KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) – Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Thursday she has seen progress in Afghanistan during the past few years, despite a determined Taliban insurgency that has disrupted security and prompted concerns that the NATO-led military campaign is failing.
“Can we all expect the security situation will still be difficult – yes, because Afghanistan has determined enemies who laid waste to this country over a period of a decade,” said Rice, adding that it would be unfair to say the NATO and Afghan government efforts aren’t working. “The strategy is one that I believe is having a good effect.”
Afghan President Hamid Karzai, standing beside Rice at a news conference, also defended his leadership, saying the economy and education systems have improved under his watch and there are more democratic freedoms under a new constitution.
“Afghanistan, if given more attention we would be grateful, but it is not right that Afghanistan was forgotten,” said Karzai, who was responding to a recent independent report that said the country is in danger of becoming a failed state.
Rice, in a show of unity, made the unannounced trip to Kabul and Kandahar, a former Taliban stronghold, with British Foreign Secretary David Miliband so they could get a firsthand look at the front lines of the NATO-led fight as they lead an effort to boost the number of NATO combat forces in the country.
All 26 NATO nations have soldiers in Afghanistan and all agree the mission is their top priority. But the refusal of European allies to send more combat troops is forcing an already stretched U.S. military, focused on the Iraq war, to fill the gap, and it is straining the Western alliance.
The U.S. contributes one-third of NATO’s 42,000-member International Security Assistance Force mission, making it the largest participant, ahead of Britain with about 7,700 soldiers in Afghanistan. The U.S. has another 12,000 to 13,000 troops there involved in counterterrorism operations.
The high-level U.S.-British visit comes in the bloodiest year in Afghanistan since the U.S.-led toppling of the Taliban in 2001. More than 6,500 people, mostly insurgents, died in violence in 2007, according to an Associated Press count of figures provided by local and international officials.
Rice chalked up the deteriorating security in the country to “committed enemies” of Afghanistan and the United States and she told reporters that U.S. President George W. Bush, after the Sept. 11 attacks by Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda terrorists, had warned people that “this would be a long war.”
The Taliban and al-Qaeda-linked militants have turned to suicide bombings and other tactics that make it more challenging to fight, she said. “It’s not work that’s going to be completed overnight,” Rice said of the efforts to rebuild the country and fight insurgents at the same time.