01/16/11 — Eikenberry tells Wayne Reads crowd he is proud of progress

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Eikenberry tells Wayne Reads crowd he is proud of progress

By Catharin Shepard
Published in News on January 16, 2011 1:50 AM

U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry was in his third floor office at the Pentagon the day that terrorists crashed the hijacked Flight 77 into the building.

From that moment on, Eikenberry, a retired lieutenant general in the U.S. Army, knew his country was at war.

But while many Americans may feel the goals and objectives of the U.S. in Afghanistan have become blurred over the past decade of fighting, the first priority is still protecting America's shores -- and that means stabilizing Afghanistan, Eikenberry told an overflow crowd at the Wayne County Arts Council Saturday night.

"For me, this is not an abstract matter," he said.

Eikenberry, a Goldsboro native, spoke at the Wayne County Reads event during a visit home from his work in Afghanistan.

For its eighth year of community book discussions, the Wayne County Reads program invited residents to read the book "Three Cups of Tea" by Greg Mortenson. The book tells the true story of Mortenson, an avid mountain climber, who was nursed back to health by the people of an Pakistan village after surviving a disastrous expedition. Mortenson later returned to the fourth poorest nation in the world to build schools for Afghan children.

And Eikenberry, a decorated veteran and former deputy chairman of the NATO military committee, assured the audience that he is seeing improvements in the lives of the Afghan people.

When the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2002, "Conditions were desperate," he said.

Only 8 percent of citizens had access to basic health care. Now it's 80 percent, he said.

Since the beginning of the war, infant mortality in Afghanistan has dropped by a third, and the number of residents with clean drinking water has doubled, Eikenberry said.

And in a country where Taliban interpretation and enforcement of Islamic law once meant girls could not attend school, now an estimated 30 percent of the 7 million children attending Afghan schools are female, he said.

Perhaps most surprising, he said, there are now probably fewer than 100 al-Qaida operatives inside Afghanistan.

However, he cautioned, the changes taking place in Afghanistan have not happened overnight -- and won't in the future, either.

"We have to remember that progress is still slow," Eikenberry said.

But when the people of one Afghanistan province sees improvements being made in neighboring provinces, it often makes them eager to strive for the same.

"When they see the progress that comes with that, they want the same peace," he said.

Eikenberry took written questions from the audience, elaborating on issues ranging from the lack of Christian missionaries in Afghanistan -- illegal under the country's religious laws -- to advice for youths hoping to make a difference.

As a military veteran himself, Eikenberry knows the sacrifices made by America's men and women in uniform serving in Afghanistan, and asked those present to "look hard" at joining the armed forces as one important way to make a difference.

And after seeing the civilian side of the efforts in Afghanistan as the U.S. ambassador, Eikenberry has seen how others, too, are putting their lives on the line: American civilians using their expertise to teach the people of Afghanistan about agriculture, due process of law and security enforcement.

Central Intelligence Agency and Drug Enforcement Administration operatives, federal prosecutors and even farmers with the Department of Agriculture are all playing crucial roles in stabilizing the country, risking their lives working alongside American troops.

Eikenberry remembered speaking with one farmer who was injured in an attack. The 45-year-old Kansas man's words still stick with him.

"'Ambassador, thanks for taking the time to call. I'm fine, I'm just doing my job,'" Eikenberry related.

There are a number of enemies to peace in the countries around Afghanistan, and letting the country fall into terrorist hands again would be a mistake, the ambassador said.

Afghanistan must be brought to meet the five requirements of sovereignty, including state monopoly of strategic use of force, government accountability, financial viability, national political cohesion and support from within and without its borders, if it is to be stable, he said.

And when that happens, the U.S. can scale back its commitments to Afghanistan -- both in terms of money, and people, Eikenberry said.