Vice President Dick Cheney headlined a rally at Iowa National Guard headquarters in Johnston welcoming home 16 soldiers who just returned from Afghanistan. Cheney drew loud and lengthy applause from the soldiers and their families when he rejected the call from some Democrats who argue the Bush Administration should set a timeline for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq.

“As always, decisions about American troop levels will be driven by the conditions on the ground and the judgement of our military commanders, not by artificial timelines set by politicians in Washington, D.C.,” Cheney said.

The vice president said keeping troops in Iraq was about keeping the Bush Administration’s word to the Iraqis. “We understand what is at stake in that part of the world. The terrorists understand it as well. The terrorists know that as freedom takes hold the ideologies of hatred and resentment will weaken and the advance of free institutions in the broader Middle East will produce a safer world,” Cheney said. “The war on terror is a battle for the future of civilization. It’s a battle worth fighting. It’s a battle we’re going to win.”

The Iowa troops who just returned were training the Afghan Army, but Cheney said they’d also taken the time to teach the Afghans new farming methods. “Showing Afghan farmers that the best way to grow corn is not by scattering seeds but by planting in rows,” Cheney said. “In this way you showed them how to improve yields dramatically so what is true at home is true everywhere else, even in an ancient country on the other side of the world: if you want good advice for raising corn, ask a guy from Iowa.”

Cheney told the soldiers the part-time Guard has become the “face” of America overseas because of these long-term deployments. One of those just-returned soldiers, Lieutenant Colonel Samuel Owens of Urbandale, says he’s proud of the work his unit did training the Afghan National Army. “It’s a fledgling army,” Owens says. They’re learning a lot and it was a great training opportunity for the soldiers deployed from Iowa to help those guys get on a straight-and-narrow path.”

Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack, as the state’s commander-in-chief, attended the ceremony to welcome Owens and the other soldiers home. Afterwards, Vilsack — who is a potential Democratic presidential candidate in 2008 — told reporters that in a private moment, he had urged the Republican vice president to spend more money buying equipment for the Guard.

“It’s wonderful that (Cheney’s) here and it’s great that he thanked folks, but the reality is that there isn’t sufficient money in the budget for equipment for the Guard,” Vilsack said.

Vilsack contends some military construction has been put on hold, and that will endanger the Guard’s ability to respond when called to duty in Iraq, Afghanistan or here at home. Over 8500 Iowa Air and Army National Guard soldiers have been mobilized for active duty since 9/11.