KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) – U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney on Thursday called his country’s commitment to Afghanistan “firm and unshakable” and said members of NATO need to step up their commitment to help it continue to rebound from years of tyranny and war.
Problems in Afghanistan will be a key topic at the NATO summit early next month in Romania. NATO’s force is about 43,000-strong, but commanders seek more combat troops for areas in southern Afghanistan where Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters are the most active.
“America will ask our NATO allies for an even stronger commitment for the future,” Cheney said, standing alongside Afghan President Hamid Karzai at his heavily guarded presidential palace.
Cheney, who is on a 10-day overseas trip, also said that neighboring Pakistan, like other sovereign nations, has an obligation to control its territory and ensure that it’s not a sanctuary for insurgents and terrorists.
“They have as big a stake as anyone else in dealing with the threat that sometimes emerges from those areas along the border,” Cheney said during a visit that was not announced in advance. He said he has no reason to doubt Pakistan’s commitment to dealing with problems emerging from the border area if terror groups are allowed to operate there because the Pakistani government itself is a target for the al-Qaeda and extremists.
“You’ve seen a number of devastating attacks against the people and government of Pakistan, including of course the tragic assassination of former Prime Minister (Benazir) Bhutto,” he said.
Cheney flew from Oman to the Afghan capital, then took a helicopter to the dusty presidential compound where he greeted Karzai with a hearty handshake. The two strolled down a deep red carpet, reviewing troops before heading inside for their talks.
“During the last six years, the people of Afghanistan have made a bold and confident journey, throwing off the burden of tyranny, winning your freedom and reclaiming your future,” he said. “The process has been difficult, but the courage of the nation has been unwavering. The United States of America has proudly walked with you on this journey, and we walk with you still.”
Cheney advisers said the vice president would urge Karzai to continue to work with Pakistan, in the wake of its recent elections, and stay focused on the problems of extremists and terrorists moving back and forth across the Afghan-Pakistan border, using the mountainous region as a safe place to plot attacks.
The vice president also was to push Karzai to take steps to extend Afghanistan’s governance beyond Kabul and conduct successful elections next year. The discussion also was to address ways the Afghan government can curb corruption and deal with rising production of poppies, which are used to make narcotic drugs that fund insurgent operations.
More than 8,000 people died in Afghanistan last year, making it the most violent year since 2001 when the U.S. invaded Afghanistan to oust the hardline Taliban regime after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Karzai hailed progress in improving security forces, saying the Afghan army is getting stronger “day by day,” but added that international support will be needed for years to come. “Some day, Afghanistan will be fully in charge of the security of this country,” Karzai said. “That is not going to be anytime soon.” He stressed progress in rebuilding. “We have taken significant steps, from not having even one kilometer of a paved road, now we have more than 3,000 kilometers of paved highways and other roads,” he said. “Go to schools, go to hospitals, go to lots of other reconstruction activities in the rebuilding of Afghanistan. … So thanks to you, the international community, for having giving us all of that. Please continue.”
Troops from Canada, Britain, the Netherlands and the United States have done the majority of the fighting against Taliban militants. France, Spain, Germany and Italy are stationed in more peaceful parts of the country. Canada, which has 2,500 troops in Kandahar province, recently threatened to end its combat role unless other NATO countries provide an additional 1,000 troops to help the anti-Taliban effort there. Canadian Defense Minister Peter MacKay said he expected a pledge for troops before or during the summit April 2-4 in Bucharest, Romania.
The U.S. contributes one-third of the NATO force, and also has about 12,000 other U.S. troops operating independently from NATO. The Pentagon says that by late summer, there will be about 32,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, up from about 28,000 now.
The bulk of the increase is the 3,200 Marines that President Bush has agreed to send. About 2,300 troops of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit from Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, have begun arriving at their new base in Kandahar, the Taliban’s former power base.
After the news conference with Karzai, the vice president took a 20-minute helicopter ride to Bagram Air Base, encircled by rugged brown terrain turning green with the season. Spring is the start of the fighting season, which is determined by weather.
At the base, Cheney received a classified briefing, awarded medals to five troops and witnessed the re-enlistment of six others. He also enjoyed a prime rib dinner. Troops at the base said it was not a special menu for the vice president, but that it was a special day: the Afghan new year.