With a low-profile, tightly secured arrival at Bagram Air Base, Vice President Dick Cheney became the highest-ranking United States official to visit Kabul since the Taliban's overthrow.
His day began with breakfast alongside the troops and culminated with the inauguration ceremony for Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai, who is now charged with leading this war-torn country into a future free of ethnic warfare and Islamic radicalism.
NBC News joined the vice president for his whirlwind, 53-hour trip to Afghanistan. And, at Bagram, Cheney sat with NBC for an exclusive interview.
David Gregory: This is a dawn of a new era in Afghanistan to be sure. But security is still a huge problem in this country.
Vice President Dick Cheney: Well, we're committed to doing whatever we have to do in order to make certain that the Afghan people succeed in building a free society.
Gregory: Is it realistic in the near term or even the medium term for the United States to relinquish its role as the primary stick in this part of the world in Afghanistan?
Vice President Cheney: I don't think of it in terms of the calendar. We'll stay as long as it takes for us to complete the mission. Think about where we've come from. I mean, you had thousands of terrorists — one estimate said 20,000 terrorists in the late 1990s — trained at training camps here in Afghanistan. You had safe haven here for Osama bin Laden and all of his top people.
Gregory: What role do you think Osama bin Laden plays within al-Qaida right now?
Vice President Cheney: It's difficult to say. I guess if I would characterize it, I think he's still very much an important figurehead for the al-Qaida organization. This is an ongoing conflict and it's also important, keep in mind, if we get Osama bin Laden tomorrow the war is not over.
Gregory: I'd like to ask you if I could, a little bit about Iraq, which has its own date with history next month. Critics are saying that one of the reasons why there is a lack of stability now is because this administration has consistently underestimated the strength of the insurgency. Not true?
Vice President Cheney: Not true. If you look at the provinces in Iraq, you got three provinces where there are serious problems in terms of the security situation. Most of the rest of the country is in relatively good shape. But holding those elections is crucial. You do not want to reward the insurgents or the terrorists by letting them delay the elections — that's called terrorists win.
Gregory: They delayed them here in Afghanistan.
Vice President Cheney: Well, no — not under those circumstances, we got the job done in Afghanistan. I think the key in Iraq is for us to go forward. Who would have said three years ago, here in Afghanistan with the situation that existed at the time, that we're going to be able to achieve all that we achieved? [They said] it's never been done in 5,000 years. Right, but we got it done and we're going to get it done in Iraq.
Here in Kabul, Afghan President Karzai called this a day of peace and democracy. But America's mission here is far from over and as the vice president told NBC Tuesday, there are no guarantees of quick success.