By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, February 8, 2008
KABUL, Feb. 7 -- Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, during a visit here Thursday, said a "more coherent international approach" is needed in Afghanistan to build on what she described as significant progress.
At the same time, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told journalists after a meeting of NATO defense ministers in Vilnius, Lithuania, that he did not think the alliance was failing in its efforts to secure Afghanistan, despite his continued criticism of some members that have declined to provide additional combat troops or lift restrictions on operations.
"I don't think there's a crisis" or a "risk of failure," Gates said. He said that adding more fighting forces would create an "opportunity to make further progress faster" in beating back the insurgency, but he did not repeat his complaint that Germany has insisted on confining its troops to safe areas of Afghanistan, while the United States, Canada, Britain and others have borne the brunt of combat risks.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai, appearing at a news conference with Rice and British Foreign Secretary David Miliband, sought to mend fences with his international backers after publicly complaining that they were failing to adequately support the fight and interfering politically.
The tensions within NATO, and between Karzai and his principal foreign backers, have risen as insurgent violence has intensified in Afghanistan. Experts warned this month that the country risks collapse despite six years of foreign economic aid, political guidance and military support.
Karzai told reporters that he had been "misquoted" in making a widely criticized comment that British troops fighting Taliban insurgents were not tough or persistent enough. "Britain is the second-largest donor to Afghanistan; it has the second-largest number of troops; it has had losses of life. . . . I am terribly embarrassed that this has come up," he said.
Karzai also said he was "personally unhappy" over the withdrawal of a proposed U.N. special envoy to Kabul, whom he recently opposed for fear the British appointee would wield too much power over Afghan affairs. Another envoy is now being sought. "Whoever the secretary general picks . . . we will support," he said in English.
When answering questions in Dari from Afghan reporters, however, the president displayed more pique, asserting that combating corruption and crime were matters for Afghans to address, not foreigners. Paddy Ashdown, the proposed U.N. representative, had been asked to exercise broad oversight in light of Afghanistan's poor governance record.
Karzai said he wanted to stay out of the debate over the proper number and role of foreign forces in Afghanistan. He declined to echo U.S. demands for more NATO military contributions, and he took issue with the suggestion that his country's struggle against Islamic insurgents is a "forgotten war" that has suffered in the shadow of Iraq.
"If Afghanistan were given more attention, I would be very glad and thankful, but it is not right that Afghanistan is forgotten," Karzai said. "Afghanistan is trying to stay away from these negotiations on troops. . . . We are grateful to all NATO members who continue to aid in whatever way they can."
There are currently about 42,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan from 26 countries. The largest contingent is provided by the United States, which has about 15,000 troops under NATO command and an additional 14,000 involved in separate training and counterinsurgency missions. Britain, Canada, the Netherlands and Australia also provide significant numbers of combat forces, but many other NATO members are constrained by domestic opinion as to the number of troops they can send and the degree of harm they can risk.
Gates, who visited London on Wednesday, criticized NATO countries that have not sent troops "willing to fight and die" in Afghanistan. Hundreds of American, British and Canadian troops have died here since 2001, and Canadian officials have threatened to pull out within a year if more NATO members do not increase their troop commitments.
"What we are obviously interested in is more who will have no caveats on their forces and those who are willing to engage in the fight itself," Gates said in Lithuania.
Rice, whose visit to Kabul had not previously been announced, stressed the progress in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, but said the country now faces "determined enemies" who will not be easy to defeat. "It's not work that's going to be completed overnight," she said.
She cast the current conflicts within NATO in a sympathetic light, saying: "There are a lot of cooks in the kitchen, a lot of countries who want to help. . . . There are overlapping authorities and many bureaucracies. . . . I can understand why there is some confusion on priorities."
To bolster the image of joint U.S. and British commitment, Rice and Miliband flew to a military base in Kandahar, in the insurgents' southern stronghold, to greet NATO troops. Miliband echoed Rice's show of cooperation, saying that Britain was "determined to work against the shared enemy" of terrorism and that he was there "to affirm the mutual responsibility we have to support each other."