Monday, March 8, 2010

Gates Visits Afghanistan to Meet With Karzai

KABUL, Afghanistan — Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates arrived on an unannounced visit to Afghanistan on Monday morning to meet with President Hamid Karzai and NATO commanders, and to review plans for a major American-led offensive into the Taliban heartland of Kandahar.

Mr. Gates gave no date for the anticipated push into the city of Kandahar, which has a population of 900,000 and is the capital of Kandahar Province in southern Afghanistan, but he said that “there is some very hard fighting, very hard days ahead.” Administration officials have only said that the campaign, a central mission for the 30,000 extra forces that President Obama has ordered to Afghanistan, will occur sometime this year.

Mr. Gates spoke to reporters on his plane en route to Kabul.

So far, Mr. Gates said, about 6,000 of the 30,000 reinforcements have arrived in the country. The rest should be in place by the end of August, he said, which will bring the total United States forces in Afghanistan to about 100,000.

The defense secretary also said that despite the American-led success last month in largely routing the Taliban from the city of Marja in Helmand Province, it was still too early to expect top Taliban leaders to reconcile with the Afghan government, as both the United States and Mr. Karzai would like.

“I think we ought not to get too impatient,” Mr. Gates said. “I do believe that the senior Taliban are only going to be interested in reconciling in terms that are acceptable to the Afghan government and those of us supporting it when they see that the likelihood of their being successful has been cast into serious doubt. My guess is they’re not at that point yet.”

Mr. Gates is visiting Kabul during the same week that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran is expected in the Afghan capital to meet with Mr. Karzai. Mr. Gates told reporters that Iran was “playing a double game in Afghanistan — they want to maintain a good relationship with the Afghan government, they also want to do everything they possibly to can to hurt us, or for us not to be successful. And they’re trying to thread that.”

Mr. Gates said he believed that Iran was providing money and “some low level of support” to the Taliban in Afghanistan, and that “they also understand that our reaction, should they get too aggressive in this, is not one they would want to think about.”

Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon press secretary, swiftly amended Mr. Gates’s comments on Iran and said that the defense secretary meant to say that any American reaction would occur within Afghanistan, not elsewhere. As Iran has continued its nuclear program despite American and international pressure to curtail it, there has been speculation for years that the United States or Israel might bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Mr. Gates said he also planned to talk to Mr. Karzai about the Afghan president’s recent visit to Marja, where Mr. Karzai was besieged by complaints about the United States military operation, the lack of an Afghan government presence in the area for years and a list of other grievances. Mr. Gates tried to put the pummeling in a positive light. He said that the complaints were to be expected, and that it was good that Mr. Karzai, who has long had limited influence outside the capital, was traveling to other parts of the country to talk to Afghan citizens.

“This is the first time these guys have had the opportunity to interact with somebody from the central government, having been under the thumb of the Taliban for at least a couple of years,” Mr. Gates said. “And for them to say we need development, we need less corruption, we need services, we need projects, we don’t like civilian casualties, we don’t like night raids — there was nothing that they said that I would have found surprising, frankly. It’s like when I go out and have a town hall with our troops or meet with the spouses, they’re not reticent about telling you when things aren’t working.”

Mr. Gates said he was unsure what to think about reports that the handpicked new district chief for Marja, Hajji Abdul Zahir, had served jail time in Germany on charges of stabbing his stepson. Mr. Zahir has denied the reports, and a NATO spokesman in Kabul has quoted Mark Sedwill, the senior NATO official in Kabul, as saying, “This country is not going to be run by choir boys.”

Mr. Gates weighed in with this: “The question is, if the guy committed a crime and served the time, then does that automatically rule him out? I mean I just don’t know the answer to the question.”

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