The outgoing U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, says the nation has made huge progress since he arrived there 17 months ago, but still faces significant challenges before it can become a normal, prosperous and secure country. 

Ambassador Khalilzad says there has been great change in Afghanistan since his arrival in late 2003.

He points out the nation has its first elected president in its 5,000 year history, is educating about five million children in school and has disarmed most of the warlords and their militias that have plagued the country for decades.

Mr. Khalilzad says the Afghan national army has grown from fewer than 5,000 soldiers to 25,000.

He says new roads and infrastructure are creating jobs and have begun improving the economy.

The ambassador says many of the advancements have taken place very quickly.

"Processes that would have taken other countries in other periods, decades or centuries, have taken place in just a matter of a very short period of time.  But still Afghanistan has a long way to go to become a normal country, a democratic country, a prosperous country, and a secure country," he noted.

Ambassador Khalilzad concedes that the opium poppy trade is a critical problem and if left unchecked could undermine many of the positive advances made in Afghanistan.

He says the amount of agricultural land used for poppy cultivation will be reduced by 30,000 hectares this year, and in the next several years the United States will spend $450 million providing opium farmers with an alternative livelihood.

Mr. Khalilzad says a few dozen insurgents loyal to the former Taleban regime have turned themselves in and he hopes several thousand will enter a government amnesty program in the coming year.

"The government and ourselves have started a program of strengthening peace, its called reconciliation and accountability, to open the doors to those who want to join in rebuilding Afghanistan to come back into the fold," he added.  "Young Afghans should not allow themselves to be used by people who do not wish their country well, who have a proven record of failure, of bringing misery to Afghanistan, to be used as cannon fodder against their own people."

Ambassador Khalilzad says he believes it is inevitable that U.S.-led international forces will capture al-Qaida terrorist leader Osama bin Laden and former Taleban commander Mullah Mohammed Omar. Both are believed to be hiding near the rugged Afghan border with Pakistan.

"We are after them and we will ultimately capture them.  We have to for no other reason, for symbolic reason, because of the roles that they have played in the past," he said.

The Bush administration has named Mr. Khalilzad to be the new U.S. ambassador in Iraq.

Ambassador Khalilzad declined to discuss his new posting until hearings on the nomination are held next month before the U.S. Congress.