The Pentagon's second-highest-ranking civilian met with senior Afghan officials and U.S. military commanders today in an effort to speed up U.S.-backed projects aimed at rebuilding Afghanistan.
"There is no way to go too fast. Faster is better," Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz said outside Kabul's main maternity hospital, which is being renovated with Pentagon funds. Wolfowitz toured the facility today to highlight the Bush administration's intensified interest in Afghan reconstruction projects.
While eager to showcase recent progress here, U.S. officials acknowledge that efforts to establish security through creation of an Afghan national army and to spur economic development have not proceeded as quickly as they had hoped. Since the Taliban was ousted more than 14 months ago, only 1,800 recruits for a new army have completed training, international aid for such major projects as construction of a major highway is lagging and attacks on U.S. forces continue with some regularity in the eastern provinces.
As the Pentagon prepares for the possibility of another war, it would like to demonstrate more significant progress resulting from the last one, both to highlight the benefits of cooperating in the U.S.-led war on terrorism and as insurance that the American military commanders will not be distracted by renewed unrest in Afghanistan if U.S. forces do invade Iraq.
Wolfowitz stressed at lunch today with members of the new Afghan army and their American trainers that the Bush administration's current attention to Iraq would not diminish its commitment and continued interest in Afghanistan. Later, he said the buildup of U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf region would not affect the number of American troops in Afghanistan, now at about 9,000. "We are regulating deployments here based on the needs of the country," he said.
To expand the Afghan reconstruction effort, Wolfowitz said he would be looking at the possibility of increasing U.S. funding, which has totaled nearly $900 million over the past two years. Wolfowitz emphasized that the key to Afghanistan's security remains development of the national army and said Afghan authorities could help accelerate the training of new battalions by supplying more weapons still in the possession of powerful regional leaders.
So far, four battalions have completed training, another two battalions are in the process and a seventh unit is being formed. But U.S. military officials here acknowledged that plans to establish a full brigade of 9,000 to 12,000 troops by the first half of 2004 remained very ambitious.
One of Wolfowitz's first stops during a 13-hour visit today was to survey construction of a highway planned to ring Afghanistan, linking Kabul with Kandahar in the south and Herat in the west. U.S. officials supervising the project said the $80 million pledged so far by the United States would cover only about 120 miles of the 600-mile project.
Saudi Arabia and Japan have also made substantial pledges, but those funds have yet to materialize. Wolfowitz indicated that U.S. authorities would nudge donors to meet their commitments and also possibly seek funds from international lenders.