KABUL (Reuters) - Secretary of Defense Robert Gates visited U.S. commanders in Afghanistan on Wednesday, promising that President Barack Obama’s surge of extra forces would give them what they need for success against the Taliban.
The U.S. general in charge of training Afghan troops said Washington had set a goal to expand the Afghan security forces by 50 percent before U.S. forces begin to pull out in mid-2011, but acknowledged that the goal was probably out of reach.
In Washington, the head of U.S. Central Command forecast that violence in Afghanistan may climb in the short-term with the influx of troops, and asked lawmakers to reserve judgment on Obama’s new war strategy for a full year.
Gates was the most senior U.S. official to visit Afghanistan since Obama announced last week he is sending an extra 30,000 troops next year before beginning to withdraw them in 18 months. The United States currently has about 68,000 troops in Afghanistan.
The Pentagon chief’s visit has been marked by a much less confrontational tone toward Afghan President Hamid Karzai after months of unabated criticism of him for not doing enough to tackle corruption and mismanagement in his government.
Afghanistan has since announced some anti-corruption measures such as setting up an anti-graft unit and placing some ministers under investigation for embezzlement. On Wednesday the Afghan government and the United Nations jointly announced they would hold an anti-corruption conference on December 15-17.
Getting the U.S. troops out will depend on expanding and improving the Afghan army and police force.
Lieutenant General William Caldwell, head of the U.S. and NATO training mission in Kabul, said Washington’s target was to field 282,000 Afghan soldiers and police by 2011, an increase of about 50 percent from the current level of less than 190,000.
But he said trainers likely would fall short, adding: “Realistically we think we’ll be between 250,000 and 280,000.”
General Stanley McChrystal, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, says he would like to see the Afghan army and police eventually reach 400,000, which would take at least four years.
Gates on Wednesday toured a new U.S.-led command headquarters for all NATO combat troops in Afghanistan in a sprawling compound at Kabul airport where scores of command staff members sit in rows below giant screens with live video feeds of the battlefield.
“We have all the pieces coming together to be successful here,” Gates said.
General David Petraeus, who as head of Central Command is in charge of drawing down forces in Iraq and overseeing the new surge of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, said he expected increased fighting in Afghanistan in the spring and the summer.
Appearing before a U.S. Senate committee, Petraeus also said the Afghan government’s expected moves to combat corruption would likely result in “greater turmoil within the government as malign actors are identified and replaced.”
Petraeus, who in his previous role as the top Iraq commander oversaw a surge of U.S. forces in 2007 credited with helping pull that country back from the brink, cautioned that progress in Afghanistan would be slower than in Iraq.
Gates was briefed on U.S. plans to embed incoming forces with the Afghan army to improve their training, a centerpiece of McChrystal’s new strategy.
Lieutenant General David Rodriguez, in charge of day-to-day command of combat troops, said the Western forces benefited from embedding with Afghans who know the local languages and terrain. He acknowledged a problem in keeping Afghan soldiers from quitting, especially in southern battlefield provinces.
Gates said he was surprised by Karzai’s remark on Tuesday that it would be 15 to 20 years before Afghanistan could afford the new, larger security force without international help.
“But the reality is: as their forces expand and ours begin to draw down, the costs for us will decline. And the truth of the matter is they (the Afghans) will begin to assume a greater proportion of this,” he told NBC’s “Today” show.
On Tuesday he promised Karzai that Washington would not turn its back on Afghanistan and remove its forces abruptly.
Gates also appeared to soften Washington’s stance toward Karzai on the issue of corruption, praising some ministers in Karzai’s cabinet and accepting that the West shared blame for graft because of how it manages huge aid contracts.
Karzai came under intense pressure from his Western backers to revamp his government, particularly after his re-election in an August 20 election marred by widespread fraud.
Another concern Afghans say they have over the increased U.S. deployment is that more civilians will get killed, which McChrystal says could jeopardize the mission to win trust.
Rodriguez acknowledged that some civilians may have been killed in a raid in eastern Afghanistan on Tuesday. NATO forces had previously denied killing any civilians in the raid, while Karzai’s office said six civilians had died.
Additional reporting by Sayed Salahuddin in KABUL and Phil Stewart and Susan Cornwell in WASHINGTON; Writing by Peter Graff and Yara Bayoumy; Editing by Will Dunham