By Gerry J. Gilmore
WASHINGTON, June 28, 2006 – Life has improved for Afghanistan's people since the days of Taliban rule, a senior U.S. military commander told U.S. legislators here today. Progress made in Afghanistan "is truly significant," Army Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry told House Armed Services Committee members at a Capitol Hill hearing. Afghanistan today boasts a democratically elected president and parliament, a confirmed cabinet, a functioning constitution, a growing security force and ongoing reconstruction projects, Eikenberry said.
That wasn't the case when the Taliban seized power in 1996 and governed Afghanistan with an iron fist. They also allowed al Qaeda to run terrorist training camps in the country. U.S. and coalition military forces defeated the Taliban during Operation Enduring Freedom following the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. Yet, today the country remains a target of terrorism groups, narco-traffickers, and other criminals, Eikenberry said. Afghanistan's political, social and economic institutions were severely battered as the result of the 1979 Soviet invasion and ongoing civil wars.
Consequently, "the enemy we face is not particularly strong, but the institutions of the Afghan state remain relatively weak," Eikenberry explained. "This situation is enabling the enemy to operate in the absence of government presence in some areas of Afghanistan." One of those enemies is the Taliban, who persecuted anyone who didn't conform to their radical interpretation of Islam. Women were whipped by the Taliban's "religious police" if they didn't cover themselves, and public beheadings were employed to keep the population in check.
Now, the Taliban appear to be making a comeback.
"Since being removed as a regime, they have reconstituted elsewhere," Eikenberry said. The Taliban, he added, are operating in groups of 40 to 50 fighters in some areas of the country. "They're demonstrating better command and control, and they are fighting hard," Eikenberry said. Operation Mountain Thrust, he said, was recently launched in southern Afghanistan to disrupt Taliban operations. "The combat phase of this operation is only the precursor to our longer-term goal of strengthening good governance, the rule of law, reconstruction and humanitarian assistance, and economic development," Eikenberry said.
"This emphasis on government and development is indicative of our overall approach to the Afghan campaign," the general said. Provincial reconstruction teams are actively engaging local and district leaders to assist the establishment of good governance, Eikenberry said. Roving medical assistance teams, he said, are treating thousands of Afghans who would otherwise likely not receive such assistance. Ongoing road building projects are crucial to Afghanistan's future economic development, Eikenberry said, noting U.S. and coalition engineers are assisting Afghan road construction crews.
"We are building hundreds of miles of roads," Eikenberry said. Road projects help extend the influence of the central government, he said, while sparking the local, regional and national economies.