Karzai becomes president
KABUL, Afghanistan – President Hamid Karzai took the helm Tuesday of a country whose revival is threatened by a surging opium trade and a persistent Taliban insurgency, pledging to bring stability and prosperity to Afghanistan even as rebels staged attacks near the Pakistani border.
With the speeches over and foreign dignitaries departing his solemn swearing-in ceremony, the affable Karzai begins a challenging five-year term under pressure to heal ethnic divisions and repair the war-ravaged nation’s decrepit infrastructure.
Wearing his trademark green robe and lambskin hat and with his right hand on a copy of Islam’s holy book, the Quran, Karzai appeared jittery as he repeated an oath of allegiance read to him by the white-bearded chief justice, Fazl Hadi Shinwari.
But he recovered his poise in a confident speech before 600 guests who included Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, outlining his agenda to meet Afghans’ sky-high expectations.
He singled out America – which still has 18,000 soldiers in Afghanistan and is providing billions of dollars in aid – for particular thanks, while underlining the continued need for international support.
“Our fight against terrorism is not yet over,” he said, warning of a deadly nexus between extremists and drug traffickers. “A decisive victory over terrorism requires serious and continuous cooperation at regional and international levels.”
Afghan and international forces keen to protect Karzai’s inauguration mounted their biggest security operation since the Oct. 9 election that gave him a landslide victory. Still, rebel assaults before dawn near the Pakistani frontier provided a reminder of the threat to the country’s stability.
Dozens of suspected Taliban rebels armed with assault rifles and rockets attacked an Afghan military base in Khost province, sparking a firefight that killed four Afghan soldiers and at least six militants, an Afghan commander said.
Also in Khost, insurgents fired on a U.S. patrol, which killed two of the assailants, a U.S. spokesman, Maj. Mark McCann, said. No Americans were reported hurt.
An effort by militants to fire a rocket at Kabul late Monday was less successful, a NATO spokesman said. The rocket landed harmlessly on a cattle farm.
Cheney, the most senior American official to visit Afghanistan since the Taliban regime was ousted three years ago, met briefly with Karzai and emerged to laud him as a wise leader and an admired international statesman.
Earlier, the vice president told a group of U.S. soldiers, “For the first time the people of this country are looking confident about the future of freedom and peace.”
Rumsfeld cautioned that the military mission is not over.
“There are still groups, extremists, that would like to take this country back – the Taliban, the al-Qaida – and use it for a base for terrorist activities around the world as they did on 9/11. But it’s not going to happen.”