KABUL, Afghanistan (Dec. 19, 2011) -- Ghazi Stadium was crowded with people Thursday, many waving and cheering in a show of national pride and celebration of the soccer field's reopening. The ceremony was in stark contrast to past images of the stadium -- when it was often used for public executions and stonings during the dark days of Taliban rule.

It also marked the completion of nearly two years of work between the Afghan Olympic Committee, coalition forces and the U.S. Embassy, to return the field and revitalize the sports culture in the country.

The project began when Gen. David Petraeus, then-commander of International Security Assistance Forces, directed U.S.-Forces Afghanistan to work with Afghan political leaders to build more sports fields in Kabul city.

U.S. personnel travelled to the Olympic Sports Complex to meet with the secretary general of the Afghan Olympic Committee. "A few days later the president of the Afghan National Olympic Committee (Lt. Gen. Mohammad Zaher Aghbar) formally asked us to resurface the field," said Air Force Maj. Robert Lyons, U.S. Forces-Afghanistan strategic plans officer at the time.

"The project started under General Petraeus and finished under (current ISAF Commander Marine Gen. John) Allen and (U.S.) Ambassador (Ryan) Crocker," Lyons explained. "We were committed to honoring their request and working with the Afghan Olympic Committee to complete the project."

For Aghbar, the return of sports to the 88-year-old stadium equaled a return to normalcy for his war-torn country.

"We want the world to know that young athletes here are ambassadors for peace," Lyons said. "Their country is burning. There is smoke rising from it. But despite murders and explosions caused by the criminals of the last century, our young athletes can have a strong presence in international sports and bring medals to their country through healthy competition."

The Afghan Olympic Committee helped outline the requirements and the organizations worked as a team to get the project under way. With more than $1 million in funding approved as part of the ISAF Commander's Emergency Relief Program, known as CERP, and a grant from the U.S. Embassy, an Afghan company -- Kabul-based Miad Eiffel Road and Construction Company -- was awarded the contract. They teamed with a Netherlands company, Greenfields, to install a turf that will be certified for international competition.

The project is part of a larger partnership between Afghanistan and the United States, to encourage and support youth sports in Afghanistan.

"The intent is to provide a culture of sports for Afghan youth and give them viable alternatives to some of the other negative influences that are out there, such as crime, drugs, the insurgency," explained Navy Rear Admiral Hal Pittman, ISAF deputy chief of staff for communications. "It's one more step in Afghanistan's march to being a modern country in this part of the world."

Unlike some CERP projects, the Ghazi Stadium returning will have an immediate impact.

"Many of these infrastructure projects will not have an immediate impact," explained Air Force Lt. Col. Robert Umstead, deputy commander, USFOR-A J5. "A school, for instance, may start teaching kids right away, but the real payoff does not happen until the student grows up, graduates, and joins the work force. This is partly why it can take a generation to defeat a determined insurgency.

"In contrast, the stadium provides an immediate result that can be seen and deliver right away through sports," he said.

"With a new field like this, Afghanistan as a nation state can invite members of the international community to play games in Kabul," Lyons said. "This generates excitement in Afghanistan as they see their national teams compete. All peoples of the world know the power of sports and its relationship to the spirit of mankind."

As part of the project, the dirt beneath the field -- dirt once so soaked with blood that grass could not grow -- was removed and replaced with fresh soil, symbolizing a new start and a break with the atrocities of the past.

To Aghbar, this new Ghazi Stadium is an example of a new Afghanistan -- of an Afghanistan that promises hope and equality for its people.

"The Taliban and their supporters were trying to show their power by passing death sentences and cutting off people's hands at Ghazi Stadium," he said. "Now we want our youth and all of humanity to breathe this air freely."