KABUL, (Reuters) – Secretary of Defense Robert Gates visited U.S. commanders in Afghanistan on Wednesday, promising that President Barack Obama’s surge of extra forces would give them what they need for success against the Taliban.
Gates was the most senior U.S. official to visit Afghanistan since Obama announced last week he is sending an extra 30,000 troops next year before beginning to withdraw them in mid-2011.
The Pentagon chief’s visit has been marked by a much less confrontational tone towards Afghan President Hamid Karzai after months of unabated criticism against him for not doing enough to tackle corruption and mismanagement in his government.
Afghanistan has since announced some anti-corruption measures, such as setting up an anti-graft unit and placing some ministers under investigation for embezzlement. On Wednesday the Afghan government and the United Nations jointly announced they would hold an anti-corruption conference on Dec. 15-17.
Gates toured a new U.S.-led command headquarters for all NATO combat troops in Afghanistan on Wednesday in a sprawling compound at Kabul airport where scores of command staff sit in rows below giant screens with live video feeds of the battlefield.
The headquarters was set up under a restructuring led by NATO and U.S. commander General Stanley McChrystal to centralise command that had been divided among NATO allies. “We have all the pieces coming together to be successful here,” Gates said.
Central to Obama’s strategy is the training of Afghan troops to a point where they can take the lead in security of the country and allow foreign forces to withdraw.
Gates was briefed on U.S. plans to embed incoming forces with the Afghan army to improve their training.
Lietenant-General David Rodriguez, in charge of day-to-day command of combat troops, said the Western forces benefited from embedding with Afghans who know the local languages and terrain. He acknowledged a problem in retaining Afghan soldiers, especially in southern battlefield provinces. “(The) biggest retention challenge, just like in our Army, or Marines, or Navy or Air Force, is the leadership,” he said. “They get down there, they’re in tough fights all the time and everything, and over time they’re not ready to re-up.”
Gates promised Karzai on Tuesday that Washington would not “turn its back” on Afghanistan and pull out its forces abruptly. He also appeared to soften Washington’s stance towards Karzai on the issue of corruption, praising some ministers in Karzai’s cabinet and accepting that the West shared blame for graft because of how it manages huge aid and reconstruction contracts.
Karzai came under intense pressure from his Western backers to revamp his government, particularly after his re-election in an Aug. 20 poll which was marred by widespread fraud.
In one of the most high-profile corruption cases in Afghanistan for years, a court handed down a four-year sentence against Kabul Mayor Abdul Ahad Sayebi for corruption this week, however he is now free on bail pending an appeal of the case.
At a news conference, Karzai’s top anti-corruption advisor, Mohammad Usmani, defended the decision to free the mayor. “Everything was done legally,” Usmani said in response to several questions from angry Afghan journalists.
The incident highlights Afghans’ frustration with corruption in the country, which ranks second to worst on Transparency International’s corruption index behind only Somalia.
U.N. representative to Afghanistan Kai Eide praised recent anti-corruption measures taken by Karzai, but cautioned against getting entangled in creating new structures to tackle graft. “I fear a situation where the discussion of new commissions and new structures will lead to postponement of actually addressing the problems that exist,” he told reporters.
Karzai is due to announce his new cabinet early next week. Western diplomats are optimistic he will name ministers they trust to posts responsible for the security forces and portfolios like health and agriculture where most aid money is spent.
McChrystal, whose dire assessment of the war in August triggered the call for extra troops, told members of Congress in Washington on Tuesday that he expects to be able to reverse the tide against the spreading Taliban insurgency within a year.
Some Afghans and U.S. Republicans have expressed concern that Obama’s announcement he will begin withdrawing troops in 2011 will encourage the Taliban to wait the Americans out. Gates told a news conference on Tuesday that the U.S. withdrawal would be “gradual” and “conditions based”.