KABUL, Afghanistan, Jan. 16, 2003 -- The U.S. focus in Afghanistan is shifting to reconstruction and long-term stability, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz stressed throughout his Jan. 15 visit here.
More than 20 years of civil war and invasion have devastated Afghanistan, leaving much of the country in rubble, its people ill-housed, undereducated and without modern medical care. The ouster of the repressive Taliban regime by U.S. and coalition forces has opened the door to the outside world and the future, according to the deputy.
"Your country has suffered a lot," Wolfowitz told Afghan Defense Minister Fahim Khan Jan. 15 at the Afghan national army training range. "We thought we could ignore it until it affected us, too."
The United States wants to keep working with Afghanistan to promote long-term stability by helping to provide military security and economic reconstruction.
"We are here to keep helping," the deputy told Afghan national army recruits at the training center. "We are not walking away. There is a lot of work to be done.
The work, he said, includes stepping up the pace in building a national army, assisting with humanitarian projects to restore public services and sending provincial reconstruction teams to outlying areas to evaluate what help is needed.
The deputy said one reason he traveled to Afghanistan was to get a feel "for where the progress has been made, what are the next steps that need to be taken and to see if there's some way we can speed up the process, because there's no way to go too fast. Faster is better."
During his 15-hour visit, he met with U.S. and coalition military troops as well as Afghan government officials. He toured a major road construction site, supported by the United States and other coalition nations, where he talked with mine-clearing contractors, accompanied by their four- legged mine detectors.
The deputy also walked through contrasting states of destruction and renovation at Afghanistan's largest women's hospital in Kabul. He noted at a press conference afterward that the project is one of about 200 where U.S. Army engineers are helping local contractors restore damaged facilities. Slated for completion by March 1, the hospital would handle up to 500 patients each day.
Wolfowitz also witnessed a live-fire demonstration and training exercise conducted by the 2nd Battalion of the Afghan national army. Looking out over brown, barren plains rising to snow-capped peaks, the deputy watched as artillery and infantry launched an assault on a hillside village.
"What we just saw a minutes ago was a very impressive demonstration of your commitment and professionalism," the deputy told the Afghan soldiers. "We're proud to work with you to help you build a better future for your country."
U.S. Special Forces trainers working with the Afghan soldiers told reporters traveling with the deputy that the Afghan troops are familiar with company-sized operations, but need more training in operations at battalion level and higher.
Wolfowitz also stopped at the International Security Assistance Force headquarters, where he said that establishing the ISAF was crucial to peace in Afghanistan.
At each stop, the deputy commended the Afghan people for their efforts. He said he was struck by how much progress the country has made since his last visit in July 2002.
"Of course," he noted, "if you take it back two years to the time the Taliban was here, it's just incomparable. But we don't make progress by telling ourselves how wonderful we've done. We only make progress by continuing to move forward, and there's still a great deal more work to be done. But it's encouraging to see how successful our Afghan colleagues have been, and we're delighted to have this close partnership."
The deputy capped the day's activities by meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Afghan Foreign Minister Dr. Abdullah Abdullah at the national palace.
"I just had a very productive discussion with President Karzai covering a wide range of issues, particularly, obviously, those issues that fall within the concerns of the Department of Defense," Wolfowitz told about 40 reporters during an informal press briefing. "Most important, we talked about the progress that's been made in training the Afghan national army and the efforts we'd like to make together to accelerate that training."
The Afghan army is probably the key element in developing long-term security in Afghanistan, he said. "Economic reconstruction is, I would say, the other pillar of long- term stability and is every bit as important as the military side."
Abdullah stood at the U.S. defense leader's side before the press. He expressed his people's appreciation for the role the United States is taking in their country.
"I think that together we can make a much better situation in Afghanistan and for peace and stability throughout the world," Abdullah said.
Wolfowitz declined to answer questions about Iraq, other than to say that U.S. officials are sharing a lot of intelligence with the U.N. Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission and with the International Atomic Energy Agency.
"Iraq is obviously a major concern for the United States, but it's not our only major concern in the world," he said. "We do not want to lose sight of the work that needs to be done here in Afghanistan."
He dismissed the notion that troop deployments connected with Iraq would impact the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
"We are regulating our deployments here based on the needs here in this country," the deputy said. He noted that a fundamental U.S. strategic principle from the start has been to learn from history and "not come in here with a massive foreign presence and make ourselves unwelcome in a hurry."
The deputy cited the brilliance of Army Gen. Tommy Franks, the U.S. Central Command chief, in planning from the outset to keep America's footprint in Afghanistan small. "Big enough to do the job, but no bigger than necessary, and we have more than adequate forces to do what's necessary," he said.
The United States has the military capability needed to sustain both continuing operations and what will be an increasing emphasis on reconstruction and stability, Wolfowitz concluded.
(Distributed by the Office of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)