- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 28, 2006

KABUL, Afghanistan — Surprise visits to countries with volatile security conditions have become a signature of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s overseas travels, and yesterday she flew to Afghanistan amid the worst violence there in nearly five years.

Miss Rice plans to attend the annual meeting of the foreign ministers from the Group of Eight leading industrialized nations in Moscow today. As is typical, she was looking for additional stops to build a several-day trip.

No announcement had been made as of Friday, and reporters and even some State Department officials assumed the secret stop would be Baghdad, although President Bush was in the Iraqi capital a week earlier and Miss Rice visited twice in April.

As a rule, Baghdad is the only place where trips by Cabinet members are not announced in advance. Reporters traveling with those officials routinely are told about the trip at the last moment and are forbidden to report it until they are on the ground in Iraq.

So it was a surprise for Miss Rice’s “traveling press,” as the State Department calls it, to learn Sunday that the additional stops on this week’s trip would be Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Although the information was “for planning purposes only” and “not for reporting,” the department announced on Monday that the secretary would depart for Islamabad later that day.

When the plane landed in Islamabad on Tuesday afternoon, reporters were allowed to tell the world that she would go to Afghanistan the next morning.

A senior State Department official traveling with Miss Rice said the Kabul visit was kept secret “out of general prudence,” given the dangerous security situation there.

The official, who asked not to be named because he was discussing a private process, said Miss Rice was not involved in the decision to maintain secrecy. That was made by Richard A. Boucher, assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs, the official said.

Remnants of the Taliban militia and al Qaeda elements have increased violence in Afghanistan, particularly in the south, to its highest level since the Taliban was driven from power after the September 11 attacks. More than 1,100 people have been killed so far this year.

“In some parts of Afghanistan, there has been more intense fighting this year than in a while,” Miss Rice said yesterday. “There are parts of Afghanistan where people do not feel secure.”

The security situation has become such a problem that some have questioned President Hamid Karzai’s leadership. Last week, Mr. Karzai, in turn, criticized the U.S.-led forces here for not doing enough to guarantee his citizens’ safety.

At a press conference with Mr. Karzai, Miss Rice praised him as one of the world’s most respected leaders and a fierce fighter against terrorism. She also offered assurances that the United States has not lost interest in the war-torn and impoverished country.

“We are not going to tire. We are not going to leave. They should know that we are in this fight until it is victoriously concluded,” she said.

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