KABUL, Afghanistan, Dec. 7 -- Sworn in Tuesday as Afghanistan's first popularly elected president, Hamid Karzai immediately vowed to tackle the daunting challenges ahead, such as curbing the influence of regional warlords and rolling back the country's booming opium trade.
In a brief inaugural address, Karzai expressed his thanks to the Afghan people, who defied threats by Taliban insurgents to vote in largely peaceful national elections in October, and to the United States, which led the international invasion that ousted the Taliban government in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
President Hamid Karzai, front left, prays during his swearing-in ceremony at the presidential palace. Hundreds of Afghan and foreign guests attended, including Vice President Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.
(Pool Photo Ahmad Masood Via AP)
Video: Hamid Karzai called for sustained help from the international community to aid in the fledgling democracy's fight against terrorism and drugs.
But Karzai, 46, acknowledged uncomfortable truths during his nationally televised speech at a dignified, heavily guarded ceremony attended by hundreds of Afghan and foreign guests, including Vice President Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.
He vowed to disarm regional militias, root out corruption, overcome obstacles to parliamentary elections tentatively scheduled for the spring and -- perhaps most significant -- eliminate the poppy cultivation that has turned Afghanistan into the world's leading opium producer.
Although the insurgents failed to make good on threats to disrupt the ceremony, Karzai reminded his audience of the continuing challenges of religious extremism and the persistent, low-level fighting that has hampered reconstruction efforts in large swaths of the country, especially in the south and east.
"Our fight against terrorism is not yet over," said Karzai, who wore a flowing green cape and black lambskin cap. "The relationship between terrorism and narcotics and the continued threat of extremism in the world at large are a source of continued concern."
In Tuesday's hour-long ceremony, Karzai and the Bush administration appeared eager to showcase the country's democratic rebirth three years after the fall of the Taliban.
"We gather to mark a historic moment in the life of the nation and in the history of human freedom," Cheney said at a news conference with Karzai beforehand on the grounds of the presidential palace, a turreted stone structure set against distant, snow-dusted mountains. "Now the tyranny is gone, the terrorist enemy is scattered and the people of Afghanistan are free."
Cheney was accompanied by his wife, Lynne, and Karen Hughes, a political adviser to President Bush.
Security for the inauguration was heavy even by the standards of this dust-caked, militarized city. Major roads were closed, U.S.-led multinational troops patrolled on foot and in armored vehicles, and sharpshooters with telescopic sights manned rooftops while helicopters whirred overhead. There are 16,000 U.S. combat troops in the country, according to the Pentagon. NATO oversees 8,500 multinational troops providing security.
But the capital had a festive air. Traffic circles and major thoroughfares were festooned with colored lights and the red, green and black Afghan flag. Portraits of Karzai were displayed on the sides of office buildings. Blue banners declared in English, "Today the Afghan People Celebrate Their First Elected President."
"This is the birth of our nation," Merajuddin Patan, the governor of Khost province, said in an interview several hours before the ceremony. "I believe the real history of Afghanistan -- modern history -- will begin with this."
Patan, who fought the Soviet Union's occupation of the country in the 1980s, became a taekwondo instructor in Arlington and returned to his native land after the fall of the Taliban. "It's a great feeling," he said.
Karzai was born in the southern city of Kandahar and was a leader in the anti-Soviet resistance. The United States chose him as the interim leader of Afghanistan in late 2001, and he was elected to the presidency Oct. 9.