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Hillary Clinton meets with troops in Afghanistan

BAGRAM, Afghanistan -- She arrived under a glittering sky with a clear message for the troops of the US Army's 10th Mountain Division and for the people of Afghanistan: We haven't forgotten you're here.

"I think we've made extraordinary progress," US Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton told a crowd of soldiers yesterday at Bagram Air Base north of Kabul, the capital. "It's fair to say our attention back home has been pretty much taken up with Iraq over the last several months and we don't want anyone to forget about the mission that is still to be accomplished here in Afghanistan."

Clinton, a Democrat from New York, and US Senator Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat, flew into Kabul for a lightning tour of the war-ravaged country that included meetings with President Hamid Karzai and back-to-back Thanksgiving lunches -- one with the troops at the air base and another 300 miles to the southwest at a base in Kandahar. Their trip will carry them to Iraq next.

At the fortress-like presidential palace in Kabul, Clinton smiled easily with Karzai and then greeted about 50 eager soldiers at the mess hall of the windswept, dusty Bagram base.

While President Bush was springing a surprise visit on troops in Iraq, Clinton and Reed said they were in Afghanistan to rally support for military efforts there.

"We've got to make sure the United States -- not only the Senate and the Congress but the American public -- support what we're doing here and continue to provide the resources that are necessary," the former first lady said.

There is growing concern among Western diplomatic officials and aid representatives in Kabul that the United States, faced with chaos in Iraq, is looking for the door out of Afghanistan.

"We let our attention wander from Afghanistan and we lost the initiative," said Reed, a former US Army paratrooper. "We gave a lot of these [anti-US] groups a second chance. Now we have to regain the initiative we have to take more aggressive, offensive operations."

With elections next year in both Afghanistan and the United States, the Bush administration has pledged to redouble reconstruction efforts under the oversight of Bush's special envoy to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, who arrived in Kabul yesterday to take up the additional mantle of US ambassador.

But many Afghan and Western officials were disappointed that a recent supplemental bill asking for more than $87 billion to rebuild Iraq and Afghanistan requested only $1.2 billion for Afghanistan relief and reconstruction.

In the overheated mess hall decked with crepe-paper turkeys, Clinton chatted with a group of female New Yorkers from the 10th Mountain Division, based at Fort Drum, N.Y., while Reed sat across the room with soldiers from Rhode Island.

"It's nice of her to come all the way over here as our senator," said Captain Michaela McMurrough, who sat next to Clinton. "She has her own family and she's spending the holiday with us."

Despite the spotlight on Iraq, there was no question in the minds of soldiers about why Afghanistan still mattered.

"We're here for a reason," said Captain Ricky Semple, a reservist from Queens, N.Y., who worked blocks from the World Trade Center. "I was in New York City on Sept. 11. I was covered in dust. I saw it. We have just cause, and I'm proud of what we're doing here."

Clinton agreed:

"We were attacked in New York by forces of a failed state in Afghanistan. We can't ever forget that, and we can't ever let it happen again." Reed and Clinton insisted that the job in Afghanistan was far from done, and that more international troops were needed to bring stability and meet economic and political goals.

"We need more security. I believe we need more troops," Clinton told reporters after lunch. She said she had "no preference" about whether additional troops came from US forces or from NATO, which commands the 5,550-strong International Security Assistance Force. "What the force structure is and where it comes from I'll leave to others to decide."

ISAF, which operates under a UN mandate, got the green light to expand outside Kabul last month, but so far few NATO members have offered extra troops. The US-led coalition has about 11,500 troops around the country.

When Clinton and Reed had rushed through the pink sunset to jump on a flight to their second Thanksgiving dinner, the troops still had one celebrity left: Geraldo Rivera, the Fox News correspondent, who got a beaming smile and a kiss from Clinton, and an endless stream of photo requests from troops.

"Unfortunately, I think they're more excited about Geraldo," coalition spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Bryan Hilferty, who is from Arlington, said as Rivera prepared to broadcast live.

"These famous people come and visit, and you know they came because of you. It makes Thanksgiving something special," Hilferty said. "I don't think Geraldo goes to Arlington, Mass."

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