By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
May 11, 2010 - In the midst of a series of diplomatic meetings here, Afghan President Hamid Karzai took time to visit with American servicemembers who were wounded helping his country.
Karzai met with servicemembers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, accompanied him.
At the State Department today, Karzai said he is proud of the progress Afghanistan has made, but noted that none of it would have been possible "without the sacrifices of your sons and daughters in Afghanistan, together with the Afghan people; and without your taxpayers' money spent in Afghanistan, together with the Afghan people."
"I thank you," he said, "and on behalf of the Afghan people, please do convey the gratitude of our people to the people of the United States of America."
Karzai is here to strengthen the strategic partnership between the United States and Afghanistan. Karzai and members of his government will meet with U.S. officials through May 14.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton stressed that the United States is in its partnership with Afghanistan for the long term.
"Our nations will work together and with the international community to build a stable and prosperous Afghanistan that is a force for peace, progress and prosperity for its own people and its region, a bulwark against al-Qaida and other violent extremists rather than a haven for them," she said at the State Department this morning. "And in so doing, we will advance and sustain the security of both our nations."
Clinton said the U.S. commitment to Afghanistan will last long after American combat forces leave the country. "Let me be clear," she said. "As we look toward a responsible, orderly transition in the international combat mission in Afghanistan, we will not abandon the Afghan people. Our civilian commitment will remain long into the future."
The secretary of state acknowledged that a difficult road lies ahead, but added that Afghanistan already has made enormous progress. Freed from the yoke of the Taliban, Afghanistan is an emerging and vibrant civil society, she noted, with a burgeoning free press. Afghanistan now has more than 150 FM radio stations, 23 television stations and a growing telecommunications industry. More than 10 million mobile phones are in use in Afghanistan today; seven years ago, the country had only 80,000 cell phone users.
Afghanistan has put in place a health care system that now provides access to basic services for two-thirds of the population. The education system that "once had 900,000 students under the Taliban, all male, and now has 6 million, 2 million of whom are girls," Clinton said.
But progress in Afghanistan remains fragile, the secretary said. The country remains under constant threat from extremists who use violence to achieve political ends and promote criminal enterprises, including narcotics trafficking. The Afghan police are targets of the insurgents, and the Taliban continue to send hit men to assassinate government officials.
Clinton called on the Afghan government to assume greater responsibility for security starting next year. President Barack Obama has said that U.S. troops will begin to leave Afghanistan in July 2011, if conditions allow.
As the Afghans take over more of the security mission, Clinton said, the United States will continue the development effort.
"When we added troops this year, we also tripled the number of U.S. civilians on the ground," she said. "These diplomats and development experts are partnering with our military and their Afghan counterparts, helping to strengthen institutions and expand economic opportunities in areas like agriculture."
Clinton applauded Karzai's efforts to fight corruption in the Afghan government, and said the United States is interested in Karzai's plan for a Taliban reintegration and reconciliation process. The United States also welcomes the upcoming Afghan peace jirga – a national assembly – that will allow Afghans to express their views and support, Clinton said.
Karzai asked the United States to support Afghanistan's development strategy.
"It would give Afghanistan long-term institutional, economic and security stability so Afghanistan can, in a few years' time, not be any more a burden on your shoulders," he said, "so that Afghanistan can stand on its own feet, so Afghanistan can defend its country, so Afghanistan can feed its people with its own income, so we can pay for our lives from our own pockets."