Biden: U.S. would support Afghans beyond 2014 target

By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, January 11, 2011; 11:38 AM

KABUL - Vice President Biden on Tuesday pledged long-term American support for Afghanistan, offering a commitment to help the war-torn nation beyond the 2014 target both countries have set to have Afghans fully in charge of their own security.

The day after he arrived on an unannounced visit to Kabul, Biden toured a training academy for Afghan soldiers, had lunch with President Hamid Karzai and said he was confident of the effectiveness of the United States' counter-insurgency strategy.

"We've largely arrested the Taliban momentum here in some very important areas," Biden said alongside Karzai. "But these gains, as you pointed out to me Mr. President, we know are fragile and reversible."

During the intense Washington debate leading up to the sending of 30,000 new U.S. troops to Afghanistan, Biden urged a smaller U.S. military footprint more focused on counterterrorism operations against Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders.

"It is not our intention to govern or to nation-build," Biden said. "As President Karzai often points out, this is the responsibility of the Afghan people, and they are fully capable of it."

But he stressed that the United States will continue to assist the Afghan government.

"If the Afghan people want it, we won't leave in 2014," Biden said.

Biden flew into Kabul on Monday night to assess the progress of the decade-long war against the Taliban and determine whether Afghan troops are ready to start taking over from their American allies.

After touching down at Kabul airport on a cold and overcast evening, Biden was greeted by U.S. Ambassador Karl W. Eikenberry and the American military commander, Gen. David H. Petraeus, along with Afghan officials.

The main purpose of the trip, according to a White House official, was to "assess progress toward the transition to Afghan-led security beginning in 2011." With American troops slogging it out against the Taliban, many officials expect little change in the U.S. military presence this year.

Biden's visit, his first since taking office, brings him to the Afghan capital at a time of uncertainty in the war. Military commanders claim progress against the Taliban in the areas where they've concentrated U.S. troops, particularly in the southern Afghan provinces of Kandahar and Helmand. And President Obama last month called the war effort "on track."

But the insurgency remains potent in wide swaths of the country. The Afghan government has strongly opposed parts of the U.S. military strategy and has not yet addressed its own problems with corruption. Insurgent leaders, meanwhile, operate safely from sanctuaries in Pakistan.

U.S. military officials are waiting until spring, when the Taliban fighting season typically resumes, before drawing firmer conclusions about how much they've disrupted the insurgency and whether the Afghan government has stepped into the gap.

The recent death of Obama's special representative to the region, Richard C. Holbrooke, removed a diplomatic heavyweight from the scene and raised questions about whether the Obama administration will shift its approach.

Holbrooke's acting successor, Frank Ruggiero, was also in Kabul on Monday, after a visit to Pakistan. He came in part to assure officials in both countries that Holbrooke's position of special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan - a new office that has not always fit easily within the State Department - will remain intact, although Ruggiero is not expected to keep the job in the long term.

Biden has been a regular visitor to Afghanistan over the years. As a senator, he was the first elected American official to arrive in Kabul after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and was a strong ally of Karzai's.

But in the past couple of years, Biden's relations with Karzai have grown shakier. Biden has been skeptical of Karzai's reliability and his willingness to address the corruption in his government. The two men had a combative dinner in Kabul in February 2008 while Biden was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. And just before Obama's inauguration, Biden delivered the message to Karzai that he would not have the same type of chummy relationship with Obama that he had with President George W. Bush.

The White House has seemed to engage Karzai more directly in recent months, including more frequent discussions between the two presidents. On Dec. 3, Obama flew to Afghanistan for the second time as president and addressed U.S. troops at Bagram air base, although he canceled a helicopter trip to Kabul to see Karzai because of bad weather.

In the administration's wrangling over an Afghanistan strategy, Biden's vision has so far not prevailed. He urged a smaller U.S. military footprint with a more narrow focus on counterterrorism operations using Special Operations forces and drone strikes to target al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters, rather than more ambitious nation-building to win the allegiance of the Afghan people.

Instead, Obama decided to send 30,000 more American troops to Afghanistan, boosting the total to 100,000. Obama has also moved away from the deadline he set of July 2011 for those troops to begin pulling out. Although the administration still says there will be some drawdown starting this summer, the focus of the American timeline has clearly shifted to 2014, when officials hope the Afghan government can take responsibility for security.

The extension is an implicit recognition of the difficulty of quickly defeating a Taliban insurgency that has only grown more pervasive and violent over the past several years. But it is also an attempt to convince Afghan and Pakistani officials that the United States does not intend to abandon the region anytime soon. That is a message Biden is likely to reiterate to Karzai, while urging government reform and attention to the type of corruption that turns Afghans to the Taliban.

Afghan officials, meanwhile, continue to push for more authority over how the war is fought and how billions of dollars in foreign aid is spent. Karzai supports a less intrusive U.S. military presence in Afghanistan and has pushed to curtail inflammatory Special Operations night raids and reduce civilian casualties. He also wants his country to benefit from development projects and not just serve as a battlefield against terrorism.

Biden was expected to fly from Kabul to Islamabad early Wednesday for a one-day visit with senior Pakistani officials. Officials at the Foreign Ministry in Islamabad said Biden would meet separately with President Asif Ali Zardari, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani and Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, the army chief, before leaving Pakistan late Wednesday to return to the United States.

Pakistani sources in Washington said Biden's discussions would focus on the Obama administration's concerns over growing political instability and economic problems in Pakistan. The government's ruling coalition came close to collapse over the past several weeks, and it was salvaged only after officials agreed to lower fuel prices, a populist concession that has alarmed international lenders and U.S. officials.

Officials at the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad said Tuesday night that they could not confirm whether or when Biden would arrive in the Pakistani capital, but they said that if he did visit Pakistan he would meet with the top three officials.

Correspondent Pamela Constable in Islamabad contributed to this report.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company