US Defence Secretary Robert Gates flew into Kabul for talks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and commanders about Washington’s new strategy to send 30,000 extra troops to fight the Taliban.
It is the first official US visit since President Barack Obama last week announced he would boost the the US deployment in Afghanistan to 100,000 to counter an increasingly virulent Taliban insurgency.
The Pentagon has said the first wave of 1,500 extra US Marines will begin arriving in southern Afghanistan next week as the top military officer said there was a short window to seize back the initiative from the Taliban.
Open to talks
“We want to talk with President Karzai and (Defence) Minister Wardak about the president’s decision and the implementation of that decision, how we will use our troops and the additional troops from our allies in partnership with the Afghan national security forces,” Gates told journalists.
The Pentagon chief said he would raise the issue of stepping up the training and retention of Afghanistan’s fledgling army and police, a cornerstone of Obama’s strategy which hopes to bring a quick end to the war.
In an interview with CNN, Karzai said Afghans wanted to be in charge of security “sooner, rather than later” but said it would take two years to train Afghan forces to the point where they can lead operations in many areas.
Concerns mount for Afghan youth
Experts warn that Afghanistan lacks literate young men, veterans with leadership skills, facilities for training and money for weapons.
A senior NATO commander has warned that the current police force of around 68,000 is prone to corruption. Out of 94,000 soldiers trained so far, 10,000 have defected and 15 percent of the armed forces are drug addicts.
Obama’s plan to start withdrawing US troops in July 2011 has sparked major concern in Afghanistan and neighbouring Pakistan that the Taliban could sit out the surge, regroup and attack a pared down US force in 18 months’ time.
Gates said he was seeking to reassure Kabul of the long-term US commitment, despite strenuous domestic opposition to the war back home.
“Another major message will be the importance of a long-term relationship between the United States, ISAF (the NATO-run multinational force based in the country) and Afghanistan,” he told reporters.
Karzai delayed cabinet
Karzai, who faces huge pressure to form a transparent government after his fraud-tainted re-election in August, has postponed the unveiling of his long-awaited cabinet until Saturday at the earliest, a parliament spokesman said.
Washington has warned Karzai to fight corruption or see his cabinet bypassed in favour of lower level officials to provide services to Afghans as part of the sweeping new war strategy.
Gates emphasised “the importance for us of capable, honest ministers in areas that are critical for our success, such as defence and interior” — calling both the current incumbents “very capable people”.
The Pentagon chief will also hold talks with top US and NATO commanders, but not the overall commander on the ground, US General Stanley McChrystal, who is due to appear before Congress in Washington later Tuesday.
NATO boosts troops
NATO allies have agreed to support the US surge by dispatching another 7,000 troops, which are expected to swell the ranks of foreign forces in Afghanistan next year to 150,000.
With military commanders, Gates is due to discuss the logistical challenges facing the influx of reinforcements after signing deployment orders for the first wave of 17,000 more US troops that will arrive early next year.
“It’s going to require a lot of efforts,” Gates told reporters.
Gates’ visit to Kabul comes four days after more than 1,000 US Marines, British troops and Afghan forces launched a major offensive in the southern province of Helmand, a Taliban heartland and primary opium-growing area.
Most of the first wave of extra US troops will be going to Helmand and neighbouring province Kandahar, the spiritual capital of the Taliban and the scene of the worst fighting since the 2001 US-led invasion ousted the Taliban.
Soaring violence has made this year the deadliest since the Taliban fell from power, killing record numbers of civilians, Afghan and foreign troops.