeant Robert Hill says they're proud of what happened on their watch.

"Where there were no businesses, there are now businesses growing and flourishing,? he said. ?I saw where there was desert, buildings being built in the desert where there was nothing before. Where ruins were they were rebuilding everything. I saw a lot of things change in just nine months."

For some soldiers, it was their second tour of duty in Afghanistan. Fort Drum troops battled Taleban and al-Qaida fighters just months after September 11, 2001.

President Karzai requested this trip to Fort Drum to express his gratitude. Wrapped in a purple and green cloak, he addressed a field of soldiers in formation.

"On behalf of the Afghan people, I thank those of you who have served in Afghanistan. With your help, we have reclaimed our country from terror and oppression,? he said.

President Karzai read the names of the 11 Fort Drum soldiers killed in his country and he helped present Purple Hearts to two who were injured in a grenade attack. He said their sacrifice and the deeds of all the soldiers are now part of Afghan history.

?We will write that in golden letters of our memory for future to see and to remember. Thank you,? added Mr. Karzai.

Some soldiers, like Staff Sergeant Chris Yankow, got to meet with President Karzai one on one.

"You know I don't think you could ask for a better compliment or greater honor than to hear from his own mouth that your actions and what you've done over there actually made a difference for him and his country and his people," said Mr. Yankow.

Hamid Karzai was selected interim president by Afghanistan's tribal leaders the Loya Jirga in 2002. He faces his first popular democratic election in September, but there has been growing violence in the country as the balloting approaches. More than 400 people have died this year alone.

From his experience on the ground, Sergeant Hill says the president has some work to do.

"The people that like him love him to death. The people that don't like him, well, they really don't like him," he said.

Speaking to the media after Tuesday's ceremony, President Karzai said he recognizes that violence threatens the upcoming vote and he called for NATO to send more troops.

"We do need security, especially that we have not yet been able to fully take away the arms from factions and people that are having them and fully train our national army and police," he explained.

Those tasks will fall to the more than 20,000 U.S. soldiers who remain in Afghanistan and who will try to advance the Fort Drum soldiers' progress in supporting an emerging democracy.