Rice Praises Afghan Transition to Democracy

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Weeks after the United States declared Afghanistan (search) on the verge of becoming a narcotic state, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (search) on Thursday praised Afghan efforts to clamp down on the heroin trade and Afghan President Hamid Karzai (search) predicted drug production will drop significantly this year.

Without major progress to stem drug production, the drug economy threatens to undermine democratic advances in the formerly militant Islam nation.

Rice also applauded Afghan steps toward democracy, including presidential elections that marked the first time many Afghans had ever cast votes.

Karzai said that the next round of elections, for the country's parliament, will take place in September. That is a delay from the earlier plan to hold them in May, but Karzai rejected any suggestion that the new date marks any backsliding on the march toward democracy.

At a news conference with Rice, Karzai said the delay came at the suggestion of an independent election commission and United Nations advisers.

Rice sounded satisfied with Karzai's commitment to continue reforms and unconcerned about the election delay. "This is a large and complicated country," she said. "It takes awhile to do these things."

Karzai described efforts to combat drugs as a journey the company has only just begun. "It's a long-term fight and requires a long-term strategy," he said.

Rice agreed. She noted U.S. assistance in trying to eradicate poppies and did not explicitly refer to the State Department's recent grim assessment.

Minutes before Rice and Karzai appeared together, a roadside bombing killed at least five people and wounded 32 in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar about 280 miles away.

Police blamed Taliban-led rebels for the attack, which hit a passing taxi carrying women and children, a roadside restaurant and other bystanders.

Asked about the blast, Karzai denied it was reflective of the current situation in his country. "I believe if you look at the trend, compare us with last year and compare last year and the year before" Afghanistan is now "among the less violent states in this part of the world," he said.

Earlier Thursday, Rice met with women political leaders and writers to note their progress in a society where women were forbidden to show their faces, much less participate in open political debate, just four years ago.

Rice's motorcade through Kabul passed bombed out buildings and some construction sites, evidence of Afghanistan's long history of war and violence and of recent economic improvements.

She also visited U.S. troops and thanked them for work in difficult circumstances.

"Because of the skill and bravery of the American armed forces we were able with our Afghan allies, the Afghan resistance, to overthrow the Taliban and in doing so to create the possibility of a different kind of Afghanistan that would no longer be a haven for terrorists, but would indeed be an ally in the war on terror," she told the troops.

Rice added that the Afghan experience "has indeed been an inspiration."

In a March 4 report, the State Department said that more than three years after installing a pro-U.S. government, Afghanistan has been unable to contain opium poppy production and is on the verge of becoming a narcotics state.

The report said the area in Afghanistan devoted to poppy cultivation last year set a record of more than 510,000 acres, more than triple the figure for 2003. Opium poppy is the raw material for heroin.

The Afghan narcotics situation "represents an enormous threat to world stability," the report said.

It listed opium production at 5,445 tons, 17 times more than second-place Myanmar.