Image: U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry
Musadeq Sadeq  /  AP
An Afghan man reaches out to greet U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry at a madrassa in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Wednesday.
updated 9/16/2009 11:42:27 AM ET 2009-09-16T15:42:27

The U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan strolled the streets of Kabul on Wednesday, chatting with schoolchildren and visiting a mosque during an impromptu city tour.

Though insurgent attacks have skyrocketed across Afghanistan this year, Ambassador Karl Eikenberry's 15-minute stroll — while wearing a business suit and with no visible body armor — underscores the fact that the Afghan capital remains relatively safe.

An American ambassador in Iraq would never have taken an unplanned stroll down a busy city street during the deadliest years of the war there because of the extreme dangers he would have faced.

After his walk, the U.S. ambassador told The Associated Press that getting out and meeting people was "extremely valuable" and that he often takes short walks around the city.

"The mission here is to secure the people, secure the community," Eikenberry said. "You've got to be out here getting a sense of what the people are thinking in order to do that."

Outside a woodworking shop, Eikenberry talked with 37-year-old Sayed Hassan Barwazi, a community leader. Barwazi thanked the ambassador for coming out from behind the embassy's blast-proof walls and asked the United States to "pay attention to schools and parks."

While the two spoke, a crowd of about 100 gathered on the street, including several police carrying AK-47 rifles. A NATO convoy cruised by, and an Afghan man with a trained monkey on a leash walked past.

Throughout the walk, Eikenberry asked schoolchildren about their favorite subjects in school.

Immersed in role
A former three-star general who was the top U.S. military commander in the country from 2005 to early 2007, Eikenberry has traveled all over the country and is regarded as well-versed in Afghanistan's history and complex politics.

Thousands of U.S. and other foreign citizens live in Kabul, including aid workers and diplomats. Many are driven around in well-protected SUVs and with armed guards, though others ride bikes and walk short distances. Doing that can be dangerous, though; foreigners have been attacked and kidnapped in Kabul while walking and driving.

The reason for Wednesday's trip was to visit an old madrassa — an Islamic religious school — whose walls and roof were torn apart by bullet holes and mortar fire from the country's civil war in the mid-1990s. The United States is giving $120,000 to help restore the structure, which will house classrooms for more than 300 students when complete.

"It is our hope that this madrassa will educate young Afghans to help advance peace, progress, justice and prosperity in your country," Eikenberry said during a short ceremony.

Eikenberry had several bodyguards watching him during his short walk, though when he asked Afghan officials if he could walk to the nearby madrassa — about 100 yards away — he said quietly that he knew his security team would not like his impromptu plan.

Deadliest year of war
This year has been the deadliest of the eight-year war for U.S. troops, but a tight security cordon around Kabul has helped keep the capital relatively peaceful.

A U.S. spokesman for NATO forces, Col. Wayne Shanks, said Wednesday that three U.S. service members were killed after their vehicle hit a roadside bomb in southern Afghanistan on Tuesday. He did not release any other details.

In London, the Ministry of Defense said a British soldier who was wounded by an explosion in Helmand province on Saturday died at a hospital in England. His death Wednesday brings to 215 the number of British military personnel killed in Afghanistan since 2001.

Violence has risen across Afghanistan in the last three years as the resurgent Taliban regained control of large swaths of countryside. August was the deadliest for U.S. forces since the war with the Taliban began in 2001.

Fighting has been particularly harsh this summer in the south, where thousands of U.S. troops have deployed to bolster the Canadian and British-led operations in the Taliban heartland.

More on: Afghanistan   |   Karl Eikenberry

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