Cheney visits Afghanistan ahead of NATO summit

KABUL Thu Mar 20, 2008 1:11pm EDT

1 of 2. Vice-President Dick Cheney speaks as the Afghan President Hamid Karzai looks on during a news conference in Kabul, March 20, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Ahmad Masood

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KABUL (Reuters) - U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney visited Afghanistan on Thursday and met President Hamid Karzai ahead of a NATO summit where Washington will urge its allies to send more troops to the country.

NATO's Afghan mission is one of the toughest challenges faced by the 59-year-old alliance and has led to open differences among allies over strategy and troop levels.

Cheney said the mission of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan would be high on the agenda of the summit in Bucharest in early April.

"ISAF has made a tremendous difference in the country and America will ask our NATO allies for an even stronger commitment for the future," Cheney told a news conference in the Afghan capital, Kabul, where he made an unannounced visit.

ISAF has some 43,000 troops in Afghanistan fighting Taliban militants, who have regrouped since U.S.-led and Afghan forces toppled the hardline Islamist movement from power after the September 11, 2001, attacks.

U.S., British, Canadian and Dutch troops are engaged in the bulk of the fighting in southern and eastern Afghanistan. Other NATO allies, notably France and Germany, have resisted U.S. pressure to allow their soldiers to operate outside the relative safety of the north.

"The United States and the other members of the coalition need to have a sufficient force here to be able to ensure security to deal with the threat that's been represented by continuing activities by radicals and extremists, the likes of the Taliban and al Qaeda," Cheney said.

The vice president later traveled to Bagram base near Kabul where a suicide bomber killed 14 people, including a U.S. and a South Korean soldier, the last time he was there in February 2007.

The Taliban aim to wear down the will of NATO countries to carry on the fight in Afghanistan and force a withdrawal of foreign troops that would hand them a strategic victory.

The Romanian defense ministry said one Romanian soldier was killed and another was wounded in north of Qalat, in southern Afghanistan, on Thursday when their armored vehicle hit an improvised explosive device.

U.S. SUPPORT "UNSHAKEABLE"

Already cracks are appearing in support for the war. Canada, with 2,500 troops in southern Afghanistan, wants NATO allies to provide another 1,000 soldiers to reinforce its combat forces as a condition for keeping its troops in the country.

Ordinary Afghans are also growing increasingly frustrated with the presence of foreign troops, the slow pace of development, official corruption and the lack of security.

U.S. commitment to Afghanistan was "firm and unshakeable", Cheney said.

"Having liberated this country, the United States and our coalition partners have no intention of allowing extremists to shoot their way back into power," he told U.S. troops at Bagram.

"We're going to get this job done right so that another generation of Americans doesn't have to come back and do it all over again," he said.

All sides agree the long-term key to stability is for the Afghan army and police to be able to provide security.

The Afghan army is relatively well-trained and has taken a much greater role in fighting the Taliban over the last year, but the police lag far behind, are poorly trained, notoriously corrupt and often flee in the face of Taliban attacks.

"The continuation of NATO in Afghanistan is very, very important," Karzai told the news conference alongside Cheney at the heavily guarded presidential palace. "As the Afghan National Army gets stronger, there will be less pressure and responsibility on the foreign security forces."

Afghanistan has accused Pakistan of harboring militants along the neighbors' rugged mountainous border, but cooperation between the two has improved since last year and both countries are now targets of Taliban and al Qaeda fighters.

Cheney said he thought a coalition government agreed in Pakistan between Asif Ali Zardari and former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif would remain an ally of the United States.

"I expect they will be good and effective friends and allies of the United states just as the previous government has been," Cheney told the news conference.

(Additional reporting by Hamid Shalizi, and Radu Marinas in Bucharest; Writing by Jon Hemming; Editing by Alex Richardson and Robert Woodward)

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