KABUL (Reuters) - The United States is not in Afghanistan to “govern,” but will stay beyond a scheduled 2014 security handover if Afghans want, visiting U.S. Vice President Joe Biden told President Hamid Karzai on Tuesday.
Seeking to reassure the Afghan leader, who has accused Washington in the past of meddling, Biden said Afghans were capable of building their own institutions and the United States was not in the war-torn country to “nation-build.”
“We are not leaving if you don’t want us to leave. We plan on continuing to work with you and it’s in the mutual self-interest of both nations,” he said.
The visit was Biden’s first trip to Afghanistan as vice president. He has been openly critical of Karzai in the past, questioning the Afghan leader’s credibility as a partner and accusing him of doing little to tackle corruption.
A senior administration official said the two leaders’ meetings with staff and one-on-one had gone well.
“The tone was excellent, a productive and positive meeting and my understanding is the same was true of their one on one,” the official said.
It comes after the bloodiest year of the nearly decade-long war in Afghanistan, with violence at its worst since U.S.-led Afghan forces overthrew the Taliban in late 2001 following the September 11 attacks on the United States.
“It is not our intention to govern or to nation-build. This is the responsibility of the Afghan people and they are fully capable of it,” Biden said in a press statement after talks and lunch with Karzai.
A war review by U.S. President Barack Obama in December said “notable operational gains” had been made and the Taliban’s momentum arrested in much of the country and reversed in some areas, but any gains were fragile and reversible.
The review also said the United States was on track to begin gradually withdrawing its troops — numbering about 97,000 out of some 150,000 foreign troops — in July.
The reduction is part of an ambitious NATO-backed plan for Afghans to take the lead in securing the whole country in 2014.
“The vice president was simply restating for the public what he had said to the president, which was that the US wants an enduring partnership with Afghanistan,” the administration official said.
Biden said U.S. forces had made progress against militant insurgents, but for these advances to hold, Afghanistan needed to take responsibility for its own security and Pakistan should do more to stop the Taliban.
Biden said the United States would remain in Afghanistan beyond the 2014 handover deadline if the Afghans wanted.
“Hopefully, we will have totally turned over the ability ... to the Afghan security forces to maintain the security of the country, but we are not leaving if you don’t want us to leave,” he said.
Media reports have long portrayed Biden as skeptical of a large military presence in Afghanistan, favoring a narrower counterterrorism mission of pursuing al Qaeda targets in Pakistan and on the Afghan border. Tuesday’s comments may be viewed as a softening of that line.
For his part, Karzai has accused Washington and its allies of interfering in his affairs.
Relations hit a low last year when Karzai accused Western governments of ballot-rigging in an August 2009 presidential poll in an effort to install a weak government.
Biden and Karzai met for longer than scheduled at the presidential palace. Both later gave upbeat assessments of their talks. Biden was whisked away without taking questions from reporters.
Additional reporting by Michelle Nichols and Hamid Shalizi; Writing by Jonathon Burch; Editing by Robert Birsel and Maria Golovnina