© St. Petersburg Times, published April 12, 2003
BAGRAM AIR BASE, Afghanistan -- With the war in Iraq winding down, Gen. Tommy Franks came to Afghanistan on Friday to tend to a little unfinished business.
Franks, commander of U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, visited some of the 11,500 coalition soldiers still searching for Osama bin Laden and other terrorists.
He complimented them on the progress being made in rebuilding Afghanistan, almost from scratch, and sounded confident about the hunt for Osama bin Laden.
"I sense we're getting closer, but one never knows," Franks said. "One day, we'll just wake up and it'll be there."
Franks' visit to Bagram, was intended to boost morale in a place where the 8,500 U.S. soldiers frequently feel forgotten by a nation sharply focused on Iraq, not here.
The general, head of Central Command at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, spoke to a select group of about 300 soldiers from the 23-nation coalition in Afghanistan. U.S. troops made up a majority of the audience.
In his speech, Franks recalled how Afghanistan looked 18 months ago when coalition troops routed Taliban forces, killing dozens and chasing the rest into Pakistan and other neighboring countries.
But the failure to catch Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, Sept. 11 mastermind bin Laden and other terrorists has been a source of irritation to coalition troops and the interim government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
Rocket attacks on U.S. bases have been almost routine, and in recent weeks, there have been ambushes of U.S. troops and their Afghan partners in three parts of southern Afghanistan. A Red Cross aid worker was killed in an ambush, and ethnic fighting in northern Afghanistan prompted nongovernmental aid workers to leave the country briefly.
"People tell me from time to time that Afghanistan is a dangerous place, and I say, 'Yup, it remains a dangerous place,"' Franks said. "But now you can go any place you want in this country, and you'll find people in shops, seeking vegetables, going to school, getting medical care."
Many Afghans, particularly in the area around Kabul, where Karzai's government has the greatest authority, agree that conditions have improved since the United States arrived.
But after 23 years of constant battle -- against the Soviets, then among one other -- followed by the autocratic regime of the Taliban, even the smallest things can seem like a big improvement.
During a news conference, Franks said several lessons learned here are being applied by U.S. troops in Iraq. Among them is the decision to have troops distribute humanitarian aid quickly, even as combat continues.
"Another had to do with greeting people with smiling faces," Franks said, explaining that a simple smile can help ease the fears of people worried that they are caught between a dictator and a conqueror.
In one area, Franks is hoping Iraq doesn't mimic Afghanistan. In Iraq, he would like to quickly capture the regime's leaders. But he is confident that Saddam Hussein and his sons -- if they are still alive -- are no longer able to govern the nation.
"They're either dead, or they're running like hell," Franks said.
Before he left Bagram for private meetings with Karzai and the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan in Kabul, Franks said he looked forward to when Afghanistan is no longer a "dangerous place" and U.S. troops can go home.
"At the end of the day, Afghanistan will be responsible for what goes on in Afghanistan," he said.