Clamour for US troop withdrawal

WASHINGTON: Setting a date for the start of a US withdrawal from Afghanistan conveys “a sense of urgency” to Kabul that American forces would not stay indefinitely, Defence Secretary Robert Gates said.

Defending President Barack Obama’s decision to combine a troop buildup in Afghanistan with a target date of July 2011 for the beginning of a drawdown, Gates said the Kabul government had to understand the US military commitment was not open-ended.

“The piece of this that people need to keep in mind that’s different from Iraq is our need to communicate a sense of urgency to the Afghans of their need to begin to accept

responsibility,” Gates told NBC’s Meet the Press

yesterday, drawing a contrast to a similar build-up in Iraq two years ago.

In a separate television interview, Afghan President Hamid Karzai said Afghans wanted to be in charge of their country’s security “sooner, rather than later.”

But he said it would take two years to train Afghan forces to the point where they can lead operations in many parts of the country.

“By the end of five years term of the current government, we plan to lead operations for the security of the Afghan people in all of Afghanistan, in the whole country. That is our objective,” Karzai told CNN.

Echoing comments made at congressional hearings last week, Gates said the United States would remain deeply engaged with Afghanistan even after US forces eventually hand over security to Afghan forces.

“We are not going to abandon Afghanistan like we did in 1989. But the nature of the relationship will change,” Gates said.

As the US military presence is reduced, political and economic assistance would take on a bigger part of the relationship, he said.

Gates and other top officials renewed their defence of Obama’s strategy on television political talk shows after the president’s plan — unveiled last week — met with criticism on both the right and the left.

Republicans — including former vice president Dick Cheney — slammed the July 2011 date as a dangerous signal to allies and Afghan insurgents while Obama’s fellow Democrats questioned the troop surge.

Gates rejected Cheney’s charges that the drawdown starting date would embolden the Taliban, saying insurgents were well aware of public opinion in Western countries and always counted on outlasting US-led forces.

“Whether you announce a date or not, they can tell as easily from reading the news media about political support for these kinds of undertakings themselves and they always believe that they can outlast us,” he said.

“The reality is though, what are they going to do? Are they going to get more aggressive than they already are? We don’t think they can.

“If they lie low, that’s great news for us because it gives us some huge opportunities in Afghanistan.” The surge of 30,000 additional US troops would make a difference in the fight against insurgents in the next 18 months and enable the training of more Afghan troops and police, allowing the US military “to begin this gradual process of transitioning security,” he said.

General Stanley McChrystal, the top US and NATO commander in Afghanistan, intends to use the 30,000 US reinforcements authorised by Obama and as many as 7,000 soldiers pledged by other NATO nations to protect key cities and towns in southern and eastern parts of the country, where the Taliban insurgency is strongest, The Washington Post reported today.

By focusing on securing population centres, McChrystal hopes to reverse enemy momentum, foster more responsive local government and, where possible, persuade Taliban fighters through a mixture of pressure and incentives to lay down their arms, the newspaper noted.

But Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that it was unlikely US and allied governments would be able to convince the Taliban’s senior leadership to give up their fight. She said on ABC television she was “highly sceptical” any of the leaders would renounce their cause and agree to live peacefully in the country.

National security adviser James Jones told CNN the United States would launch a fresh effort to track down Osama bin Laden who is believed to be moving between Pakistan and afghanistan in the mountains along the border.

Bin Laden was a “very important symbol of what Al-Qaeda stands for” and it was crucial to make sure he was on the run or captured, said the retired Marine general.