KABUL, Afghanistan – U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Tuesday that the Afghan security force needs to be strengthened and more soldiers and police need to be recruited to battle militants, but he added that the U.S. is committed to help Afghanistan for the long haul.
Gates, who met with Afghan President Hamid Karzai at the presidential palace in Kabul, is the first member of President Barack Obama's Cabinet to visit since Obama announced last week that he is sending 30,000 reinforcements to Afghanistan, but intends to pare down the U.S. role in July 2011. The defense secretary and other administration officials have described the 2011 date as just the beginning, with the process likely take at least two or three years to complete.
Finding ways to strengthen and increase recruiting in the beleaguered Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police was among the topics Gates and Karzai discussed. At a joint news conference, Karzai said it would be 15 years before Afghanistan would be able to pay the cost of maintaining the Afghan security forces.
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Karzai also reaffirmed his commitment to fight corruption. The president, who won re-election to a second term in a ballot marred by fraud, is expected to announce his new Cabinet in the next several days. It will be the first test of Karzai's willingness to meet his pledge to reform the government.
He is under intense pressure from the international community to nominate a slate of reformists to help rid his government of bribery and graft.
Despite lawmakers' demand that Karzai submit a full slate of ministers for approval, Karzai said he will send parliament 40 percent of his Cabinet list in the coming days. He said those ministers who have proven track records of service will remain in the Cabinet, although he did not say if they would stay in their same posts.
Karzai has repeatedly argued that while there is corruption in the Afghan government, there is also corruption within international contracting processes.
Gates also said he had talked with the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry, and the commander of NATO and U.S. forces about how to improve monitoring and rein in corruption among contractors working on projects funded by the international community.
During his visit, Gates is meeting with troops, but the top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, is in Washington to testify about the new U.S. war plan.
En route to Kabul, Gates told reporters he believes the U.S. mistakenly abandoned Afghanistan in 1989 as it fought the Soviets and understands Afghan concerns that they will be left alone against the Taliban. Gates said he wants to assure Karzai and his advisers "that we are not going to repeat the situation in 1989" and that "we intend to be their partner for a long time to come."
He also said he will press Karzai and Afghan Defense Minister Gen. Abdul Rahim Wardak on efforts to recruit and train more Afghan soldiers and police officers. McChrystal has set the goal of building the Afghan security force to 400,000 by 2013. There are roughly 94,000 Afghan police officers and 97,000 soldiers today.
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