15 years is what it will take to Afghanistan before being able to pay for the cost of its own security forces, warned president Hamid Karzai.
After talking with visiting US Defence Secretary Robert Gates (photo, from aljazeera.net), the Afghan president said he hoped the US and the international community would continue funding them.
The US will not turn away from Afghanistan and abandon it, said Gates.
A week before Gates’ unannounced arrival in Kabul, US president Barack Obama said he was sending 30,000 more troops.
Nato member states have agreed to deploy another 7,000 soldiers between them.
On Sunday, troops in Kentucky were bluntly told “we are not winning, which means we are losing,” by Adm Mike Mullen, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff.
“As we are losing, the message traffic out there to [militant] recruits keeps getting better and better and more keep coming,” he said.
On Tuesday, Afghanistan’s security difficulties were illustrated by reports saying that Afghan officers had opened fire during a protest by villagers over the deaths of civilians, which they say occurred during a Nato operation.
The Afghan soldiers fired into the air but at least one person was killed, said one report.
The US won’t desert
Despite Obama’s announcement that a gradual military withdrawal could begin in 18 months, during a joint news conference at the presidential palace in Kabul on Monday, Gates stressed that his country would not desert Afghanistan.
He said that the two countries would need to be long-term partners.
He also said that Karzai needed to take a tougher line on corruption, but added that many ministers were competent and did not need to be replaced when a new cabinet is announced in the coming days.
The Afghan president answered that he was committed to doing so and that he would inform parliament of the names of a number of proposed ministers.
Then they both agreed that in order to help international troops tackle insurgents, strengthen the Afghan security forces was a priority.
However, Karzai warned that it would be a long time before Afghanistan would be able to pay the cost of maintaining its own army and police force, which the US wants to quadruple in size to 400,000 troops by 2013.
“We hope that the international community and the United States, as our first ally, will help Afghanistan reach the ability to sustain a force,” he said.
“Afghanistan is looking forward to taking over responsibility in terms of paying for its forces and delivering to its forces with its own resources, but that will not be for another 15 years.”
Yet, the Afghan president was also cautiously optimistic that his country would be able to begin taking over responsibility for security in some “critical” parts of the country within two years, before taking charge nationwide in five years’ time.
Karzai later condemned what his office said was the killing of six civilians in an overnight operation by Nato-led forces in the eastern province of Laghman.
“Coalition forces in Afghanistan carried out an operation near the capital of Laghman in Armul village,” a statement said. “As a result of which, six innocent civilians, including one woman, were martyred.”
Seven militants were killed and another four detained by Nato troops before they came under hostile fire while pursuing a member of the Taliban responsible for suicide bombings in the area, said the Nato-led International Security Assistance Force (Isaf).
“We are aware of civilian casualty allegations, however there are no operational reports to substantiate those claims of harming civilians, including women and children, during this operation,” said a spokeswoman, Capt Jane Campbell.
‘Other kinds of relations’
On his way to Kabul, Mr Gates told reporters he believed the US had mistakenly abandoned Afghanistan after Soviet troops withdrew and understood that Afghans feared they would be left to fight the Taliban alone.
He said he would assure Mr 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”.
“As the security situation improves and we’re able, over time, to reduce our forces, the civilian, developmental, economic and other kinds of relations between us will become the predominant part of the relationship,” he added.
Mr Gates also said the US would be “watching the appointments that get made” in Afghanistan’s new cabinet, and that it was important to have “capable and honest ministers” in the crucial roles.
According to the BBC’s Martin Patience in Kabul, the US is running out of patience with Afghan promises to tackle corruption and now wants to see clear action taken against senior officials found to be corrupt.
On Tuesday, the mayor of Kabul, Abdul Ahad Sahebi, said he would appeal against a four-year prison sentence for corruption.
He was found guilty in absentia on Monday of awarding a contract without opening it up to competition. He was ordered to repay $16,000 that was allegedly lost as a result.
During a news conference in Kabul, he said he was the victim of a plot by “powerful people”.
That conviction was the first of a senior Afghan official since Karzai came under international pressure to tackle corruption following his disputed re-election.