Speaking during a joint news conference with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Gates said the United States and the international community share Karzai’s vision of a peaceful Afghanistan that’s able to defend itself.
Gates, the first senior U.S. official to visit Afghanistan since President Barack Obama announced his new way ahead and troop commitments for Afghanistan on Dec. 1, said the first of the additional U.S. forces will begin arriving here next week. They, along with 7,000 more troops promised by NATO, will form a 150,000-member coalition representing 43 nations dedicated to building Afghanistan’s security forces and reducing the Taliban’s ability to terrorize Afghan citizens, Gates said.
But Gates called these forces only a means to an end, as Afghanistan’s own forces grow in strength and capability.
“We know you prefer to have Afghans protecting Afghans,” he said, emphasizing that the United States shares that same goal. Toward that end, he added, the United States will provide “whatever it takes” in training, funding support and partnering opportunities to help the Afghan national security forces become self-sustaining.
Gates promised to build on the “significant partnering relationship” between U.S. and Afghan forces, with an emphasis on joint operations that ultimately put the Afghans in the lead.
“We would rather have Afghan forces out in front,” he said. “The sooner this happens, the better — for all of us,” he said.
As the United States transitions security control to the Afghans, Gates reiterated that it will begin drawing down its own forces in July 2011, based on conditions on the ground. President Barack Obama has made clear that the U.S. force commitment in Afghanistan “is not open-ended,” he said.
Gates expressed hope that, over time, the U.S.-Afghan relationship will “see a change in balance” that goes beyond security to focus on economic and developmental areas.
“Together we will succeed, and our partnership will flourish for decades to come,” he said.
But the secretary also acknowledged “a realism on our part that it will be some time before Afghanistan can sustain its security entirely on its own.”
Karzai said he expects it to take five years before the Afghan security forces are self-sufficient and able to assume security responsibility for the entire country. In addition, Afghanistan could require longer-term support from the international community, particularly financially, for another 15 to 20 years until the country’s economy matures, he said.
Karzai called on all Afghan people to help in identifying and eliminating corruption that delays this progress, calling it a “malaise” that cheats Afghanistan of desperately needed revenues. “Afghanistan is committed to doing all it can” to weed out corruption, he said, “and we will, by all means.”
Although he was widely expected to announce his Cabinet choices today or tomorrow, Karzai said he expects to send his nominations to the Afghan parliament by the middle of next week.