By Kathleen T. Rhem
WASHINGTON, Nov. 28, 2006 – Afghanistan is NATO's most important military operation, President Bush said today in Riga, Latvia. "By standing together in Afghanistan, we'll protect our people, defend our freedom, and send a clear message to the extremists: The forces of freedom and decency will prevail," he said in a speech at Latvia University.
Bush is in Riga attending a summit of leaders of NATO nations.
All 26 NATO allies and 11 other partner nations are conducting a variety of missions in Afghanistan: operating provincial reconstruction teams, conducting combat operations to root out Taliban fighters, and training the Afghan National Army and police forces.
"They're serving with courage, and they're doing the vital work necessary to help this young democracy secure the peace," he said.
NATO forces were tested after taking control of operations in southern Afghanistan -- the traditional home of the Taliban and other extremists -- over the summer. "The Taliban radicals, who are trying to pull down Afghanistan's democracy and regain power, saw the transfer from American to NATO control as a window of opportunity to test the will of the alliance," Bush said.
He noted that Taliban fighters amassed a large force near Kandahar to take on NATO troops. "It was a mistake," Bush said.
Combat forces from Canada, Denmark, the Netherlands, Britain, Australia and the United States engaged the enemy fighters, with forces from Romania, Portugal and Estonia providing support. "According to NATO commanders, allied forces fought bravely and inflicted great damage on the Taliban," Bush said.
Bush told the NATO allies they can be proud of the transformation Afghanistan has undergone. "Because of our efforts, Afghanistan has gone from a totalitarian nightmare to a free nation with an elected president, a democratic constitution, and brave soldiers and police fighting for their country," he said.
He cited several statistics that highlight successes in Afghanistan: More than 4.6 refugees have returned home; the country's economy has tripled over five years; 2 million girls are attending school, compared to none under the Taliban; and 85 women have been elected or appointed to the Afghan National Assembly.
"A nation that was once a terrorist sanctuary has been transformed into an ally in the war on terror, led by a brave president, Hamid Karzai," Bush said. "Our work in Afghanistan is bringing freedom to the Afghan people; it is bringing security to the Euro-Atlantic community; and it's bringing pride to the NATO alliance."
Still, security and the success of the Afghan government are not assured in the country. Drug traffickers, warlords and other criminals "remain active and are committed to destroying democracy in Afghanistan," Bush said.
"Defeating them will require the full commitment of our alliance. For NATO to succeed, its commanders on the ground must have the resources and flexibility they need to do their jobs," he added. "The alliance was founded on a clear principle: An attack on one is an attack on all. That principle holds true whether the attack is on our home soil or on our forces deployed on a NATO mission abroad."
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