In a surprise visit to Afghanistan, Gates aims to reassure troops, Karzai

Afghan President Hamid Karzai said Tuesday it will be at least 15 years before his government can bankroll a security force strong enough to protect the country from the threat of insurgency.
By Glenn Kessler and Griff Witte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 8, 2009; 10:20 AM

KABUL -- Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates offered potentially conflicting time frames Tuesday for when American forces will be able to leave this war-torn country, with Gates warning that the U.S. commitment is not open-ended and Karzai saying it will be at least five years before Afghanistan can secure itself.

Karzai said his country would not be able to fully bankroll its security forces for at least 15 to 20 years. As a visibly uncomfortable Gates stood next to him at a joint news conference, Karzai added that with "maximum effort" Afghanistan "hopefully" could take security responsibility for "the whole of the country" in five years.

Karzai had offered a similar five-year time frame in November, when he began his second term as president after a disputed election. But that was before President Obama announced that he would send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan so the United States can begin withdrawing in July, 2011.

Gates told reporters that Karzai's timeline for Afghanistan to control its own security could be met or beaten as more Afghan security forces are trained and deployed. He also said he hoped "accelerated economic growth" in Afghanistan could help reduce the burden on the United States to pay for Afghan troops.

At the same time, Gates pledged to support Afghanistan as much as necessary in fighting militant insurgents. The defense secretary has stressed repeatedly that the United States will not abandon Afghanistan as it did in 1989, when Soviet forces left the country.

"Our government will not again turn our back on this country or the region," Gates said. "We will fight by your side until the Afghan forces are large enough and strong enough to secure the nation on their own."

The declared withdrawal date has been used by Republican opponents to question the depth of Obama's commitment to the war effort. Afghan and Pakistani officials also are concerned it might be a sign that the United States is wavering -- even though Obama's troop surge will bring the number of U.S. forces here to about 100,000.

U.S. troops cannot leave until there is a successful expansion of the Afghan military, which has performed poorly in many instances and suffers from rapid turnover and attrition.

Gates said at the news conference that "there is a realism on our part that it will be some time" before Afghan forces can stand on their own.

"We expect that this is a several-year process -- whether it's three years or two years or four years remains to be seen," he said. "But as President Obama has made very clear, this is not an open-ended commitment on the part of the United States."

As Gates's visit got underway early Tuesday, Afghan officials in the eastern province of Laghman charged that an overnight raid led by American troops had left between seven and 12 civilians dead. NATO officials disputed that account.

The provincial council chief, Gulzar Sangarwal, said that U.S. and Afghan army forces had mistakenly targeted a group of villagers on the edge of the province's main city, Mehtar Lam. "All of the people killed, I can tell you they were innocent," Sangarwal said.

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