- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 11, 2004

KABUL, Afghanistan — Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld pointed optimistically yesterday to a revival in commerce and rising registration for October’s election as proof Afghanistan is making progress.

“Each time I come I notice the amazing progress that’s being made — the energy on the streets, the new stores, kiosks, cars,” he said during a daylong visit.

He also noted that the United Nations has said more than 9 million people have registered to vote in the country’s presidential election this October, the first vote since the fall of the Taliban government.

But interim President Hamid Karzai faced questions during a joint press conference about the legitimacy of that election in light of reports that many voters have registered multiple times and may try to vote more than once.

“This is an exercise in democracy. Let them exercise it twice.” Mr. Karzai said. “We cannot be perfect.”

He hastened to add that voters will have their hands marked in ink that will be difficult to remove in an effort to prevent them from voting more than once.

The election also has been marred by the country’s continuing violence, much of it from Taliban-led rebels. Mr. Karzai noted that 12 election workers had been killed in recent months.

In addition, 23 American soldiers have been killed in combat in the country so far this year — making 2004 the deadliest year for U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

In all, 58 U.S. soldiers have been killed in action since the United States entered Afghanistan after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States. Counting accidents, the U.S. death toll since 2001 is at 130.

Violence has intensified with the approach of the election. In one of the biggest clashes in recent years, Afghan troops and U.S. warplanes killed as many as 70 militants near the Pakistani border on Aug. 1.

Mr. Karzai, who faces 17 opponents in October, clearly is the American favorite, although Mr. Rumsfeld and other officials have avoided endorsing him and said the U.S. government would work with whomever Afghan voters choose.

Addressing Mr. Karzai, Mr. Rumsfeld said yesterday, “Your leadership team is showing great courage in your efforts” to stabilize the country.

Mr. Rumsfeld also traveled to Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan by military helicopter to view reconstruction and counternarcotics efforts.

Joined by Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mr. Rumsfeld met with a team of Afghan soldiers trained to hunt drug smugglers. Their commander, Brig. Gen. Ahmad Khalid, said the group had taken out more than a dozen drug labs. The region around Jalalabad is prime country for growing poppy plants, which can be used to make opium.

U.N. surveys estimate Afghanistan accounted for three quarters of the world’s opium last year, and the trade brought in $2.3 billion, more than half of the nation’s gross domestic product. New surveys suggest even more has been planted this year.

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