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.
The Afghan interior ministry said it would launch an investigation.
NATO released a statement saying the raid had targeted a Taliban bomb maker, and that seven insurgents were killed. The statement quoted spokeswoman Navy Capt. Jane Campbell as saying that "there are no operational reports to substantiate those claims of harming civilians."
Word of the incident brought hundreds of residents into the streets of Mehtar Lam on Tuesday for a demonstration. Sangarwal said that two demonstrators were killed when Afghan government forces opened fire on the crowd.
U.S. and NATO forces have focused on reducing civilian casualties as part of a strategy of winning the favor of the Afghan people. If Tuesday's reports of civilian casualties prove true, it would mark one of the highest tolls for civilians from a NATO operation in recent months.
In Kabul, lawmakers said Karzai would announce members of his new cabinet this weekend, even though he had been widely expected to do so Tuesday. As Karzai picks his team, he is being squeezed between the United States, which has demanded he stamp out corruption in order to win the support of a population whose loyalty in some cases is shifting to the Taliban, and regional strongmen, who believe the president owes them payback for his reelection.
Karzai vowed in his inaugural address last month to improve governance in Afghanistan, which is regularly rated by watchdog groups to have one of the most corrupt governments on earth. At the time of the speech, U.S. officials said they were heartened by the rhetoric but would wait to see whether Karzai took action to remove ministers who are widely suspected of using their offices for personal gain.
U.S. officials have said they will divert aid money away from any ministries run by individuals who are deemed unqualified for their jobs.
But Karzai faces a dilemma, analysts say, because he has already promised top cabinet posts to a group of former militia commanders who offered him critical support during the run-up to the Aug. 20 election. That vote was marred by fraud, and Karzai was declared the victor only after his opponent in the scheduled run-off, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, dropped out alleging the second-round balloting would not be fair.
Haroun Mir, director of Afghanistan's Center for Research and Policy Studies, said he doubts Karzai will have the will to resist naming ministers who are selected based on their perceived power, rather than their merit.
"I don't see how the international community will succeed in pressuring him to change," Mir said. "There is no political will to go after corruption."
Gates is the first senior U.S. official to visit Afghanistan since Obama detailed the surge. Precise details of his schedule are not being made public for security reasons, but he is supposed to spend time with American troops as well as Afghan officials. Deteriorating weather conditions forced the cancellation of a planned visit by helicopter Tuesday to a training facility for Afghan troops.
Gates told reporters traveling with him that he intends to deliver an unusually bold message to the military men and women already fighting here: "We are in this thing to win."
Obama and his aides have generally shied away from such language, with the president telling ABC News in July that he felt uncomfortable using the term "victory" when fighting a "a non-state actor, a shadowy operation like al-Qaeda," because the goal is to prevent attacks on the United States and because there will never be a signing ceremony with a defeated enemy.
But Gates must calibrate his message for soldiers waging war under difficult conditions. Noting that "some of the units have taken a lot of casualties," Gates said he would seek soldiers' views on "the way forward." That might include issues such as whether their equipment is adequate and whether they are ready to handle the difficult logistics of the surge.
"We would not have agreed to a shorter timeline if the logistic folks and the folks out there hadn't thought it possible," Gates said. "It is going to be a heavy lift, there's no question about it."
The Defense Department announced Monday the deployment of 16,000 troops, including 8,500 Marines.
Gates also said he is pleased that NATO countries have stepped up with contributions to the international force to augment the U.S. troop surge. He said he had expected commitments of 5,000 additional NATO troops, but at least 7,000 were pledged last week and the number will probably be higher.
"Since spring, I have been surprised by the change in tone" in NATO, Gates said, which he attributed to "the consequences of not being successful to the alliance and the greater sense of commitment to this thing." He said he was not sure why the mood had changed, "but I do think there is perception of a change in tone in Washington."
Gates, a holdover from the Bush administration, added with a laugh: "I know I've been nicer to them than I was earlier."