- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 7, 2004

KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghanistan’s first democratically elected leader, President Hamid Karzai, took the oath of office yesterday with Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and representatives of 50 nations looking on.

With his right hand on Islam’s holy book, Mr. Karzai pledged before 600 guests — and a nation watching on television — to bring peace after nearly a generation of war and to ease his nation’s economic dependence on opium.

“Nothing makes me more hopeful to the future of this country — and my ability to serve it — than the incredible experience of our people’s participation in the recent elections,” said Mr. Karzai, dressed in his trademark green robe and lambskin cap.

“So it is with God’s blessing, and our people’s support, that I resolve to fulfill this great responsibility that has been put on my shoulders today,” the 46-year-old leader said.

The enormous challenge facing Mr. Karzai was evident from the extraordinary security measures that left the capital sealed off from the rest of the country to protect the president and 600 guests from a threatened terrorist strike.

“Our fight against terrorism is not yet over,” Mr. Karzai warned. “A decisive victory over terrorism requires serious and continuous cooperation at regional and international levels.”

Away from the capital, dozens of suspected Taliban rebels attacked an Afghan military base in Khost province near the Pakistan border before dawn, sparking a firefight that killed four Afghan soldiers and at least six militants, the Associated Press reported, citing an Afghan commander.

Mr. Karzai pledged to work toward fulfilling his principal election promises and underlined the need to improve security in the country and reduce poppy cultivation and the export of narcotics.

“With international cooperation, we can root out terrorism from Afghanistan,” he said.

“The relationship between terrorism and narcotics, however, and the threat of extremism in the region … is a source of continued concern,” he said, referring to worries over Afghanistan being the world’s main supplier of heroin.

Mr. Cheney met with Mr. Karzai and assured him that Washington would maintain its military and financial support to the fledgling democracy.

The United States has about 18,000 troops stationed in Afghanistan and also has pledged $786 million to the anti-narcotics campaign.

Earlier, speaking to U.S. troops at the Bagram Air Base north of Kabul, Mr. Cheney said that thanks to American forces, the Taliban regime that harbored the “most vicious terrorist network in history is now history.”

As a result, for the first time the people of Afghanistan “are looking confident about the future of freedom and peace,” he said.

But the terrorists are still trying to stage a comeback in Afghanistan, Mr. Cheney added, saying it was up to U.S. troops to “make those enemies miserable.”

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