By CNN Pentagon Producer Larry Shaughnessy
Editor's note: This is the fourth of a five-part series on 10th anniversary of the start of the US war in Afghanistan. It tracks key moments from the past decade. Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3 were published earlier this week; Part 5 will be published Friday.
After the thunderous start to the war in Afghanistan in late 2001, the situation quickly settled into an almost quiet routine. Make no mistake: U.S. and coalition troops were still dying, but not at the rate that was seen at the start of the war and nothing like the death toll seen in recent years.
But by May 1, 2003, then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told reporters that "we are at a point where we clearly have moved from major combat activity to a period of stability and stabilization and reconstruction activities."
Such stability would last through October 2004, when interim President Hamid Karzai would face a slew of competition in Afghanistan's first-ever national presidential election.
"It was quite positive because this was, for the first time in Afghanistan's 4,000- to 5,000-year-long history, a very competitive presidential election taking place, for people to choose their leader," said Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan at the time.
Khalilzad, who was born in Mazar e-Sharif before moving as a teen to the United States, remembers the extraordinary voter turnout. "The day of the election, so many people (were) waiting in lines all across Afghanistan. I remember leaving the embassy, going to several election stations myself and seeing such long lines of people that it reaffirmed in my own mind that people would like to have a say in who governs them," Khalilzad said.
"I think more than 7 million people voted that day," he said. Afghanistan has a population of 28 million.
And those more than 7 million voters went to the polls knowing the Taliban was threatening them with death.
"The election was very orderly, although there were threats by the Taliban to kill people who went to vote," Khalilzad said.
He remembers an inspirational story from that day. "There were some women in Bamiyan, in central Afghanistan, who washed themselves, ablution, to prepare themselves in case they died, to be buried," he said. "They had gotten up very early when it still was dark, washing themselves, and doing their prayers, and going out to vote fully expecting that they might get killed. And they were prepared for that. But they were going to vote, nobody was going to stop them."
The results were never in much doubt. Karzai had been appointed interim president shortly after the war began and had spent months consolidating his support. "Everyone expected President Karzai to win," Khalilzad said. And he did.
There were complaints about Karzai's victory from some of his opponents. But, Khalilzad said, even though this was Afghanistan's first true presidential election, the candidates refused to let the voting controversies pull the country down. "Once they saw the gap between what President Karzai had achieved, in terms of the votes that he had gained, and the other contestants, I thought they showed maturity rather than dragging the country through a process of questioning the legitimacy of the elections or the outcome," he said.
Khalilzad remembers that time as a very positive one for Afghanistan, a stark contrast to 2009, when Karzai ran for re-election.
"We've got obviously a different environment in our relationship with the Afghan government. During that period, we were extremely closely and tightly together. It was a very positive relationship," Khalilzad said. "It has become much more contentious and difficult, in part because of the challenges that the government has not been addressing and in part because President Karzai has become more distrustful of the United States because of the last election, in which he believes the U.S. government worked against him."
Khalilzad left Afghanistan to become U.S. ambassador to Iraq less than a year after Karzai's first election. "I thought to myself as I left Afghanistan in 2005 to go to Iraq that it was on the right trajectory."
But he had two concerns. "One was that there were sanctuaries for the opposition that were being developed and in existence in the neighboring country of Pakistan." That's a problem that continues to this day, with the Taliban and the Haqqani networks operating and conducting cross-border attacks on civilians and coalition forces in Afghanistan.
"Two, I thought that institution-building in Afghanistan ... needed to be focused on much more, especially the security institutions. Because what Afghanistan had was a bunch of militias when we got there," Khalilzad said. That problem is being dealt with. As of this month, the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police number more than 300,000.
"We thought because things were going so well ... that the security institutions could be very small. And we started very slow." At the time, the U.S. and its coalition partners had about 9,000 troops in Afghanistan. In the three years from the start of the war until the election, about 179 American troops had died in Afghanistan. So far this year, 466 Americans have died in Operation Enduring Freedom. Today, there are some 130,000 U.S. and International Security Assistance Forces personnel in Afghanistan, and at least some of them are expected to be there beyond 2014.